Monday, March 26, 2012


I lived in England for a year without Mrs Zen 13 years ago, and I
don't remember being sick for a single day in that year. I had
dysentery in India but all the colds and viruses that people fall prey
to gave me a wide berth. I was in very good health.

Even when we went back with Zenella, I don't recall being sick very
much. And if I think back over my life, I was always robust. I was
even fairly well in Australia, when we first moved here. I had a spell
of tiredness, and had blood tests that revealed that I had had
glandular fever but otherwise, I think I was mostly healthy.

For the past year or so at least, and maybe longer, though memory
fails me, I have constantly had colds, throat infections, headaches.

They say that stress can cause sickness, and I'm beginning to believe
it. My day to day is not particularly stressful (which is a cause of
stress in itself) but they say that stress can be caused above all by
lack of control in your life.

I don't doubt that I lack control. The two big things in your life if
you are an everyday person are your work and your home. I work in a
dreary, thankless job, totally unsuited to my abilities, such as they
are, and my temperament. I struggle with focus, yet I work in a job
that demands it. Why don't I change? I think about it, but what to? I
have to support a family and rent is an incessant pressure that no one
can ignore. One of the worst ways a bad world is organised is that we
are enslaved to each other for our shelter. Land has always been
central to human conflict and human pain, since we first settled and
started saying this is mine.

I am just not very good at seeing the way out of things. When I was
younger, I wished I had someone to guide me, to help me see
possibilities in life. I generally feel as though I live in an
enclosed space, which extends a few yards from me, and everything
outside that seems unreal.

I needed expectations. People stopped expecting anything of me when I
was 14 or so, and I lived down to their revised view of me. I know
people feel it is a character failing not to have an internal locus of
control but saying so doesn't fix it. The doctor's job does not end at
diagnosing the problem; they must also cure it.

It's no secret that I have no control over where I live, and that
makes me profoundly unhappy. I mean, I can choose, but then I simply
exchange one thing I can't control for another: I get to choose to
live somewhere I hate or never see my kids. I love them more than I
hate Brisbane. But it has drained my vitality, created such a huge
suck on everything good in my life. Now I barely have a life at all. I
just can't build one.

I feel like I am imprisoned. Like in jail, I am surrounded by people
differently motivated from me. Their love of money, insularity and
conservatism combine to make them dull, uninspiring people. I don't
claim not to be dull or to be inspiring, but I like to laugh. Now I
live among people who only laugh when other people fall over.

There is nothing I can do about it. I am stuck here until or unless
Mrs Zen dies. (I don't wish death on her. I have tried, and I do not
have it in me.) She could have chosen to do the right thing, so that
we could both have a life with a hope of happiness. But her
selfishness and lack of desire to take responsibility for her actions
prevented her from considering doing anything but stay where she was
and expect the world to revolve around her.

I do try. I do count my blessings. But we are how we're made.
Sometimes I'm overwhelmed with the feeling I'm not worth bothering
with. No one much bothers with me, so it's hard not to feel it's
merited. I had a terrible time for years, peaking when I split up from
Mrs Zen. I was lucky that I did have support: from A, who I do not
deserve, and from E, who probably didn't realise how much she helped
me in a difficult time and how much it hurt that she stopped thinking
I was worth the trouble knowing me causes.

The grinding disparity between how smart I am and how capable I am of
coping causes me more stress than anything. I hate being worthless,
wasting my life on pointless things that no one values, but I am
unable to move on from any of it. When I was younger, I felt as though
no one understood that all of my blessings seemed to come coupled with
curses. I'm clever, but my mind is restless; I'm capable, but I need
to be pointed in the right direction; I'm passionate, but I am prone
to rage; I'm gentle, but I am meek; I'm kind, but I'm needy.

I look around and I see a world full of people who are comfortable
with who they are. In their shoes, I wouldn't be, but they don't seem
to mind what they are or how they feel about the world. I am not
envious of what they achieve; I am only envious of their sense of
comfort with themselves.

