Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for December, 2006

iTunes, therefore I am

Posted by metaphorical on 31 December 2006

Via Gizmodo, a 160 GB Wi-Fi Router with iTunes and BitTorrent built in:

Asus WL-700gE WiFi Router
 It has a built in network iTunes client, so it’ll show up as an iTunes client to your PCs. And it has a BitTorrent client that can rip down 7 streams automatically (and 10 FTP or web streams at the same time.) That’s with your PC off, all downloads handled by the router.

 It can act as a network storage device, UPnP/DLNA server for sharing music with compatible streaming devices, and can be turned into a RAID configuration with another drive, so you can have a backed up version of all your data. It can network USB printers, drives. Has 5 Ethernet ports. And encrypts in 64/128 bit WEP, WPA/WPA2 supports TKIP, AES, WPA, WPA2 and MAC.

This morning, I called Rachel from the car to tell her to put on 104.3 FM, because they were having a concert-versions-only, all-Beatles marathon. We had no radio in the house for her to tune in, and anyway, our only good speakers are connected to the Airport Express router. Dumb. Still, we’re okay, 98 percent of the time, playing only what we can through iTunes. This might make it 99 percent. She put on some Pink Floyd instead.

Posted in technology | 1 Comment »

What’s 5 million years old, but was only created 6000 years ago?

Posted by metaphorical on 30 December 2006

The Grand Canyon, of course. Moreover, the rock there itself goes back about 2 billion years.

From the National Park Service’s own website:

… the thick sequence of rocks exposed in the walls of the Canyon. These rocks provide a remarkable (but incomplete) record of the Paleozoic Era (550-250 million years ago), as well as scattered remnants of Precambrian rocks as old as 2000 million years. The story these rocks tell is far older than the canyon itself….

How old is the canyon itself?

The early history and evolution of the Colorado River (of which Grand Canyon is only a part) is the most complex aspect of Grand Canyon geology and far beyond our scope here. We do know, however, that the erosion which has shaped the canyon has occurred only in the past five to six million years—only yesterday, considering the age of the rocks through which the Canyon is carved.

Nevertheless, the Park Service continues to sell a religious-based, scientifically absurd book at its visitor centers, apparently at the insistence of fundamentalist political appointees back in Washington. So reports Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, “a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals.”

Moreover, the park service employees are apparently not permitted to tell park visitors the same things the official NPS website tells virtual ones.

Grand Canyon National Park is not permitted to give an official estimate of the geologic age of its principal feature, due to pressure from Bush administration appointees. Despite promising a prompt review of its approval for a book claiming the Grand Canyon was created by Noah’s flood rather than by geologic forces, more than three years later no review has ever been done and the book remains on sale at the park, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

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Posted in Orwell, politics | 3 Comments »

Net neutrality neutered?

Posted by metaphorical on 29 December 2006

AT&T’s $86B merger with BellSouth is done. Various alarms, being raised by Dave Burstein, Jeff Pulver, Susan Crawford, and other expert telecom observers, are sure to be drowned by the tinkling of champagne glasses on New Year’s weekend, because the merger was approved by the FCC late in the afternoon of the last business day of 2006.

The FCC approval was 4-0, one of the three Republican commissioners having recused himself. AT&T secured the two Democrat votes by issuing a letter last night promising a clutch of concessions, as detailed in most of the business press coverage, such as Bloomberg’s.

One of those concessions concerned network neutrality. But it may have contained a back door that makes it meaningless.

Net neutrality, at bottom, is the idea that broadband carriers like AT&T can’t discriminate, with respect to the network traffic they carry, between data they like and those they don’t—for example blocking packets from Vonage or Skype, or video-related services from YouTube, Akimbo, TiVo, or anyone else that compete with their own video offerings.

The back door consists of this sentence: ““This commitment also does not apply to AT&T/BellSouth’s Internet Protocol television (IPTV) service.”

