Posts tagged ‘language’


The dreams of my cellphone

So my cellphone of course has predictive input, as cellphones do, where it guesses three words that you might be planning to type, and displays them so you can choose one if you want (or just keep typing otherwise).

And one fun thing is that even if you haven’t typed anything yet, it will still predict what you might be going to type, because why not.  And once you choose a word it will suggest the three words that you might want next, and so on.

So you can drive the predictive model forwards without input, by just (for instance) picking the first suggested word repeatedly, until say you get into a loop.  And at the moment if you do that with my phone, you get this:

If the user to be in touch and I am going on the way I am going on the way I am going.

and then it loops I am going on the way I am going on the way I am going.

And if you choose the second, middle, one over and over you get:

I am not sure if you have any questions or concerns please please please please please.

in which it is notable that the second suggestion after “please” is “please”.  :)

Repeatedly choosing the third one gives this:

The first week and then the following file and then the following file.

and then the following file and then the following file.

Choosing the first then second then third, then first then second then third:

If you want me to be in the future of the day and I have to be able and willing I would like the one that you have any further information please do you have a good time and I will send the money and the rest and relaxation and then delete it immediately by return mail to you by the way you could send you the best time for the first one is in a few minutes ago and he said he will have to do you have a good time and I will send the money and the rest.

A still more complex pattern, one-one-two I think it was, produced this still more substantial chunk of text:

If the reader is not the named recipient only for use by others or forwarding of any action taken in reliance upon the contents to anyone else who might be a great day of school and the other day I can do to get a new email address is the best of my life is a good day for me know what you are hereby notified with the site and the rest is fine with the following link if I can get the chance of the individual sender and destroy all electronic mail message by mistake please immediately by return to me know what I can get the chance of the individual sender.

You are hereby notified!

I don’t know if any of the prediction there is learned from my own writing, although it doesn’t seem likely.  I don’t write about named recipients much, or in fact at all.  So most likely it has been trained on some standard body of text (including some legalese!) and either it doesn’t change that with experience, or my own writing patterns (I don’t write all that much on the phone after all) haven’t provided it with enough information to change the model substantially.

The rest is fine!


Demographic substitution does not preserve truth

When I was in kid-school, a Social Studies teacher pointed out to us that there was no entry in the index of our textbook for “Women’s history” or “Women” in general.

I flipped through it and raised my hand, and said that hey, there was nothing for “Men’s history” or “Men”, either!

This is because I was a smug little shit who didn’t have the first clue how the world actually works.

(I like to think that this is a bit less true now.)

The teacher more or less adored me just because I was smart and (usually) well-behaved, and rather than giving me the smack-down I really needed, she (I vaguely recall) just said something like “It’s not the same thing”.

Which is entirely correct.

It’s easy to see why we might expect statements about one group to have the same status (truth, objectionability, etc.) as the same statements applied to another group.  In many contexts, there is basic fairness involved.  “Women should be able to participate in government” and “Men should be able to participate in government” are both true.  “Men should not be jerks” and also “Women should not be jerks”.  Or simple fact: “Most white people have toes”, and “Most people of color have toes”.

On the other hand, a few moments of thought reveals lots of statements for which this doesn’t work.  “Most pregnant people are women” is true; but “Most pregnant people are men” is false.  “Until comparatively recently, the law considered women to be essentially property” is true; but “Until comparatively recently, the law considered men to be essentially property” is false.  “Western society grants extensive privilege to white men per se” is pretty clearly true, but “Western society grants extensive privilege to disabled women per se” is implausible at best.

So far these examples are all of “ought” statements that survive under demographic substitution, and some “is” statements that don’t.  But in any plausible morality, situated “ought” statements are implied by “is” statements about their situation; their context.

A very strong case could be made, for instance, that “Western society grants extensive privilege to white men per se”, and “Mainstream study of history has been from a heavily male-oriented perspective” are both true, and that as a result “It is unfortunate that there is no entry about women in the index of this history textbook” can be true, while “It is unfortunate that there is no entry about men in the index of this history textbook” is silly (because, as I vaguely recall my Social Studies teacher pointing out, the whole book is about that).

More significantly (and I imagine more controversially, although perhaps not among y’all weblog readers), there are sets of “is” statements that don’t survive demographic substitution, from which we can conclude that for instance “Women, people of color, and LGBTQ people have a legitimate need for safe spaces that exclude those not in the relevant group” is true, whereas “Men, white people, and straight people have a legitimate need for safe spaces that exclude those not in the relevant group” is not. Or in shorter words, Women’s Rights and Black Power are not necessarily in the same moral categories as Men’s Rights and White Power.

