Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Why I'm a Skeptic

One of the reasons I started this blog is that I think people these days are missing a great opportunity. The internet could help us better understand each other, but far more often it demonstrates how badly we misunderstand each other. When I watch arguments unfold in online comment threads, I'm always struck by how severely people misconstrue the other side's basic arguments and motivations. All too often, people misunderstand the motives and reasoning of those on the other side of an ideological divide. Put crudely, they think the folks on the other side believe what they do because they are stupider and meaner than the folks on their side.

The fact is, there are nasty, stupid people on both sides. But there are usually reasonable, well-meaning people on both sides, too. That's why I think it would be good for people to spend less time denouncing those with different beliefs, and more time explaining what they believe, what they don't believe, and most important, why. This would help those on the other side understand the thinking behind their beliefs, and realize it may be less nefarious and more logical than they thought. Now that the internet makes it easy to make your thoughts available to millions of people, we have a perfect medium for explaining why we think the way we do. We just need to start doing it. It won't stop us from disagreeing, but it could keep us from wasting our time misunderstanding and vilifying each other.

With that in mind, I'm going to do my part by explaining a belief I have that is often misunderstood. I'm a skeptic...one of those pro-science secular humanists who thinks doubt is preferable to misplaced certainty. As a skeptic, I believe that if there's little or no evidence for something, then I shouldn't believe in it. If an idea isn't supported by direct observation, science, or logic, then I'm going to assume it isn't true, at least until I find proof to the contrary. This means I'm very skeptical about anything that involves the supernatural—basically, anything that appeals to mysterious forces that science can't find any evidence for. I don't even think the idea of the supernatural even makes sense. I doubt there is supernatural. I think everything is subject to the laws of nature, even if we may not understand those laws. I think if we observe a phenomenon, and have no explanation for it, that doesn't mean it's supernatural. It just means we don't understand it yet.

My skeptical worldview means I don't believe in most of the ideas generally grouped under the heading “New Age”, including astrology, psychic powers, alien visitations, ghosts, and so on. I'm also very skeptical of lots of alternative medicines, especially if they're based on “energy paths” in the body or other processes that can't be detected scientifically, as in Reiki and similar systems. It's not that I think all alternative medicine is worthless, or that all mainstream medicine is effective or beneficial. I just think that just because a bunch of people claim some herb or traditional therapy can cure you, that doesn't mean it really can.

Finally, I don't believe in most of the tenets of any tradition religion. I'm not an atheist; I'm an agnostic, which means I don't claim to know whether there is a God or not, because I don't think I have enough evidence to make a decision. While I admire many Christian ideas about forgiveness and loving thy neighbor, I don't consider myself a Christian. I think Jesus may have been a spiritual genius, but when it comes right down to it, he is a shadowy figure that we don't really know much about. I don't believe he was a divine being, or the son of God. I'm also very doubtful that there is a heaven or hell. I think that this life is likely to be the only one we get, which means it's a tragedy when people disregard life in this world in favor of a life in the next world that probably isn't coming. I certainly don't believe I'll burn for all eternity if I don't believe or behave a certain way. There are better reasons to treat others well than a fear of eternal damnation.

Now, I want to make clear that I don't think people who believe in New Age ideas, alternative medicine, or traditional Christianity are fools. Most of the people I love and respect most believe in at least one of these things. In fact, I respect them enough that I want to explain exactly why I disagree with them. Also, I don't think all these belief systems are created equal. Religious devotion, for example, has much more moral gravity than most New Age beliefs. Far more people have devoted their lives to helping others for religious reasons than because their horoscope told them to. On the other hand, far more people have killed each other over religion than over horoscopes. Religion can cause a whole lot of good and a whole lot of bad. In comparison, something like astrology is pretty frivolous. And, while I think most religions can offer some deep insights and advice for living, I happen to think astrology is an unusually pure form of hogwash.

With that in mind, and with the added advantage that no one is likely to shoot me for bad-mouthing astrology, I want to use astrology to discus how a skeptic decides what to believe, and why. I believe a constellation such as Aquarius or Capricorn is the mind's way of imposing order on a basically random arrangement of stars; which are, after all, gigantic balls of incandescent gas so far away that their light takes years to reach us. Some of the stars in a constellation are hundreds of times as far away as others. They only seem to form a pattern when viewed from Earth, and they are moving, so in a few thousand years Capricorn will look even less like a goat than it does now. These considerations, and many others, suggest there's absolutely no reason to believe the stars influence your personality or your fate. It's not that I think astrology is uninteresting. I think it's very interesting, from a cultural standpoint, and I actually enjoy reading about the history of astrological thought. It's just that I don't think it's literally true. Therefore, I don't think people should rely on it to tell them how to live their lives.

But a lot of my friends do. In fact, a lot of them are genuinely surprised when I say I don't believe in astrology. Some even seem sad, as though they've discovered some ugly skeleton in my closet. Skeptics, alas, are not highly regarded in many circles. In general, people tend to see us as small-minded, as being stiff-necked conservatives, as killjoys, or as rude, disrespectful elitists. It's partly our own fault. Magazines like the Skeptical Enquirer can be very disrespectful of non-skeptics, and so can writers like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. Many of the recent books promoting atheism have a scornful, elitist tone that I find both distasteful and counterproductive. No self-respecting person will be convinced by someone who is scoffing at them, and being disrespectful is just plain rude. But skeptics don't have to adopt that tone, and I try hard not to.

I want to try to show my true-believer friends that skeptics aren't necessarily conservative or small-minded, nor do they like being killjoys. First, most skeptics are either liberals or libertarians--skepticism and religious-right conservatism are pretty much mutually exclusive. I myself am a political independent with liberal tendencies. And I hate the idea of being a killjoy. If someone finds astrology fun, satisfying, or comforting, I don't say I don't believe in it in because I'm trying to steal their joy. I say I don't believe in it because, well...I don't think it's true.

And that's where I part ways with a lot of people. If I say I believe something, I mean “I think it's actually true”. But a lot of people seem to have a different definition of belief. People believe things for all sorts of reasons, including:
    • the belief is comforting or otherwise satisfying
    • it's what they were brought up believing
    • it's what their friends believe
    • they think disbelief would lead to immorality
    • they think that some things must be accepted on faith, and that people are capable of arriving at truth via faith.
When people who think in these ways talk about belief, they mean “I want to think that this is true”, “I should think this is true” or perhaps, “I've always assumed it's true, and never stopped to question it”. These are very different definitions of belief from mine, and ones that I can't in good conscience accept. All the things above might be good reasons to want something to be true, but none of them are good reasons to actually think that they are true. The only reason to believe something, as far as I'm concerned, is that there is good evidence that it is true.

But why should I be so hard-nosed about it, especially if doing so is unpopular? When I tell people I don't believe in astrology, the ensuing conversation is surprisingly predictable. It's amazing how often they respond, “But why not, it's fun!?” Then I say I don't think the fun of an idea has anything to do with its truth. Then, 9 times out of 10, they say, “But what's the harm? If I enjoy it/it makes me feel good/it gives my life a sense of meaning, why shouldn't I believe it?” These are reasonable questions. For me, the fact that it isn't true is reason in itself not to believe it. I don't want to go around half-deluded, thinking the world is a certain way, when it really isn't. I would feel that way even if false beliefs didn't have consequences.

But beliefs do have consequences. People act on their beliefs, and those actions have real effects. For thousands of years, millions of people literally believed in the story of Adam and Eve. Because of this, many of them believed (and some still believe) that women are inferior and secondary to men, and that they are the source of much of the evil in the world. And they didn't just believe it; they acted on it, treating women as second-class citizens, to do menial chores under the watchful eye of men. This false belief caused an enormous amount of needless injustice, and history is full of similarly toxic beliefs. In fact, the world is still full of them today.

In the case of astrology, I have to admit that it isn't an especially high impact belief. Most people don't base major decisions on it. But some do. Some people meet others and assume they have certain traits as soon as they learn their astrological sign. Or they decide they should date someone based on their sign, even though that person is clearly a jerk. If astrology really is nonsense, then putting a lot of faith in it is not likely to turn out well.