Burstein may have been the first to notice the back door, as reported on Techdirt a few hours before the FCC vote. Susan Crawford, on her blog, explains it this way:

That’s AT&T’s new high-speed internet access — AT&T Yahoo! High Speed Internet U-verse Enabled. It’ll have speeds of up to 6 Mbps for downloading (not very fast — Singapore, Japan, and Korea and lots of other places have 100 Mbps and more available). It’ll use all kinds of “middleware” from Alcatel and Microsoft and other companies to prioritize and privilege particular packets. It cannot be purchased separately — “purchase of AT&T U-verse TV required.”

 If some nascent Google/YouTube application — some now-garage-bound online thingie we can’t even imagine yet — wants to reach AT&T U-verse subscribers at these high speeds, it’ll have to strike a deal. It’ll have to ask for permission.

 This means that naked, neutral, non-prioritized internet access (for AT&T customers, anyway) stays at 2001 speeds. AT&T has no incentive to upgrade its existing DSL facilities — it wants to move everyone to this new U-verse.

 As AT&T says, “the new U-verse enabled AT&T Yahoo!(R) High Speed internet builds on AT&T’s position as the nation’s leading provider of broadband DSL.” It’s not the same as the “wireline broadband Internet access service” that AT&T is willing to keep neutral.

 I applaud the consumer advocates who got AT&T to promise neutrality as to DSL — but I think they may have missed a major battleground.

If I understand Crawford, she’s positing two distinct AT&T broadband services, and saying that the AT&T concession on net neutrality pertains to only one of them. I’m not sure that’s entirely correct; I understand U-verse to be entirely a video service. But even as such, there’s plenty of reason to be concerned.

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Posted in journalism, language, technology | 1 Comment »

Happy birthday

Posted by metaphorical on 29 December 2006

Happy birthday, Rachel!

Posted in language | 2 Comments »

Trust the voters?

Posted by metaphorical on 28 December 2006

John Edwards is announcing his presidential candidacy today. The

does a good job of giving the key facts right in the headline:

“Edwards’s Theme: U.S. Poverty – Amid Iraq Talk, White House Hopeful Sticks to ’04 Issue in ’08 Run.”

For the roughly two dozen candidates considering a run for the White House, it is perhaps the jackpot question: What might be the winning message in a contest whose first nominating vote is still more than a year away?

 Today, former Sen. John Edwards begins testing his hunch that Americans, though focused now on the war in Iraq, can be won over to a campaign built on what he calls “the great moral issue of our time”—fighting poverty at home. He plans to do so with an unorthodox announcement of his candidacy, not standing on a flag-draped stage, but volunteering his labor in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward, which is still struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina.

Edwards’ challenge is getting people interested in economic issues in the Iraq Era.

To judge from a letter he sent to his 700,000-name mailing list yesterday, Edwards is going to talk about Katrina, the minimum wage, the high cost of college, and the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. That kind of language is going to sound like it’s from another era—because it is.

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Posted in language, politics | 3 Comments »

Livestock’s long shadow and the NY Times’ short attention span

Posted by metaphorical on 27 December 2006

“Livestock are responsible for about 18 percent of the global warming effect, more than transportation’s contribution.”

“At present, there are about 1.5 billion cattle and domestic buffalo and about 1.7 billion sheep and goats. With pigs and poultry, they form a critical part of our enormous biological footprint upon this planet.

 Just how enormous was not really apparent until the publication of a new report, called “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.”

So far so good. The NY Times, inspired by a U.N. report, is actually noticing, probably for the newspaper’s first time ever, the devastating environmental consequences of meat and dairy consumption.

The editorial describes some of the report’s highlights, including its finding that “global livestock grazing and feed production use ’30 percent of the land surface of the planet.’ Livestock—which consume more food than they yield—also compete directly with humans for water. And the drive to expand grazing land destroys more biologically sensitive terrain, rain forests especially, than anything else.”

When I turned vegan, 16 years ago, it wasn’t because I’m opposed to killing animals for food (I’m not). It was for just these environmental reasons.

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Posted in animal-rights, journalism, language, politics | 3 Comments »

The privacy of private words

Posted by metaphorical on 27 December 2006

When you pour out your heart to your best friend in e-mail, do you have a “reasonable expectation of privacy”? Does it make any difference whether you use Gmail or Outlook?