And I am happy to have written that down, because I’ve had the argument rattling around inchoate in my head for some years.

Now there are a significant number of people posting things on the Internet who would claim that that the concluding sentence, that Women’s Rights and Black Power are not necessarily in the same moral categories as Men’s Rights and White Power, is just obviously false, and unfair, and sexist / racist, and so on. Some of them are, I imagine, smug little shits who don’t have the first clue how the world actually works; some others are just doing a good imitation.  To avoid the argument that we would use to get to the conclusion, they would either deny some of the initial “is” statements (denying that there is currently structural oppression of women or people of color, for instance), or deny in one way or the other that those statements imply the conclusion.

Or, perhaps more commonly, they would just repeat that the concluding sentence is sexist / racist, because what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, because fairness, and so on.  Because, that is, demographic substitution ought to preserve the truth of “ought” statements, and saying that it doesn’t is sexist / racist / etc.

What finally pushed me over the edge to write this down was some Twitter discussion of this rather baffling story on the often-odious “Breitbart” site, by the often-odious Milo somebody.  It’s still not clear to me what the intent of the story is, aside from a general suspicion that it’s supposed to be humorous in some way (I do like the part where someone asks what direction they’re driving, and someone else looks at the GPS and says “up”; that’s funny!).  But at least some of the Milo supporters in the Twitter thread that I foolishly walked into, thought that it was obviously a parody of feminist claims that various aspects of technology are gendered against women.

The argument would be, I guess, something like “I have written this piece claiming that an aspect of technology is anti-male, and the piece is silly; therefore other pieces, claiming that other aspects of techhnology are anti-female, are also silly.”  Or, perhaps more charitably, “See how silly this claim that a technology is anti-male is; claims that technologies are anti-female are similar to it, and are just as silly!”.

And this brought to mind some sort of claim like “It’s silly to analyze technology for signs of structural oppression of women, because it’s silly to analyze technology for signs of structural oppression of men, and demographic substitution preserves silliness!”.

But (whatever other additional things might or might not be going on in the case), demographic substitution doesn’t preserve silliness.  Or various other properties.

So there we are!


Liebe ist ein welthaftes Wirken

Kaufmann translates this, from Buber’s “I and Thou”, as “love is a cosmic force”, but gives us the original in a footnote to see for ourselves.

One thing I like about German and how synthetic it is (in the technical sense that I just learned; I was going to say “agglutinative“, but that turns out to be wrong) is that you can look at the parts of many words, and see how the meaning compares to the sum of those parts.

The most simple-minded translation of that phrase might be “Love is a worldly work”, which has the same nice consonance of double-ues, but a very different sense, since the English “worldly” has strong connotations that are almost the opposite of Kaufmann’s “cosmic”.

It’s interesting that the translator chose “force” here, rather than the obvious “work” (which would have read a bit awkwardly), or perhaps “act”. Because Buber is talking about love in the context of “those who stand in it and behold in it”, “force” probably makes more sense than “act”, since you can stand in a force (a force field!), but not so much in an act.

$50 FINEBut then I wonder why Buber wrote Wirken rather than say Kraft. And then I am at, or perhaps well beyond, the very end of my competence as a translator. :)

The other day the little daughter, watching me staring into my phone and clicking and swiping without end, commented more or less “you’re taking in so much content; I don’t know if that’s healthy”.

I found myself very much in agreement with that thought, and put the phone away (temporarily) and looked at various stacks of books sitting unread here and there, and picked up “I and Thou”, read the Acknowledgements and Translator’s Key, skipped Kaufmann’s very long Prologue (these things should generally be at the end of a book, in my ever so humble opinion, so that one can encounter the work itself with more or less fresh eyes, and then read the prologue-writer’s thoughts about it afterward, when one has already one’s own ideas to compare them to), and started very slowly into the work (Werk, Wirken, Kunstwerk?) itself.

It’s a very dense book, or feels like it deserves to be treated as such, which means that I have to be careful not to spend so much time on each sentence that I eventually drift off and do other things before I get past the first chapter.

As I tweeted not long after starting (and yeah, I know; somehow Twitter and the Face Book and now even plague have all taken up residence in my ways of relating to the world):

I can’t of course actually empty the cup, and I admit I’m not really trying all that hard to.