But the impact of astrology is not my main point here. I'm talking about why it might actually be a good thing to be a skeptic—to hold off on believing things until you honestly have good reasons to think they're true. If you don't believe a bunch of things you have no evidence for, you run less risk of acting in a needlessly harmful way based on falsehoods. That's the main reason I'm a skeptic, and I think it's a good enough reason that I can handle being called a close-minded killjoy, or an amoral nihilist. I'm not amoral because I'm a skeptic; I'm a skeptic, in part, because I think it will help make me more moral.

Of course, if I'm skeptical of traditional foundations of morality, such as “God said not to”, or “You'll go to hell if you do that”, then I have to find other things to base morality on. I think there are perfectly rational, non-supernatural reasons to behave in an ethical way. This is not the place to spell them out, except to note that the the Golden Rule makes sense whether you believe in higher powers or not. It's true that if people abandoned old reasons to behave well, without adopting new ones, then the world would be a pretty nasty place. But there are new ones available, and some of the old ones led to a lot of nastiness anyway.

The final point I want to make is that being a skeptic is not the same as being close-minded. For me, skepticism means not clinging to any belief so fiercely that you can't bear to ask whether it's really true or not. I'm willing to accept that any belief is true, if someone gives me really good evidence that it is. If someone convincingly demonstrated that they could read minds, and a bunch of skeptical scientists couldn't catch them cheating, then I would tentatively conclude that mind reading is actually possible. Then I would wait for someone to demonstrate the physical laws and mechanisms that allow it to happen. I wouldn't conclude that there is such a thing as the supernatural; just that we had to expand our definition of natural. The point is, I would be open to the possibility, if the evidence were strong. Of course, if someone claimed they could read minds, I would suspect they were wrong or dishonest, simply because current science doesn't know of any mechanism by which mind-reading would work. But there's always the possibility that today's science will drastically reconsidered. It's happened before.

In short, I think skepticism and open-mindedness are two sides of the same coin. That coin is a stance of not latching on to any belief strongly until you have good evidence for it. It's true that I tentatively presume something is false until proven otherwise, but that's because far more ideas turn out to be false than true.

As I look back over this rather dry essay, I'm not sure I've succeeded in showing that skeptics aren't a bunch of killjoys. It's tough to write something that's both entertaining and closely-argued. But I hope I've dispelled some other misconceptions about skeptics. I can't speak for other skeptical types, but my motives have nothing to do with taking away anyone's fun, with trying to seem superior, or with trying to make anyone else seem dumb. My motive is simple: I want what I believe to actually be true. That's why I hold all beliefs at arm's length until feel like I have a real basis to accept or reject them—based on evidence, not desire, social pressure, or habit . While doubt may not be as satisfying as true belief, in a world where so many things actually are uncertain, doubt is far more realistic. For a whole lot of life's big questions, the most honest answer is “I don't know”. There many, many things I don't know, but there's one thing I'm pretty sure of: Misplaced certainty has caused a lot more suffering, and killed far more innocent people, than principled doubt ever has.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Blind Men and the Elephant: Why We Need to Change How We Debate


When I see people having angry debates (or when I cool down after getting into one) it always strikes me that we need to reframe how we see the purpose of a debate.  People tend to approach a debate as a winner-take-all game that you either win or lose, instead of a way to collaboratively search for the real truth.  Most people have their point of view, which they take for granted to be correct, and they try to prove how it's better than their opponent's point of view.  Oftentimes, both sides lose their cool and start needling or insulting each other, trying to make the other side look stupid.  If each side represents an ideological group (say, American liberals and conservatives), each group is turned into a sinister caricature of itself by the other side--stupider, meaner, and more extreme than most of them really are.  There are a whole bunch of problems with this approach:

·         People are much too confident they are right.  Human understanding is pretty error-prone.  Our feeble senses pick up thin slices of a complex world, and we use our limited brains to try to put these slices together into an accurate picture, based on our past experience.  Our understanding at best limited and at worst flat wrong.  Nevertheless, we get emotionally attached to our grasp of reality.  So, the views that we get red-faced defending are quite likely to be inaccurate.

·         Insults, rants, needling, and caricatures only convince those who agree with them in the first place.  No self-respecting person is going to listen to someone tell them how stupid and wrong they are, and think "OK, I guess you're right".  The more measured and polite your argument is, the more likely it is to be convincing to someone who doesn't agree with it.  This may seem pretty obvious, but it's very hard to remember in the heat of debate.  It never seems to have occurred to some people at all.  The point is, even if your goal is to win a debate, then getting angry and insulting is a bad approach. Of course, this assumes that your idea of winning a debate is convincing your opponent.  If your idea of winning is to thoroughly insult and humiliate your opponent, it might work.  That's a common goal, but is it a worthy one?  I mean, Galileo was insulted and humiliated, but he was still right.

·         Most people are at least partly right.  We tend to treat people who disagree with us as if they were wrong...period.  Sometimes that's true, but oftentimes it's not.  If you're a conservative, and a liberal tells you it's easier to make money if you already have money--they're right.  If you're a liberal, and a conservative tells you there are freeloaders who leech off the system--they're right, too. 

·         Lots of people who don't agree with us turn out to be fairly intelligent and moral.  Even if someone has a belief you find repulsive and immoral, they are likely to be a decent person in other ways.  This seems obvious...if it's someone you know well.  "Well, Uncle George is racist, and that's disgusting, but he would do anything for his friends and family, and he's really smart about a lot of things".  That doesn't work if you don't know the person well.  "That George guy is a racist.  He's a complete maggot".  The problem with turning people into sinister, stupid, repulsive caricatures based on unsavory characteristics is: 1. It's inaccurate.  2. Deciding a person, or group of people, is bad through-and-through is the first step people take toward killing them.  Maybe that's a slippery slope argument, but that slope really can be slippery, because nasty arguments are self-reinforcing.  They have a tendency to escalate into even nastier arguments.  Push comes to shove.  When you hear someone talking about "idiot libtards" or "rethuglicans", it's not that hard to imagine them contemplating violence.

·         If it's common for people to be partly right, then the point of most debates should to compare notes, and try to work out the bigger picture each person is only partly seeing.  This is the point of great story Buddhists and Sufis like to tell:  A group of blind men, who have never heard of elephants, is given a chance to go and touch one for a few seconds.  One feels the trunk, and thinks an elephant must be a lot like a snake.  Another feels a leg, and decides it must be like a pillar.  One feels its tusks, and decides that it has horns, like a cow.  When the blind men start talking about the elephant, they immediately start arguing, each insisting that his impression is the right one.  Finally, they walk away from each other, muttering darkly about what idiots the others are.  What they should have done, clearly, is to be civil and compare notes.  If they had talked it over for a while, accepting that reality is bigger and more complicated than their simple impressions, they would have gotten a much better idea about elephants.  Let me be clear, though:  I'm not arguing for absolute "reality-is-socially-constructed" relativism here.  There really is an elephant, whether any blind men fondle it or not.  In real life, everyone isn't always partly right.  If someone tells you the earth is flat, they are wrong, period.  This is the blind man who never touches the elephant at all (perhaps because he's sure he knows what an elephant is).  People can certainly be plain wrong, but my point is that our intellectual opponents are partly right far more often than we give them credit for.  Reality is a big, weird elephant.  Nobody understands completely, but most people manage to touch it occasionally.