I don't know what to do. Grit my teeth and bear it seem all that's
open to me. Make the most of my family. Try not to waste too much time
on computer games or reading fiction. Build a website. Try to dream
again. Ignore how pointless and wasted my life seems. Stay alive and
try to prosper.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

On sentences

Someone linked this, and I couldn't help thinking "Seriously, someone got paid for pointing out that sentences have a subject and a bunch of stuff that isn't the subject, except when they don't?" She also mocks a couple of bad spoken sentences but they would have made more sense if she had correctly analysed sentences in the first place.

If she had used the terminology "topic-comment", her article would have been greatly improved, although still deficient. English sentences largely consist of a thing you are talking about, and what you are saying about it. In the spoken examples, what you have are a set of utterances that have different topics, which could be analysed as separate sentences, rather than components of the same sentence. In speech, more so than in writing, we often use what you might call topic chaining, where part of one topic's comment becomes itself a topic.

The old-fashioned notion of "subject and predicate" is more closely defined by calling it "topic and comment", allowing the terminology "subject" and "predicate" to refer to building blocks of a sentence (generally, the grammatical subject and the verb -- you might consider an adverb that qualifies the verb to be part of the predicate, or you might equally consider it along with any objects of the verb to be arguments of the predicate).

Just so we're clear, look at the sentence: "I gave the dog a bone."

Here the topic of the sentence is "I". The sentence is about me. The rest of the sentence tells the reader what I want to say about the topic "I". This idea quite nicely captures the commonality between comments about actions and comments about states, yet does not help us understand how they are different.

So we understand that:

I gave the dog a bone
I had a rueful look

have something in common, but using a deeper description helps us see how they are different. In brief, one is about something I did; the other is about something about me. The difference is not clearcut, of course, and the skilful writer can use sentences that look like the first type to represent the second:

I smiled.

Here we are describing an action, yet at the same time we imply a state. How about:

I gave the dog an angry look


While these sentences seem formally the same, they are functionally very different. I'm not going to get into how you might formulate a predicate grammar that captures the difference, but it should be reasonably clear that it would be possible.

There was some conflict in linguistics in the 1960s between those who believed that syntax and semantics are formally distinct: that we generate syntactic structures and semantics is in some way an overlay, so that the grammatical rules and the semantic rules are applied on different levels, with grammar at a deeper level; and those who believed that semantic predicates generated grammar. The latter lost (they were a minority of dissenters) but I feel that their view had some merit. The former is reductionist: somehow the meaning of sentences can be derived from their building blocks in the same way that the actions of chemistry can be derived from the interaction of electrons, so that what on the surface seems richly meaningful is in fact emergent from a simple process, gaining complexity only because of the great range of possible interactions. You could argue that the difference between transformational grammar and generative semantics lay simply in a disagreement over what form the "atoms" of syntax and semantics took.

I feel that where transformational grammar failed somewhat was that whereas it was very good at explaining why a sentence would be considered well formed in a language, it could not explain -- didn't try to -- why some sentences seem "better" to us in a qualitative sense. A couple of things are certainly true about sentences in English: we feel information is conveyed more succinctly by sentences where the verbs carry more of the semantic load than verbs, and we feel that even more so where the verbs describe actions, rather than states. Furthermore, I'd argue that we feel that sentences are better when their semantic load (the amount of meaning they contain, if we understand a sentence's meaning to be roughly the same as its information content) is spread over fewer rather than more words.

Each predicate is in a sense a peg on which we hang the information contained in its arguments, and we tend to feel that the more information is provided by the predicate, and the less by the arguments, the better the predicate-argument complex is at conveying information, or at least, that the risk is that arguments will not add much to the information conveyed.


I broke the glass.

Here, usually, more information is conveyed by the verb than the verb's argument (unless you are answering the question "What did you break?", having said, perhaps, "I broke something".) Information can be understood as material the reader did not know, and I think it's simple enough to argue that there is more new in the fact you broke something than in what it was, if only because the fact of breaking is prior to the fact of what was broken.

However, consider:

I smiled sweetly.

Here you could argue that the underlying state that this sentence describes is more new than the fact that I smiled. "Sweetly" conveys a great deal, none of which we actually express.

Look again at:

I gave the dog an angry look.

