Thursday, January 17, 2013

I miss forums

I mean, I'm not making this up. Read this. Friends from Usenet days will recognise the types.

Seriously, the A+ crew take a poster to pieces for posting a limerick that juxtaposed the opening "There was a young lady" and the word "wanker" in the same poem.

Apparently, he should have been aware that this is highly sexualised. I mean, "wanker", that's to do with sex right. Same word sort of thing. Alluding to it.

But here's the thing. Limericks are not subtle. They don't allude. They are bawdy. They say it out loud. They are all about saying the things people think but mostly pass through a filter.

They recognise and respect women's sexuality. Often, the twist, whatever Legman had to say about women as victims or villains, often turns the woman from victim to hero. That's the point. Limericks set up a scenario, often representing an ideology of the day, part of the mores that it wishes to mock, then turns it on its head.

They overturn expectations. That's why they are funny.

Men, indeed, are portrayed as venal beings driven only by their lusts. They are often seen as sliding into moral turpitude, and often the twist is to confront them with a painful or embarrassing outcome that thwarts their horrid desires.

So he is hounded and "denounced" as a sexual harasser. I am not shitting you. Having been bullied relentlessly by three or four very angry people -- who have that very special redhot anger that you can only reach if  you've decided something will make you angry; you guys know what I mean -- you will have faked it yourself often enough -- he is admonished that he must back the train into the station. This by the dude who told him he was "confrontational".

The poor sod has no idea what he is meant to have done. How could he though? No matter how well or ill you think of women, it's hard to imagine that any of them would actually be so upset by seeing the word wanker in print that they would harangue you for longer than a "shaddap sexist".

He is like, fuck, are these people trolling me? Because these fine "liberals", progressives even, have resurrected Bowdler. They are like your fucking maiden aunt getting the vapours any time she sees the word "cock" and would probably ascend to the good lord on the spot if she heard it or, omg, it doesn't bear thinking about, saw it.

BTW, we're not banning sex. Not even atheists. You can forget that. People are rarely recruited to cults by the promise they can become a nun.

Anyway, blah blah, my favourite bit is when he's given an hour off to "think about his reply" (iow, figure out why his maiden aunt has become a shrieking mess on the floor, and figure out what fine words will get her to stop shrieking at least) but the Heathers continue to berate him.

But they top even that.

It's even worse, she said, that you are targetting your limerick at a minority. The person he was posting with is from South Africa. Gasp. They might not get the "nuance". Although the bishop does allow that the poor picked-on saffa has "excellent writing skills".

So this poor dude is being told he's a racist for not being sensitive to what is most likely a native English speaker's inability to understand English nuance by someone whose racism is so deep they cannot conceive that a South African could have excellent writing skills on account of in fact being an English speaker (although only 10% of saffas have English as their home language, for obvious reasons they are going to be disproportionately represented online)

I am beginning to miss a good common-or-garden religious bigot!

One person nails it and of course is silenced. I'm not kidding. The mod drew a veil over his comment. You literally have to ask to be shown it, it is so offensive.

Of course it's offensive. Truth is the enemy of religion. Isn't that what us atheists say?

Cheapening the definition of harassment to such a degree should be a source of shame and this kind of hyper-offence is Portlandia style feminist bookstore feminism.

This kind of thing is supportive of patriarchal culture by way of contributing to the stereotype of feminist issues as nothing more than bowing to the desires of the hyper-sensitive for the power to silence anyone at will.

to which the moderator replies:

Psst, you're on a moderated web forum. Mods already have the power to silence anyone at will, so your argument is a nice shiny red herring.

Dude, you just did exactly what he said the stereotype is.

The objects of religious atheism

So this is where religious atheism ends. The same moral absolutism that is so repellent in Christianity. Creeds that one must recite, or be "denounced".

Yes, seriously, shunnings.

I've never been much of a fan of Richard Carrier. I wade through his supercilious tone because he writes interesting things about the historical Jesus. In that respect, he's worth reading.

As an atheist, he's a thorough prick. Impossibly shrill and pompous in one deliciously pumped-up package, he spends a lot of time and effort trying to prove God doesn't exist, as though you could settle it all like that.

You can't prove it. That's the point. It answers to that feeling in you that there should be capital-a Answers, to that moment -- even Dawkins feels it -- when you are out and about and you're like "wow that's beautiful" and there is the shadow of an "and".

