Monday, July 31, 2006

Language Games

Click on the picture to see it larger. (Click here to visit the excellent site that is the source of the cartoon:
I found out about this site through Purdue's very worthwile

Some of us were lucky enough to learn at some point that Pig Latin could be our secret language. We learned the rule and for a while felt like we had found a cloak of invisibility - or more appropriately, a Maxwell Smartian cone of silence. This cipher enabled us to share our most incriminating thoughts with that one friend. You popular people might have known 2 or even 3 friends who were in on the cabal.

Let me explain it for the masses who never got in on this most select of the very secret societies. It's very complex. Take the first sound of the word and put it at the end of the word then add the "ay" sound.

Did you catch that? Let me give some free examples. The word 'too' becomes oo-tay. The word 'much' becomes uch-may. Now you can read the cartoon and see what that crazy talk is all about.

Please don't abuse this new power.

But before we mastered this language we had to establish a few rules that weren't initially explained. What do you do if the beginning of the word has two letters? Take for instance 'FLake.' In my circle we took both letters and put them at the end. "Ake-flay." And what about three letters? "STRike." Same idea - preserve the onset. "Ike-stray." And what about words that had no consonant in the onset position? Just add the "ay" to the end. "Aim" became "aim-ay." "Idea" - "idea-ay." I've often wondered if there were many variations to these rules - and if they might be regional.

One friend told me about his "ong" language. Take every consonant and add "ong." Spell out the vowels. So the word "car" would be "Cong-ay-Rong." And the word "BoaT" would be "Bong-oh-ay-Tong." "In" -> "eye-Nong." This language took too long to speak. Such a slow language also affords the enemy too much time to add up the code. No matter how quickly you're speaking it's only as fast as spelling every word. A good crypto-langue is difficult for a non-speaker even once they receive the code. Speak it fast enough and they start falling behind.

My friends Keith and Andrea taught me what they called Horse Latin. Like Pig Latin it works with complete onsets and an added syllable (-ibe). It does not however switch anything around. Instead it confuses by adding the syllable after the onset consonant (or cluster) of EACH syllable. So "car" becomes "kibe-ar." "Buggy" becomes "bibe-uh-gibe-ee." If there is no word-initial onset the -ibe is simply tacked on before the first syllable - so "eye" becomes "ibe-eye."

(It doesn't get any more interesting here unless you like reading recipes. Just move to the end of the essay if I've started sounding like Ben Stein -- "[T]he Republican-controlled House of Representatives, in an effort to alleviate the effects of the... Anyone? Anyone? . . . the Great Depression, passed the . . . Anyone? Anyone? The tariff bill? The Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act? Which . . . anyone? Raised or lowered? . . . raised tariffs." . . . "Bueller . . . Bueller . . . ?")

These games don't require too much of a theoretical background in language theory to explain. And from the little description we've given we could predict just about any word. Some language games help to illustrate how much the brain is capable of formulating and producing without explicated knowledge of a language's underlying structure. The Kall speech disguise is simple enough to observe on the surface. Most easily put - the first syllable (onset and vowel) of the word moves to the back. "Buggy" would become "geebuh." "ballyhoo" would become "leehoobaa." One extra detail - when there is no 2nd syllable a schwa is inserted. So "car" becomes "reh-ca."

Here's where it gets tricky. The speakers will also pay attention to the length of a sound. Actual timing length. So if the word is "bananaaaa" normally, the disguise will be "nanabaaaa." In both words the last sound is lengthened. And even a consonant can be longer (or geminate). So imagine pausing on the final /t/ of "bat." "Batttt" - the disguise would add the schwa and lengthen the last sound. Even though it's no longer a /t/. The disguise would be "teh-baaaa."

Now move to the Bakwiri language game and throw in one more detail like tone, and the sophistication of language games starts to reveal itself. The vowels and consonants can move around - add some here - delete some here - make consonants longer and have a few words that can even begin with ng-, mb-, or nd-, and do this while leaving the tonal contour of the word intact - and remember that it's mostly kids that teach each other these games. This is a good counter to refute the feelgood argument of Koko-the-gorilla's language skills. No animal can approach this facility with speech sounds - or symbols.

