Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Pop Up Me Toaster

Okay, pop fans, here's the skinny (what do you mean, people stopped saying that in 1972? I. Am. Still. Young. You. Bastids.). New Camera Obscura album, and if you love pop, you want it. It's going to be just about big enough that they will no longer be our secret.

Here's French navy. Tracyanne has prettied herself up a bit. I'm in love with Tracyanne. In my dreams, we scowl together.

The album's a bit overproduced but still ace.

I don't listen to much pop these days, but when I do, I like it Scandy. Scandinavians seem to have a great way with retro with a twist. I was a big fan of the twisted Aqua Girl carcrash that the Knife produced, and no less a fan of Karin Dreijer Andersson's solo project, Fever Ray:

I was going to embed Lykke Li's I'm good, I'm gone, for slightly lighter Scandy goodness, but her rather shortsighted record company has disabled the embedding. It can be found here though. Lykke Li always looks a bit angry to me. Maybe it's the cold.

More Karin Dreijer Andersson? Here she is with Royksopp. No proper visuals but this song just bangs. It's an update on Europop, made by people with a clue:

The album, Junior, is a million miles from their bestselling debut, Melody AM, but it's no worse for it. This track, You don't have a clue, featuring the wonderful Anneli Drecker, is as good as anything they've ever done. Or ever will do, probably:

More often heard chez Zen though is dub techno, particularly the Berlin style exemplified by Echospace and the various guys connected with Basic Channel. Here they are in their Rhythm & Sound guise, featuring Cornell Campbell:

Now that's a smoker's delight! Less dubby and more ambient is Yagya. His Rigning is a standout ambient techno album. The tracks are tied together with samples of rain and atmosphere. Try Rigning sex (Icelandic for "six", not jiggy jiggy):

Yagya's concept is that his record captures Iceland in the rain. If I tell you that I think he's successful, and that Iceland is the most beautiful place I've seen, you know that I rate the album highly.

Rigning is less dub techno than influenced by dub techno, if you know what I mean. So to balance it out, here's some dubstep, which is less techno and more, erm, well, I suppose you can hear the dub influence but dubstep is rarely all that dubby at all:

It's not very step either, to be fair. It's just slowburning electronica, but nice all the same. If you're not clear on the difference, here's some dubstep from 2562:

and from Burial:

Those both have something like the trademark twostep rhythm. Dubstep borrows its lurching drums from dub. On Untrue, you can hear the kick hitting on the first and third beats, but not the second and fourth. Often this makes a song seem to have a slower tempo than it does.

It's not all marijuana-fuelled headnodding chez Zen though. Walk past my house (no, really, don't) and you'll more often hear techno, often minimal. I particularly like the Wighnomy Brothers' mix Metawuffmischfelge. Here are the Brothers live:

Those people dance like I do, when I'm doing the washing up and I think no one's looking. I've also been loving Ben Klock, although more so his mixes than his music. Not that his music isn't fine:

This stuff is great to listen to in the background when pokering or editing. Or for dancing, I suppose, but even though I. Am. Still. Young. I am too old, too fat and too ugly for nightclubs, sadly.

If I wasn't, I could probably be convinced to bop to this:

and I recommend Isolee's Wearemonster, which is more uncategorisable than this (none of it would fit on a deep house compilation imo).

Monday, April 27, 2009

Ragbag of bollocks

Why do newscasters feel they have to say that people are "battling" cancer? You cannot battle it. You can have it treated by specialists; you can try to keep yourself in as good shape as possible; you can do all sorts of things that have very little effect, if any. But this is not what "battling cancer" means. It usually means "dying of cancer".

I was struck by it when reading news about celebrity chav Jade. She was "battling cancer". And died quickly. Well, that's how it is. You "battle" diseases in your mind; they kill you in the physical world. The two do not overlap. Rampant cells do not, whatever you might believe, respond to the power of thought. They may or may not respond to chemistry, if we know which chemistry will kill them and not you. But it is not in itself much of a battle to have cancer treated. Few refuse to.

My granddad -- my dad's stepdad -- died of lung cancer. When diagnosed, he did not resolve to battle it. He was a gambling man, and he knew what long odds he faced. He was also smart enough to know that no amount of fight would shorten those odds. He accepted his fate, battled not at all, and died.

Cancer is like the wind. You can't battle it. It doesn't fight with you. It just is. It can be mitigated if you catch it when it is a breeze, but when it is a hurricane, you cannot hope to stop it. All you can do is get blown to shit.