The ACLU and the EFF say you do and it doesn’t. But for 20 years, the government has been distinguishing one class of e-mail as “stored communications” that it can look at without a search warrant. These are messages stored not on your local computer, as they would be with Outlook or Eudora, but rather kept at one’s Internet service provider, as they are with the web-based services like Gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo Mail.

Finally, someone has brought a case to the Southern District of Ohio. Warshak vs. United States argues that the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures requires that the government get a search warrant before reading e-mail, regardless of where it is stored.

Steven Warshak is no saint, apparently. According to an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, he’s “a seller of ‘natural male enhancement’ products who was indicted for mail fraud and money laundering after federal investigators sifted through thousands of his e-mails.” Whatever. If so, the government should have no problem getting a search warrant.

By the way, how about a diary stored online? Is that different from a private blog with only one authorized reader? We bloggers in particular need the Fourth Amendment to be as broad as possible.

Here’s the whole Fourth Amendment.

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated; and no Warrants shall issue but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

It seems to protect all our papers. In a digital age, it needs to protect all our digital papers. The government’s distinctions between them is, in a word, Orwellian.

The EFF/ACLU amicus brief in Warshak vs. United States is here:

An EFF press release about the case is here:

The full text of the U.S. code instantiating the Stored Communications Act is here:

Posted in politics, technology | 1 Comment »

The global war on some nouns but not others

Posted by metaphorical on 26 December 2006

I just ordered “War On Terror,” The Board Game.

You have to like almost any board game that needs a moral defense, especially when it can actually provide one.

It seems there is no clear-cut, globally accepted definition of terrorism – neither in a linguistic, nor a militaristic context. The United Nations spent over 8 years trying to find a definition that all its members would agree to. It gave up. Mainly because any definition implicated one or more of its members in ‘terrorism’.

 Title 22 of the US Code (Section 2656f(d)) defines it as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets”. This definition shows promise, but then, isn’t invading Iraq – whether cynically to get your hands on cheap oil, or altruistically to get rid of a corrupt regime – an act of “premeditated, politically motivated violence”? Fortunately the US Code clarifies that terrorism has to be perpetrated by “subnational groups or clandestine agents”. There seems little reason for this addendum, other than to safeguard against the notion that a country or government might at any time be found guilty of terrorism.

 If terrorism is an act of “politically motivated violence”, then surely the War on Terror is one form of political violence to wipe out another form of political violence. Suddenly we find ourselves in an Orwellian language swamp where the keeper of the definition controls the reality of the word.

You have to also like this, from the FAQ:

But isn’t it a bit tasteless? That depends on your taste. Personally, we think the actual “War on Terror” is in pretty bad taste. This is just a board game.

Posted in language, Orwell, politics | 1 Comment »

The Joy of Text

Posted by metaphorical on 25 December 2006

E-mail used to be great. I remember when e-mail first became fast enough to use in real-time, roughly 1995. You could exchange messages nearly as fast as IM would be a few years later, and with almost all the same convenience. And yet, e-mail is still essentially asynchronous, giving us enough time to compose a message, or ourselves.

But e-mail has become an embarrassment of riches, and not just spam. For many of us, dealing with the remaining legitimate messages occupies our entire morning, more days than not. And e-mail has become a loophole for nefarious network vectors.

The Department of Defense has taken a small step in taking back e-mail: it has banned HTML e-mail, reports Federal Computer Week magazine. Apparently, the concern isn’t spam, rather it’s HTML’s ability to transport spyware and other executable code.

DOD bars use of HTML e-mail, Outlook Web Access

Due to an increased network threat condition, the Defense Department is blocking all HTML-based e-mail messages and has banned the use of Outlook Web Access e-mail applications, according to a spokesman for the Joint Task Force for Global Network Operations.

The reference to an increased threat condition apparently relates to a successful network attack at the Naval War College in late November which FCW also reported on:

Network attack disables Naval War College

Computer and e-mail systems are off-line at the Naval War College following a network intrusion Nov. 15. After the attack, the Defense Department raised its information warfare awareness level to Information Condition (Infocon) 4.

