Tuesday 29 July 2008

Logic as a model for humanity.

Yet again, being stupid, I've been arguing with people on the Interweb. If you want to read the whole thing, it starts here then continues here. It really is quite interesting, you know, but I'll summarize it here to save you the time.

The argument takes place at Samizdata, one of the Web's more popular forums for libertarian and anti-state thinking. I rarely visit, because, much as I agree with most of its denizens' views on how big and powerful a government should be (really not very at all), and much as I know, having met a couple of them, that some of them are dead nice people, some of the others, well... basically, they suffer from exactly the same problem as the Communists. That is, they refuse to allow their theories to bend to fit the annoyingly wonky shape of humanity. In other words, they're batshit crazy.

The chief protagonists in this argument are named Johnathan Pearce and Ian B. Here's their argument, boiled down to its salient points.

If you were to circumcise an adult male without his consent, that would be assault.

Babies do not give their consent to circumcision, because they're babies and they can't.

Therefore, circumcising babies is assault.

Therefore, circumcision should be banned. In fact, it is already effectively banned by the law that prohibits assault, but that law is inconsistently applied. It should be applied absolutely consistently. Circumcising one's child should lead to arrest and prosecution.

This policy would in no way discriminate against Jews. Jews would be perfectly welcome to stay in the UK. All they'd have to do is stop circumcising babies. Which is hardly a big deal, is it? Besides, religion is stupid.

Anyone who says that this policy would discriminate against Jews is paranoid. Furthermore, religion is stupid.

If you suspect me of exaggerating to make them look worse than they really are — and, let's face it, I'm not above that sort of thing — please do follow the links and get it from the horses' arses' mouths. You might think they were just your basic Jew-haters in really bad disguises, but I don't think they are: they really don't see why what they're proposing is the expulsion of the Jews from Britain. They must be intellectuals: no-one else would believe anything so stupid. I said to them yesterday:

If you know what's important to people, then you either get rid of the Jews deliberately or you don't get rid of the Jews. It takes a libertarian to get rid of them by accident.

But anyway, I don't want to address all that nonsense here. I've done it over there, and you can go read it if you like. I want to make a more general complaint.

See, the thing is, some of us would like to see something like a libertarian state. We want the state to be less powerful and less intrusive, the government to be smaller, taxes to be lower; we'd like a government who'd go through the thousands of pointless laws passed as knee-jerk reactions to made-up crises and actually repeal some of them, rather than just mindlessly churning out more and more. We'd like the right to defend ourselves and our families and our homes; we'd like to see criminals picked on instead of the inanimate weapons they may use. We'd prefer not to be arrested for throwing out the wrong sort of rubbish. None of this is going to be delivered by the British brand of political Conservatism, sadly in no way related to the American variety. The only people interested in fighting for these things in this country are the libertarians.

Now, the Samizdata guys are, in libertarian terms, the elite. Quite a few of them get to meet influential people fairly often, they talk on the radio from time to time, they meet MPs at posh dos. Not all that much, perhaps, not compared to your average leader of the NUS, but then that's libertarianism for you: it just ain't that big a political deal at the moment. But what little bigness it does have, it has in the environs of Samizdata. These guys have devoted themselves to getting libertarian ideas out into the consciousness of the British public, and they do so, and not just via their website. Good on 'em.

Except... well. I'm sure you see the problem. "Oh, libertarianism?" says your average member of the public. "Isn't that that bunch of frothing maniacs?" And in comes another ten years of Labour Socialism or Tory Socialism, as if I give a damn which.

I had this argument with the awfully nice Brian Micklethwait once. He argues that the job of libertarians should be to constantly put forth their opinions in a polite and unashamed manner, in order to make sure that our ideas are thought of as the sort of things that nice ordinary people like us can think, and thereby we gradually change the context of the public debate and that gradually filters up to politics. He's very much against the idea of toning down our ideas to make them more palatable, as that road leads to the likes of David Cameron: make policy by opinion poll, give the public what they already think they want, never attempt to change their minds about anything — in short, political stagnation and all parties essentially the same. But I don't think he fully understood what I was talking about, probably because I was quite drunk.

I don't suggest that libertarians should claim they want taxes lowered to 20% when they really want them down to 2%. I'm not suggesting libertarians should publicly advocate a slight relaxation in weapons laws while secretly wanting complete freedom to bear arms.

What I suggest is simply the marginalising and enthusiastic stamping out of this absurd militant tunnel-visioned self-important empathy-free logic-fetishizing tradition-destroying intolerant hateful claptrap. That's all. Because, as long as libertarians keep striving so hard to maintain their reputation as people who are so completely bloody stupid that they can't even figure out why parenthood is important unless someone draws them a diagram with full footnotes, appendices, and explanatory accompanying video, we will be stuck with the encroaching state.