Currently, a few more pages in, I’m wondering if Buber will go from talking about the ineffable relating that is I-You (and that he identifies with, or as, love in some sense), to a realization that the duality present even in I-You (because after all there is still I, and You) is at some level an illusion. Because that would be so Buddhist.

There are no sentient beings,
And I vow to save them.

It will be interesting either way; if he does get to some kind of non-duality, I’m sure it will have a flavor all its own. If he doesn’t, it will be interesting to see if he simply stops short of it, actively considers and denies it, or goes off in some other direction entirely.

I’ve been meaning to read this book since college sometime :) and it’s nice to finally get to it.

Solstice was nice, thank you for asking, if a little atypical. All four of us were here together, but instead of the usual Christmas Dinner with ham an’ all, we went out to the local diner.

The story: M smelled gas in the basement, so on I forget maybe the 22nd we had the gas man come and test things, and he found there was a leak somewhere in the kitchen range, and while we were moving the range out from the wall it got caught on something and when we pushed on it a little to get it past the something, the entire glass front of the oven door very enthusiastically shattered into a zillion pieces and fell onto the floor.

That was exciting!

We called the appliance place who sent out a person who determined that the range was old enough to vote, and that no one makes parts for it anymore (either for replacing the door glass or fixing any possible leak).

A new range arrived yesterday and I have baked my first loaves of bread in it, but between the breaking of the old and the installing of the new we could cook only in the microwave and crockpot, and although we considered trying to design a satisfying Solstice dinner around those, in the end we decided the local Diner would be more fun.

And it was very nice.

How do Diners do it, by the way; anyone know? How can you have that enormous a menu of available things, and be able to produce absolutely any of them in a reasonably short span of time? Are they all designed to be producible from some smallish set of ingredients, and you keep those around and ready at all times? Do all of the chefs know how to make all of the things? Are there big recipe books? Or do they look at the menu when the order comes in, figure out what you are probably expecting, and wing it?


Reading the first paragraph of Durrell’s Justine

The sea is high again today,

What do we know, or think, or guess, or assume, from those six words?

The narrator is by the sea. Not necessarily, of course; there could be satellites or telephones involved, or there could be no narrator at all but just an omniscient narrative voice. But the spatial immediacy of “the sea” (rather than “the sea at Brighton” or “the sea outside her window”), and the temporal placedness of “again today”‘ both suggest a particular person by a particular sea, speaking at a certain time.

Justine coverThe sea is high. With wind most likely; high waves and whitecaps rather than high tide. The sea has been high before, we suspect yesterday at least. It is probably daytime now (“today” rather than “tonight”).

Is the height of the sea a good thing, or a bad thing? A joy or a challenge? We don’t know from the first six words, so onward.

The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind.

Now that is a sentence.

Probably this is not someone clinging to a piece of wreckage in mid-ocean, or hoping for calm seas to launch a tiny fishing boat. This is someone in a position to thrill to the wind.

But notice that it is a flush of wind. “Flush” and “thrill” call to mind the cheek flushed hot with blood from some personal thrill. So here the blown surface of the ocean is the skin, thrilled and flushed by the wind; the wind is the blood of the sea. But the wind also flushes cheeks from the cold. Chill and thrill, wind and blood, skin and sea. And only a dozen words in!

The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter

A specific time now, and a cold one. Is this favoring the cold side of the previous sentence, chill and wind over thrill and blood?

The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of Spring.

Balance is restored. The second sentence mirrors the first, calls out the cold and the warm more explicitly, and more abstractly.

Notice that there is now someone in the text, and it is you. He did not write “I can feel”, “He could feel”, or “can be felt”.

Note also that it is not the warmth of Spring, or its coming, its approach, its flavor or texture. The inventions of Spring!

Also it is “winter”, but “Spring”. A subtlety of balance here? The concrete winter by the sea in contrast with the symbolic or idealized Spring that invents? Or just some typesetter’s quirk?

The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of Spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday,

Now, looking up above the sea, there is the sky; a sky of hot nude pearl. What a phrase! Is it hot as in actual heat, or hot as in glare? Pearl is a color, the texture of color; what is it for pearl to be nude? Bare, simple, unadorned. So my eyes imagine the sky bright and (of course) pearlescent (nacreous!), hotly pale to look at, but not enough to heat the air (my cheeks still flushed with the wind).

And we’ve been aware of the sky in the morning, before midday, and at least up until midday; perhaps all morning, or a good piece of the morning, standing on a headland watching the sea and feeling the wind (and the inventions of Spring).