So let's forget about all the theories and abstract representations. Any variations on these language games that you learned? Any completely new ones? Instead of going through the rules a decent data set would suffice. Simply give the alternate for each of these:


Saturday, July 29, 2006

Linguists Have Messages?

I know I promised a post explaining the difference between word games and language games. Those of you who showed up briskly rubbing your hands together thinking "Okay - let's see what fascinating things he'll say about language games..." will have to hold on. The fun's not here yet.

Instead I will make an observation about my chosen field: linguistics. To preface this observation I will quote from an article by Michael Tackett in last week's Chicago Tribune.

Suggesting George Lakoff as a possible "oracle" for the democratic party he writes that Lakoff

makes a very persuasive argument that Democrats have allowed Republicans to hijack words such as "freedom" and "liberty" in fundamental ways that have undercut Democrats' credibility.

Tackett is writing in response to Lakoff's latest book: Whose Freedom? The Battle over America's Most Important Idea. One might read Lakoff's claim as a straight analysis of the discourse as he sees it. But there's a trend in linguistics that goes beyond simply encouraging political posing. Political stances are not merely accepted in linguistic analyses - they are often expected. Perhaps this is a natural course of a discipline that has struggled to legitimize its practical relevance (I present to a friend a simple analysis of the phonology of English pluralization and he says "Okay - I get it. What's going to change about my world now?").

So Lakoff looks to change something - and politics is a state's system for the delegation of power. So he must engage in political discourse. And he must effect change. And the current power in all three branches has favored the Republican party - so of course Lakoff must move it to the Democratic.

After all - once a scientist (and linguists are trying really hard to be scientists) has
observed, described, predicted and learned to control - necessary change isn't a political goal: Is it not an ethical goal? And perhaps someone like Lakoff merely believes that we have allowed a regime to establish itself too firmly. Tacket continues:

Consider the war in Iraq. Republicans have adroitly labeled Democratic calls for troop pullbacks as "cut and run." So how did Democrats respond? With John Kerry saying that the Bush strategy is "lie and die."

Instead, Lakoff says, Democrats must change the nature of the debate, starting by rejecting the premise that America is in fact at war. The war, he says, ended when President Bush said it did with his "Mission Accomplished" stunt on an aircraft carrier. Now, Democrats should refer to the conflict as an occupation. They should say U.S. troops were not trained to be occupiers and that they were betrayed by administration policy, with the U.S. weakened as a result.
. . . Right or wrong, no prominent Democrat has adopted Lakoff's proposed framing. That hasn't stopped him from making the rounds in Washington, urging Democrats to take heed.

Here is where Lakoff reveals an agenda of pure political influence. Giving advice to one group can be a disinterested comment on the forces within a system and how they might influence that system. But his advice shows definite judgement. In an article co-authored by Lakoff is found the following view.

Incompetence obscures the real issue. Bush’s conservative philosophy is what has damaged this country and it is his philosophy of conservatism that must be rejected, whoever endorses it.

Conservatism itself is the villain that is harming our people, destroying our environment, and weakening our nation. Conservatives are undermining American values through legislation almost every day.

Judgement is fine. If what is predicted is compatible with what is observed it should be noted without apology. My pause is seated centrally on the assumptions in such a statement. Lakoff has said often that Bush is not incompetent - that in fact he has shrewdly carved his path. But Lakoff too easily implicates anyone who holds a conservative view, holding a loosely defined battery of priorities responsible for a reckless president who claims to hold the bulk of them dear. Not only does he use the same tactic that Bush used to stifle dissent ("If you're not with us...") He blames a philosophy for what he accepts as the decay of our American world (within and without the country?).