Carrier wants to squash and batter that shadow until he's certain that it doesn't exist. Us nonreligious types don't care whether it does (we are rather the antipodes of my dad, who believes in God but would most likely be entirely unperturbed were it proved to him that God didn't exist; he'd shrug and go about his day -- in the same way, most of us have a little moment of "spiritual" feeling and say, well, that's just the product of my socialisation in this particular culture, no big deal).

And they were sad boys, angry with their peers for not being as smart as them, for not being able to see, even with coaching, what they could see was obvious. The rules all seemed wrong, because they weren't rational.

Now they can have their own religion, with their own rules, their own Nicene Creeds.

As it happens, I'm not for antifeminist bullying, but neither am I for victims naming the crime, nor for someone defining what I should think something is, rather than what I would agree it is (the basis of communication is shared meaning, after all, because it is very hard to impose meaning). In other words, some things are questions of the frame.

So some woman makes a video about her study of video games, in which, it'll stun you, she finds that chicks have big boobs and are drawn to be alluring to teen boys. (I know this without watching her video, which yes I know is horrible antifeminist bullying and, from another frame, a fair critique of the value of her work. There'd be a footnote here if I wasn't too lazy to code it, and it would say, Approximately zero, which is true of anyone's report on their journey into something they knew would horrify them. Because the question, the researcher is studying is not "what is in these games?" but "what instances of the thing I abhor can I find in these games?")

Yah, that's not perfect, but we have to walk to whatever grim utopia it is Carrier wants to live in (the planet Vulcan as far as I can make out, a place where we must all by the force of our reason arrive at the same conclusions as he does); you cannot run.

And look, Atheism+ cultists can look away, but sexism is the whole spectrum of saying men and women differ. And as a heterosexual man, I'm bound to say that they do differ. (And I know that you can see different but equal and read it separate but equal.) Some of it is benign. Yes, it excludes people who do not fit its frame but our relationships with each other are not all defined by how you fit one frame or another. (What I'm saying is, I might think a shape is "womanly" but that doesn't mean I think there is anything wrong or inferior, about any other shape or that how someone looks is a particularly important part of discourse with them, which with most people occurs in a space where that judgement would be inappropriate and irrelevant. Or in shorter English, you can fancy a woman without that affecting your interactions with her or any other woman.)

Some of it's far from benign.

But there's a continuum, on which a thing can be judged in one way or another, not single instances of a monolithic sexism. You might draw the line here; I might draw it there; but society draws it somewhere else. You think you can yank the line right back to where yours is, and that anyone who won't join you on your side of it is a heretic, in need of burning (and some of the comment threads have a hint of violence about them, in among the groupthink); I think there's a point it should be yanked back past, but then there's a stretch where, whether you believe it is negotiable or not, it will have to be negotiated.

Anyway, the researcher blogged shitloads of Youtube comments that were pretty ugly, but, hey, I'm no "researcher" and I don't claim to be a media expert, as she does, but I do know that there are several trolling sites where links to very earnest studies of things everyone already knows about can get dropped and then you are dealing with a self-selecting community of sexually frustrated borderline personalities, who will flood your Youtube with comments that will shock you (because they're meant to -- and what a great triumph for the trolls that they managed to get you to blog about their horrible antifeminism, like they would give a shit about any of that, and weren't just performing for you), and that videos like hers do not attract "thousands" of ravening misogynists in a couple of hours. Maybe she should have "researched" how the flying monkeys are mobilised?

But why worry about the facts of the matter? Those comments were "evidence" and that is far more important than the truth. This is what religions do: they take what is manifested from their own point of view, and spin a universe out of it. They do not imagine a world in which they are just not all that important, where most of what goes on, goes on without them and without regard of them.

How are we behaving like Christians? By taking a stand on moral issues and expecting our fellow human beings to adopt basic humanist moral values and denounce those who won’t. Which means they think atheism should be thoroughly amoral and devoid of values.

Dude, atheism just means you don't believe there's a god. It is thoroughly amoral and devoid of "values". WTF? That's what's good about it. We don't get hidden a list of spankable offences by the deity; we have to figure it out for ourselves. And we don't get to share the same answer because ours isn't handed down, it's created by us.

And "moral issues"? Jeezus spare me. These aren't moral issues, any more than the christian exception to gays and promiscuity is moral. It's your view of what's right.