The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of Spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places,

Sheltering from the wind, and also from the hot glare of the sky. This is a place with crickets, and also a place with some shelter. Think of sheltered places large enough, small enough, for crickets. No mention of people, of whether there are any people seeking shelter also.

The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of Spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes,”

Here is the wind again, crossing a sentence and a half to thrill again, and this time to unpack the great planes. What great planes? Is this a pun on the Great Plains? Is the wind blowing into the cargo holds of enormous airplanes, scattering underwear from suitcases and printouts from briefcases out across the runways? Probably not. :)

The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of Spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking the great planes…”

Not just unpacking, but actively and violently unpacking, ransacking! The printouts and underwear are scattered far and heedlessly, the wind is looking for something (for what?) in those cargo holds. Or the great planes are (more likely) the planes of the sea, the earth, and sky. The wind violently unpacking the plane of the horizon, flushing the cheek of the sea, bringing both the cold of midwinter and (with the hot nude sky) the inventions of the Spring, as though it were searching for something. For what?

And that’s the entire first paragraph. We aren’t entirely certain we know what the great planes are (spoiler alert: eleven pages later I’m still not entirely certain), but we have had built in our minds a balanced structure of warmth and cold, winter and spring, blood and sea water, topped by hot nude pearl, and underlain by those sheltering crickets. Earth and Air and Water, and we can either allow that heat to stand for Fire, or let that spot stay empty, and be left, after this first paragraph, with (among other things) a missing place for Fire, like a missing tooth, that might (or might not) be resolved in later paragraphs.

Yes, this is a somewhat pretentious reading! :) But when I started reading this book (which regular readers will remember we bought in Boston the other week), I was so struck by the language (not in a Barthelmian or Leynerian way, but in an entirely or mostly entirely other way) that I stopped and read the first few paragraphs over and over, and then the same for the first page, the first two pages. And I decided to write a weblog entry about it!

(A serendipitous and perspicacious airline seat-neighbor suggested that I ought to be reading poetry that way if I like reading that way; I agreed while admitting that I’d never really managed to do that. What poet should I try it on? The burning tyger? The mistress going to bed?)

And that’s all! :) I’m incredibly sleepy at the moment, having gotten home from the airport and Secret Expeditions this morning at about 3am. I am still awake mostly because I am hoping Verizon will call back about whether or not they can actually give us what the salesmen promised to get us to switch to FIOS, and also because I wanted to actually post this (actually to post this) before it went out of my mind. But now I think I will give up on Verizon for the night and go to bed and/or to sleep. And you can post comments! :)



Dumplings, Dastards, and Drivel

(Before I decided that the dumplings really belonged in here, I was considering titles like “Douchebags and Bullshit”, which is somewhat coarse, or “Rotters and Rubbish”, which wasn’t bad.)

So this year we made 203 New Year’s Dumplings. The little daughter having come home special for the ceremonies, and the little boy being home from school between terms, we were four healthy adults, and the leftovers of that 203 didn’t even last through the end of January Second.

(See prior New Year’s post for prior history of dumplings.)

Here is my New Year card over on the Secret Second Life weblog. The sentiments apply to all Real Life friends too also. :)

On dastards (cads, bounders, douchenozzles, arseholes), see quite a few of the comments to this Asher Wolf posting on why she left the CryptoParty movement that she founded or co-founded, and how the hacker community contains too much, and too much tolerance of, sexism and misogyny and general nastiness.

Many of the comments are supportive, but many are also just facepalmingly awful. (I posted what I thought was a satire of that kind of comment, and despite my having tried to make it obviously absurd, it was enough like the run of actual negative comments that I had to put in a followup saying that it was intended as satire, because people were responding to it as though it, well, wasn’t.) And the evil-density in the twitter comments was even higher (if harder to link to).

I understand why people come in and carefully and condescendingly explain how she is all wrong, and bad things happen to everyone, and it’s not misogyny, and rape hardly every happens, and things like that; they are just blind to their various degrees of privilege, and are shoring up the bulwarks of the protective walls they have up around their egos.

Pretty standard human stuff.

I less understand why people come in and say that someone “needs to shave her pits”, or says that some particular person attacking her is “way hotter” than someone else is. I mean, wut? How is that even remotely relevant to anything?

Either (1) this is actually the way that they think, (2) they are just rather nastily trolling, or (3) talking about the way they “think” is a bit of an overstatement, and they are basically being Eliza machines in this instance.

