Sunday, July 27, 2008

Ocean Survival

I ran across an article in this morning's paper entitled, "Will the Oceans Survive?" I had one of my aha! moments as I realized this was exactly what I'd been talking about in my blog on precision in language. The question is not "Will the oceans survive?" Of course they will survive. The question, rendered more precisely, would be, "Will the oceans continue to exist in a form that is acceptable to our use as humans?" That's a different question utterly, because, for one thing, it raises the question of what form the oceans have that would be considered "ideal." The answer is, of course, 'It depends." A warm, gooey ocean might be just right for certain kinds of life, while being fatal to ours.
Nor are humans the first and only beings to change climate, oceans, and weather dramatically. One of the earliest massive killoffs in our planet's history was about, what, 3 billion years ago when an organism arose that put out an poison which killed most of the life on the planet, oxygen (have I mentioned this already somewhere?)
So, let's do three of things. First, let's not think we are unique in our power to change things. Second, let's try to describe the situation with more precision (and yes, it's possible, all ye post-modern nutcases with tinfoil hats). Third, let's realize that as we remake the climate, we're doing it for us and for current species. Quite frankly, Ma Earth doesn't give a damn one way or another.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The NEPA way

The National Environmental Policy Act is one of history's great pieces of legislation, not only because of what it does, but how it goes about it. I wish we could apply the NEPA process to the way we enact other legislation.
NEPA requires that, before we do something with our environment, we very carefully study the effects it will have. NEPA doesn't say we can't rape and pillage the environment if the outcome is important enough, just that we need to know as much as we can about the consequences. Y'all ought to read NEPA if you haven't, it's not very long and even I can understand it.

One thing that NEPA requires is that before you do any thing, you must look at all the effects of that action - direct, indirect, cumulative, hidden. Another is that you must look at the effects of the action, the effects of not doing anything at all, and the effects of all reasonable alternatives.

Let's say we want to pass a law to help eke out our supplies of gasoline, so we hurry up and say that 10% of each gallon on gas has to be ethanol. STOP! What are the consequences? What are the alternatives? Are we aware, for instance, that some automobiles can't run on gas that has ethanol? How do we get the ethanol and how will that affect food crop production? Are there any reasonable alternatives?
The other thing that NEPA does is to force action groups to expand their focus. Liberals are focused on the liberal grail, conservatives on the conservative grail, usually with one eye on the ball and the other on the main chance. The medieval narrative "Pilgrim's Progress," presents a sequence in which people are raking in the muck around them (hence the term "muckrakers"), so intent on their tasks that they don't even see angels hovering above them with crowns of gold. All they have to do is look up....
Liberals and conservatives are born, not made. We can't, and shouldn't, change that. But we can and should, whenever possible, try to make our lawmakers see the whole elephant (How's that for a subtle and slightly mixed metaphor?)
Politicans aren't going to think unless they have to. They certainly are not going to try to see it from the other side. Maybe it's time we made them. So, I propose a NLOA - National Legislative Observation Act, which extends the philosophy of NEPA to making any decision.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

I say what I say

We're in the silly season, aren't we -- getting ready to elect a president. And no one can say what they really mean. People are terrified that anything they say about Obama might be construed as racist. Whether he wants it or not, simply being African-American means that the racist card is in play (I call it the Spike Lee defense. Anytime anyone criticizes one of Spike Lee's films, Mr. Lee notes that the criticizer is a racist).

But that's not what I want to talk about. What I need to do is unburden myself on precision in speech, writing, listening, and reading. It is important that speakers and writers be precise. But it is equally important that readers and listeners be aware of precision. For instance, there is a significant difference between
"You are doing something stupid," and
"You are stupid."
Yet, if you say the first sentence to someone, they will very often say, "You are accusing me of being stupid." Given that response, they may well be stupid, yet you didn't say any such thing.

Remember the big flap over "niggardly"? Some one used it in a speech, and was roundly accused of being racist. Yet "niggardly," and ugly term though it is, is not even remotely racist. So, whose fault was it? Here I'm going to have to go with the idiots who react without knowledge. Use the dictionary, dolts.