My point here is that we need to change how we see the goals of a debate.  It doesn't need to be a winner-take-all game.  Most debates can be win-win if we can be respectful, and if we can consider the possibility that we might be partly wrong, and our opponents partly right.  Even if we're completely right, we're more likely to convince our opponents if we're reasonable and polite.  Relating to people we don't agree with by vilifying and insulting them is, in a word, stupid. It's not just childish; it's actually irrational, because it's counterproductive.  If I decide I can't possibly be wrong, and that my opponents are all mean-spirited idiots who deserve nothing more than to be put in their place, I'm taking the lowest road I can find.  There are higher roads, and we need to make better use of them.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Timeline Site Gets a Facelift


I haven't been posting here much lately, because I've been working on updating one of my websites.  In an earlier post, I talked about how I had put my educational poster, Universal Heritage:  Timelines of the Universe, Life, and Humankind, online.  At first, I just made PDF's of all the timelines, and linked to those.  But all 16 of those were originally designed to fit on one poster, so they were a little, well, cramped looking.  I've expanded and updated them and turned them into actual webpages, and made the homepage a little more aesthetically pleasing and simple.  Since it isn't a poster anymore, I also moved from www.worldviewposters.com to a different domain: 

www.universetimelines.com

The whole thing is now full of hyperlinks to Wikipedia articles, so if you want to quickly find out more about something you see on one of the timelines, just click on it.  If you're wondering why I chose Wikipedia, I have a rather long-winded explanation here

Hope you enjoy looking at the new site, and if you have any questions or comments, please let me know at ross b mays at g mail dot com.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Dream Themes


I came home from work feeling like I'm getting a cold.  I crashed on the couch at 6:30, and then woke up at 11:30.  Since I was (and am) half-awake, I thought I would read a part of a book about dreams.  I just read a chapter about the common themes in dreams.  Apparently, being chased is one of the most common dream occurrences.  Being naked or underclothed in public is also extremely common, as is dreaming of being unprepared; such as having to take a test and realizing you haven't been going to class or doing homework.  Since I'm half-awake, I think now would be a good time to list some common themes in my dreams.  I'm going to minimally edit what follows, to preserve the loose-association style.  Not all blog posts have to be fully-baked, do they?

I am, in fact, often naked or just in underwear in dreams, although I don't recall these dreams very often when I'm awake.  When I do remember such a dream, then I remember that I have had a lot of dreams like this.  In the dreams, I'm walking around without nearly enough clothes on, but it's a more minor embarrassment than it would be in real life.  It's almost like an inconvencience:  "Here I am again in my underwear.  Sigh....".

I dream about towns a lot.  Interesting, quirky towns, with colorful houses, and steep streets.  These towns are hilly, with a very up-and-down, three-dimensional character.  The houses are stacked up the hillsides, and the streets are windy.

Occasionally I dream I have super-powers, often Spiderman-like (I'm a Spiderman fan from way back).  In these dreams I can usually jump very far, and I'm moving between closely-spaced buildings like Spiderman, not swinging on webs, but leaping, grabbing ledges and poles, swinging, and clinging to walls.  Once I dreamed that I was on top of a tall building, and I jumped off, and would drop several stories, grab a ledge to catch myself, and then drop again.  It was really fun.  Usually, I wake up from the superhero dreams very disappointed to find my superpowers gone.

I have related dreams where I have amazing abilities, but don't think of them as being "superpowers".  Once I had a dream where I was in a big field, with boulders scattered about a hundred feet apart.  I could jump from one to the other.  Once again, big fun.  I rarely have dreams where I can fly, although sometimes I have dreams where I can sort of swim through the air by moving my arms and legs. I had a dream once where I was in a hallway, and there were a several dogs leaping up at me.  I was able to swim-fly and stay above them, near the ceiling.

Quick listing of other themes:

Landscapes:  wide, western-type landscapes.  Sometimes very non-realistic, like looking at a map.

Mountains:  Steep, cone-shaped mountains, smaller than many real mountains, but still intimidating, because of their steepness.  Similar to Pinnacle Mountain in Arkansas, or Cuckold's Head in Newfoundland.  Just a few hundred feet tall, with rocky or grassy slopes.  Not many trees.

I've had a few dreams about the writer Annie Dillard, after reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (she's brilliant, and in the picture in the edition I had, quite attractive).  In one, she was a singer-songwriter, playing music I found really profound.

Sometimes I dream of reading, but I can't really read, because the words keep shifting and morphing on the page.  Sometimes I dream about finding a book or series of books that is exactly what I'm looking for.  I used to be fascinated by A.B. Guthrie's books about the west, especially the first one, The Big Sky.  Once I dreamed I had found a whole series of books about mountain men, very much like The Big Sky.

In some dreams I'm underground, in a labrinth-like space.  Sometimes I dream that these spaces are full of interesting things.  Sometimes I dream of vast junk-shops full of stuff I'm really interested in.  Sometimes these are normal stores, although with more rooms than usual.  Occasionally, they are underground.  Interesting that a lot of myths have underground regions, and subterranean races and characters.

This may be different from dreams, but sometimes as I'm going to sleep, I become aware of mental conversations I am having with myself.  I get the sense these were ongoing, and I simply started paying attention to them, perhaps because nothing else was distracting me.  Could it be that our minds really do have these internal conversations going on much of the time, but we only become aware of them as we're going to sleep?  I read a quote from Jung somewhere that said dreams are like the stars.  They are there all the time, but we can only perceive them at night, when the bright sunlight of daytime concerns fades away.  I need to find that quote.

A related thing is the crazy hypnogogic thoughts you have when you are falling asleep or waking up.  They are usually wildly illogical, but they may seem to make excellent sense at the time.  As I've gotten older, I've learned to recognize these as signs that I'm falling asleep.  I've recently noticed weird thoughts about my alarm clock (cell phone), as I'm waking up.  When I was thinking about buying a car, I was thinking about whether to hit snooze again wondering "Ten minutes.  Can I afford that interest rate?"  Lately, I've been really interested in language and linguistics.  I was sleeping late, and kept hitting snooze, and having weird, half-asleep thoughts each time.  I was thinking about the word "snooze", and getting it confused with the word "doze".  I was thinking of snooze have the past tense of "snoze", and thinking doze should have some other tense of "dooze".  All this seemed very important at the time.

Sometimes dreams, and the weird falling-asleep thoughts, can seem very meaningful, even if they turn out not to be in waking life.  Once I had a dream where I was thinking about the line in the Bob Dylan song "Subterranean Homesick Blues", that says "The pump don't work cause the vandals took the handles".  I decided that he was talking about the Vandals, as in the marauding Germanic tribe.  And somehow that explained everything.

Sometimes a have dreams about St. John's, Newfoundland (I lived there for a couple of years).  It's one of those hilly towns I like to dream about.  It also has a harbor in the middle, and sometimes I dream that there are whales in the harbor.  I saw whales in Newfoundland, but never in the harbor.  Still, they are one of the most jaw-dropping sights I've ever seen; the way they emerge from the depths, and they are so huge that their back comes out of the water, and just keeps on moving past you.  Like a city bus suddenly surfaced and then dove again.  Somehow this seems to resonate with my idea of waking versus sleeping consciousness.  The unconscious is that mysterious, dark realm under the water.  Waking consciousness is whats above the water.  Sometimes huge, fantastic creatures emerge from the depths, and surface, and let you glimpse them before plunging into the depths again.  Could dark realms, such as underwater or underground, play a role in dreams because it is the way the mind sees its own more mysterious regions?

I also have the test anxiety dream.  In those dreams, it's the end of the semester, and I had forgotten that I was even supposed to be going to this particular class.  It's almost always a math class, because I hate math and am terrible at it.

Another anxiety dream I have, which evokes a vague sense of embarrassed despair, sort of like the "naked in public" dreams, is a dream that I have had to go back to high school.  I flunked out of college, and had to finish high school.  This is more relevant for me than for most people, because I actually did leave high school after my junior year, to go to college.  I didn't graduate high school, and a lot of people thought I would regret it.  I didn't.  But that gives it the extra layer of embarrassment, because in the dreams I'm back amongst all the high school people, and many of them have this "I told you so" attitude about it.  Horrifying.