Also pretty standard human stuff, I suppose, as are the strings of obscenities and the attacks on her website; I just don’t understand it as much, and it makes me (even) sadder.

And on drivel (or rubbish, or bullshit), I am reading Belief or Nonbelief, and while I’m not done with it (despite how short it is), I cannot keep myself from fulminating, or at least weblogging, about it. It’s a series of public letters between Umberto Eco and Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, who is a Cardinal (a Hat Cardinal, not a Wings Cardinal, obviously).

Eco is sort of The Semiotics Guy, so he is all into signs and how and what they signify (if at all), and so on, so it’s not too surprising that he can wander up big ethereal staircases of language until he gets so far above the concrete that his words not only fail to signify anything material, but fail to signify even any identifiable concepts. And of course Martini is an intelligent person in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, and spending most of his thought-time in environments as far from real life as possible is probably one of the few ways it’s possible to be one of those for very long and stay sane.

Hilarity ensues.

The first bit is about hope and life and ideas of the end of the world and stuff; it was written somewhere in the late 90’s. Eco, referring to the last book of the New Testament, writes

Revelation can be read as a promise, but also an announcement of an end, and thus gets rewritten at every step, even by those who never read it, as we await 2000.

Say what? People who have never read the book are constantly rewriting it? Squinting at the whole paragraph really hard, what he means is something like “people are always thinking about how the world might end, and Revelation talks about trumpets and hailstorms and stuff, but nowadays we think more in terms of acid rain, nuclear waste, global warming, and stuff”.

It does sound cooler and less obvious if you talk about the constant rewriting of a book by people who have never read it, but that way of talking has the disadvantage of being incoherent and/or wrong.

Here’s another great passage:

In this way, each one of us flirts with the specter of the apocalypse, exorcising it; the more one unconsciously fears it the more one exorcises, projecting it onto the screen in the form of bloody spectacle, hoping in this way to render it unreal. But the power of specter lies precisely in its unreality.

Yowza! We unconsciously fear the end of the world, so we flirt with it by projecting it (“hey baby, ever been… projected?”) onto the screen (does that mean “we imagine”? or “we make movies about” or…?) in the form of bloody spectacle (we imagine global warming as bloody spectacle? could well be true of the movie version, I spose) in order to (unconsciously, still?) render it unreal (because things on the screen are unreal I guess), but in vain because (as our unconscious is apparently not clever enough to recognize) making it unreal just makes it more powerful.

And the sentence just before it is about “irresponsible consumerism”, which is somehow linked to all that other stuff.

There’s probably some unpacking of this that is actually making a coherent truth-claim that might perhaps be falsifiable, but in essence I think it’s more like poetry; a bunch of words piled on each other not to make some coherent truth-claim, but for some more diaphanous aesthetic reason.

The very next paragraph deserves copying down here also (perhaps only because I’m getting more into the spirit of the thing):

I’d be willing to bet that the notion of the end of time is more common today in the secular world than in the Christian. The Christian world makes it the object of meditation, but acts as if it may be projected into a dimension not measured by calendars. The secular world pretends to ignore the end of time, but is fundamentally obsessed by it. This is not a paradox, but a repetition of what transpired in the first thousand years of history.

Leaving aside the absurdity of referring (as I think he is doing here, but really who can tell) to the years 1-1000 CE as “the first thousand years of history”, it’s hard to say what most of these words might plausibly mean.

Just how common is “the notion of the end of time” in “the secular world”? He has presumably said “the end of time” rather than “the end of the world” for some reason, but I don’t know what it could be. “The end of time” is a notion that barely makes any sense at all in “the secular world” (since time is not something that can end, absent something really weird and non-secular happening), much less being extremely common. The dimension that is “measured by calendars” is time; I’m not sure what it means to say that the Christian world acts as if the end of time occurs in (or “may be projected into”) something besides time. Is he saying that most Christians think of the Apocalypse is a metaphor for something moral or aesthetic, rather than something that will actually take place at some point? That is most likely true, but as far as I know the Official Story of the “Christian world” is that it’s going to happen (for some value of “it”) at some actual time, perhaps any day now.

Maybe he’s just saying “your typical actual Christian person doesn’t actually believe that the world is going to end, or at least doesn’t act that way, whereas your typical secular person worries alot about global warming”. But he sure says it funny if so.