For a while now Lakoff has used the "strict father" model to describe Bush's method and values. Criticising the authoritarian view of definite right and wrong, he judges paradoxically - calling that approach wrong. This is not a problem if wisely argued. I will accept some paradoxes - for instance the refusal to leave intolerance unchecked.

What I find most perplexing is Lakoff's faith in the power of the Republican frame. Has the country accepted Bush's view of the nation's needs and the included arguement of the causes and effects of the nations struggles? Must a new frame be established for the Democrats to regain power? And is the establishement of a new frame simply an attempt to introduce a topic that better suits the speaker's abilities to persuade?

But I digress. Politics have become the league that pulls good athletes out of school. Linguists are not the only ones to start throwing their values into their theories as rationalization and raison d'etre for the discipline. Otherwise who would care about what we say? And does such an approach furtively push for the banishment of basic investigation?

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Word games

I've married someone who loves words as much as I do. She is more dedicated to nurturing her vocabulary than anyone I know. When we began dating I noticed a laminated page on her wall, full of words and definitions. She would just sit and memorize. She gets about seven word-of-the-day emails every day. Rarely do the emails give a word she doesn't already know. It's not that they send easy words (like impudent prescience subservient or mutability) - they send weird and obscure words: conquian vilipend drawcansir verjuice...

When wooing her I was as reliant on a thesaurus as Christian on Cyrano.

And even with her lexi-lust I can't get her interested in phonology. I start to tell her about my latest realization or theory (I've stumbled on more of the former than I have formulated of the latter) and her eyes begin to dart past my shoulder to the clock. She gives a tight closed-mouth smile and begins to blink quickly. When I look away for a second I suspect she rolls her eyes and takes a deep breath.

It's the same reaction I give her when she begins to talk about the latest Nicole Richie gossip or the latest news about how Angelina and Brad are going to save the world.

Our interests do converge on word games (I'll differentiate word games from language games which I will discuss in my next post).

We share an early memory of sitting in my office playing Boggle even before we were dating (That's about 1st base in the Seventh-day Adventist culture). She has never won a game of Boggle but she is leading in the Scrabble series. When we play Balderdash she regularly knows the definition and doesn't have to make one up. And then there are the non-competitive games. One of us will come up with a category and we take turns coming up with appropriate items. I've decided to include such categories occasionally as a post. Nothing polemic. Nothing provocative. Nothing controversial.

Here's a list that has been augmenting for years. But because of my terrible memory and since I've not written down the items I have to start from scratch.

Words that are accepted as common nouns/verbs that were originally brand names:
coke (down south)
cuisinart (for food processor - the popularity of the FoodTV and epicureanism is teaching people to recognize alternatives to this brand - slowing down or even reversing the process of genericism).
kodak (just like the previous - almost dead since the 80s because of Fuji's quality and now digital photography).

See - I'm starting to rely on marginal candidates to the list. I'll post more in the comments section as I think of them. That is if you don't beat me to it.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Improve your English

This is very funny. Simply written and well performed. For some loosely related thoughts you can take a look at an early entry on this web log. My thanks to Brady Spangenberg for sending the video to me.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Be As Simple and As Trusting

Usually when we want to win an argument we throw jargon statistics lists history and volume into our onslaught of logic. This is especially in academia where we have perfected and become reliant on the habit of evidential persuasion. In this form of exposition we treat evidence and logic as a force to be gathered mounted and released in a barrage that cannot be outfaced. We believe that against enough shrapnel the fortress will fold.

There is another popular very successful and contrary strategy of persuasion. I call it successful because of its ability to sway the masses – not because of its ability to sway the discriminating or deliberate reasoner. This strategy is the simplification gambit.

Then I find myself wondering how much an issue can be simplified before key elements of the quandary are compromised or discarded. I find myself cringing when a politician preacher or peer looks to emotion as the main impetus to a belief. But some speakers are quite skilled at appealing to our basic values. When Bill Clinton looked at the camera and told us about the hardworking single mother who was struggling to raise her children and he closed his eyes and bit his lower lip then told us how much he wanted to be a part of a government that worked to help this mother’s family survive, we had to consciously decide why we disagreed with his desire (if in fact we found ourselves wanting to). For those who disagreed with him were certainly evil right?