I think we could all go this way, in the hopes that cut down on the spam problem. Spam can still use attachments, but without displaying text as graphics, most of that stuff will get filtered away. What the hardship in reverting to text-only systems? If a message has to be formatted, we have plenty of ways to do that: create a web page and link to it, for one. With blogs, MySpace accounts, and new systems like Parakey, it’s getting easier and easier. The alternative is e-mail becoming less and less usable.

Posted in technology, writing | Leave a Comment »

Filmmaking, writing, and the imagination

Posted by metaphorical on 24 December 2006

Every writer has a different writing process, and there’s no wrong or right way to write. Still, writers are obsessed with the different ideas other writers have about how to go about it.

At my school’s reading series, mostly attended by graduate writing students, questions of process always come up. Some writers seem to write very sequentially. They can spend an hour on one sentence, then move on to the next one. Of course they revise their words, but they’re far less likely to make revisions than other writers are. And indeed, it seems that if they’re up to, say, page 185 in their manuscript, they might go back to page 170, but not back to page 25.

In an earlier post, I described the process of trying to write directly out of the imagination, and letting sentences and paragraph flow in a way that lets strange and unexpected images and ideas come out.

At a reading a couple of years ago, Mary Karr, whose 1996 book, Liar’s Club, is sometimes credited with triggering the modern fashion for memoir, and who doesn’t attend the sequential school of writers, talked about the words you put onto the page, and the words that come off of the page.

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Posted in screenwriting, the arts, writing | 1 Comment »

Too many grasshoppers, too few ants

Posted by metaphorical on 24 December 2006

There’s a nice WSJ article (sub req’d) remembering C. Peter McColough (1922-2006): “Former Xerox CEO Funded Fabled PARC but Failed To Harvest Innovations While He Focused on the Bottom Line, Researchers Departed With Ideas To Build Modern Computing.”

That sums up a pretty large problem these days. No one is investing in the long term future in the United States. By contrast, China is putting money into solar energy, which won’t be cost-effective for another 20 years. It’s investing in green buildings technologies, mass transit systems, and hydro power, which, though it wipes out entire valleys, produces no greenhouse gases.

China has no problem taking the long perspective. It seems to be something that’s just built into its culture. I’m sure its heart was broken when it gave the British a 99-year lease on Hong Kong, but while the west was chortling, “99 years! That’s forever!” the humiliated Chinese leadership was probably saying, “but it’s only for 99 years.”

U.S. culture has impatience baked into its genes. That’s a generally useful perspective, in business at least, but not always. To return to McColough for a moment:

The reasons for Xerox’s inability to take advantage of its own inventions are debated in business schools to this day. Jacob Goldman, Xerox’s chief scientist at the time who founded PARC, blames short-sighted managers unwilling to take chances on small-scale, unproven technologies. “They managed the company quarter to quarter and looked at the bottom line,” Mr. Goldman says. “They weren’t thinking about the future really.”

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The nature of parenting, the nurturing of children

Posted by metaphorical on 23 December 2006

The nature/nurture controversy is always going to be with us, and it’s never going to get simpler. It would be nothing more than interesting philosophic challenge or academic exercise, except that it has all kinds of implications for right action and moral judgment. Nowhere is this more apparent than the context of behavior-altering drug therapies.

The NY Times reported yesterday that for children with ADHD and similar behavior disorders, a strict behavioristic form of parenting can augment drug therapies and do more for children than just drugs alone; can help kids lower their needed drug intake; and in some cases can even eliminate the need for drugs.

In a comprehensive review, the American Psychological Association urged in August that for childhood mental disorders, “in most cases,” nondrug treatment “be considered first,” including techniques that focus on parents’ skills, as well as enlisting teachers’ help. [….]

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Posted in philosophy, politics, technology | 2 Comments »

Attached to detachment?

Posted by metaphorical on 22 December 2006

Apparently, I’m very attached to detachment. I’m sure it’s one of those zen things.