Here’s another character-string, that I don’t think I’ll even try to tease a meaning out of (although the first few words seem like a real screamer, in the “obviously false unless it means something different than it seems to” sense):

Christianity invented History, and it is in fact a modern incarnation of the Antichrist that denounces History as a disease. It’s possible that secular historicism has understood history as infinitely perfectible — so that tomorrow we improve upon today, always and without reservation, and so that in the course of the same history God reconstitutes himself and in a manner of speaking educates and enriches himself. But the entire secular world is not of the ideological view that through history we understand how to look at the regression and folly of history itself. There is, nonetheless, an originally Christian vision of history wherever the signpost of Hope on this road is followed.

On rereading, I’m suspecting more and more that Eco, that wag, is using some prose generator here. (Secular historicism has understood that God reconstitutes himself? Orly?)

Cardinal Martini’s response to this first burst of words isn’t quite up to this standard, but he does use a huge number of words to basically say “oh, well, Christians don’t really have to worry about the end of the world because God is going to take care of them, after all, so naturally the secular types are the ones who obsess about it”.

He does, though, note that

History has always been seen most clearly as a journey toward something beyond itself and not immanent… this vision does not extenuate but solidifies the meaning of contingent events into an ethical locus in which the metahistorical future of the human adventure is determined.

which is getting there.

(And which, once one spends a few minutes picking it apart, turns out to box up considerable volumes of likely-false assumptions inside words and passive-voice constructs like “always” and “most clearly”, “been seen” and “is determined”, which are just the post-graduate version of sprinkling one’s Internet postings with “clearly”, “obviously”, and “certainly”.)

(And for that matter uses a quaintly archaic sense of “extenuate”. Hm, is this a translation, or is the English the original?)

In the next exchange (and the only other one I’ve finished reading), Eco turns the discussion toward the meaning and beginning of life, and the question of abortion, not so much as to get closer to real concrete questions as to show that even on a subject like this he can mostly avoid them.

Here is Eco:

When the banner of Life is waved, it can’t but move the spirit — especially of nonbelievers, however “pietistic” their atheism, because for those who do not believe in anything supernatural the idea of Life, the feeling of Life, provides the only value, the only source of a possible ethical system.

which is bullshit in both common senses: it’s false, and it’s not clear that it’s actually concerned at all with true and false, but just wants to sound good.

(The quotes around “pietistic” in reference to atheism are rather bizarre, as it suggests that “pietistic atheism” is a term that someone else has used, and that Eco himself is using referentially, although he has shame-quote-level reservations about it. But in fact the term “pietistic atheism” is actually pretty rare, so… I dunno.)

And of course just “waving the banner of Life” doesn’t necessarily move the spirit; some people’s spirits are (quite healthily) resistant to being moved by the waving of any banners, and there are all sorts of sources of possible ethical systems besides “the idea of Life, the feeling of Life”.

And so on and so on.

Eco then makes the very good point that a key question is exactly when a human life begins, that we don’t have a really good answer to it, and that it seems like a question that we may never have a really good answer to, even though it’s so important. (I like him saying this, because in my own analysis of the whole abortion issue, these facts are at the core of why it’s so hard.)

The Cardinal responds by subtly taking issue with Eco’s emphasis on “Life”, saying of course that it’s really all about God, and “the life of a person called upon to participate in the life of God himself.”

“Participate” is a great word there, like when the news says that a person is “linked to” some terrorist group. The postmodern “informed by” is another one. They all let you sort of draw a narrative line between two things without actually making any truth-claim that might turn out to be wrong. I have no idea what it actually means to “participate in the life of God himself” for Cardinal Martini, and I’m not convinced that he really does, either. At the high cloudy levels that he’s talking, “participate” is all that’s needed.

Moving on to just when there starts to be “a concrete life that I can label human”, Martini uses some more “obviously” words:

But we all know that we have … a clearer sense of genetic determination starting from a point that, at least in theory, can be identified. From conception, in fact, a new being is born.

There ya go! “We all know” that “in fact” a new being is born at conception.

Here “new” means as distinct from the two elements that united to form it.

This may be a nice definition of “new”, but the more important term is “being”. When someone ingests a couple pieces of food and they start to dissolve in the stomach, there may be some point at which they squish together and there is a “new” food-glob which is distinct from either the hotdog or the bun, but there’s no “new being” here to worry about, unless and until the relevant molecules make their way into a developing fetus which is (say) eventually born.

So he’s doing an end-run to try to slip “identity begins at the moment of conception” (something that the Church has believed for only a small fraction of its history, as Eco mentions and Martini ignores) into the discussion as though it was something we now know as a fact.