Some things in waking life seem very dreamlike to me, whether or not I dream about them.  Subways seem incredibly dreamlike.  The way they move, much more soundlessly than you expect for something that big.  Also the way both ends look the same, so as they leave the terminal they look like they are going backwards, and the film in playing in reverse.  The way the air pressure changes in the terminal when they arrive and depart.  The way, when you're on a subway, that the lights and scenes you are passing flash on and off, alternating between light and dark.  Of course, subway terminals are underground, so that makes them resemble real dreams.  The way you descend into the depths, on escalators, which give you a dream-like sense of disconnected motion anyway.  One of the most dreamlike things I've ever experienced is taking an really long escalator (like 250 feet) into a deep underground subway terminal in Hungary.  There was a woman talking on the intercom in Hungarian, which sounded exotic and sort of Dracula-sinister to me (Yeah, I know Transylvania is in Romania, not Hungary, and Romanian is nothing like Hungarian).  Anyway, I don't think I've ever dreamed about a subway, that I can recall.  I just feel like I'm dreaming when I'm riding one or waiting for one.

The western United States, with its unbelievably wide, often freakish landscapes, also makes me feel like I'm dreaming, because it seems so much larger than life.  You're constantly half-thinking that it can't be real; it's too big.  But it is real.  It's just too much to wrap your head around.  Before I ever saw the west, I had dreams about steep hills, and dark valleys, like in Arkansas.  After I saw the west, I kept on dreaming about the hills and valleys, but I also started dreaming of vast western-type landscapes.

Of course, I often dream about interactions with other people.  But this opens a whole new realm, which I'm too tired to get into right now.

OK, now I'm more half-asleep than half-awake.  Which only makes sense if you are half-asleep.  So I'm going back to bed.  Maybe I'll post this in the morning, and ask people what they dream about.  How about it, tomorrow morning people?  What are some of your dream themes?

Friday, July 22, 2011

Ain't Nothing Wrong With Dialects, Y'all

Looking at the tag cloud at the right of this post, I see the word "language" growing larger and larger.  I've always been interested in language, particularly regional dialects.  That's probably because I grew up in the Arkansas Ozarks, which means the rest of the country loves to make fun of the way I talk. Being laughed at as soon as you open your mouth (or being written off as stupid, uncultured, or racist) will make you think long and hard about dialects, and what they really mean.  Upon reflection, I've decided I like my accent, and I like hearing other accents.  English would be mortally boring if everyone spoke it the same way.  Besides, when people jump to conclusions about my smarts based on my accent, it's their foolishness, not mine.  I'll explain why that's true below, but first I want to point out the amazing variety of southern English.

I live in Louisiana now, which surely has the widest variety of English dialects in the south.  At least five different dialects mingle here.  In north Louisiana, you get the twangy drawl of the upper south.  When these people tell you they are southerners, they pronounce the two R's in that word.  There are also a few southuhnuhs around Louisiana, who do not pronounce those R's.  They tend to come from old money, or at least imagine they do.  All across south Louisiana there are Cajuns, who generally speak English these days, but a very different English from the rest of the south.  Anybody who's ever watched Justin Wilson's cooking show has heard an exaggerated version of this dialect.  Of course, you can hear African American English throughout Louisiana.  Linguists recognize this as a distinct dialect, although it does share a lot of common ground with other dialects originating in the south.  

One of the most unusual dialects in Louisiana is the working class speech of New Orleans, which doesn't sound like anything else in the south. This dialect is known as Y'at, because its practitioners say "Where y'at? (which actually means "How are you?").  The accent sounds more Brooklyn than Mississippi, although the people who speak it still say "y'all".  Where I live, southwest of New Orleans, most people's speech seems (to my outsider ears) to be a cross between New Orleans and Cajun. They use syntax I've never heard outside of Louisiana; saying things like "I been knowin' him for years", or "Why you didn't call me?", or "Is that you new house?"  Even "y'all" is different.  Here, and in New Orleans, if a couple had just gotten that new house, people would ask "Is that y'all new house?"  Being from Arkansas, of course, I know that the proper way is to say, "Is that y'all's new house?" I mean, we have to have some rules here, right?

Whether it's "correct" or not, Louisiana's speech is as flavorful as its food, and hearing it every day has revived my longstanding interest in language and regional dialects. But I'm not alone. Most people are fascinated by language, or at least have strong views on which kinds of language are better than others.  When newspapers publish articles that stray from the rules people learned in school, they get letters lamenting the Decline and Fall of the English Language.  These letters describe the near-physical pain their readers suffer at the sight of split infinitives and questionable subject-verb agreements.  They claim to get sick to their stomach, to suffer from headaches, or to just get deeply depressed (oops, I mean "just to get".  Don't want to cause split infinitive sickness). 

People react pretty strongly to differences in spoken English, too.  If you have a strong regional dialect, you already know that strangers will draw conclusions about your intelligence and social class based on how you talk.  Many intelligent, well-educated southerners who have lived outside the south have had someone tell them "You know, you're a lot smarter than you sound!"  Astonishingly, this is usually intended as a compliment!  Dialects and other non-standard speech styles, like teen-speak, cause strong emotional reactions.  Most people like certain speech patterns, and they may deeply, viscerally hate others.

I'm guilty, too.  There are types of language I really dislike.  For example, the buzzwords and catch-phrases of business-speak (leveraging, actionable) and education-speak (the whole child; the apparent quota for using constructivist and praxis every few words) make my skin crawl.  When it comes to the pompous, difficult style so pervasive in academia these days, especially in the humanities and social sciences, hate is not too strong a word.  I admit it: I hate that stuff.  In case you haven't encountered this style, here's a sample.  This is the first sentence in an article called "In Other Words: The Other as Inventio, Allegory, and Symbol", by Stephen Tyler, a professor of anthropology at Rice University:

"The narrative of the symbol is the account of the object's impassioned upward flight from the outer world through the pathemata of the senses to the phantasms of of (sic) the imaginatio to the symbols of the nous and beyond( into the realm of the anagogic, and it is simultaneously the poem of the object's journey from expression to impression to representation (repression) to expression." (Italics and typographic error in original)

Call me a Philistine, but I think this is pretentious, impenetrable crap.  The ideas being "communicated" here may or may not be coherent.  I don't know, but I will assume they aren't until they are put into language that makes some degree of sense.  Life is too short to try to navigate a linguistic smokescreen like this.

So yes, I have my share of strong feelings about language usage.  I don't think language should be used to exclude or obscure, and the passage above does both.  Some kinds of language irritate me in far more minor ways.  In a previously blog post I discussed how people who are trying to sound educated (for example, those being interviewed on NPR, or speaking at conferences) keep saying "sort of" and "kind of".  I do find this mildly irritating, but I don't think I made my reasons clear.  It's not that it offends my sense of "correct grammar" or "proper English".  I dislike the constant repetition of "sort of" because I see it as an indicator that people are consciously trying to speak like a certain group, which means they are in danger of automatically thinking like that group.  I see buzzwords, catchphrases, unnecessary jargon, and stereotyped linguistic tics like "sort of" as signs of an imitative, parrot-like habit of mind, which is not conducive to independent thinking.

But I'm actually a big fan of regional dialects.  Imagine how boring the world be if everyone spoke the Standard English that newscasters use, with its rigid grammar and its nondescript accent.  Dull, dull, dull.  Regional dialects add an enormous amount of spice to the world.  Many people (though certainly not all) would agree.  Far fewer people would agree with my next claim, however: there's no real evidence that any dialect is inferior to any other.  If you ask most linguists, they will tell you that the most backwoods hillbilly uses a grammar that is just as complex and rule-based as William F. Buckley's.  It's a different grammar, but not an inferior one. 

This isn't just knee-jerk ivory tower relativism; it's based on piles of painstaking empirical research. People tend to think of regional dialects as variants of language in which the rules have broken down, but this is a fallacy.  Dialects have their own rules; those rules are very subtle; and native speakers know them very well.  Take African American English, which was at the center of the extremely contentious Ebonics debate several years ago.  Some African Americans say things like "He be taking night classes".  In this dialect, this is a standard way of saying something is happening in the present tense.  It's not just sloppy usage.  No African American would use "be" when speaking in the future tense: you wouldn't hear "He be gonna take night classes next semester".  In the grammar of African American English, that would be incorrect.  Only someone who didn't know any better would say a thing like that.  