Can we argue that the fact that I am angry (with the dog, presumably) has more information content than the fact that I gave the dog a look? I think so and I do think that a proper analysis of sentences needs to explain this. Time and space forbid me from trying (let alone that I have no idea how I would go about it without giving it some serious thought) but I think that at least having the notion that parts of a sentence are required to contribute to the semantic load of the sentence or face expulsion is important to a writer.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


People who think that taxes pay for government spending need to ask themselves where the money comes from. Once you've accepted that you don't have a good answer, you will correctly conclude that it must come from the government in the first place.

This is obviously the case. There are no money trees and no business actually creates money. What businesses create are goods and services that consumers buy. Those consumers must get the money from somewhere. But where?

One source of money is from bank loans. Most of us believe -- wrongly -- that banks take in deposits and then lend them out. Some are more sophisticated and believe that banks make loans backed by the deposits they have in some proportion. They believe this because a/ banks generally have "reserve requirements" and b/ those reserves are somehow involved with the government bank. Reserve requirements say simply that for a given volume of loans outstanding, a bank must have a proportionate amount of reserves. People mistakenly believe this means the bank must have x amount of reserves to cover the loans in some way. However, there are countries -- I believe Canada is one -- that do not have reserve requirements and banks still make loans.

In fact, banks will make loans to anyone who is creditworthy and wants money. They find the reserves afterwards, and this is easily done, because (b) is true. If a bank is short of reserves at the end of any given day, it can borrow them at the target rate from the central bank. It does not onlend the reserves.

It should be common knowledge by now, but it doesn't seem to be (hats off to our education systems, which are excellent at ensuring that we are very poorly equipped for our world), that when a bank makes you a loan, it simply writes the amount into your account and credits itself with an asset. Say the bank lends you $100K. It does not go into its vaults and find $100K. It simply credits your account for it. The bank has an asset (the loan it made you) of $100K, and you have a liability (the loan you have to pay back) of $100K.

The asset and the liability net out, but you also pay interest. That has to come from somewhere. Where?

(It's important to understand that in the private sector, assets and liabilities do net out, so the private sector's net financial position has to be zero. It cannot create new financial assets because there is no available source of money: no free assets.)

Furthermore, when you pay taxes, that money must also come from somewhere. It cannot come from bank money (if it did, credit would have to rise by the amount of government spending every year before growth in the economy was even possible: this in fact has been happening in most Western economies because governments have refused to run big enough deficits, among other reasons).

It comes from government spending. When the government taxes the economy, what it is doing is taking away liquidity that it has injected. It can at the same time redistribute the national wealth by deciding where it will reduce that liquidity. It doesn't need the taxes to pay for anything: if it didn't spend in the first place, there would be nothing with which people even could pay taxes.

Why do people think taxation is needed to raise revenue? Well, there are basically two reasons they think that. First, when our economies were on the gold standard, it was somewhat closer to true. Dollars were proxies for the state's gold holdings, and were exchangeable for gold on demand. The state could, in theory, only spend as much as it held in gold, or would have to borrow the deficit.

We are not now on the gold standard. We have fiat money, which is not exchangeable for anything but itself, or for foreign money for those who need it to spend in our economies or settle contracts made in it.

The second reason is that conservative governments pretend that their budgets are constrained as though they were on the gold standard so that liberal governments cannot use the government's unlimited spending power to help the poor. There are vanishingly few governments, whatever their professed politics, that are not conservative economically.

I mean, I say pretend, but actually, they are basing their policies on neoclassical economics, the horrendously wrong orthodoxy that has gripped that dismal science. But surely it must be right? Tons of guys with doctorates say so.

Well, they do, but they are like scientists in a lab who never walk outside into the real world. They are like botanists who theorise plants without leaves, because leaves don't fit their model; like chemists who imagine a world with only one element, because they can't figure out how it would work with 100 and however many; like linguists who pretend everyone speaks English. With a vocabulary of a hundred words. It's that bad. Almost every time neoclassical economic models are measured empirically, reality just refuses to confirm the models. No wonder. They are built on mostly ridiculous assumptions, which cannot hold in this or any other world. It would be fine if economists stuck to playing with toy economies, with easily controlled variables, but they do not. They pretend that what works with one idealised consumer buying one idealised good from one idealised seller works in the real world.