But life on the whole is like that. When it ails you, there's not always much you can do about it; and when you're running hot, it's often not down to you -- all you can do is surf the wave and hope that when it breaks you don't hit the sand hard.

Or maybe that's just my life. I dunno. Maybe everyone else is driving their own train, not looking out the window wistfully at the scenery passing by.


So I am insanely proud of myself anyway. I have mastered reggae. Yes, I know that it's not a herculean task. But I have grasped why it works, and how it is put together. It took some doing. I love making music, and I generally grasp theory well, but I have no ear for it, even though I enjoy listening to it.

I don't mean I am writing reggae. I am aiming for dub techno. You have to go through reggae to get there though. Or I do. I don't know how other people learned what they know.

So now I am listening to music carefully, thinking about which beat notes fall on, how effects that I like are constructed. And then I will make music that is nothing like what I'm aiming at, because that is what I do always.

But who knows? Maybe one day you'll see my name in the charts or in a mix or on MTV, with hot chicks waggling their booties to my pumping mix. It's about time something about me pumped, let's face it.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Torturous logic

I think Karl Rove might finally be getting it.

He is quoted as saying:

If the Obama administration insists on criminalizing policy disagreements, how can they place any limits on who they prosecute?

They can't, Karl. It's called "equality before the law". The idea is that there are no limits on who can be prosecuted.

Everyone in the interrogation process would have to be treated the same

Yes! Now you're getting it.

Let me explain something to poor Karl. When you are a republic of laws, not a monarchy, that means everyone has to obey the law. Now, of course, the laws are rarely fair, and the rich get to make them and the poor suffer under them, so I'm not suggesting this is ideal, but it is the point.

including the CIA agents, the physicians who monitored interrogation sessions and the lawyers who researched and wrote the memos.

... and the concentration camp guards, and and and...

to the leadership of the intelligence community to the legislators in both parties and the Bush administration officials who were briefed on these memos and agreed to them

At no point does Karly boy suggest any reason that these people should be beyond the law.

It is now clear that the Obama White House didn't think before it tried to appease the hard left of the Democratic Party.

Okay, so he isn't really getting it. Suggesting that the Democratic Party even has a left, let alone a "hard" one, is ridiculous. And since when was believing you have laws for a reason a "hard left" stance? I think you'll find, Karl, that most of us who actually are on the hard left think that the laws mostly exist to fuck the poor and keep the middle class in line.

It's been said enough times but it bears repeating: how well would it go down with the beak if I suggest that I didn't shoplift from Woolworths but merely had a "policy disagreement" with them: they believing that I should pay for goods, I believing that I should just take them. Surely I should not be punished for a mere disagreement over the economy?

The Times continues:
Three key U.S. senators, Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham and Democrat-turned-independent Joe Lieberman, issued a joint letter to Obama strongly urging him not to prosecute government officials who provided legal advice related to detainee interrogations.

"Pursuing such prosecutions would, we believe, have serious negative effects on the candor with which officials in any administration provide their best advice," wrote the senators, all of whom had opposed the harsh interrogation tactics.

You know, Johnny boy, if that advice is that it's okay to torture, they probably need to be a bit less "candid".

Are these people fucking dim? I mean, really? It's almost impossible to believe that they could be this cynical, this partisan. That "servants" of their country like McCain, who as we endlessly heard in his campaign was tortured himself, can argue for immunity for America's Eichmanns is beyond fucking belief. What a sad state America is now in. Not that it was ever any different. But now the veil is off. It is revealed as the rogue state it is.

Even stupider and more cynical though is Pat Leahy, who wants to immunise everyone who wants to tell the truth:

I want someone to tell us exactly what happened so that it won't happen again

Pat, wake the fuck up! We know what happened. We have three-quarters of it out in the open, and the rest is not very hidden. If Obama wants to, he can reveal most of the rest.

The way we ensure it doesn't happen again is to punish the people who did it the first time. That principle works for thieves and murderers, Pat, so why you think we couldn't just apply it to torturers is beyond me.

The Times at least leaves us with comedy:
A former Bush White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer, said if a probe is started, "Barack Obama will regret this as one of the worst moments of his presidency, because it will set off a multi-year, extraordinarily divisive, all-consuming Washington scandal/controversy and everyone will end up looking bad."