Okay, that’s par for the course. :)

Here is some more novel and amorphous stuff, on the topic of why the product of conception matters, and why we should protect it:

Beyond these scientific and philosophical matters lies the fact that whatsoever is open to so great a destiny — being called by name by God himself — is worthy of enormous respect from the beginning.

Why is that? Is there anything that God himself can’t call by name? Does God have names for people in a way that he doesn’t have names for animals, or fruit, or dust-motes? This is a piece of Catholic doctrine, or something, that I wasn’t aware of. Why would being called by name by God, as opposed to any other aspect of a putative relationship to God, be the thing in particular that makes a person “worthy of enormous respect from the beginning”?

If it turned out that God also had names for individual rocks, would we be morally obliged to make sure that any rock that begins to split off the side of a mountain does in fact split off, and to have “enormous respect” for it from that point on? Why or why not?

And yes, the question seems absurd. But it’s directly implied by the Cardinal’s words, so I will refer him to you on that issue.

We are talking about real responsibility toward that which is produced by a great and personal love, responsibility toward “someone”. Being called upon and loved, this someone already has a face, and is the object of affection and attention.

I think we are still talking about a just-fertilized egg here. The great and personal love must be God’s (since, sadly, not every instance of conception involves great or personal human love), as must be the affection and attention (since, this early in the game, no human is aware that anything exists to lavish affection and attention on).

But the someone already has a face? What could that mean? A fertilized egg most definitely does not have a face; it is too small. Is this a metaphor for something? If so, it’s not clear for what. Does he mean that he thinks the look of the face of the eventual person (if any) resulting from the fertilization is already determined, by the genetics of the sperm and egg? That’s probably not true, certainly not before the gametes are all done fusing (when exactly is “the moment of conception” at this level of detail, anyway?). And why “face” rather than “form” or for that matter foot-size? Are those less important, or is it all just some metaphor and “face” sounds better?

The next sentence is:

Every violation of this need of affection and attention can only result in conflict, profound suffering, and painful rending.

How did we get from the fertilized egg’s being the object of affection and attention (from God), to a need for affection and attention? In fact the fertilized egg, at this point, doesn’t have any need for affection and attention, unless there’s some religious claim here that it needs it from God. But presumably nothing could violate God’s affection and attention. (I’m not sure what if anything it means to “violate” a “need”.)

The claim being made here seems to be that from the moment of conception there is a new being that as a need for affection and attention, and any failure to provide for that need will result in conflict, profound suffering, and painful rending.

But that’s false. Something like half of fertilized eggs fail to implant or are otherwise spontaneously aborted very early (and so presumably their needs aren’t being provided for?), and no one who isn’t God ever knows they existed. No conflict, no profound suffering, no painful rending.

The obvious counter here is that the good Cardinal didn’t mean that. And that’s likely true, but then we’re just left wondering exactly what he did mean.

The end of this letter doesn’t help much, except to suggest that it’s all about faces again.

There is a splendid metaphor that reveals in lay terms something common to both Catholics and laymen, that of the “face”. Levinas spoke of it movingly as an irrefutable instance. I would rather cite the words, almost a testament, of Italo Mancini in one of his last books, Tornino i volti [Back to the Faces]: “Living in, loving, and sanctifying our world wasn’t granted us by some impersonal theory of being, or by the facts of history, or by natural phenomena, but by the existence of those uncanny centers of otherness — the faces, faces to look at, to honor, to cherish.”

Which, I think, is nice, even profound, as poetry, but as any sort of discussion of a subject falls rather flatly short of, well, of meaning anything.

Living in our world was granted us by the existence of faces? You don’t say!


I want to go ahead and complain…

So I want to go ahead and complain about people who go ahead and insert “go ahead and” before random verbs for no apparent reason.

Actually of course it’s not completely random; they go ahead and do it preferentially in certain contexts (probably not very often including that one where I went ahead and did it right there).

But anyway, it goes ahead and annoys me!

That last context is probably completely non-normative. I’m gonna go ahead and search the web for “it goes ahead and”

And we (go ahead and) find that the phrase isn’t common, but also isn’t unheard of. Never in the (what’s the word?) tenseless sense of “it goes ahead and annoys me”, but sometimes in the (what’s the other word?) nonspecific present sense of “if you give the program the wrong arguments, it goes ahead and deletes all of your files”.