Sadly, most of us get our views of the world from some of the least educated, laziest, intellectually void people in our society: journalists. That's right, we have our understanding of the world mediated by people whose idea of "investigation" is to ring up the contact on the bottom of a press release and ask for a quote. And who pays and directs the agenda of those guys?

Well, not the poor, let's put it that way. Not anyone who would benefit from us having an informed view of what actually goes on.

Friday, March 16, 2012


Currently feeling very proud of our Zenita. She has been selected with
one other kid from her class to do a two-day workshop for gifted

In some ways Zenita is overshadowed by my other two children. Zenella
is a complicated character, sensitive, occasionally tempestuous, with
a fine sense of justice that can easily be upset, leaving her sullen.
She wears her cleverness on her sleeve, by which I mean, she's the
kind of girl that you meet and think, oh that's an intelligent child.
Naughtyman is a one-off, devoted to making his own way, easily
distracted and unkeen on authority. Sometimes he can be disengaged
from the world because he doesn't see the point of what it demands of

Not that they aren't great kids. They are both gentle and loving,
generous and decent. I know we all think our kids are wonderful, but
mine really are.

But they both indulge in attention-seeking behaviour, and will
manipulate adults both to get that attention and to get what they
want. Not that that's a particular hardship: I mostly want them to get
what they want.

But Zenita seeks attention by aiming to please. She is a quiet, lovely
child, adored by her teachers, friendly, goodhearted and sharing. In a
word, she is pleasant, and we all know we live in a world where that
can be taken for granted.

Last year, she worked her grades up so that by year end they matched
Zenella's. She saw the fuss we made of Zenella's great grades, and
instead of playacting to gain the same attention, as some kids will,
she got them for herself. By any measure, that's a great achievement,
done the right way.

You don't get everything you want in life, and it's easy to forget
your blessings. But I know and never doubt that my children are an
enormous and unalloyed blessing in my life. I am not a great dad, and
I don't take any credit for their achievements, except that I let them
know I feel that and that I love them. It will always be my view that
all truly good things in life begin with being loved and if I do
nothing else, I will never let them feel that they are not.


It's become fashionable in some parts of the left to support Ron
Paul, because he's against foreign wars and would legalise teh weed.
Apparently, he's a man of principle. Yeah, but those principles suck.

My friend A, who I've talked to at great length about politics, has
jumped on the Ron Paul clowncar.

She posts this video: and says:

"I don't agree with everything Ron Paul says, but I'm 100% in
agreement with him on the message he promotes here. Do watch it. It's
not your typical political ad. Even if you can't get behind him, this
is an informative message about our country's shenanigans when it
comes to what we've done around the world.

I also respect him. There is nothing his detractors can say about him
other than to try to laugh him off because he's not a liar. He stands
by his convictions. He doesn't swing this way and that based on public
opinion or corporate deep pockets. He lives by his dedication to the
Constitution, and he doesn't back down, even if it makes him
unpopular. And he has raised warning cries about what would happen to
us financially and with our wars, cries that were disregarded.

I'm so, so tired of political leaders that do not really care about
the general population of America, that pay only lip service to us and
to our Constitution. Even though I can't agree with this man on some
issues, I would not be sad if he got elected. It's not as if he'd
actually be able to do all that he'd like to do. There would be lots
of resistance, so he couldn't screw up too badly, could he? But at
least getting him in office would be a clear message that the people
of America are sick of the two major parties and their extremisms, and
maybe, just maybe, some good might actually come out of it. It's not
like Obama has done anything to help matters, is it?"

Obviously, I am incandescent at this. I have spent many hours
discussing politics with A, explaining positions I hold, elucidating
what the issues are, what each side believes, why I take the view I
do. I have also discussed with her matters of economics, not just my
views, but others' and their implications. To no avail, obviously.

Most of my views are pretty standard liberal views: I oppose racism,
support equal rights, blah blah. So am I surprised that someone I've
talked to a lot has come out in support of this racist, misogynist
lunatic? I'll say so.

"I would not be sad if he were elected."