The appeal to emotions is related to the “thus" formulation I’ve mentioned before. We certainly share certain values and beliefs and those beliefs lead us to see some things as necessary and some things as harmful or perhaps wrong. Do values ever lead us to see some things as unnecessary?

But with all the current noise and trouble alerting us to the world-views that surround us we find ourselves asking, if not demanding, that the other viewer move - back away from the modes beliefs assumptions values or statistics that have contributed to his or her stance. We call these influences biases and we claim that they are adulterating an honest perspective.

I’m not seeking to build up the claim that all views are biased therefore all views are equally valid – I’m wondering about the point at which our demand for an objective evaluation falls into the pit of valuing naïveté over judiciousness.

“Out of the mouths of babes” – not usually used to win an argument. It’s a phrase usually reserved as a reaction when a child has said something we believe to be insightful, nuanced, prophetic, true. Why call attention to a child’s opinion? I read an article about a public official who offered a prayer in a public setting. Among those present were many who insisted that this was the dangerous act of an establishmentarian. The newspaper article – seeking to convey the importance of this event (for why else would the article have been disseminated to all the wires and thrust into the headlines in North Dakota) included several quotes. In addition to the usual wailing of the ACLU the writer included the comment of a child in attendance. “I don't know; it just felt wrong” said the young sage. Why would this quote have been included? I’m not sure but I’ll take a few guesses at what message the writer was hoping to convey.

a. Everybody’s opinion should be quoted.

b. Notice how baseless is this child’s opinion as evidenced by the lack of developed argument.

c. What a strange thing that a child would have interest in political/state matters.

d. Anyone who believes this was a violation of the separation of church and state is as unsophisticated and uninformed as a child.

e. Anyone who doesn’t believe this was a violation of the separation of church and state is less sophisticated and informed than a child.

It's probably a combination of a couple of these - with a few more intended messages besides. And although I cringe at this maudlin appeal to the simple and therefore (allegedly) unbiased and fundamental purity of a child's unwizened wisdom, I know that none of us reaches a view by accepting only honest challenges to presumptive perspectives. Can we fault a child for not yet reaching our biased perspective, informed as it is?

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Elegance and Predictability

Good puzzles are true to a promise. They promise to offer a task that can be predicted. That is, they promise one solution that justifies itself better than any other. As any religious apologetic will agree, justification is not a solidified concept. And so the "real" solution to a puzzle can be evaluated aesthetically. Elegant is a nice way to describe a good puzzle and solution.

In my phonology classes our eternal struggle was to come up with the best set of rules or constraints to describe the process of sound alternation. Example: the received or underived pronunciation of water has a voiceless /t/ as the third morpheme - so does the received pronunciation of baton. In British English the /t/ remains unchanged all the way to its surface form. In American English it generally remains unchanged in baton, but in water the /t/ becomes a flap (we'll think of it as a /d/ although it technically isn't).

How can we describe this process in American English? In one common form of analysis (Sound Pattern of English, or SPE) we come up with formal rules describing phonological context and its effect on certain sounds. So we'll describe the context of /t/ in water:

Between two vowels after a stressed syllable.

Then we describe the context of /t/ in baton:

Between two vowels before a stressed syllable.

and looking at these two rules we suggest that a very elegant rule to account for the American pronunciation might be put into prose this way:

/t/ becomes /d/ when it occurs in an intervocalic post-stress position. That one simple rule accounts for the alternation in water and the unchanged form in baton.

For those who appreciate SPE this is an elegant solution because it accounts for the provided data and more besides. The word catnip doesn't meet both requirements: although the /t/ is post-stress it isn't intervocalic. The rules hold. More data will require some fine-tuning of the rules - but the point of the analysis remains - to account for as much data as possible by formulating as few rules as possible - rules that are as simple and natural as possible (so many possiblities...).