Inspired by Jupiter9’s love of personality tests, I took the enneagram word test at similarminds.com. What I like about this one is that instead of asking impossible to answer questions, you simply react to individual descriptive words, such as “spontaneous,” “researcher,” and “moody.” I think this corresponds with Marilyn Goldin’s theory, discussed here the other day, that people remember images and ideas more than complex sentences and thoughts.

Enneagram Test Results

Type 1 Perfectionism |||||||||| 38%
Type 2 Helpfulness |||||||||||||| 58%
Type 3 Image Focus |||||||||||||||||| 74%
Type 4 Hypersensitivity |||||||||||||| 54%
Type 5 Detachment |||||||||||||||||||| 86%
Type 6 Anxiety |||||||||||||| 54%
Type 7 Adventurousness |||||||||||||| 58%
Type 8 Aggressiveness |||||||||||||||| 66%
Type 9 Calmness |||||||||||| 46%

Apparently, “I must be knowledgable and independent to be happy,” which is a good thing, since I am (at least compared to a lot of people), and it’s not true that “I must be perfect and good to be happy”—which is a good thing, since I’m not, not even remotely.

I think I agree with quite a bit of it, although it’s hard to be sure. If you’re sitting calmly but roiling inside, is that a lot of calmness, or very little? (Just to, um, make up an example.) It’d be interesting to see what people who know me think. In fact, that would be a nice addition for Similarminds—having others rate the test results.

Posted in language, screenwriting | Leave a Comment »

Writing long

Posted by metaphorical on 21 December 2006

Surprise is an editor’s drug of choice. — Susan Bell

In the first class on adaptive screenwriting, Marilyn Goldin said, “You always write long at first. You have have to let yourself be free, to write long.” It was probably the fiftieth time I’d heard this piece of advice, but I wrote it down, gratefully.

If there’s one writing lesson universally taught, eventually understood, it’s that you have to write, you have to let your self write, you have to write and keep writing, even if it makes no sense, if it’s awful, if it’s wrong.

I first heard this said flat-out at a reading last spring. It might have been said a thirty times before that, in classes and readings, but it first made its way past the hair growing out of my ears when said by Kate Braverman, who came to read from her then-new book, Frantic Transmissions to and from Los Angeles. It’s a remarkable book, and not just because the first chapter is written, beginning to end, in the first person plural.

Now we meet at random occasions, forty years later, always at the Pier. The water in winter is blue as delphiniums and larkspur. In spring, it’s the cerulean ink you might employ for a love letter, sanctified, electric, graceful. The waters form their own morphologies and hierarchies. The fall bay is like a visa stamp or fading tattoo. Then the pause before sunset when everything is veiled in azure. You hear what could be bells from a ship or a cathedral, but you can’t be certain. Waves suggest rain, dream and hallucination. And you realize there is no actual line between drowning and communion.

You have to write long. Everyone has said this. It warms my hands now to hear it. I write it down each time. Novelists and memoirists have said it, essayists and poets. Don’t stop. The director of the program and the associate director each say it, over and over, and they agree on almost nothing, including the value of the workshop classes that beggar us of our time and money. When Marilyn Goldin says it it’s not remarkable at all, except that a screenwriter is saying it. Throw another genre onto the fire and draw near.

Where did “ship or cathedral” come from? Maybe from “visa stamp and fading tattoo.” What is the fall bay like, anyway? A visa stamp, sure, and a tattoo as well, sure. Which are pretty similar to each other, so when you get to the bell, you get the ship, immediately, traveling stamps and navy sailors, no questions asked. But what it really sounds like is a church bell. So “ship or cathedral.” Of course. And are they really so very different? No, until you get the waves. Then they cleave into drowning and communion. Wow. And if she had stopped at visa stamp, it would have been a nice image. “The fall bay is like a visa stamp.” That’s a nice image. That’s nicely done. But you would have never gotten, “there is no actual line between drowning and communion.” Just keep going, Kate told us. You never know what’s going to come out. You can always erase it. But you can’t have something to keep if you don’t write it.

You have to write long. Marilyn Goldin meant you have to write the screenplay long, and Kate Braverman meant you have to write sentences long but you have to write everything long—sentences, paragraphs, sections, books, screenplays.