I mean, seriously?

Leave aside his racism. Leave aside that those "principles" that have
him vote against every single thing the government ever wants to do
don't prevent him from demanding pork for his constituents and
supporters ($400 million in 2007 --- that's ONE congressman. So much
for "small government"). Check out his agenda:

Eliminating the EPA.
Disbanding state education. Opposes all state support for higher
education. Opposes government funding of research.
Removing food standards and cutting the FSA to the bone.
End coordinated disaster reaction and relief.
End foreign aid, which is an enormous plus in your foreign policy.
Enormous tax cuts for corporations and the rich.
Repealing healthcare law.
Destroying the stability of the national currency by allowing
competing currencies.
Destroying growth by returning to the gold standard. This would be a
disaster beyond belief for the economy because the analysis it is
based on is completely incorrect.
Supports tax resistance.
Wants the Do Not Call register scrapped so you can be bombarded by ads.
Does not support separation of church and state. Believes schools
should be allowed to have school prayers.
Wants a constitutional amendment (hang on, I thought it was already
perfect?) to ban flag burning.
Wants no campaign finance reform. Supports corporate buying of elections.
Strongly pro-gun.
Believes juries should make law.
Opposes sexual harassment laws. Believes that if you're harassed you
should just leave your job. I'm not kidding. That's what this
"principled man" said.
Wants states to be allowed to outlaw gay marriage. Personally is a
homophobe. Supported DADT.
Thinks Texas should have the right to ban sodomy.
Extremist prolifer. Opposes women's reproductive rights. Opposes
access to birth control. Believes state should have no part in birth
Supports the death penalty.
Wants all federal lands sold off. Yes, that includes your national parks.
Denies climate change is a big problem.
Pretends to oppose subsidies to Big Oil, but actually only opposes
direct subsidy, not tax breaks. Big Oil is largely subsidised through
its tax treatment.
Believes health care is not a right, but something you should get if
you can afford it. Opposes mandated emergency care. He thinks you
should just bleed to death if you can't afford care.
Wants Medicare and Medicaid scrapped.
Also Social Security.
Completely opposes government medical research.
Believes anyone should be permitted to pose as a doctor if they want
to. Does not believe in regulating health claims so yes, he supports
the rights of snake oil salesmen, no fucking kidding.
Opposes the Voting Rights Act. Believes states should be allowed to
deny the vote to blacks if they want to.
Pretends to be a free trade proponent but has rarely supported it with
his votes.
Hates immigrants. Wants to deny citizenship to people born in the
States unless their parents were citizens (this view is called
"nativism" and is deeply racist, obviously).

This is the programme you support. You are seriously suggesting this
raving fucking lunatic, racist, womanhating goldbug, who wants to take
you back to 1830 is a good alternative to a moderate Republican. WTF?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Obama teh greatest?

Reading this article by Kevin Drum:,
it rapidly becomes clear that the right don't have a monopoly on being

When looking at achievements, we do not have to compare Obama with
FDR. We can benchmark him against LBJ, another conservative Democrat
who made a huge foreign-policy misstep but did great things
domestically. Obama does not have a Vietnam but Afghanistan and his
other policies surrounding the "War on Terror" have been horrible.

Drum picks Obama's solid achievements:

1. Passed Health Care Reform

Passed a huge corporate giveaway that does very little to "reform"
health care. It has good parts but there's no public option and its
main feature is to drive custom to the insurance companies.

You don't get a gold star just for pissing off the Repugnitards. You
actually have to pass *good* reform. This isn't.

2. Passed the Stimulus

Passed a stimulus that was far too small. He should have asked for $3
trillion and let himself be "talked down" to $1.5 trillion, which
would have been close enough. The Obama team never let the needed
amount ($1.7 trillion) even reach the debate. Obama passed what he
knew was not enough and hoped that it would be just enough to get the
economy staggering to recovery. The cost to America of his failure to
pass big enough stimulus has been enormous in terms of jobs and lost

I know it's weird to agree with the Republicans for all the wrong
reasons but it's important to recognise that they are the wrong
reasons. If McCain had been president and had eschewed stimulus
altogether, the US would face Great Depression-level unemployment and
a protracted slump that it still would not be out of now.