So puzzles...

There is a website out there called BrainBashers. If you browse through the site you'll find a few decent games and a few clever puzzles. But the site includes many puzzles that violate this maxim of elegance. I've included here two of their word-game puzzles.

First riddle:

This is an annoying paragraph, in which you try and work out what is unusual about it. Though, this paragraph has a quandary. A number of words have found a way to slink into this paragraph, to ruin your fun. What are those words? Do not try to run a utility to assist you, that would spoil all my attempts to absorb all of your skills in this mind blowing prank.

We've seen paragraphs like these and we know what to start looking for. Patterns - hidden messages (acrostics anagrams...) - oxymorons - double meanings - even the hard-to-catch missing letter - or the opposite of that: the sentence (like the one about the quick brown fox) that has every letter of the alphabet at least once.

Here's the banal solution:

"The paragraph has no words which contain a letter E, however, a few slipped in!"

So the solution is that there are only a few words with the letter E. This solution does not justify itself. There is no reason that this should be the most curious characteristic of the paragraph - is there? It's the most curious characteristic only because the author chose that as an ad hoc answer. It is not a characteristic that would be remarkable in any other paragraph or for any other puzzle. It is a solution created only for this puzzle.

Then we find this riddle.

"How many legs does an elephant have if you call its trunk a leg?"

This one is pretty predictable. It comes close to the old "pound of feathers vs. a pound of lead" riddle. But here we find that the author has chosen a meaning of the phrase "you call" that cannot be predicted and has been designated for this riddle only.

The given answer:
"Four: calling a trunk a leg does not make it a leg!"

They put the exclamation point on there. It doesn't deserve it.

If I'm given permission to call it a leg then it's a leg. It may not be a skeletal limb with phalanges metatarsals fibula tibia etc...but it's a leg. The author's claim that temporary labels are not to be confused with typical denotatum cannot be predictably applied to any other data.

One last example. On Jeopardy! last week one of the categories was Faux Fragrances. Here was the clue:

Alex: "So natural... so real... this salty, watery fluid secreted by sweat glands is finally here."
Sidney: "What are the armpits?" NO
John: "What is sweat?" NO

The answer: What is Perspiration.

I turned to my wife and began making the case that there were not enough guidelines established for "perspiration" to justify itself gracefully beyond armpits or sweat.

"Sit down" she said.

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Daily Show

I was not impressed with Craig Kilborn when he was on SportsCenter. I was impressed with John Stewart before he was on The Daily Show. I saw him on MTV and I thought "that Stewart kid's got talent!"

Then I saw Kilborn on The Daily Show, and tho I enjoyed his Five Questions, the best thing about the show was the bullpen of commentators including A. Whitney Brown, Brian Unger, Beth Littleford, Mo Rocca, and Steven Colbert. Rocca was part of the transition to the incoming Stewart - tapped to fill the anchor seat vacated by Kilborn's exodus to CBS as host of the Late Late Show - replacing Tom Snyder.

And Stewart demanded the power to change the show. It became The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. And its indelible mark on the political tabula is storied and shall remain granted. But let's focus on what happened to The Daily Show - not what happened because of it. What used to be subtitled "The Most Important News Show - Ever" ironically gave up that claim because it felt it was irresponsible humour (It's probably not a coincidence that it dropped that claim upon coming back from the post 9/11 silence).

The show is still unabashed satire. Stewart makes fun of his role as a journalist at least once a show. Anticipating the reaction to the headspace graphics he often pauses just after his lead-in when he reads the material (the show suffers from a raging case of paronomasia) The problem is it's just not that funny anymore. It has its moments. I laugh - sure. But more often I roll my eyes and sit waiting for the jolts of rhythm that sustained comedy requires.