It is certainly possible to speak a dialect incorrectly.  As a southerner, I've heard non-southerners try to imitate southern speech, and get it all wrong.  There's this strange misconception, for example, that y'all can be singular.  I have a friend from the Midwest who used to poke fun at my speech by greeting me with "Hey, y'all".  I would always look around, to see who else was there.  He just didn't get it.

To speak sensibly about disputes over the grammar of different dialects, I need to distinguish two kinds of grammar.  When people tell you not to say things like "He don't know nothing", or "He be taking night classes", they're advocating a prescriptive grammar.  They believe English should follow a standard set of grammatical rules, and that deviations from these rules constitute incorrect grammar.  This is different from descriptive grammar, which is what linguists are studying when they record how people really do speak, and try to work out the rules they follow.  Prescriptive grammar is concerned with how people should speak, while descriptive grammar is about how people really do speak.

Looking at language from the descriptivist point of view, it's clear that no language is a unitary, static thing.  All living languages naturally evolve, as people invent and import new words, combine old ones, develop new styles of slang, and so on.  Since the language evolves differently in different places, any widespread language develops dialects, which may eventually evolve into different languages.  Spanish, French, Italian, and Romanian, for example, all evolved from regional dialects of Latin.  

The tendency for language to transform and diversify over time has been noted, and lamented, for thousands of years.  Many look at the changes they see in the language in the course of their lives, and conclude that the language is decaying into gibberish.  It isn't. It is changing, and, given enough time, it will evolve into something unintelligible to its current speakers.  But, as atavistic as the teen-speak in the mall may sound to you, no language has ever devolved into something that can't be used to communicate.  As old distinctions fade away, new ones appear to take their place.  

Of course, all I have established so far is that most linguists are descriptivists, that languages always change and diversify into new dialects and languages, and that dialects follow complex, consistent rules of their own.  This doesn't prove that some dialects aren't inferior to others. The mistake the prescriptivists make is thinking that the rules and pronunciations of Standard English are somehow the perfect form of English, and that regional dialects are corruptions of this form.  There are several problems with this point of view.  For one thing, what is considered Standard English has changed considerably over the years, so it is certainly not eternal.  Also, the rules and pronunciations that have been codified as standard are mostly based not on modern understandings of language, but on historical accidents, false analogies with Latin, and arbitrary proclamations by self-appointed guardians of the language.

The very idea of a standardized English first became popular in the 1600's, in--not surprisingly--England.  By this time, the city of London had come to dominate the politics and culture of the country.  London was where the royal family lived, where Parliament met, where the rich and fashionable congregated, and where most books were published.  All this made the English of upper class London the most prestigious dialect in England.  Naturally, this strain of English served as the model when people started trying to standardize the language.  If history had gone differently, and the city of York had become the political and cultural center of gravity in England, then the Yorkshire dialect would have been the model for the standard.  The rise of the London dialect as the standard had far more to do with accidents of history and social prestige than with its intrinsic logic or superiority.  While the Standard American English we hear on TV over here is very different from the Standard English of the 1600's, it didn't become the standard by a process any more rational.
 
In both cases, the pronunciations and grammatical rules that people think of as "proper" are based on whatever dialect the upper classes in the most influential regions happened to speak.  There are no compelling reasons to think the dialect that became standard was any better than any other dialect.  People simply confused "spoken by high class people" with "intrinsically better".  For example, there's no good reason to think one pronunciation is better than another, as long as it's understandable.  In New York, people in the lower classes are more likely to drop R's at the end of words than the upper classes are.  On the Upper West Side, people have "brothers" and "mothers", while in the grittier areas, they have "brothuhs and mothuhs".  The dropped R is correlated with lower social status, but does that make it worse?  What about in parts of the deep south, where the upper class people are the ones more likely to drop their R's?  

Distinctions between "good" and "bad" accents are arbitrary, and based more on prestige than intrinsic worth. Saying "He can't talk very well" is considered more correct than "He cain't talk very well" for the same reason that a particular fork is considered the correct one to use for your salad--some influential group of people decided it was correct, and that's that.  It has no foundation in rationality. Oftentimes, differences in pronunciation can be used the same way the "correct fork" distinction is: to determine who's in the in-group, and who isn't.  They are shibboleths, which mainly serve to determine whether the person speaking is "our kind of people".

Regional accents, like regional syntax, follow very complex, albeit mostly unconscious, rules.  Being from Arkansas, when I say the words "ten" and "tin", they sound exactly alike.  Both sound like "tin".  My father's name is Ben, but I call him Bin.  He doesn't mind, because that's what he calls himself.  Once I was thinking about this, and thought, "If I say tin and ten so that they sound alike, why not bit and bet?"  I say bet the same way most people in the country say it, with a clear "e" sound.  When I looked up linguistic studies about this, I was amazed at the complexity of the rule I'm unconsciously applying.  The pin/pen merger, as this phenomenon is called, only happens with words that end in nasal consonants: m or n.  When you make either of these sounds, you drop your soft palate, so that air escapes through your nose.  The nasal cavities resonate, which helps give these consonants their distinct sounds.  Other consonants in English are pronounced with the soft palate raised.  What's interesting here is that I knew this rule without really knowing it.  Before reading up on the pin/pen merger, I couldn't have told you what a nasal consonant is, or that m and n are examples of one.  But I automatically applied the rule, which is why pin and pen sound alike for me, but bit and bet don't.  That's how language works.  People learn the rules implicitly, not explicitly.  They know how to speak their dialect fluently, but they would have a hard time explaining the rules they're following.

I'm mentioning all these facts about accents to show that a regional accent, like regional syntax, is not an example of an offshoot of the language in which the rules have broken down.  It's simply an example in which the rules have changed.  In the case of the pin-pen merger, the rules have actually become more complex, not less.  People who speak like me follow an additional rule, which people in other regions do not. 

Based on these kinds of arguments, I think most people will concede that value judgments about accents are based on stereotypes and historical accidents, not the inherent worth of the accent.  But what about grammar?  Isn't it still wrong to end sentences with prepositions? Shouldn't we be careful about splitting infinitives?  Surely people who use double negatives, like "He don't know nothing" are mangling the language?  Consider the rule against ending sentences with prepositions, which has caused generations of writers to compose tortured sentences like "To whom are you speaking?" instead of the perfectly straightforward "Who are you speaking to?"  According to David Crystal, the restriction was first promoted by John Dryden in the late 1600's.  Dryden was one of the first people to think it might be possible to perfect the English language, and then freeze it in its "perfect" form (Dryden's English sounds archaic now, ironically).  To this end, he started proposing rules he thought good English should follow.  One of these was to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition.  His reasoning is not well known, but it's likely he was basing his judgments of English grammar on his extensive knowledge of Latin.  Like many of his contemporaries, he believed that Classical Latin represented a sort of pinnacle of human language.  English was thought to be a barbarous tongue compared to the language of Cicero and Caesar.  In Latin, prepositions always come before the nouns or pronouns they modify, which is why they are called pre-positions in the first place.  English has a different structure than Latin, and there is no reason why this should be true in English. 

Nevertheless, Dryden's preference stuck, and is with us to this day.  Even though influential grammarians have been saying for over a hundred years that the rule is silly, people are afraid to abandon it, for fear of sounding uneducated.  Just yesterday, I was writing a grant proposal, and keeping an eye out for dangling prepositions, because there are still people out there who would see them as a sign of a poor command of the language. The fact that a tradition is patent nonsense has never been sufficient reason for a society to abandon it.