Ari, we call that scandal/controversy "the Bush war on terror" and you are absolutely right.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


So Aldi is a German company, and maybe has an excuse, but it provides an egregious example of bad grammar in its posters, which you'll see in store and match the slogans on the page I link to. It's correct to say:

100% of Aldi's fresh meat is Australian.

but I'm sorry to say, a solecism to write:

95% of Aldi's fresh fruit and vegetables is Australian.

The sentence is similarly structured to:

A lot of people are unhappy about inflation.

which few would render incorrectly.

The writer is of course confused because we do write:
The number of fresh fruit and vegetables is huge.

Just in case you're not clear on the difference, I'll explain.

In "The number of fresh fruit and vegetables is huge", what is huge is the number. It doesn't describe or limit the fruit and vegetables in any way; the opposite is true. In "95% of Aldi's fresh fruit and vegetables are Australian", what are Australian are most of the fruit and vegetables. "95%", like all percentages, is not ethnically specific.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

On metaphysics

Everything, it seems, is a matter of perspective.

I have been thinking about what I believe to be the case. I suppose that I mean what is my metaphysics, but that would imply that I have a coherent system that I apply to the world. I do not. Not only do I not know or think I know what the world is really like but I think it is impossible to know. I know what it seems like to me, but I am aware -- or at least I think I am aware -- that that is just how it seems from the perspective of a being like me.

(Let me get this out of the way: when I say I don't exist, I do not deny the reality of a being sitting here on my back verandah, smoking a cigar and enjoying a port. There is a being here. But I mean that it is not distinct in its substance from any other being, indeed any other thing, and the "self" that it seems to have is only that: a seeming, a delusion. I do not mean that that being cannot interact with other beings, nor do I mean that it cannot seem directed, cannot make and do things that seem to belong only to it. I mean that the feeling that I have that I am a passenger in that being is entirely false. The self is illusory, I believe, as persistence of vision. I can show you in a matter of minutes that the latter does not exist -- by demonstrating change blindness to you, which is easily done. In case you do not know what "persistence of vision" is, it is the notion that you have an internal picture of the things you look at, which you adapt with new information. I can demonstrate its falseness by inviting you to download this movie. It's a loop that flickers. Watch it for a minute or two, then ask yourself what changed in the movie. Don't cheat. Try it. You will not see a change. If you cannot figure it out, I will tell you by email, or if a couple of people ask in the comments, I will explain. More are available here. It's truly amazing when you do see it. So I believe my "self" is nothing more than an illusion caused by a brain that is change blind. I do not believe any other explanation of us is coherent. This fascinating article finds an analogue of change blindness in choices, which astonished me, but I think shouldn't have.)

I can find a perspective on which there is not even a distinct being but I don't know how useful it is for describing the world. My understanding of string theory is that there is an "underlying" stratum (my word, I've never seen it called that) that manifests in many dimensions, and looks a particular way in these that we are aware of. Time and space obviously would not have any meaning in that stratum (I say obviously because they are simply outcomes in the four dimensions we can experience). Is it dimensionless? I do not know. String theory is ferociously abstract, and can only be understood through maths. My head starts to hurt when you introduce a lot of pis and sigmas. I am a Bear of Little Maths, but I don't think it matters. I can get by without really incorporating it into my worldview, because, let's face it, metaphysics doesn't butter any parsnips. It's just a way of saying "I wonder what the butter really is".

What did I mean by you can't know what things are like? I don't think this is particularly controversial. It's an extension of Nagel's idea that there is nothing it's like to be a bat. We can only know what the world is like to us: whether we are talking about what we can perceive or what we can measure with the tools available to us. It's commonplace to say that quantum mechanics is not conceivable for humans, but it's a deep truth about the world in my view. The world is a fucked-up stew of randomness that seems to work to us because we are made to see things working. What does it mean to say that an electron is everywhere at the same time? It's easy to say but impossible to make sense of. Could it mean that there is only one electron, and we perceive it as moving, being everywhere? Yes. Could it mean that we just can't ever know with precision where things are? Yes. Could it mean that there is one substance, which sometimes seems to be an electron? Yes.

See, I start, and soon I am stuck in quicksand, convinced that anything can be true. I suppose that's the lot of a sceptic. When you do not cleave to one truth, you are open to many truths. But here's the thing: I do believe there are many truths, many perspectives.

I wanted to share with you why I started this post. Check out this song. It's wonderful and it makes me think about what it is in me that it resonates with. It's not that it's a type of music I like (although I do) or am well versed in (I'm not particularly). So what is it?