3. Passed Wall Street Reform


Passed extremely weak, toothless reform. The Democrats now have a
track record of legislation with the name of what's needed but none of
the content.

4. Ended the War in Iraq

Not even the chickenhawks could see any real purpose to continuing the
fighting in Iraq, which remains a disaster. Not closing Gitmo is a
much bigger deal.

6. Eliminated Osama bin Laden

Murdered a man without a trial. This is an achievement? I suppose it
is, of sorts, but it's not something to be particularly proud of.
Capturing and trying bin Laden would have been epic. One doubts though
that Obama wanted that: who knows what bin Laden would have had to

7. Turned Around US Auto Industry

Kept it on life support. This is a genuine and real achievement, where
Obama was right and the Repugnitards very wrong, but the American car
industry is still doomed.

In some ways, Obama has the problem British leaders had with British
Leyland. It was an iconic industry that could not compete for one
reason or another (mostly because it made shit cars, actually). No one
wanted to kill it but we all knew it was dying. GM is probably not
quite the zombie BL was, but it's not in the best shape.

9. Repealed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"


But passing an anti-DOMA would be the LBJ achievement here. Obama here
has ridden a wave that no amount of right-wing Canutes could do
anything about. DADT was a ridiculous policy, way out of step with
most of the rest of the West.

12. Reversed Bush Torture Policies

We'll wait to see whether he tortures any Iranians before deciding he
actually did this. Remember, he "closed" Gitmo too.

14. Kicked Banks Out of Federal Student Loan Program

This is a minor good thing but it's not coupled with much that
actually makes education affordable.

16. Boosted Fuel Efficiency Standards

Another good thing but there's no real American leadership on global
warming. No big investment in green power.

Some, me included, wanted Obama to take the opportunity with the
stimulus that was needed to build a massive green infrastructure. He

18. Passed Mini Stimuli (July 22, 2010; December 17, 2010; December 23, 2011)

This is a generous description of what he has been doing.

22. Created Conditions to Begin Closing Dirtiest Power Plants

I'm not sure what Drum is referring to here, but America needs a
paradigm shift and here we are saying he's a great president because
he's tinkering at the edges.

27. Achieved New START Treaty

Reduction in warheads: zero.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

On jury service

Being called for jury service (I hope to be excused because obv. not being paid for two weeks would be a huge burden on me) has made me reflect on a few of the things that are wrong with jury service.

You are not paid. The government wants me to do two weeks' unpaid work for it. (In effect, because it will not compensate me for my lost pay, it wants me to pay for my own service to it.) You can counterargue that I am a citizen and it's my own justice system, but it is not. No one consults me on the laws that are applied and no one asks me who should apply them. I do not select magistrates or judges, and I do not have a say in which laws should apply in our nation or what the outcomes of those laws should be. You can argue that I am forced to vote for representatives who do decide them but those representatives do not consult me either. I am compelled to obey the law: I am not asked to consent to it. My belief is that, broadly, things should only be forbidden that I would consent to being forbidden for myself, and things should only be forbidden for me that I wish forbidden for others. So murder's out, but smoking weed is not. I may not like taxes but I want others to pay them.

So the government wants me to be part of a jury for it, but doesn't want to pay for my time. It should. It should fully compensate me for the time it wants me to spend pursuing its ends. It is responsible for justice and maintaining order. I am not. It makes it clear I am not by not permitting me to express my own view on what is just and what is not. I cannot confiscate wealth, which I believe to be just, and if I do so, I will myself be imprisoned.

Another problem lies in conscience. I cannot in good conscience commit someone to prison for something I do not believe is wrong, even if the state insists that it is wrong. I will not find someone guilty for drug possession, regardless of the evidence. I will not find someone guilty for petty crimes that I believe should not be punished with jail time. I don't believe it serves anything to send burglars to jail. No one becomes a burglar if they have good alternatives, and the state should devote more time to helping create good alternatives than it does on raving about how it will be tough on crime. Many burglaries are done by drug addicts: I will not punish people for the circumstances of their life leading them to drug addiction and I will not punish anyone for the government's insistence on creating scarcity in the drug market so that prices are artificially high. I will not find someone guilty for resisting arrest or for assaulting a police officer because I believe the police are politicised thugs, who invent their own version of justice on the street, and should be resisted. I could never be sure that the person who assaulted the copper did not have reason to, because I believe the police routinely lie and falsify evidence.