The rule against using double negatives may seem to be on slightly firmer footing.  Logically speaking, isn't saying "He don't know nothing" equivalent to saying, "He does know something"?  The negative words "don't" and "nothing" cancel each other out and produce a positive, right?  This is what the people who originally proposed the restriction against double negatives argued.  But the fact is, as much as we might like language to follow the rules of logic, it doesn't.  When people hear Marvin Gaye sing Ain't No Mountain High Enough, they don't think he means "there is a mountain high enough".  We naturally interpret double negatives as, well, negative.  In fact, their widespread use in popular music suggests they pack more punch than more formal usage.  Would a song called There Isn't Any Mountain High Enough have ever made it onto the charts?  In many languages, double negatives are standard.  When the French say "Je ne sais pas" (I don't know), both the ne and the pas are negative.  Chaucer and Shakespeare also used double negatives, and most people don't fault them for their poor grasp of the language.  

The point I'm trying to make in this unfeasibly long blog post is that not that some styles of English can't be inferior to others.  Some are inferior, because they don't work well.  The reason language exists is to help us communicate complicated ideas and emotions to each other.  Any style that fails at that task is bad English.  The passage I quoted above by Professor Tyler is a shining example of bad, bad English, because it fails to clearly communicate any idea (except, perhaps, "I think I'm smarter than you").  I also think other kinds of English are bad, if not that bad.  The jargon used in business, government, and education is unfortunate, because it reveals questionable, herdlike mindsets, and because it often serves more to obscure clear thought than than promote it.  While I think teenage slang can be expressive and entertaining, the teenage tendency to try to sound dumb are is not a positive one.  I certainly wouldn't want to see writers and newscasters trade in their Standard English for teen-speak.  I wouldn't even want them to start using whatever regional dialect they grew up with--at least not entirely.  There's no reason they shouldn't speak in version of their regional accent, as long as it's understandable.  In fact, it would do some good, because it would lessen the stereotype that no one with a non-standard accent can be smart and successful.  Still, having a standardized form of the language makes good sense, because it serves as a common medium between different regions, different social groups, and different generations.
 
When it comes to judging regional dialects against Standard English, I think people need to realize two things:  First, Standard English is not "Perfect English".  Its pronunciation is just as arbitrary as any other, and many of its rules were simply made up.  Second, regional dialects are not corrupted, "fallen" forms of English.  They're healthy varieties of a diverse language, with their own rules and their own strengths.  While I think we should keep teaching Standard English, I also think we should start emphasizing to students that it is just a tool for communicating to a wide audience.  Standard English wasn't handed down to us from on high.  We invented it, to serve a certain purpose.  With this in mind, there's no reason not to do away with rules that exist for no good reason.  Let's teach kids, once and for all, that it's fine to end sentences with prepositions. This would save them a lot of heartache, and ourselves from a lot of ugly sentences.  Let's accept that some nonstandard usages exist because they fill gaps in Standard English, and consider whether Standard English should adopt them.  For example, Standard English has no non-gender-specific singular form.  To say "If someone is using a dialect, that doesn't mean they are stupid", is widely considered to be poor usage, because "they" is plural, and "someone" is singular.  But people say it because they don't want to specify a gender.  Since Standard English doesn't give us a neutral option, let's declare that "they" will work, plural or not.  Who's the boss here, anyway, the language or the people who created it?  

Maybe we could even accept that words like "ain't" and "y'all" are widely used because they make the language more efficient.  Standard English doesn't distinguish the singular and plural forms of "you", but sometimes you want to make that distinction.  When people from various parts of the country address a group as y'all, youse, or even you'uns, they are actually being more precise than people saying the more ambiguous you.  Maybe we should listen to them.  Finally, let's ask ourselves why ain't, that venerable outlaw of a word, is used in countless popular songs, even by well-educated singers. I suspect it's because ain't is more expressive, concise, and versatile than "aren't" and "isn't".  Maybe we should finally accept this fact, and let ain't come in from the cold.  Finally, and most importantly, let's stop assuming that people are less worthy because they speak in a dialect.

Will these things happen any time soon?  Probably not.  Groundless snobbery is a habit as hard to break as hand wringing over where to put prepositions.  Old, meaningless rules are especially hard to abandon when being the trailblazer could get you branded as being provincial or stupid.  And that's the problem, right there:  equating provincial with stupid or unworthy.  This equation is nothing more than old-fashioned bigotry and stereotyping.  While it's true that some populations speaking regional dialects may have lower average educational levels than others, that doesn't mean they are dumber, or that some of them aren't highly educated or naturally brilliant.  When we write people off as being dumb, old-fashioned, or small-minded based only on the dialect they are using, we're the ones being stupid, not them.


Recommended Links and Reading

Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995. 

Do You Speak American?

Lynch, Jack. The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of "proper" English, from Shakespeare to South Park. New York: Walker & Co, 2009.

Pinker, Steven. "GRAMMAR PUSS." New Republic 210.5 (1994): 19-26

Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York: HarperPerennial ModernClassics, 2007

Yeah You Rite! New York, NY: Cinema Guild, 1985.

Non-Recommended Reading

Tyler, Stephen A. "In other words: The other as inventio, allegory, and symbol." Human Studies 16.1/2 (1993): 19-32.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Big Picture: History of the Universe Poster Goes Online



Lately I've been showcasing some old creations on this blog.  In the past, I took on much larger projects than I have time to do now.  Or maybe I'm just too lazy to create something new.  In any case, this is a poster I made a few years ago.  Yes, it's a timeline of the whole universe--like I said, I took on larger projects back then.  Anyway, I had about a thousand of these printed up. I've sold almost all of them, and I made a satisfying return on my investment.  I used to ship these all over the world (especially to Australia.  The Aussies loved them for some reason).  These days, though, I sell so few that it isn't really worth my time to ship them.  Buying mailing tubes, standing in line at the post office, getting emails from people in Romania whose poster was lost between here and there--it's a bit of a pain.  So, I'm setting it free...at least in electronic form.  It's available at www.worldviewposters.com.

If you happen to be interested in perusing a visual overview of the history of the universe (and who isn't, right?) you can click on the picture to open up PDF versions of the individual timelines.  I recommend zooming in to at least 125%.  You may want to start at the third timeline, which shows the full age of the universe, and then going backward and forward from there.  The first timeline deals with the big bang, and it's much more intimidating than the other ones.

Hope you enjoy it, and thanks to all the people who bought a copy!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

TV, Facebook, and the Mob Mentality

"The mob is the mother of tyrants."  -Diogenes

I hope this doesn't sound too sanctimonious, but I have never been happier that I don't own a TV than I am tonight.  Looking at Facebook, I see that a little girl named Caylee was murdered.  I don't know how, and don't want to know. It's not that I don't care.  It's an unspeakable tragedy, but one that happens all too often; too often for the news to focus on it at the expense of other issues that directly affect far more people. I also see that the girl's mother, who was accused of the murder, was acquitted.  Apparently, a lot of people think she is guilty.  If she is, and she slipped past the system, that is a tragedy too.  But not as great a tragedy as the murder itself.  Not even close.  It is also not as great a tragedy as if the mother were wrongly convicted.  I have no idea if she's guilty or not, because, I haven't followed this whole awful business.  I know how horrible the world can be; I don't need to scrutinize whatever particular horror the media has decided to fixate on.

Since I already knew that children are murdered every day, what disturbs me most about this are the comments I'm seeing on Facebook.  People are claiming that they are certain that the mother was guilty, and I've even noticed a few (mostly friends of friends) saying things like "People know where she lives....".  They are talking about how, if they were in charge, she never would have made it to court.  I even saw a virtual fight break out, where a couple of blowhards in a comment thread started threatening each other physically.

All this sounds a lot like the rumblings of an angry mob.  Luckily, this is only a virtual mob.  They aren't gathered outside someone's door, and they don't have knives and ropes inside their jackets.  But I get the impression that, if this poor girl's mother stepped out on the streets, and met a crowd of people who were talking to each other this way....they might actually kill her. And maybe she is guilty, and maybe she deserves a nasty fate.  But a mob is not who should decide whether she's guilty, much less take her punishment upon themselves.  Our justice system is far from perfect, but it's light years ahead of mob rule, which is far more likely to result in injustice than justice.