And bugger that, frankly.

Friday 25 July 2008

The language.

Loads of people have been linking to Giles Coren's beautifully expressed hatred of sub-editors, and who am I to resist a bandwagon?

I don't really like people tinkering with my copy for the sake of tinkering. I do not enjoy the suggestion that you have a better ear or eye for how I want my words to read than I do. Owen, we discussed your turning three of my long sentences into six short ones in a single piece, and how that wasn't going to happen anymore, so I'm really hoping it wasn't you that fucked up my review on saturday.

It was the final sentence. Final sentences are very, very important. A piece builds to them, they are the little jingle that the reader takes with him into the weekend.

I wrote: "I can't think of a nicer place to sit this spring over a glass of rosé and watch the boys and girls in the street outside smiling gaily to each other, and wondering where to go for a nosh."
it appeared as: "I can't think of a nicer place to sit this spring over a glass of rosé and watch the boys and girls in the street outside smiling gaily to each other, and wondering where to go for nosh."

There is no length issue. This is someone thinking "I'll just remove this indefinite article because Coren is an illiterate cunt and i know best".

Well, you fucking don't.


Gary points out Roland White's impassioned defence of the subeditor (which may or may not be serious — or, rather, it's clearly not serious, but it's not clear whether he really likes subs), and adds:

I’ve had subtle gags ruined by unnecessary exclamation marks

[shudder] That's about the worst thing you can do to writing, that is.

Generally, though, I’m with A.A. Gill:

The joy of being a hack is that there is a back room of people far cleverer, more experienced and adept than I working to make me look clever, experienced and adept. If on occasion I fail to do so, naturally it’s their fault.

The whole thing has got me thinking, and I've decided that modern subediting, which doesn't stop at merely correcting mistakes but goes way beyond what should be its remit and amends a writer's style, is not just annoying for Giles Coren but is actually wrong in principle.

Thing is, language is defined by its writers. It makes no real sense to talk about whether there are grammatical mistakes in the King James Bible, for instance, because our grammar is based on the King James Bible. When considering whether a particular usage is valid, a linguist would refer to the King James Bible — as well as Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Bronte, Wilde, Carroll, and the other greats — to see whether they used it. Basically, if it's in there, it's correct. They all made mistakes, sure — Johnson really should have put an H in "discord" or no H in "chord" — but their mistakes were theirs only: it's not my mistake when I spell "chord" with an H in it, because Johnson, errors and all, was one of the writers whose work defines our language.

Now, journalists aren't quite as influential, usually, as Shakespeare. But the same process does take place with their work. New words and usages enter the lanuage, with the OED citing newspaper columns as their first recorded instances. The language is supposed to change, and journalists, with the size and frequency of their audience, are agents of that change. Look at "misunderestimate": a brilliant and useful word, coined (by accident) by George Bush. If he had just said it, I reckon it would have remained forever a one-off mistake. It was the word's appropriation and repetition by journalists that caused it to catch on.

Now, do we want a language whose future is built by imaginative, creative writers or by subeditors with lists of rules? As I said on Gary's blog, Tolkien reportedly spent hours going through The Lord of the Rings, laboriously changing back every instance of "try and" that American subs had changed to "try to". This is JRR fucking Tolkien, writing one of the greatest books ever written, and the bloody subs still thought they spoke better English. Would you rather have read their version?

A surprise.

Apparently, eating soya products lowers your fertility.

Just imagine what the population of China could have been.

Saturday 19 July 2008

A conundrum solved.

I'm contracting for a big firm at the moment, and I've just started there, so have had to do some training courses. I don't mean actually learning to do my job — though I am having to do that, too, yes — but the corporate stuff that everyone has to do, regarding fire escapes and secrecy and so on. They're those online courses with multiple-choice tests at the end.

So one of them's about security and confidentiality and maintaining frankly paranoid levels of suspicion, and, in amongst all the easy stuff ("An evil spy asks for your Windows password. Should you (a) tell him, (b) not tell him, or (c) give him all the company's money?") was a genuinely tricky one. It went something like this.

You've been given a promotion and so will from now on have lots of highly confidential documents. You have therefore been given a filing cabinet. You put the documents in the filing cabinet and lock it. But where do you put the key?

Now, since the course has been at pains to point out how easy it is to drop your keys or to have them knicked, this is actually rather a difficult question. You can't put them in your pocket, 'cause of pickpockets. So you can't take them home with you. But neither can you leave them lying around anywhere at work, which would be the equivalent of not locking the filing cabinet in the first place. So what the hell do you do with them? I don't mind telling you, if it hadn't been multiple-choice, I'd never have figured it out.