On the other hand, if you are on trial for a crime that is very difficult to prove and difficult to bring to trial, I will automatically find you guilty unless there is very good reason to find you innocent. Yes, I know this runs counter to the presumption of innocence, but I can't be compelled to abide by that. The prosecution service has lawyers who carefully weigh the evidence and decide whether there's a case. I think that makes you likely to be guilty if they decide there is. Very few people have been falsely convicted of murder, for instance, and vanishingly few are acquitted. That doesn't mean that no one is innocent, only that I will presume they are guilty unless evidence compels me to think otherwise. If you are on trial for serious fraud, you might just as well not have the case though. It's close to impossible to bring a serious fraud case, because jurors cannot usually follow the intricacies and wrongly acquit people who are quite clearly guilty. So the prosecution service tends to need to be very confident in these cases. Their judgement is much better than mine, so I will find serious fraudsters instaguilty and not worry about it.

Personally, I also have focus issues, and cannot sit and listen to people talk. I've never been diagnosed with ADD or whatever (although I'm sure I easily could), but I would surely be held in contempt of court for not seeming to pay attention. In fact, the only way I could bear to be talked at for hours on end would be to read or do something else at the same time.

I do not believe in civic duty. I do not consent to our form of government and I have not signed the so-called social contract. Government is an expression of the current power structure in a nation and its priorities. It should not be confused with the civil structures that on the whole protect us from the exercise of power. Anarchists should never be willing to serve the government unless it is employing them. The government wants me to serve it but doesn't want to pay me, and I'm sorry but I don't want the job, thanks.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

On correct "grammars"

An interesting article in the Guardian slamming proscriptivists who make out that "grammar" is important to learn for some reason.

Rosen clearly has some understanding of linguistics but muddies the water a little bit. The sub didn't do him any favours because the head is plain wrong. It's not that there's no correct grammar; it's that there are as many correct grammars as there are fluent speakers of a language.

In the common parlance, "grammar" is just "correct English", which encompasses grammar, punctuation and spelling. It largely concerns itself with written English, where it does make some sense to talk about "correct English" because there is a written standard. Of course, it also makes sense to talk about correct punctuation because "eats, shoots and leaves" really does mean something different from "eats shoots and leaves" (add the Oxford comma, which does not matter but is correct in US English, if you are an American).

Rosen is implying that there are as many grammars as there are speakers, which is to some extent true, but rather unhelpful because clearly there are a group of rules that we all follow. Most utterances are well formed for all fluent speakers, and certainly in the case of English, most if not all native speakers share a more restricted and formalised grammar. That you don't possess your gerunds doesn't really mean much in speech (sounds the same either way), and even if I do say "I en't doing it", I do know that the "correct" way to say it is "I am not doing it".

A speaker's understanding of the shared underlying rules of English is called their competence. Generally, speakers cannot express, and do not consciously know, what this competence consists of. But you don't need to know what the word "pluperfect" means to use the tense correctly. All native speakers who do not have some pathology are about equally competent in their language, although those competences can differ. What I'm saying here is that no one walks around with a deficient set of rules unless they have a damaged brain.

You acquire competence when you learn a language, and you acquire it from the people closest to you first. So your competence in the language you speak is patterned on the competence implied in your carers' and then your peers' language. I say implied, because we do not express our competence directly. It is the underlying set of rules that shape our performance: the utterances that we deliver to others who then understand us or do not. Naturally, the closer our competences, the closer our understanding. We are hardwired to determine and internalise the competence of those nearest to us.

So people who have a lot of contact with each other have very similar "grammars". After all, we want others to understand what we say, so we're motivated to play by the same rules they do.

Complicating matters is that you can have more than one grammar that you've internalised. Obviously, if you speak French fluently, you have internalised French grammar, but less obviously, you may, and in most communities that are connected even relatively strongly to a broader community, people do have two grammars internalised for the same language: their dialect and the standard version of that language.