I've always thought that sites like Facebook are good for keeping you informed about how other people are thinking.  I want to know how others think, even if it disturbs me.  And tonight, what I see makes me think we are still quite capable of mob violence.  And it is disturbing, because if there's anything more frightening than a murderer going free, it's a lynch mob running wild.

Hornswoggled

"Well, I reckon we'd be in the calaboose if we hadn't skedaddled outta town." The big man, known only as Ain't Francis, tended the slumgullion stew, while his partner, London Jim, played mumbletypeg by the campfire. "Lord, what a ruckus. The whole dern saloon was cattywampus when the dust settled."

The Englishman nodded glumly, taking a drink from his hip flask. "It was a right kerfuffle, at that. Things went higgledy-piggledy." Frowning at his torn suit, he said "My finest haberdashery, as well. Now it's rubbish".

"Well, you're too dang persnickety anyway," Ain't Francis snorted. "You gamblers are a bunch of fussbudgets. Why, you didn't land a haymaker in that whole rumpus!"

London Jim looked affronted. "Poppycock! Would you have me risk these nimble fingers by engaging in fisticuffs? Games of chance cannot simply be left to… to chance, old boy! My skills lie in artful prestidigitation and legerdemain. I leave the roughhousing for rapscallions such as yourself."

Ain't Francis narrowed his eyes. "You act highfalutin', but you're a scalawag just the same. And you ain't as slick as you think. The plan was for you to keep them clodhoppers occupied playing cards, while I slipped in the back and busted into the strongbox. Then we coulda hightailed it with all that gold they keep in there."

"Codswallop." London Jim muttered, clearly flummoxed.

"That floozy you was canoodlin' with….Molly Coddles…what kinda moniker is that, anyway? She had you discombobulated. She acted like a flibbertigibbet, saying how your fancy duds made her 'all twitterpated', but she was a sly one. She had you showboatin', winning too many simoleons off that pair of sheepherders. Soon's as I busted into that safe, that's when she allowed how you wasn't just fleecin' em, you was plumb skinnin' em. That's when they decided to give you a wallopin'. And they would have too, if I hadn't put up my dukes and come in swinging."

"Balderdash," said Jim primly. "The barman had already pulled out that bloody great blunderbuss and blasted a hole in the ceiling. The altercation was just subsiding when Molly flounced over, batted her eyes, and asked that you rush to my aid. While you created a proper state of pandemonium, she absconded with the contents of the safe." Jim sighed, with clear admiration, and said "I believe you were as gobsmacked by her as I was, old boy."

Ain't Francis spat thoughtfully. "Yessir, I reckon she had us both hornswoggled. She used them feminine wiles, sure enough, and that's how she absquatulated with all our loot. Well, at least we ain't in the hoosegow. Pass me that firewater, would you, Jim?"


(Some silliness I wrote back in library school, during a fit of procrastination. To the best of my knowledge, it has no basis in fact.)

Friday, July 1, 2011

Moi Egal à Toi

Moi Egal à toi; [Portrait of a... Digital ID: 1169764. New York Public Library


 This is just a short post to showcase this image.  I saw it in a documentary called Faubourg Treme - The Untold Story of Black New Orleans.  The woman in the image actually wasn't a New Orleanian.  She was Haitian, and the engraving was made around the time of the Haitian Revolution.  I think they chose to use it in a documentary about New Orleans because refugees from the revolution streamed into the city in 1809, more than doubling its population.  So there is a Haiti-New Orleans connection, but I imagine the real reason they used it is the caption, which translates as "I am your equal".  I don't know French, so I wouldn't have even noticed except that the documentary translated the main heading.  The rest of it says (if my amateurish translation can be trusted) "Color is nothing, the heart is everything; am I not your brother?"

I thought this was pretty moving.  Here's a young black woman, at a time when most black people in this hemisphere were enslaved, and commonly thought to be inferior beings, gazing straight ahead to meet anybody's eye. Her look seconds what the caption says.

But who was this woman?  What became of her?  The portrait doesn't say, and there doesn't even seem to be much written about the engraver, François Bonneville, even though he also did a portrait of Toussaint Louverture.  There's a lot of mystery here, and if I have time, I'll try to solve some of it. What's not mysterious, though, is what this image is saying, and how bold it was to say it at that time.  I don't know who that woman was, but she's got my respect.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

It's Sort Of Weird How Often People Say "Sort Of"

Why do people who are trying to sound erudite keep saying "sort of" and "kind of"?  I kept hearing people speaking this way at the American Library Association conference in New Orleans yesterday. You hear it all the time on NPR, not necessarily with the reporters, but with the people calling in or being interviewed.  There's sort of this tendency for people to say "sort of" all the time.  If they really want to emphasize something, they might even say "really sort of".  Why on earth, if you're trying to sound smart, would you use filler phrases like "kind of" and "sort of"?

I think part of the answer is that these phrases aren't just filler.  They resemble other filler words, like "um" or "uh", in that people say them unconsciously.  But "sort of/kind of" seem to carry some real meaning, too.  They serve as hedge phrases, to make people sound less blunt.  In this sense, they're related to the "like" of teen-speak, which really, like, drives the grownups crazy*.  More than that, though, these phrases seem to be unconscious affectations or signals, which say "I am speaking the way thoughtful, educated people do".  "Sort of" and "kind of" serve as indicators that the speaker is part of a certain subculture (more or less the NPR-listening, college-educated, self-consciously-cultured subculture), and can speak the way their peers in that subculture do.

Which is really sort of mildly annoying to me.  I'm very attuned, for some reason, to people's unconscious badges that mark their subcultural identity.  I notice how skateboarders walk differently than hipsters, and hipsters smoke their cigarettes differently than construction workers.  But when the subculture I'm observing is one that I'm (loosely) associated with, like that bookish, NPR-listening crowd, those subcultural badges irritate me.  I'm part of that subculture that tries not to be part of a subculture (we're probably very predictable).  I know I probably wear my share of these badges, but I do think there's a good reason to notice when you're unconsciously mimicking your peers.  As soon as you start automatically speaking and dressing like a particular group of people, you run the risk of automatically thinking like them.  And if you're automatically thinking like any group of people, well, that really sort of means you're not thinking at all.  It's not that I think people should immediately cease and desist with the "kind of" and "sort of".  It's just that it wouldn't be a bad idea for them to notice it, and stop to think about what else they're doing, and thinking, without really thinking about it.

* Wikipedia says that people have been using "like" this way for a long time, but it became popular with the beatnik character Maynard G. Krebs, on the TV show Dobie Gillis in the early '60's.  Of course, we all know Shaggy said it a lot on Scooby Doo.  So, like, people that are grandparents now used to talk like this.  In fact, some of them still do.  Wikipedia also says words like "like", "um", "uh", "well", etc, are called discourse markers or discourse particles.  Apparently, linguists used to think of these things as mostly being filler, but now see them as carrying real meaning.  I think I'll look into this some more, once I find some readable sources on this stuff beyond Wikipedia.  Here's a couple of interesting ones:

Just Like, Er, Words, Not, Um, Throwaways.  Michael Erard, New York Times

Like, what is the meaning of "like".  USA Today

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Puttin' On Airs

OK, so I got one reasonably polished essay up on this blog.  Which is good, but I don't think I'll be doing that more than every couple of weeks (and that's optimistic).  The rest of the time, this will be more like a journal of the ideas that intrigue me, rather than some sort of well-developed column.  I'll let people know on Facebook if I write something I think they might like reading, and the rest of the time, I'll just use this blog as what Thoreau called "a meteorological journal of the mind".  At least, I think that's what he called it.  I never read the obscure work he said that in; I got the quote from Annie Dillard, who probably did read it.  Maybe sometime I'll write about how much intellectual bluffing goes on in this world.  Lots of writers just throw out a reference like that, and if you get the false impression that they are a minor Thoreau expert, well, that's your loss and their gain.  I'll try to avoid that sort of thing, but I do think the Thoreau quote is a great metaphor for the the unpredictable eddies and swirls of people's minds.  Actually, metaphor is what's on my mind--metaphor and word histories, and what they say about how we think. So that's what I'll talk about in my next post.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Boogie Roots