Anyway, this was way too much for what is just a tiff between nerds at atheist "gatherings" (because yeah, you guessed, atheists like church as much as believers do, because it's actually a fine experience to be among people who share your beliefs and come together to acclaim them). Someone made someone else cry by mocking her jewellery, and someone else made a video laughing at her for crying about the mocking.

All people who live in the real, cruel world are about now thinking "why is he reading a sixth-former's blog?" and yeah, it really is the same overemotionalising of petty shit that exercises intelligent year 11 students who aren't getting any sex.

So yeah, too much for that, but my attention is drawn quite often to the religious atheists and I feel, quietly, that I'd rather have a god than none if having none means I have to sign up for Richard Carrier as pope.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Grabbing ahold of language

Why is "ahold" not like "akin"?

Simple really.

The prefix "a-" in English has a couple of major uses. One is that it is a negativising prefix, borrowed from the Greek. So "amoral" means "without morals". Compare with "immoral", which uses the Latin negativiser "in", which assimilates to a succeeding consonant in English.

The other is to give the sense of a locative adverb, in other words, something "in" or "at". So we say "ahead" because something that is "ahead" is "at the head", or in front; we say "abreast" to say that something is "at the breast", or next to. These words are adverbs because they modify verbs. You "look ahead" or "come abreast".

Interestingly, the word "adown" used to exist in English. It meant, simply, "up". But it has fallen into disuse, presumably because it is ambiguous which of these prefixes was desired.

It's pretty clear that "abreast" and "a breast", and "ahead" and "a head" are different constructions. The first is an adverb, the second an article plus a noun. This is because "a" is, as well as a prefix, the indefinite article. Of course, in speech, they sound the same. But if you write "He picked ahead" when you mean he picked a head of cauliflower, you are making an error in the written language. Similarly, "the ships steamed a breast" means something entirely different from your intention if you mean to say they were side by side.

To write "the ships steamed a breast" would in this case be a clear mistake, and we would consider someone who wrote it believing it to be correct to be illiterate in English.

If I write "grab ahold of my hand", I'm equally guilty of illiteracy. I do not intend to use an adverb and no sense can be made of the sentence as it stands. I mean to use the noun "hold" with an indefinite article. This is not disputable in English because in fact "ahold" does not mean anything in any sentence, and is always used in contexts where "a hold" is correct.

"Akin" actually adverbialises an adjective, similarly to "alike" and "around", although not "about", which has a different etymology. You do not say you are "a kin" to someone. You say you are "kin" to them. There is a noun "kin" but it cannot be used with an indefinite article because it is a mass noun.

It's true that people write "ahold" in "grab ahold of my hand". This is because they are not sufficiently literate to analyse "a hold" correctly in the spoken language. This kind of literacy does not have to be taught explicitly.

Competence in written language has various components. One is the ability to transcribe the spoken language correctly. This is a quite separate issue from the ability to write correctly in a register, which some take to be the meaning of "literacy". While we might in the common parlance consider someone to be "literate" only if they can "write fancy", functional literacy is much broader.

Why must we insist that people write correctly? Why can't they write what they like?

The bottom line, which may not be traded away, is that language is transactional. We trade symbols that have negotiated values. We agree, in writing English, that what we are writing is English. We agree to abide by the negotiated values of standard English, unless we are writing in some format that has different values, such as a text message. We don't agree to this because we like following rules. We agree because we like to be understood. When English was not standardised, it was difficult to communicate because each reader had to try to figure out what each writer was actually trying to say. All languages tend to a written standard simply because that makes them a better medium for communication than simply trying to transact with our own private renderings of the spoken language.

When we talk about what is "correct" in a language we are referring to the utterance in the context of where in a hierarchy of lects it belongs. We each have an idolect. This is the language we personally speak. It differs from person to person. Where it coincides with the idiolect of others, together we speak a dialect. Dialects can form a greater whole, which we know as a language. There's no hard and fast dividing line between dialects and languages, at base because there is a conflict between functional definitions (we speak the same language as other people who understand what we are saying) and social definitions (we speak the same language as other people who are either part of our ethnos or understand themselves to speak the same language as our ethnos). This leads to inconsistencies such as languages that contain dialects that are not mutually intelligible, and languages that are mutually intelligible to a degree that some dialects are not. For instance, on one reading one could consider Danish and Bokmal Norwegian the same "language" but their speakers insist they are not.

However, in written language, your idiolect tends to be a function of how well you can write the standard language. The picture is muddied by our use of different registers, just as it is in spoken language, but this is certainly truer of writing than it is of speaking. In other words, you build your written idiolect from the standard down, whereas spoken languages are built from the idiolect up.