In its attempt to be funny while still casting that all(self)important critically satirical eye on politicians and news services it has looked to a method of balance by extremes. One minute Stewart is offering a rational tho empassioned plea to politicians that they stop insulting the voters' intelligence. The next minute a senior correspondant stands in front of a green screen making absolutely ridiculous claims that so trumpet their own inanity that they can scarcely be called ironic. Instead of providing that necessary imbalance, the wag plays to the same predictably farcical voice.

In these moments the show has compromised well-crafted and delicately shaded humor for easily identifiable charicatures and appeals to broad raillery. Brown, Unger, and Colbert had
an ability to play a role straight reciting straight lines while backing the subject of the interview into a corner. The only way out was to admit idiocy.

Bee, Corddry, Ed Helms, and the stalwart Lewis Black too often erupt with their jokes. Correspondents pretending to cry about the tensions between dwarf Kiss cover bands, or breaking down after a report on a loyalty oath crying out "Jon! They had my parents!" make the humour more about performance than observation. And the audience is clapping along like a seal after a treat.

This habit of entrance applause has reached a pitch not heard since Arthur Fonzarelli's fanatics whistled and swooned as soon as he stepped on stage: forcing him to pose and look around aimlessly until they settled down. The Daily Show's audience has become a peanut gallery poised to cheer for heroes or hiss at villains more readily than it will laugh.

Stewart's most legendary rant came not on his own show but when he appeared on Crossfire. Refusing to be Tucker Carlson's "monkey" he lambasted the host saying that Crossfire was failing to responsibly inform its viewers. He also shrugged of any of his own responsibility by claiming they had different charges.

"You're on CNN. The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls. What is wrong with you?"

The next day on his own show he recapped and reflected.

. . . [T]hey were very mad, because apparently, when you invite someone on a show called Crossfire and you express an opinion, they...they don't care for that...I told them that I thought their show was hurting America and they came back at me pretty good, they said I wasn't being funny. I then said, 'I know that, but tomorrow I will go back to being funny, and your show will still blow.'

What Stewart has overlooked is that every show can only exist if an audience is willing to indulge its form. Television only exists as a means to attract a predictable audience for the commercials. Just as The Daily Show follows a muppet show - every channel is flanked by other channels competing for a demographic. What should shows do? Show some integrity. Play your part honestly. And all comedians have to guard against hacking. The best won't try to get laughs by doing a rap or by using ventriloquism or going off on a rant so exhausting that it gets applause but no laughter.

Stewart has often defended his audience granting it the intelligence to discriminately appreciate the value of his "news." It now loves him for it. And its approval has trained him and his staff to dance like monkeys.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Are we Safir?

I'm guessing that Howard Safir's last name was originally pronounced something like staffer, Zamfir, sapphire...something like one of those. But as he is one of the increasingly sampled voices on national security issues and given his career track with law enforcement, I'm sure he smiles at the safer pronunciation. It doesn't make him good at the job, but it likely makes a few easily influenced minds out there think "hey, he has the right name . . . I'm going to stop evaluating now." Never mind that we all know how irrelevant phonology is to semantics.

In other words: it may not be true - but I'll believe it because it'd be neat if it is.

But it reminds me of the quote I heard by Benjamin Franklin:
He who sacrifices liberty for security deserves neither.

No wait. I think he said
If we restrict liberty to attain security we will lose them both.

Hold on. I'm pretty sure it was actually
A society that gives up a little liberty to gain a little security deserves neither and loses both.

Franklin never said any of those. At least we have no reliable record of him saying them. But don't they make the point so well? Especially now that we can use wise ol' Ben to support our grumbles about the foolishness of our current federal executive administration? Franklin is smarter than Bush so I want a quote by Franklin that disagrees with Bush. Alas these are not his.

Here's my question. Why do quotes carry such weight? We're all guilty of hitching our arguments to the soaring wagons of the philosophers' utterances. Especially in academia. But let's look for instance at that first quote mistakenly attributed to Franklin. Why would someone no longer deserve freedom or liberty just because they make a foolish choice of prioritization? Does that mean that anyone who demands every right and surrenders security deserves both? Is that why that last quote looks so good - because by endangering both freedom and security the foolish citizen forfeits all?