So when we say that Cockneys have "bad grammar", what we are saying is that they are using their common, local grammar and not the broader, standard grammar. They are clearly not incorrect to do so, and their grammar is not "bad".

However, people who are not well exposed to the standard may well have a faulty standard grammar, simply because their exposure to it has not been sufficient for them to infer its rules correctly. Also, there can be a mismatch between standards: standard English and standard Australian English are very close, but standard Indian English is in some ways quite different. The Indian speakers are not "wrong" in any real sense. They are simply not speaking the same language as we are.

This is one source of the problems we have with call-centre operators, although another is much more important. Alongside the rules used to construct sentences are other rules that define the sounds that are allowed in a language. Whereas standard English grammar is widely shared among us, it's hard to say there is a standard English phonology or prosody. (Prosody is the rhythm, stress and intonation of languages: in other words, how the sounds are deployed in varying utterances, rather than what they are, which is phonology.) The same principles do apply: we have accents like those of the people around us because we try to emulate the sounds they are using because we know they are meaningful. However, whereas using the "wrong" grammar can quickly make sentences poorly formed and unintelligible, using the "wrong" sounds does not.

For instance, in standard English, we aspirate "t", "p" and "k" before a vowel when they are word initial, but it doesn't change the meaning of a word if you do not. We do not aspirate them after an "s", but it would not make any difference if you did. These two sounds are allophones of the phoneme "t" and the difference between them is not "phonemic". In many languages, the difference is phonemic and using the wrong sound does change the meaning. Using the "wrong" allophone will sometimes make you sound "wrong": it's distinctive of the English accent in French that we wrongly aspirate word-initial stops -- the sound at the beginning of English "party" is different from the sound at the beginning of French "parti". The difference does not affect meaning: Frenchies will still know you mean to say the word for party (or gone, depending which of those homophones you are using).

In the foregoing, it's important to realise that English speakers are attempting to replicate the phonological competence of French speakers (those from Paris, because we are taught the Paris accent that is standard in French at school) and in fact we do, even though we use a "wrong" allophone. Our performance of "parti" is correctly interpreted by native listeners as representing underlying /p/.

However, our tolerance for allophones is stretched by incorrect prosody. Semi-fluent French speakers can misuse stress quite badly without affecting comprehension, simply because they are not speaking too quickly. Fluent speakers make fewer mistakes in prosody because the prosody competence they are attempting to reconstruct is the one we use. Part of becoming fluent in English for French people is learning the correct stress patterns in English, which are very different from those in French. Part of our learning French is the opposite: learning how to make our sentences have the "contours" of French, not English.

Here is the big problem with call-centre workers and other fluent Indian English speakers. They are not making a mistake. In their home environment, their English is entirely comprehensible. But it is not always to us. Why? The reason is that they have not in fact tried to internalise our prosody, but have internalised the prosody of a different standard: that of English speakers in their region. When I listen to J, an Indian in our office who has excellent English and understands everything said to him, I find him hard to understand, not because his English is not good but because his prosody mimics that of his home language, Malayalam, and not mine.

There's a premium in India on learning American English. Consequently, higher-class Indians who have had a high-quality education are perfectly understandable to us. They have been taught by people who have internalised American prosody (which is very similar to English prosody even if phonetics causes our accents to differ), either because they are Americans or because they are Indians who have been taught by Americans. (Or by English, Canadians or Australians, all of whom share a common prosody, but probably not by South Africans, who do not -- their prosody is strongly influenced by that of Dutch, which is different.)

So when you cannot understand the Indian guy in the office, it's not because his "grammar" is bad. It's because his prosody is! We could probably tolerate the different phonology (we do when Americans talk to us) but when it is coupled with wrong rhythm and stress, it's hard for us even to pick out words from the sounds (that's what prosody is for). That prosody is important in language use is beyond question: the reason that we struggle to learn languages like French, and that we complain that we can't pick words out of rapid speech is that French has a different prosody from English: if Frenchies spoke with English prosody we'd easily recognise the words.