If you are not here when you're alive, you obviously cannot continue after death. Should I be delighted that I cannot have an eternity in the hell some believe awaits me, or deeply sad that I am so limited? I think life is easier if you have comfort; that is all I can say about it.

Why am I not then a nihilist? Why do I think it matters how one is to another? Dogs don't care about that shit, do they? They care only about hierarchy and where their food is coming from. But I am not a dog. I am a confused being. Sometimes I feel I could reach beyond that confusion and find something more concrete, but do you know, I'm not sure I would like it. Even so, I have tried to give my children a basically functional understanding of life. I try to frame morality in terms of its utility, rather than insisting that they should acquire a useless code that will just hold them back. I would rather they were clear-eyed cynics than foolishly Romantic, always disappointed in a world that doesn't behave in ways that their code desires. I look at my sister J, whose life is a torment of morality, and I cannot think of a worse fate for them. J cannot get a boyfriend because no man can match her template. I don't mean that she just hasn't been lucky enough to meet the one. I mean she is not living on the right planet: this one simply does not have people who are able to match the ideals she thinks it should. Such is the world of the ideologue, the jihadi even. I can't help thinking that the bin Ladens of this planet, those benighted souls, would be disappointed in Muhammad, since he was a man, not an idol, and men are condemned to disappoint each other in some way or other.

You know why I want a walled garden, with a pear tree? That is the symbol to me of a life without that confusion. I have only ever known people to have that who seem to know who they are. I have the misfortune to be a working-class boy with a middle-class mind. It's more trouble than you'd imagine.

But I can picture contentment. I can even picture it with Mrs Zen. I am optimistic so far as that goes, without reason, or at least, my only reason is that I will not be despondent. So long as I believe I am more sinned against than sinning, that will, I think, remain true.

So much for metaphysics. I never can concentrate on it for long before I start to focus on the more practical, the me me me. Well, ultimately, it doesn't matter what the world is really like; it matters only what it is like to us.


There is no more. I know, it promised to be much more. Hello? That's me. I don't know what to think about it, but it's what I am.

Iran, Iran so far away

I don't often read Counterpunch. There are basically two reasons. One, it's something of an echo chamber of bad facts: by which I mean that the same people read the same people and repeat the same things each other says. Which is okay but you end up reading the same essay over and over, and often the same "facts" are repeated, which are not always correct. For instance, Ellen Cantarow
thinks the Jewish National Fund controls 90 percent of Israel's land, which is not true. The JNF doesn't even "control" its own land directly. This detracts from her story, which would be interesting if I hadn't read it a dozen times before, because if you get something like that wrong, what else are you getting wrong? It doesn't help that Counterpunch doesn't distinguish sufficiently strongly between anti-Zionism, which I sympathise with, and anti-Semitism, which I absolutely do not. That's not to say that the website has an anti-Semitic bent: it's not a neo-Nazi site or anything like that, and it's nothing like as bad as Prison Planet. But it posts a lot of stuff that seems to me to be "blame the Jew", rather than fair-minded analyses of Israeli policy.

However, I thoroughly enjoyed this wonderful rant about how naughty Obama just doesn't pronounce foreign names properly. The author is entirely unaware, it seems, of the convention that languages have their own names for countries. He rails against Obama's pronunciation of "Iran" as "eye-ran" (I pronounce it the same way) and writes this:

I only recently and accidentally, saw a small part of “Monarchy: The Royal Family at Work” on PBS. I was dumbfounded that the Queen England and her Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, could not correctly pronounce the name of their former colony, Iraq. They both reflected arrogant and ignorant colonial pronunciation aired on their propaganda machine, the BBC. It is more shocking because the Queen is supposed to be one of the most educated and experienced political leaders in the world. As for Dr. Gordon Brown, he has a doctoral degree in history. If both are not lost in time, they are lost in space, while maintaining their ugly colonial speech.

Either that or their problem is that they are speaking English, and in English, Iraq is pronounced "ee-rak". You could consider it a "colonial" pronunciation or you could just consider it a genuine attempt to render the Arabic into English, making the word accord to English phonological rules (I don't know why "Iran" is rendered with a different sound).

One wonders how Dr Kamiar pronounces "Germany".

See my trick? Germans, as any fule kno, call their nation "Deutschland". They name it after one of the names for the ethnic group that has predominated in northern Europe over the centuries (which we previously rendered as "Teutonic" or "Dutch": in case you've ever wondered why "Pennsylvania Dutch" people are German, this is why -- like other Germans, they call themselves a variety of "deutsch"). We use a different ethnonym because we base our name for their nation on the Roman "Germania" (it's curious that we didn't call it "Alemania", I suppose).