Thinking about it, this phrase (clause, set of words) doesn’t always annoy me. It feels fine in the imperative, when there is some sort of giving-permission involved. To “Can I eat these?”, it’s clearly (clearly, haha) valid to say “Sure, go ahead”. Or, by obvious extension, “Sure, go ahead and eat as many as you like” or alternately “Go ahead and eat two or three, but leave the rest for the ancestors”.

(Here is Language Hat emself, who we are sure would never annoy us, saying “if you’re sure enough, go ahead and correct the Wikipedia article“, and indeed it seems quite correct.)

Even in non-imperative cases, the wording seems benign enough when there is some sense of permission involved, or notable lack of permission, where the going ahead (now that permission has been granted, or despite the fact that it wasn’t and one should have stopped) is remarkable in itself, in addition to whatever the actual activity was.

So from another web search, “I hate when you tell someone a secret and they go ahead and tell people”, seems plausible, as does “best friend knows you like someone, but they go ahead and date them”, both because, well, they shouldn’t have gone ahead, they should have stopped.

The annoying cases are when people (go ahead and) use it in non-imperative cases, when there is no permission involved at all, where it’s basically just a very long and distracting way of saying “um”. I heard a perfect example on the radio last night but of course I can’t remember it. Let’s see…

Impressive! A little web searching actually found it. The words were, speaking of the fun that giraffes an’ ellafumps have when they have food that is not all pre-processed for them: “If they have a large limb that they can go ahead and strip and pull the leaves off of, then they’ll work on pulling the bark off and then…” and so on.

That, I thought, was pretty clearly just an “um”, only much longer. Looking at it now from the wisdom of another day’s worth of experience, I wonder if this “go ahead and” might be signalling that a process, a set of steps, is coming up. That might be a reasonable excuse.

One more for now, also from NPR somewhere: “I believe it’s possible to get re-elected without taking large campaign contributions. So, why would I not go ahead and try to do that?” What’s up with that one? The sentence feels punchier and more impactful to me without the “go ahead and” (“why would I not try to do that?”). It’s hard to excuse it as a permission thing, and there’s no series of steps there.

So I will go ahead and remain annoyed by that one. :)


Who’s the chief of the BBC?

So this is a pretty cool news story:

Chinese revolt leader becomes village chief of Wukan

The leader of protests against land grabs in a southern Chinese village has been appointed its new chief.

Lin Zulian will head the new Communist Party Committee in Wukan and organise elections for a new village committee.

I mention it, though, not for its content, but because I’m wondering about that word “chief”.

Why does the BBC translate whatever word is officially used to describe this official as “chief”? In English (and perhaps this is an American thing, I dunno), “chief” has connotations of either a guy with a bone through his nose and feathers in his hair, or the guy with the cigar who runs the police or fire department (but not the whole place).

They could have rendered it as “leader” or “head” (both of which they used to refer to him elsewhere in the piece), or (given that he will “head” the Committee) presumably “Chairman” or “Chair” (although it might not be proper to refer to the “Chair” of a village).

If Wukan were a “town” or “city”, one might expect “Mayor” there, but I can buy that it’s a village in some objective sense having to do with population or something. So not using “Mayor” is perhaps understandable.

Does the BBC refer to the leader of a village in England as the “chief”? Let’s see…

Well! Searching for “english village” on the BBC site turns up a whole lot of droll and more or less nostalgic stories, but so far no mention of chiefs or mayors or anything. Perhaps villages aren’t governmental structures at all in England?

The official page about local government in the UK seems to be silent about villages, talking instead about “county and district councils” which may or may not involve mayors who may or may not have any actual powers. Searching for “village” there turns up the fact that local councils are responsible for village greens. Still nothing about village chiefs, though.

So perhaps the BBC uses “chief” for the leader of a village just because they don’t know what else to use, English villages not having leaders?

Okay, so what does a search for “village chief” on the BBC site find? Various chiefs, mostly from China, but also an indigenous Alaskan, a chief from the Ivory Coast, South Sudan, and aha Aberdeen!

Ah, wait. The one in Aberdeen is “David Beattie, chief executive of Aberdeen Sports Village“. Which is perhaps a commercial enterprise that just happens to be called a Village.

It is at least somewhat suggestive, though, that villages in non-Western places have “chiefs”, whereas the Aberdeen Sports Village has a Chief Executive. :) I’d love to see the BBC Handbook that covers this subject…

Update: The New York Times, for what it’s worth, seems to use “party boss” and “party secretary” in this piece about the same thing. The word “chief” is absent from the article.