The problem with these quotes is they are predictive. They assume morals and promise judgment. To use them in argument simply says "I agree with this value." That's a fair statement but not a good argument. I like Mr Franklin's actual quote much better. In Poor Richard's Almanac he writes

  Sell not virtue to purchase wealth   
nor liberty to purchase power.
These suggestions are unabashedly about values. The quote does not sneak under the rhetorical radar as true-because-of-it's-rhythm-eloquence-and-wit.

In an interview a few weeks ago I heard Mr Safir respond to the question of racial profiling with the clarification that he was not supporting "racial" profiling; he was supporting "terrorist" profiling. Oh well of course. Great. If all he wants to do is catch terrorists then I'm behind him "a hundert purcent." Here's the problem - in "racial" profiling those who are identifiable because of cultural markers are suspected. In "terrorist" profiling those who are identifiable by the same cultural markers are suspected.

Mr Safir has forgotten that changing the phonology of a policy doesn't do anything to change the semantics.

Here's my proverb for the day.

He who surrenders the rights of others
to make himself secure
will lose the respect of all his brothers
and is an ass for sure.

I just believe it.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Facts of the Apostles

I was recently reading the J-h-v-h's Witnesses textbook/handbook/manifesto Reasoning From the Scriptures. It's a fascinating look at one group's rhetorical strategies. The book instructs the evangelist on techniques for broaching the subject of belief and faith with people who may fall into one or several of various categories: Those who don't believe in a god, those who believe in a different god, those who have a negative view of the J-h-v-h's Witnesses, those who are receptive, those who say they are busy, those who believe they have already dealt with and shooed the Witnesses away...

Well I've been thinking and reading about disagreements lately. I love a good verbal navigation through the eddies and tides of different opinions. And if the discussion gets heated and the volume starts to rise I'm still happy to forge on.

But why do I brace myself when religion surfaces? Several weeks ago I exchanged ideas regarding the salvation doctrine in Christianity. It was a short discussion that very quickly veered off course and ended abruptly. As I think back on it, what happened was a simple realization that our accepted facts are different.

Is it possible to continue a discussion when the accepted facts are avowedly different? I would say so - but it requires a brief window argument - an argument within an argument to clarify terms and premises - then a return to see where the views are discurrent. To abandon this strategy too early leads to the Bill O'Reilly habit of "Well - I say you're wrong so I guess we'll have to agree to disagree." It's a cop-out.

This form of retreat ignores one vital concern of any discussion - the belief of the implications of the facts. The Socratic method of trapping your opponent is brutally aware of the importance of implicative - or "thus" formulation. You get the other to agree that if X then Y. And you can best lure them in by saying "Okay - Y is not likely. You don't believe Y. But is there any way that you will accept Y? Oh - you'll accept Y if X? Well then . . ."

Anticipating this loophole the adroit arguer effectively asserts X. The other has already promised to agree. Because of the implication of a fact.

The J-h-v-h's Witnesses obviously believe there is a key implication to fact regarding the shape of the structure on which Jesus was hung to die. They believe there is a key implication of the fact that birthday celebrations are never mentioned in a positive light in the Bible.

Last week I also read The Marked Bible by Charles L Taylor. This novel-ish book claims to tell a story of a young rebel who leaves home then finds a Bible marked by his mother. And he turns back to a life of goodness.

No plot. No character development. Nothing but a set of pawnish players whose changes come about through epiphany, and the preachers who answer their questions - questions that are very obviously planted by an author with an agenda.

I'm also bothered by the assumption of what the argued facts implicate. It begins with a portrait of a young man who rejects his parents' teachings. And the young man is evil because of what he rejects. I almost have to give this author credit for making sure that the young man is really evil - he doesn't rely on mere apostacy; he stresses that the young man has become a drunkard a gambler and a criminal. I refrain from commendation because I'm tired of the post hoc ergo propter hoc argument so common in religious upbringing.