Korzybski, the founder of general semantics, said, "I say what I say. I do not say what I do not say" Granted that's an oversimplification, it's still a good rule for both speaker and listener.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Newspaper wisdom

The Salt Lake Tribune recently published an editorial in which they lamented the small turnout of Utah voters, perhaps the lowest in the country. At the same time, Newsweek had a graphic showing that McCain's chances of carrying Utah in the November election were 100%. I've known for months now that my vote was going to go to McCain whether I marked him, Obama, or Groucho Marx on the ballot. So, where's my incentive to vote? I wonder if it ever occurred to the guy who pens the portentous and pretentious Tribune editorials that the reason most people don't vote is that we are a one party state. Why vote? It won't count. I still marvel at how few people actually take cause and effect into consideration when viewing the world around them.
I've been a conservative and a Republican all my life. They seem to me to be the lesser of the two evils of the system (I'd rather be ruled by greed than by idealism any day). But it seems to me that it's time to switch parties. Not that I believe in the Democrats' creed; I don't. But I do believe that one-party rule leads inevitably and inexorably to corruption. Apparently our legislators are adept at keeping church and state separate. That is, what they talk about on Sunday doesn't seem to influence what they do in the legislature.
Utah is at a kind of a crossroads. It's halfway between a machine political state and a genuine republic. In a machine-run state, you get things done by knowing the local ward heeler. Want your street patched? Talk to the man who knows someone who knows someone and it gets fixed. It worked in Chicago for years, may still be that way. The problem in Utah is that it's kind of a covert machine. No one will admit that such a thing is even possible, and yet it's clear that the only difference between Utah politics and Chicago smoke-filled-room politics is that there's no smoke. I don't think we'll really achieve a republican (lower case) state while there is only one party. We need Brigham Young to rise out of his grave and say, "Everything north of South Temple is Democrat; everything south is Republican."

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Despise your neighbor

I just read about a group who get together to drink and make fun of their neighbors. They have some form of the word "liberal" in their title and their logo is the Angel Moroni taking a long draft of beer. So, let me see if I get this right. A group who call themselves liberal (generous, forgiving, live-and-let-live) gets together and chooses for a symbol something that is a conscious and studied insult. Hmmm. If asked about it, I imagine they would say something like, "It's all in good fun. Don't you have a sense of humor." Well, no I don't and no, it's not in good fun. It's vicious, condescending, and arrogant. But it's also depressingly universal.
What it does is demonstrate a tendency you will find in any minority group that considers itself superior. It's this: despise the majority.
Sailboat people despise motor boat people. Bus riders despise motorists. Bicyclists despise motorists (almost everyone despises motorists except when they are motorists themselves). Cross-country skiers despise downhill skiers.
It's a tendency well documented by sociolinguists, though they use it in a different context. But it's the same thing. Here's how it works: Let's say that you are in a foreign country. You are a member of a group who don't speak the language, don't understand the culture, don't know the history. So, you circle the wagons and talk only to each other. The British in India, the US in Japan after WWII. You don't realize you are in a rich culture, but instead speak of the locals as "wogs," or some other derogatory term.
Or, you drink and make fun of them and their symbols. If you reached out to them, of course, you'd be admitting that they are real people, and one can't have that, of course.
It's a pretty universal thing, alive and well in Utah.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Plato wrote for dummies

I wish people would stick to things they really know something about. Case in point: An editorial by David Broder on the intelligence of Presidential speeches (the “Golden Age” hypothesis is about to rear it’s hoary head). Mr. Broder is quoting a book in which a man with way too much time on his hands used a readability formula (The Flesch formula in this case) to analyze the IQ of speeches from Washington on, with the (natural) conclusion that modern Presidents are dumber than posts, or at least, assume that the electorate is, since they give “dumbed down” (please note the quotes) speeches.
This analysis is badly flawed. Readability formulas (or formulae if you wanna be high-hat) by and large depend on two metrics: Average sentence length and percentage of long words. Long words are those of three syllables or more and are assumed to be harder to read (I mean, look at the struggle you have just to read “hippopotamus.” What? No struggle? There must be something wrong with you).
Using such metrics, it’s no wonder that a speech by George Washington is deemed harder to understand. For one thing, the fashion in those days was for “periods,” or long, involved, balanced sentences. The fashion was also for words of Greek or Latin origin. With all this, it’s no wonder the stuff is hard to wade through. The first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence is one sentence. And it has that “inalienable” word in there.
But, and here’s the kicker, a higher Flesch score doesn’t mean that any piece of reading is more intelligent. It simply means that, according to the metric of choice, it’s at a higher grade level. By the stand espoused by Broder’s source, Plato, Mark Twain, and Hemmingway wrote for dummies. Shorter sentences, simpler words, don’t mean “dumbed down.” The sentences generated by the great minds of the past are works of beauty, no doubt, but that is not what makes the thoughts great. The thoughts are great because they are great. There’s a scene in the movie National Treasure in which Nickolas Cage quotes something from the Declaration of Independence to his sidekick who says, “That’s beautiful. I’ve no idea what you just said.” Then Cage tells him, in modern terms, what it means. It’s supposed to be a comic moment, but all it really does is to illustrate the differences in the modes of expression, classical and modern.
Quite frankly, I prefer the modern and feel we’ve come a long way, baby.
Which is not to say that the electorate is not dumb. It may well be. But, the junk science here doesn't prove anything.