The correct answer is: In a lockable key cabinet.

But of course.


It may seem — and, in fact, is — churlish to complain about someone who's been nice enough to link approvingly to this here blog, but honestly, some people. Joanna Higgins of BNET United Kingdom ("The go-to place for management") has included this post of mine from t'other day in their Friday Round-Up, and... well, firstly, the link's under their Insight section. My blog provides insight into business management? I'm not sure whether to be flattered or baffled.

More to the point, though, Joanna's done something quite horrid to my Achewood quote. Here's the original:

Shrovis-Bishopthorpe lead the pack in considering the Internet a nuisance. To this end we have installed a lock, so that the decision to leave the real world behind and venture into a land of codswallop and hastily documented buggery is anything but a thoughtless one.

And here's Ms Higgins's version:

Shrovis-Bishopthorpe lead the pack in considering the internet a nuisance. To this end we have installed a lock, so that the decision to leave the real world behind... is anything but a thoughtless one.

I don't hold her responsible, much. No doubt BNET have rules about which words their bloggers may use. But I've sat through enough company presentations over the years to know that this is hardly an isolated incident, and so I do have to ask: is there some rule of business management that actually requires you to suck all the humour out of life?

Oh, looks like I have provided an insight into business management after all. Oops.

And it was all going so well.

Amazon have, I think, finally made a mistake:

New feature! Amazon now allows customers to upload product video reviews. Use a webcam or video camera to record and upload reviews to Amazon.

I'm finding it hard to imagine a worse idea.

Thursday 17 July 2008

More shoddy journalism.

Just how far back does British history go, anyway?

From The Telegraph:

Home owners and "have-a-go heroes" have for the first time been given the legal right to defend themselves against burglars and muggers free from fear of prosecution.

The first time? What, like, ever?

When journalists get these press releases from Number Ten, don't they question any of it?

Tuesday 15 July 2008

The British way.

I don't go on about it completely incessantly, but I am a bit of an Apple fan. I prefer their operating system, so buy their computers. Simple.

But there's a new competitor on the scene, and they really do look rather like they might wipe the floor with Apple. And they're British, would you believe?

Yes, it's Shrovis-Bishopthorpe:


Here is a proper British computer, soberly cased in good Dartmoor tin. Hand-turned brass dials and latches come in high- or low-burnish.

And look:

Shrovis-Bishopthorpe lead the pack in considering the Internet a nuisance. To this end we have installed a lock, so that the decision to leave the real world behind and venture into a land of codswallop and hastily documented buggery is anything but a thoughtless one.

What's not to like?

The Web encourages strangeness.

It's the way you no longer need the tiny minority of people who think the same way you do to be in roughly the same place for you to reach them. No matter how scattered, there they are, a market.

Erfworld is the strangest damn thing I ever did see. I'm not even sure I understand it, but it's superb.

Friday 11 July 2008

The state of things.

Watched Idiocracy last night. It's not exactly a masterpiece, but good fun if you fancy a laugh and can't be bothered thinking too hard because your daughter's got tonsillitis and you've therefore had too little sleep all week. For those of you who don't already know, it's set in a future in which the whole of mankind has become absolutely unremittingly stupid.

When it was over, Vic said, "They didn't need to set it five-hundred years in the future."

Wednesday 9 July 2008

Job requirements.

Daisy has tonsillitis, poor thing.

She gets it quite a lot. The infection responds well to antibiotics, but her taste buds don't. This is because antibiotics for small children have the nasty taste of the drug disguised with the even nastier taste of sickly sugary chemicals with names (but definitely not flavours) like "banana" and "strawberry". They are unforgivably disgusting, and Daisy won't touch the orange stuff, which seems to be full of the same fake migraine-triggering accident-in-a-chemical-lab crap they put into "orange" Revels. They used to put it in orange squash when I was a kid, and I couldn't even smell the stuff without getting a migraine, so I can't say I blame Daisy. (Incidentally, why the hell not use chocolate flavour? Kids love it, and even rather cheap fake chocolate flavour tastes of actual chocolate.)

The first time Daisy had tonsillitis, she was prescribed the orange stuff and Vic and I had one hell of a fight on our hands four times a day. We tried sneaking small amounts of it into food and drink that she liked, and she responded by refusing to touch food or even drink milk from us for two days in case we tried it again. In the end, we had to resort to having one person hold her down while another forced the stuff into her mouth with a syringe and then clamped her mouth shut. Not fun at all — especially since, when your child's ill, what you really want to do is comfort her, not torture her. That method worked that first time, but it doesn't any more, as Daisy has now taken to simply vomiting if anyone succeeds in getting any of the noxious orange crap into her stomach.