I’ll have more lessons from writing school to tease out, but I don’t want this one to seem like one among many. This is the one. If I had paid $36K for this one lesson, it would have been worth it. How much is the engine worth to the car? Everything.

Added: some of the ideas in this post are developed further here.

Posted in language, screenwriting, the arts, writing | 5 Comments »

Feelings, nothing more than feelings

Posted by metaphorical on 21 December 2006

While reading Free Range Librarian’s deservedly popular post, “The User Is Not Broken,” I bumped into a G. K. Chesterton quote ( “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it”) that sent me to the quote server Thinkexist, which pushed a lovely Carl W. Buechner quote at me (yes, this is how I sometimes spend my day):

They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel. — Carl W. Buechner

That in turn made me think of something that the critic and screenwriter Marilyn Goldin said in a class on adaptive screenwriting. She went around the room asking each of us to name our favorite movie (or at least the first to come to mind when asked for a favorite movie) and say one thing about it that was memorable. Her theory, which was only a tiny bit disproven in class, was that the memorable thing wouldn’t be dialogue, that if it had dialogue, we wouldn’t remember the words, and that the memorable thing was more likely to be an image or—even more likely —a feeling.

I say “a tiny bit disproven” because about half of us named a piece of dialogue (mine was the scene from Body Heat where Kathleen Turner says, “You’re not very bright. I like that in a man.”). But we were a room of creative writing MFA students with an interest in screenwriting, so we were more likely to focus on words than the average moviegoer, and her point was that our words don’t really matter, in filmmaking, as much as we might like. I’ll have more to say about the class, which had some other memorable insights.

Posted in language, screenwriting, the arts, writing | 4 Comments »

Dying metaphors

Posted by metaphorical on 20 December 2006

My cousin writes:

Much has been made lately of the transformation from “I couldn’t care less” to “I could care less”.

I take no issue with this because, just as the brain rights the upside-down world perceived by the eyes, it rights the illogic of the new phrase by adding a silent “NOT!” Voila. Kol ba seder (Hebrew: everything’s in order), or copacetic.

[My brother] observed years ago that it’s something special to be heels over head for somebody, but head over heels? Hell, except in bed or on the trapeze, we’re always head over heels.

But now I’m onto “there’s no love lost between them”. Shouldn’t that be “there’s no love found between them”? Or, too look at the contrapositive, “there’s no love lost” means “there is love found”.

“I could care less” has always bothered the hell out of me, though I agree that there’s an implicit “not” or “but” that makes it sort of okay (“… but first I’d have to care at all”).

“Head over heels” doesn’t bother me too much, maybe because it still conveys the image of tumbling. Now that I think about it though, it should bother me a lot more than it does.

“No love lost” doesn’t bother me at all. It’s the same as “no love to be found.”

The problem with these phrases, each of them, is that they’re meaningless. Orwell, in his essay, “Politics and the English Language,” has this to say:

DYING METAPHORS. A newly-invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically “dead” (e.g., iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are: ring the changes on, take up the cudgels for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, an axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, achilles’ heel, swan song, hotbed. Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a “rift,” for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying. Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line is sometimes written tow the line. Another example is the hammer and the anvil, now always used with the implication that the anvil gets the worst of it. In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about: a writer who stopped to think what he was saying would be aware of this, and would avoid perverting the original phrase.

I’ve previously quoted Orwell’s rule #1, of the six rules that conclude the essay, is:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

The main point, then, is that we should simply jettison all three phrases, rid them from our lives, cast them adrift on the sea of words.

Posted in language, Orwell, writing | 7 Comments »

Orwell’s essay: Politics and the English Language

Posted by metaphorical on 20 December 2006

I thought I might as well format and
post my own copy of Orwell’s essay,
if I’m going to link to it frequently.
I’ve also added a tag for especially
Orwell-related entries.

Title: Politics and the English Language
Author: George Orwell
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
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Language: English
Date first posted: February 2002
Date most recently updated: February 2002

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Title: Politics and the English Language

Author: George Orwell

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent, and our language–so the argument runs–must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. I will come back to this presently, and I hope that by that time the meaning of what I have said here will have become clearer. Meanwhile, here are five specimens of the English language as it is now habitually written.