Conventionalisation of written language obscures that the process is the same in both written and spoken language. One can use any words one likes in both, but one cannot enforce one's words on others. The listener or reader must agree that what we are using are in fact words. Because the point of language is to communicate our meaning, should the recipient of our linguistic act not agree that it is well formed, we are faced with our intent's being thwarted. In this, you cannot be an individual, however much you prize your individuality. Language is in nearly all cases not something you mutter to yourself. (Interestingly, you cannot even mutter intelligibly to yourself unless you use well-formed words, nor can you write a diary that you yourself can read unless you are certain that your future self will agree with you on what the words in your private language say.)

Repost: The case of the Del Inspiro

The case of the Del Inspiro


I am writing to you because I have often read that you are a fighter for justice, and there has been no justice done in my case. I do not doubt that I deserve some punishment – I did a crime and I believe that I should pay the price for being caught – but I did not do what I was accused, and convicted, of. I was not party to it; I did not want it; I did not commission or encourage it.

You will be, I’m sure, familiar with the Del Inspiro case. Myself and my associates, Mason, Wilhelm, Guido, Albert, Majik and Gerald, attempted to kidnap and hold for ransom the passengers of the Del Inspiro, en route from B— to San Francisco. We were tried and convicted on the charges of conspiracy to kidnap, kidnapping, attempted murder and first degree murder. I will be in this cell or another like it for a minimum of thirty years.

It was Mason’s idea to take over the Del Inspiro. The plan seemed brilliant. We would strike at the Captain’s Ball, when many of the passengers and most of the crew would be in attendance in the dining hall. The ball is set up with a PA, so it would be possible to broadcast our demands of the crowd without creating too much panic. Three of us would guard the main exits, while Gerald menaced those we had kidnapped with a “bomb”, Mason gave commands over the PA and I herded the people up into one end of the hall, the better to control them. (Majik, a tremendously daring driver, would take us off on board his fast cabin cruiser, which we knew to be a mile or so behind us.)You should understand, sir, that I am not a violent man. Mason’s plan appealed to me because of its boldness and ingenuity: it was Mason’s intention that the bomb would be no more real than those in spy movies and that the pistols we carried should be unloaded – indeed, unloadable, replicas, no more capable of doing harm than a water pistol. The bomb looked real enough. Mason was a keen student of the explosive arts, and I have no doubt he could  build the real thing if he had need of it.

The ingenuity of Mason’s plan lay in his having calculated that were the alarm raised, no help could likely arrive within an hour. We were to strike at the point that the Del Inspiro would be farthest from shore. Even a helicopter would need half an hour to reach us, and he believed that even the readiest team would need half an hour to assess the threat, assemble and leave its base. (Of course, one would not expect so swift a reaction in any case.) Events of course proved Mason right.

You might ask – and I did ask – what would happen were any of the passengers armed. After all, they were mainly Americans, people who believe that it is their right to go armed and shoot one another if they feel the need. Mason had an answer. Firearms were expressly forbidden on the Del Inspiro, and we had passed through customs on boarding, and several times during the cruise. (Our own equipment was delivered by a friend posing as a lighterman at C—. Because he is still at liberty, I will not name him, nor will I share the ingenious method by which the guns and “bomb” were smuggled onto the ship. Our accomplice is in a trade that will require him to use the same method again.)

Our reward was to be twofold. First, we would take the oldfashioned approach of relieving the crowd of their wallets and jewellery. Second, we would abduct some that we had targeted and have them order a bank wire to our secret account. Even should the second part of the reward come to nothing, some of the passengers were rich enough that the first alone would provide a good haul.

At first, things went well. Mason took control of the PA and the lights went up. The passengers, stunned but not panicking, moved obediently and reasonably quietly together. You might expect screaming – certainly, I had thought some of the women might scream when they saw guns – but the calm air of authority that Mason exuded weaved a spell over the crowd, and there was barely a mutter, let alone hysteria.

Quickly, unarmed so that no one could be tempted to jump me, I passed among the passengers, grabbing their effects. They were remarkably compliant. At the same time, Mason read out a list of names: a dozen of the richest, who were to become our hostages.