This book assumes from the very beginning several implications of facts and goes through in a very systematic way to argue and defeat challenges to the final claims about the Seventh-day Adventist religion. The greatest disservice that a book like this does is to ignore any challenges to the primary assumptions.

And here I find I'm bracing myself because of how I believe many of my acquaintances would view me if they knew my accepted facts. A friend of mine recently "came out" religiously (no jokes about being on his knees people - he just revealed some agnosticism about common and fundamental church beliefs). His coming out was received just like it is in its more usual context. Some were supportive. Some asked questions at arms distance. Some were upset and worried. I imagine their various thoughts would have sounded like this:

"Has he always been agnostic?"
"What was he thinking when we had that discussion in the locker room that one time?"
"Can I trust him now? Will his skepticism rub off on me?"
"To be honest I think we're all skeptical to a degree."
"What's important is that he knows we'll always love him."

Each of these thoughts focuses on a fear or an assurance about what can now be predicted. And for some people, more important than the entire history of the friendship is the new future they see simply because of cherished and rejected facts.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Is Tihs Grsibeibh?

Alternate heading: A Ghoti out of Water

The idea has been floating around for a while that spelling is not that important. And it's the argument for orthography that is gaining ground trying to undo the more natural tendency to ambigraphy (better than agnography - read my related thoughts here).

Students are told early on the spelling is the first skill necessary to writing; nobody will take you seriously until you master it. They don't also tell students that we have record of Shakespeare's signature spelled 7 different ways - not one of which was the same as we spell his name today. At least some cutesy source told me that several years ago. If I'm wrong I hope somebody will stop me now from spreading the horrible horrible lie.

And Noah Webster came along and wanted a spelling system that would more closely simply and predictably reflect pronunciation. Only relatively recently has a self-proclaimed academy of standards convinced everyone that spelling can be wrong - while ignoring such obvious exceptions as the American -vs- British conventions. And even within one country, proper names are given carte blanche to show themselves in any manner.

Doesn't it all come down to readability? We've all seen this email as an extremist example for almost universal acceptability:

I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno't mtaetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whotuit a pboerlm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Azanmig huh? yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt! if you can raed tihs forwrad it.

What I disagree with is the common claim that our mind read the entire word and doesn't care about the middle. Hogwash Hooey and Hokum. It's our reading algorithm that allows us to settle on the correct word so quickly. And although familiar spellings take us closer (though not immediately) to the intended words these spellings take us close enough - but not so close that the mind doesn't have to interpret from a greater distance than usual. And sometimes it's just too far for us to solve - consider fhreodsoaw and budtaldsae - (I'm sure you can figure them out - but did you just recognize them like they claim we do?) And even with accepted spellings we have to use context to tell us what concept to attach to the word.

"I wound a bandage around his wound."
"I present you with this present."
"Friedrich's gift was not a great gift."

I've heard the explanation (argument?) that our eyes see the shape outlined by the first and last letters and we fill in the middle much like those stars and triangles used as examples of gestalt in high school psychology texts. But many words would work even without the last letter in place - and someone good enough at the daily Jumble would do fine with no letters in the correct place. So word shape comes into play only as a clue - not as a means.

As it is I've been on a crusade for the last several years to buck people's expectations of my spelling. Most recently I've adopted an alternating method - flipping between American and British (yanked and angled?) conventions. several years ago in the margin of one paper in which I was using the British -our and -tre (and the occasional -cque) one fine professor wrote "Last I checked we don't live on an isle." He didn't dock my grade for it. Kudos to him for his fine sense of humer.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

A Bad Cover Design

A magazine like Cosmopolitan or People can imply it's own name. The Saturday Evening Post almost always covered up the bulk of it's Header because it was so obvious - that and Rockwell's paintings were good enough to gain primary position. But Butterick is not well enough known. And some alternatives are more likely to catch the mind's eye.

Then again the type to read this sewing magazine is the type most likely to miss the joke as well.

-image courtesy of the Russian Marketing Blog-