We also "mispronounce" France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium; indeed, the name of just about every country that does not speak English and probably a few that do. And we didn't even colonise most of them! We completely butcher "Magyarorszag". No true Magyar would call his or her nation "Hungary" after all. They're not even Huns!

One should further note that Iraq was not exactly a "colony" of England, but a mandate of the United Kingdom. Dr Brown, who is indeed a doctor in history, doubtless could put him straight on the difference. He could also discuss with Dr Kamiar the virtue of not making huge errors of ignorance when lecturing others on same. The "Queen England" is of course the queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. There hasn't been a king or queen of England for three centuries.

boots corroboration?

Avoid bad outcomes by resetting your memory?

I wonder whether it would work for poker?

ps. do not read the original paper unless you like being mindfucked.

And btw, if the MWI is true, boots' view of the universe, stripped of the bullshit about the "cosmic order" (the MWI has many "orders" obv.), is not unacceptable. Could boots have learnt to navigate the many worlds so that the universe provides? Let's just leave it at probably not, but note that it's not entirely impossible.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

On what words mean

How do you pronounce "almond"? (I don't mean how should it be pronounced? I mean how do you pronounce it?)

I pronounce it "all-mernd". But apparently M doesn't.

We were talking about pastries -- fondly reminiscing about living in places where you could get good pastries, and we were saying how odd it was that Europeans love that whole almond thing.

But when I said "almond", M goes, you don't say "all-mernd", you say "ael-mernd" (by which I mean that he uses the sound in "hat" or "cat", whereas I'm using the one in "ball"). Of course, you can pronounce it either way (and in several other ways -- I've often heard "aaah-mernd"), and mine is, I think, commoner.

But he was adamant that I was wrong, but could I be?

I am a descriptivist. That means I believe language means what it means, not what it should mean. By that, I mean that, in general, a word means what it does because that's how we use it, not because a dictionary, or a pedant, or an English teacher, or an academy says that's how it should be used.

(There's a but coming, I'm sure you have realised. If you've read this blog on the subject of English usage, you are definitely thinking, hang on, Zen... at this point.)

But this does not mean that language is a free-for-all. Words do not just mean whatever you want them to (unless you are Humpty Dumpty, of course). Their meanings are negotiated. At the most basic level, they are negotiated between each speaker and their listener (or writer and reader; like most I use the word "speaker" simply to mean "message sender", whatever the medium of transmission). Without getting all technical (mostly because I don't really have any great knowledge of semiotics), it's like this: the speaker intends a meaning when they encode their message; the listener attempts in decoding the message to discover the intended meaning. One can argue, and it has been successfully argued, that the encoding supplies, I don't know, plus meaning (and of course, I mean to say also that the context -- the frame that the discourse takes place in -- adds and refines meaning). But this simple model of the communicative act is close enough: the speaker wants you to understand something; and you try to aid them in their communication by trying to understand it. Understanding is greatly facilitated by a shared code.

If I say "x" and mean "y" by it, and you hear "x" and understand "y" by it, the communicative act is destined to be successful (I will note that I haven't forgotten that you might say "x", mean "y" and because we are both white men of a certain age, with certain ideas about the word, I will also understand "t", "u", "v", "w").

I don't intend to try to prove it, but I'm going to contend that a shared code is sufficiently valuable to communication as to be central. A word cannot mean whatever you want it to mean. That's not to say that you cannot find a novel usage. However, your new usage must either be supported by context or by the listener -- indeed, enough listeners to become part of a shared code in its turn.

Having said that, let's say that "almond" could only be pronounced "ael-mernd". Well, he knew what I meant, didn't he? So clearly you do not have to have entirely congruent codes. You can be "close enough". I assume that it would be possible to measure "close enoughness", so that we could explain why Inspector Clouseau, who mispronounces English a great deal, is intelligible across whole sentences, whole conversations, but others might mispronounce a single word so badly that it's unintelligible and we have to have them write it down. I remember as a child, having seen "awry", and clearly understanding from its context what it meant, I would pronounce it "or-ee" (thinking it similar to "awkward" or "awful"). That's quite reasonable, and I'm amused that just now when I asked Mrs Zen to pronounce it, she rendered it the same way. However, when I introduced it into conversation, more than one person was puzzled and couldn't figure out what I was trying to say. ("Awry" is, if you don't know, pronounced "a-rye". If I had known the word "wry", I would not likely have gone so wrong.)