All was passing smoothly, as well as we could have hoped, when suddenly there was a cry, a flash, a loud bang, then another flash, another bang, and the dining hall of the Del Inspiro had become a mass of writhing bodies, bits and pieces of people, screaming, bloody, mangled… I cannot tell you, sir, because I lack the words to described what scene from hell there was. I straight away ran to aid some that were wounded. I could hear Mason bellowing into his microphone that we must get the fuck out of there, suddenly shrill and tremulous, his authority boiled away into fear and anger.

I could not clearly see what was going on. The room was filled with smoke and people were stampeding for the exits. In the chaos, I could see Wilhelm kneeling on Guido’s chest, punching him in the face and screaming something at him. I ran over to them.

Let’s get the fuck out of here, I was yelling.

Wilhelm turned to me, his eyes streaming tears. This stupid fucker, this mad fucker, he was saying. I had no idea what he was talking about. I pulled him from Guido.

There’s no time for this, I shouted. Let’s get.

I stooped to pick up Guido, half conscious on the floor.

Leave him. Just leave him, Wilhelm was saying, grabbing my sleeve. He did it. He did all this. Just leave him. God. We’re fucked, that fucker. Man, that fucker.

I still didn’t know what he was talking about but I had the presence of mind, at least, to telephone Majik. I gave him the word and turned to Wilhelm.

Okay, let’s just go, I said. Let’s get the guys.

But there was no way to find the guys in the smoky mess of the dining hall. We picked up Mason, still standing by the PA, but the others, I didn’t know where they were.

Mason was rigid with shock. It was all I could do to drag him from the hall and out into the passageway. I do not think anyone could have pulled him up the stairway to the outside deck. I had to leave him. I regret it, not only because I considered him a friend and was uncomfortable with abandoning him to an uncertain (although surely bad) fate, but also because he turned state’s and gave our names and details to the law. (Even so, it saddened me to learn that Wilhelm caught up with him in the exercise yard at F—, and, having been apprised of his treachery, repaid him with a shiv three times in the guts, which killed him, slowly but surely.)

It was only when I had reached the relative safety of the small harbour at M— that I learned from the television news that Guido had thrown two live grenades into the packed crowd, killing 27 and injuring many others. He, Mason and Albert were apprehended at or near the scene. Gerald disappeared. He was not named as a casualty, so I do not know what became of him. Even the grapevine here in A— has passed on no news of him. It is as though he became vapour and drifted away, but perhaps he was able to do what I was to attempt, and absconded to some distant shore.

I would have succeeded in that too, had a Mrs Pennyheimer not been struck with a bad case of civic duty in St G— park. Despite my hair dye and thick spectacles (an obvious disguise but given that most people recognise one another by the shape and position of the eyes, and by the hairline’s relation to the face, a good one), she recognised  me from the photo that had been prominently featured in her daily paper. She alerted the authorities, in the form of a patrolman. Why, I don’t know. What was it to her? Had I harmed her in any way (I cannot see that I had, if you put aside the abstract small harm that each member of society suffers from the criminal’s wrongdoing)? Surely, the harm she was doing me by aiding my capture was not justified? I am not a philosopher. All I understand is harsh reality, which in this case was that I was apprehended and put on trial on the charges I have noted. I was mere hours from an appointment at which I would secure a fake passport, which would allow me, I hoped, to pass out of this country on a flight to somewhere I would not be known and no one would care whom I had or had not kidnapped or killed.

Sir, I understand the principle of joint commission (my lawyer explained it to me) and I accept that I was guilty of attempted kidnap (although how I could be convicted of kidnapping having had to abandon the attempt, I do not know). But who did I murder? Who did I help murder?

I did not have a grenade. I did know Guido had grenades, nor did I have the faintest notion that he intended to harm the passengers. I had not known even that he was unstable. I did not know him well, so if I have erred, it is in not taking enough care over who I associate with.

Sir, a rapist can walk after two or three years, if he is convicted at all. A man who kills his wife, in this state, might serve a dozen years, but rarely more. I have hurt no one, except to cause them some alarm, and I will be here for thirty years as a minimum, if I live that long. Attempted kidnap would barely have brought me three-to-five. I do accept that I should be imprisoned for up to five years.

But I didn’t even have a working firearm! It was far from my intention to harm anyone. Indeed, we took great risk on our own account to avoid the chance of harming others, going unarmed into an adventure that could bring us up against others whose guns were loaded and fireable.

Sir, I am not a good man. I tried to do a wrong (although I did fail, I was certainly pursuing an evil course). But I am not so bad that I do not deserve justice. I implore you to consider my case.