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Posted in journalism, language, Orwell, politics | 2 Comments »

A baby was born–lots of them

Posted by metaphorical on 20 December 2006

The idea of “blackout babies” is an urban legend, nevertheless,

For decades and decades, the busiest day of the year in the nation’s maternity wards fell sometime in mid-September. Americans evidently do a lot of baby-making during the cold, dark days of December,

reports David Leonhardt in today’s NY Times. But that was before increases in the 1990s in the tax benefits of having a baby—meaning a benefit to having your baby in December instead of January.

In the last decade, September has lost its unchallenged status as the time for what we will call National Birth Day, the day with more births than any other. Instead, the big day fell between Christmas and New Year’s Day in four of the last seven years — 1997 through 2003 — for which the government has released birth statistics.

Of course, there could be various other reasons.

to see if taxes were truly the culprit, Mr. Chandra and another economist, Stacy Dickert-Conlin of Michigan State, devised some clever tests. They found that people who stood to gain the most from the tax breaks were also the ones who gave birth in late December most frequently. When the gains were similar, high-income parents — who, presumably, are more likely to be paying for tax advice — produced more December babies than other parents.

Induced births and Caesarean sections aren’t really the best things in the world for either the mom or the baby, and they’re an added expense as well—a major expense that gets pushed onto the health care system so that the family can get a smaller personal benefit. There’s an easy way to fix this—Leonhardt makes the obvious suggestion of pro-rating the tax benefit to be n/12ths per month (1/12th in December). Or we could just fix the tax code entirely.

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Extending blogging processes

Posted by metaphorical on 19 December 2006

Going forward, this is the sort of Web 2.0 role-model for collaborative citizen journalism to which this blog aspires to:

Extend enterprise business processes
Security-rich software enables businesses to communicate, collaborate and increase productivity. Deploy role-based work environments and speed time-to-value with scorecards and composite applications. Create, organize, share and manage business information to provide solutions where they’re needed, on demand. More than just messaging. Stand-alone or integrated, collaborate real-time to facilitate decisions. Deliver online learning resources for users and powerful administrative tools for managers.

But since it’s important to maintain a multi-vendor, multi-technology framework, it would be a mistake to assume that this will be the only role-model being utilized.

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The brain, memory, and learning

Posted by metaphorical on 19 December 2006

It sure would be nice to know how memory works, especially if you’re write memoirs or autobiographical fiction, or even if you’re just a journalist.

Yesterday, the NY Times reported that, “In Memory-Bank ‘Dialogue,’ the Brain Is Talking to Itself”:

New recordings of electrical activity in the brain may explain a major part of its function, including how it consolidates daily memories, why it needs to dream and how it constructs models of the world to guide behavior.

Brain researchers have long assumed that immediate memories are laid down in the hippocampus and later transferred to the neocortex for long-term storage. Dr. Wilson said the process was not just a transfer of memory, however, but more probably a sophisticated processing of data in which the neocortex learned selective information from the hippocampus.

“The neocortex is essentially asking the hippocampus to replay events that contain a certain image, place or sound,” he said. “The neocortex is trying to make sense of what is going on in the hippocampus and to build models of the world, to understand how and why things happen.”

That’s consistent with a hierarchical view of how the brain works. In a hierarchical model, low-level cells in the neocortex recieve data from sensory cells, process it a bit, and send it up the hierarchy to cells that get data, process it a bit, and keep sending it up the line. At each layer, more and more abstracting is done, until at the highest levels, completely abstract manipulation of concepts is possible. At each level, there’s a lot of feedback going on, with the higher layers helping the lower ones do their data processing by providing context gained from their wider perspective.

In hindsight, you would expect something just like the latest finding—a short-term storage bank, which can function as an ongoing repository of sensory-like data, for more detailed processing, being queried by the neocortex to create stable, long-term memories.

That still doesn’t provide a clear picture of any of the details of how memory works—and how it fails to work, when it doesn’t. Nevertheless, for those us introspecting and trying to figure things out, it’s a great starting point.

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