Clearly, different people can have different understandings of what they assume to be a shared code. By that I mean that you and I might believe we are both drawing from the same well of vocabulary (we both speak English), yet our understandings of what it is differ. (And indeed, neither of us speaks a monolithic "English" because even if, and it's disputable, such a thing exists -- one could more readily argue that for French, which is more tightly controlled, as I will discuss shortly, but even then you would be wrong, as I will also discuss -- we actually speak our own version, our "idiolect" -- which is a fancy word for "how you personally speak" -- and no two idiolects exactly correspond -- even if you and I have mostly the same understanding of English and mostly the same vocabulary, there will always be a word or two that I know and you don't, or you use slightly differently from how I do.) But we do believe that there is a commonality in our language. We are, after all, both speaking English.

So how do we arbitrate what is, and what is not, good English? Well, there are two perspectives, and from one, we simply do not at all, and from the other, we very much do. One perspective is that there is no such thing as an English. There are as many Englishes as there are English speakers. You say "ael-mernd", he says "aaaah-mernd" and I say "all-mernd"; she says "a-rye", I say "aw-ree". These idiolects collide and we hope that our communication will succeed. Indeed, this view of what languages are makes sense in many ways. Languages tend to be spectra of dialects. (This is much less clear to speakers of English than it is to speakers of, say, German.) There may or may not be a written standard; there may even be a spoken standard; but even so, what people speak are generally their own smaller codes. You could argue that a child when it acquires language is not attempting to buy into a common code, but trying to create its own code that others will understand (I know that when you look from where you are, it seems obvious that children are trying to learn a common code, because you have acquired that code and feel that you are able to communicate because you speak English and so does everyone else; however, it's equally possible to see it as a process of acquiring any means to be understood, and those means just happen to be shared).

This perspective is, it seems to me, valid. The model of language acquisition it implies works for me, because it seems more likely that a child is not attempting to acquire a complete code with which to communicate with others who share that code, but attempting to acquire symbols with which to manipulate others first of all, and then more broadly symbols that it can use to express itself. The sharedness of the code is an outcome of the desire to be understood in any way possible, rather than of an attempt to gain a broader set of tools. That's not to say that children do not imitate other communicators' toolsets. They clearly do and are set up to do so. They don't just randomly make noises and hope some work. However, we know that children learn to copy patterns of intonation and emotional tone long before they learn any particular word, and it seems fairly clear that a child learns to say "dada" before it learns "biccy" because it has a greater manipulative effect.

At first glance, a language of multiple idiolects seems like it would be chaos. But I don't think it would. The child acquiring language is after all trying to find encodings that work. It is not just randomly spewing meaning. And we are sharply aware that if we want to be understood, we can't just give out gibberish. Our correspondents must agree that our words mean what we think they do to some extent. So we construct an idiolect that is useful for communication; that is, we may construct an individual code, but it's one that we fully intend to be congruent with the code understood by those we communicate with. This is, ultimately, what a language is: the code shared by people who want to be understood by others who share the code (it seems circular but it's what it is: your language is just how you talk to people whom you care that they understand you).

The other perspective is, I hope it's obvious, just another way of saying this. An idiolect cannot be wrong because it is simply your code that you use to communicate. However, its elements may not be shared by others, and then it is "wrong" in a real sense. This is how usage works. If you say "or-ee" and people don't know that you mean "a-rye", your communication fails. So language is arbitrated, here, by the simple fact that others do not share your code, or, if you will, do not share your understanding of a code you take to be shared with them.

However, we do not fight a war of idiolects, in which meanings spar, and the most popular succeeds. Not quite. Some people's idiolect is weighted more heavily than others. Whose depends on which language, sublanguage or dialect, we are discussing. When you are three years old, what your dad says a word means is very important. He is, after all, one of your main communicative partners, so you are anxious to align your code with his. When you are six, your schoolteacher's code is heavily weighted. In days gone by more so than now, your "betters" would influence you (to the extent that we talk about the "King's English", which is taken to be more correct than other varieties: we truly once believed that the king -- or queen, of course -- spoke a "better" English than a peasant, and his input into what English essentially is was very strongly influential; I don't know the truth of it, but I have read that Castillian Spanish is lisped because the king had a lisp and the court emulated him to flatter him -- it doesn't sound likely, but we all know that the famous will be emulated, their catchphrases echoed in schoolyards and living rooms). That last parenthesis introduces an important point: the language of discourses we consume is an important influence. What people say on TV, write in newspapers, sing in songs, this seems to us to be really English. That it is broadcast implies that it is expected to be understood widely. We recognise that it is shared to a greater extent than other idiolectal material. (This is of course the same process as the creation of a "King's English": we recognised that the king expected to be widely understood and would consequently be using a code that should be widely shared.) These are all things that are to a greater or lesser extent controlled, regulated. Journalists are given guidelines on what's acceptable, newscasters must speak standard English (even in the States, this is true, I'm told: newscasters have, or try to have, midwest accents).