We did try asking a doctor at the time if there were any other flavour we could try, and he told us we'd just have to pull our bloody fingers out and get the stuff into her. This was all the more annoying in retrospect when she got tosillitis for the second time and was prescribed the "banana" stuff, which she decided in the end that she actually rather likes, which just goes to show that that bloody doctor, true to the long-standing traditions of his profession and the NHS, could indeed have done something for us but preferred to be rude to us instead.

Anyway, so, now, when she gets prescribed antibiotics, we make a point of telling whichever doctor Daisy sees that she won't touch the orange stuff. Last time, this was good: the doctor knew which drugs were which flavours and so prescribed the banana stuff. This time, however, the doctor we saw didn't know — which is fair enough, as it's not specified by the drug manufacturers for some stupid reason, so it's just one of those things a doctor either happens to know or doesn't. So the doctor, perfectly reasonably, gave us a prescription and advised us to ask the pharmacist before getting it dispensed.

So that's what I did, but the pharmacist apologetically explained to me that the drug manufacturers don't specify the flavour on the outside of the bottle. The stuff comes in dry powder form and the pharmacist adds water when dispensing it. The powder, annoyingly, is just sort of bland grey, so you can't tell by looking at it whether it's going to turn bright yellow or bright orange. This pharmacist even helpfully let me smell the powder, but it smelt of nothing. So I had to just go ahead and try it and see what happened. And, of course, by the time the pharmacist gave me the bottle, its contents were bright orange. By then, the prescription's dispensed and it's too late to change my mind. Bugger.

It was only when we got home that Vic noticed four words on the label of the bottle: "orange colour" and "orange flavour". They had been cunningly hidden in amongst some other words under the heading "Ingredients".

I have to say that I find the idea of a pharmacist who doesn't know that you can find out what's inside stuff by reading the list of ingredients slightly worrying. If you do too, you might want to avoid the Alliance pharmacy in Newtownards.

Tuesday 8 July 2008

One of the greatest blogs.

Some excellent stuff on Language Log, as ever. Firstly, the coining of a new word, "nerdview":

Language Log readers may appreciate the following classic example of writing in technical terms from the perspective of the technician or engineer rather than from a standpoint that would seem useful to the customer or reader.


The problem I am pointing to, however, is not about web programming or sorting technicalities. It is a simple problem that afflicts us all: people with any kind of technical knowledge of a domain tend to get hopelessly (and unwittingly) stuck in a frame of reference that relates to their view of the issue, and their trade's technical parlance, not that of the ordinary humans with whom they so signally fail to engage. ... The phenomenon — we could call it nerdview — is widespread.

I really hope the word catches on. I'm going to be using it. It's great when a new word comes along for something that you've been talking about for years. And it's great that the word sounds a bit derogatory, 'cause then, if it does catch on, it might discourage that which it describes.

Then there's this photo of the single greatest IT fuck-up I have ever seen.

And finally, following some link or other, I found this gem in their archives:

Let's be clear (since so many people seem to think the French always have a word for everything): this is a language used by people who are supposed to be the big experts in love and kissing and sexy weekends of ooh-la-la, and they don't have words for "boy", "girl", "warm", "love", "kiss", or "weekend".


I know, I'm going to get a whole flood of stupid email defending the beautiful French language and its expressivité: "La langue française, elle est si belle", they'll say, referring to their language as if it were a girl (not that they can say "girl"); Le français, they will say (inexplicably switching their gender decision from feminine to masculine), "est une langue" (O.K., so we're back to feminine again) magnifique, la langue de Racine et de Molière et de Balzac et de Rimbaud... All this from people who think a uvular scraping sound like a cat bringing up a hairball is a perfectly reasonable noise to use instead of an honest "r". From people who simply cannot make their minds up about whether an attributive adjective should precede the modified noun (sensible!) or follow it (silly!): the ever-indecisive French say un bon vin blanc ("a good wine white"), with one before the noun and one after. Get a grip! Pick one or the other!


Thursday 3 July 2008

Oh, miaow.

I had no idea there was a World's Ugliest Dog Competition, but it turns out there is. It looks like the Chinese Crested has the thing pretty much sewn up, I have to say.

I had also never heard of Beth Ostrosky, but it looks like one of the Belfast Telegraph's subeditors has, and isn't too fond of her. Look at the caption on this photo:

Model and TV host Beth Ostrosky (L) kisses a Chinese Crested named Rascal

Now, that's just mean.