So language is, at least somewhat, arbitrated by a weighted majority. Their arbitrations are sometimes collated in dictionaries (although these should not be taken to be definitive, or particularly restrictive, because they lag language some and can be incorrect because they have not noted changes or because they run ahead of changes that are not all that widespread, among other reasons to disregard them). Dictionaries do not, as some believe, set out rules for English; they do not make judgements. There is no panel that is deciding how you should speak (but, here's the thing about French, such a panel does exist for some languages; however, they are, with only one exception, unsuccessful, because people do not follow rules, they make them themselves by doing what works -- the exception is Icelandic, I believe, which is easier to arbitrate because it is a restricted, conservative code with relatively few speakers, and the pressure to destroy innovations is fierce). They try to gather the judgements that speakers make, whatever influences those speakers are under, rather than inform speakers of what they should be doing.

So there is no committee that decides what words mean. Where there is, as with the Academie Francaise, people disregard it! French people do not speak Academie French or anything like it. They refuse to give up verlan, "bad" French, borrowed English, textspeak, even if the Academie insists it's not French. That's because French is not an artefact you can control. It is just what Frenchies speak. And, to answer a question someone asked me after reading a recent post, yes, meanings evolve. Here is one reason. Not the only one, but it's a way that meanings change. When I say "all-mernd" and you say "oh no, you can only say 'ael-mernd'", if I credit you for more competence in English, or better knowledge, I may adjust my pronunciation. This does not have to be explicit. I might hear you say "his hat is awry" and suddenly I come to believe (I first wrote "realise" but of course it's only in retrospect that I realised anything; at the time, I just noted a difference and credited the speaker for knowing better) that I have been mispronouncing the word. So I start saying "ael-mernd". And you hear me say it, and adjust your pronunciation too. (If you're my child, this process happens readily, and shifts in pronunciation can seem to be generational because of it.) There comes a time when so many of us say "ael-mernd" that "all-mernd" is considered incorrect. (Remember, its incorrectness is a measure of its intelligibility, more than of consonance with a central code.) This is natural. We copy others as best we can so that they will understand us. They also copy us for the same reason. When we differ, we will allow each other to arbitrate where we feel the other has prestige, or is more likely to be more widely understood (or accepted, in a broad sense). This won't always be the same person: we have differing authorities in different spheres. For instance, I have authority in Zenella's life in many ways, but none in the question of which music is best, the foolishness of boys or things like that, so I could not expect that she would acquire meanings in those areas from me.

There is more to say about it, but I've dulled even myself out. So another time for that.

Friday, April 17, 2009

United States of Torture

Prosecutions. Now.

250K people protested yesterday that they have to pay tax. Boo hoo.

Where are the 250K who will protest that the filth that thought locking men in boxes with insects was something civilised people do are not being prosecuted?

To be honest, I think that any prosecution would fail, and this is a big reason for not pursuing one. The reason is that while it's obvious that shackling a man to a chair for a week in a position that prevents him from sleeping, or locking him in a box for 18 hours while you bang on it and play him some nice loud Limp Bizkit is torture, it's not torture under the very precise definition in the American statute on it.

Also, it's clear that Obama is not abandoning the "war on terror" or its methods, and that in this, as in many other areas, he talks the talk but does not walk the walk, and he wants the notion that the executive should not be prosecuted for "policy mistakes" to take hold because he intends to be making some "mistakes" of his own.

Even so, we should not just let this pass. Of course, we feel powerless. We read this stuff and wish we could do something about it, but who are we? We are tiny and insignificant.

On our own, this is true. But en masse, we are the greatest source of power there is. 250K people whining about taxes is not scary, even 2 mil marching against the war in the UK was not enough, but this is an issue with a tipping point, I believe, that we could push it past.

Let's not let it lie. If we have the chance, let's fight for our nations, flawed as they are, to be at least not flawed in this way. Let's demand that we show that we won't allow our nations to be made rogue states, the shit on the world's heel, which we now are. We are Syria. We are Egypt. We are Nazi Germany. These are our bedfellows. Let's not be that.

Susan Boyle

You know, she is one of us. The small people, who never have any limelight, who have their dreams and hopes, but are stuck in a world that doesn't favour them, doesn't have open doors for them to walk through. And it's laughable that we should succeed, think anything of ourselves, feel good about who we are, because we're not gilded, not rich, not known.

I remember the wingnut "I am John Doe" campaign. Well, I am Susan Boyle.

Warning: the video will likely make you spew if you are not a hardened observer of "celebrities" (for which read "brainless turds") like Cowell and Holden.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Incidental musing

So I do think that communication is a process of negotiating meaning, but that doesn't mean that I believe that meaning necessarily changes from communicative act to communicative act.


Well, my boss is one of those annoying people who change their views on things depending who they last spoke to.

She writes something about accidents and incidents in OHS, and I say, well an accident is an incident. And she goes, no, in OHS an incident is a near miss. She often does this: claiming that language is specialised in an area of government or a speciality. I say, no, a near miss is an incident, but so is an accident. It's what incident means. (And I check it out, of course, just in case OHS people are particularly retarded, but it turns out that although some of them are stupid enough to think that incidents are accidents in which no one gets hurt, but mostly not.)

So she says, yeah, but X in the Department of Y told me that they use it like this.

And I'm thinking, what the fuck, X is now the arbiter of how the word "incident" is used? And if B in the Department of C was to say next week that they use an "Incident Form" to record all their accidents and near misses, guess what? "Incidents" would now include accidents.

I have a pretty strict approach to jargon when I'm editing. I don't allow specialised uses of English unless there is a real purpose to it. So I don't care that "everyone in finance uses 'enhance' to mean 'increase'". Everyone in finance is practically illiterate and I'm hired to fix that. And just because everyone else is an idiot doesn't mean you have to be. I don't allow people to use "leverage" to mean "use" because that's not what "leverage" means, and it doesn't start meaning it just because people in the business literature use it that way. It's not a specialised term. It doesn't mean anything more than "use" in the contexts where it can be replaced by "use".

Indeed, here's a rule of thumb for you (and I know that I occasionally get hits from people who are looking for usage tips on leverage, and I'm not shy of giving out usage tips): if you are wanting to use "leverage" as a verb, don't. Use "use", "build", "connect", whichever fits (if none of those fits, email me the sentence in question and I will supply you with a verb that does fit). Restrict "leverage" to use as a noun meaning either the action of a lever, power that you have over someone or something (generally understood as power you apply indirectly, such as by threat or implication, or that you have by dint of your status or assets, creating the implication of possible application of power) or the use of debt to increase investment capacity, particularly for speculation. You could, if you absolutely insisted, use it as a verb in the third sense, saying things like "the company leveraged itself heavily so that it could buy its rival" but you'd be better off writing that the company "took on a lot of debt" unless you absolutely mean that it took on a lot of debt compared with its assets.

But don't tell me that "leverage" means "use" because you saw it used that way in a book you read last week. I don't care. I know that people misuse words. I can make a living because they do. And I know that lots of the other people who make a living doing what I do suck at it.

Monday, April 13, 2009


Is changing your mind lying?

Is it lying if you knew you would change it?

If it is, do I ever tell the truth?

I don't have many fixed ideas. Life is easier when you do, I have no doubt. Certainty makes for an easy life. Delusion does too. You think it's hard to be a martyr? No. You just do what you feel compelled to do.

I feel compelled to prevaricate. And I enjoy whining too much to give it up, even if no one reads it or no one cares. Or both, because let's face it, the people who aren't reading it wouldn't care.

Those are rhetorical questions btw. I don't care what you think, unless you think I'm kind of cool. You can tell me that. Your opinions on changing your mind you can keep.


Is changing your mind lying?

Is it lying if you knew you would change it?

If it is, do I ever tell the truth?

I don't have many fixed ideas. Life is easier when you do, I have no doubt. Certainty makes for an easy life. Delusion does too. You think it's hard to be a martyr? No. You just do what you feel compelled to do.

I feel compelled to prevaricate. And I enjoy whining too much to give it up, even if no one reads it or no one cares. Or both, because let's face it, the people who aren't reading it wouldn't care.

Those are rhetorical questions btw. I don't care what you think, unless you think I'm kind of cool. You can tell me that. Your opinions on changing your mind you can keep.