More on music, and how what seems current may have roots that go farther into the past than you think.  I was just listening to Pinetop's Boogie Woogie, first recorded by Pine Top Smith in 1928. Over 80 years later, it's amazing how many elements of the song seem modern. Pine Top is telling his audience exactly how he wants them to get down, just like party bands still do today. This is apparently one of the first records to tell someone to "shake that thang".  I never noticed people express approval by exclaiming "That's what I'm talkin' about!" until just a few years ago (probably because that's when white people started saying it) but here's Pine Top saying it decades ago.  You can hear the foundations of funk and hip hop here, in a song from the jazz age. Check it out:


Friday, June 17, 2011

From St. James Infirmary to the Streets of Laredo

In my last post, I talked about how interesting it can be to discover that seemingly unrelated things are really different branches of the same tree. Finding these connections can be intensely satisfying (at least if you're a geek like myself). I get an added jolt sometimes when I realize that the connection I've just recognized has unexpectedly old, deep roots. I got this double-jolt not long ago, after listening to Louis Armstrong's amazing version of St. James Infirmary. (All the songs mentioned in this post are linked to Rhapsody, a subscription music service. You should be able to listen to up to 25 songs for free).

Since I live near New Orleans, I started wondering if the infirmary he was talking about had been a hospital there. But when I looked into it, I was amazed. The original St. James Infirmary (actually called St. James Hospital) was leper colony in London. And get this--it was torn down in 1532, on the order of Henry VIII, to build the St. James Palace. The palace was the main home of the royal family during the 1700's, and is still standing today. This is astounding to me: when he recorded St. James Infirmary in 1928, Satchmo was singing about a place that hadn't existed in nearly 400 years.

Just as unexpectedly, I found that St. James Infirmary has a well-known cousin, which it doesn't resemble at all at first glance: the cowboy song Streets of Laredo. Most Americans with any exposure to folk music will recall the tune from the opening lines:

"As I walked out in the streets of Laredo,
as I walked out in Laredo one day.
I spied a young cowboy all wrapped in white linen,
wrapped in white linen and cold as the clay".

The dusty old ballad still packs a punch, but on the surface, it has about as much in common with St. James Infirmary as a west Texas cowboy has with an African-American jazz musician. But the fact is, the two are distant cousins, and their shared ancestor is an Irishman.

The common ancestor of the two songs, it turns out, is an Irish song called The Unfortunate Rake. This song, and its various versions and descendents, seems to be one of the best-documented of all folk songs. In 1960, the folklorist Kenneth Goldstein compiled several of its permutations into an album called The Unfortunate Rake (most of the information in this post comes from the albums excellent liner notes). The first song on the record, the only one called The Unfortunate Rake, is a recording based on the first documented version, which dates from 1790's Ireland. Just as in Streets of Laredo, the narrator walks down the street and comes across a dying man. Here, however, the unfortunate lies not outside of a saloon, but outside of St. James Hospital. He blames his troubles on a "handsome young maiden", and says:

"And had she but told me before she disordered me,
Had she but told me of it in time,
I might have got pills and salts of white mercury,
But now I'm cut down in the height of my prime."

In other words, he caught a venereal disease from her. Given his condition, it makes sense that he was near a hospital. However, when this song was first documented in the 1700's, the hospital was long gone, and the English royal family was living on the site. So, we have an Irish narrator relating how his friend is dying of a venereal disease on the site of the English royal palace. This is politically touchy stuff, so it may be that the song was more than just a morality tale. An Irishman in 1790 would have been ill-advised to stand outside of St. James Palace and sing it. In any case, this song has none of the bluesy groove of St. James Infirmary. It's one of those Anglo-Celtic dirge-ballads, which sounds sludgy and morose to most modern ears. But the dying man is a rake, after all, and a typically flashy one (some things never change). He wants his friend to help him go out in style with a grand funeral:

"Get six young soldiers to carry my coffin,
Six young girls to sing me a song,
And each of them carry a bunch of green laurel
So they don't smell me as they bear me along."

"Don't muffle your drums and play your fifes merrily,
Play a quick march as you carry me along,
And fire your bright muskets all over my coffin,
Saying: There goes an unfortunate lad to his home."

As the song evolved over time, the dying man kept on dying, but he turned into a soldier, or a sailor, depending on the version. He even changed sex, turning into a young woman whose wild living has caught up with her. In the version often called One Morning In May, the dying woman is singing the song herself, saying "When I was a young girl, I used to seek pleasure". This version has a more driving, haunting rhythm: when I WAS, a YOUNG GIRL, i USED To, seek PLEA-SURE. It's a lot more interesting to listen to than the older dirge, especially if you listen to this version by Feist.

Sometime during its journey from the British Isles to the American west, the song picked up a different (and also more interesting) waltz-like rhythm. The rake/soldier/sailor became a cowboy, and Streets of Laredo was born. Streets of Laredo retains the narrator who finds the dying man in the street. In most versions, the young cowboy is dying of gunshot wounds, although he's been hanging out in places where he could have caught the other afflictions of the sporting life. As in The Unfortunate Rake, he asks a passing stranger for a big funeral:

"Get sixteen cowboys to carry my coffin,
Get sixteen pretty ladies to bear up my pall,"

Streets of Laredo doesn't mention the St. James Hospital, but there is a separate cowboy adaptation of The Unfortunate Rake which does, and is actually called St. James Hospital. This song keeps the dirge tone of the ancestral tune, and, in some versions it calls for a more mournful funeral than the Irish rake's, asking friends to "Beat the drum slowly, and play the fife lowly".

Around the turn of the twentieth century, a song called The Gambler's Blues (sung here by the blessedly un-dorky folk singer Dave Van Ronk) took elements from St. James Hospital, including the hospital, the dying person, the descriptive words white and cold, the call for a grand funeral, and the rakish character. But this is a very different song. The blues had come along by now, and the song sounds more Mississippi River juke joint than old west saloon. The dying person, now a woman again, has finally died, and is laying on the "cold, white table". The rakish character is her old beau, who has gone down to St. James Infirmary pay his respects. Yes, he's sad to see her go, but he's basically unrepentant about his own lifestyle (this is the twentieth century, and you no longer have to talk about tragic ends and repentance when singing about the wild life). Actually, he's a real cad. Standing there looking at his "baby", he reflects that "she'll never find a sweet man like me", and then he starts imagining his funeral, and what he should be wearing to impress his buddies:

"When I die please bury me
In my high topped Stetson hat,
Put a twenty dollar gold piece on my watch chain,
My gang will know I died standing pat."

This guy isn't just a rake. He's close to being a sociopath. Though this version of the song is more blues than jazz, he also requests that his friends:

"Put a jazz band on my hearse wagon,
Raise hell as I stroll along."

This suggests that this version of the song, or at least this verse, came from New Orleans, which is where Louis Armstrong would have heard it. In Armstrong's version, he drops the first two lines of Gambler's Blues, and starts with "I went down to St. James Infirmary". When he first recorded this song in the late twenties, Louis Armstrong was moving beyond early jazz (which, to my amateur ears, sounds like ragtime played by a brass band). Along with other brilliant innovators, such as Sidney Bechet, he was adding more improvisation and solos, as well as toning down the frenetic feel of early jazz with more bluesy elements.

Louis Armstrong's version of St. James Infirmary is an amazing recording. I would be floored by it even if I had never wonder where St. James Infirmary was. But, by digging into its history, I discovered deeper layers of the song; extending back across centuries, and linking it to Streets of Laredo, another song I find endless fascinating. Even though they sound almost nothing alike, they can both be traced to a song from another continent; a song about a building that hasn't existed since the time of the Tudors. Those are some deep, rich roots.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Roots and Branches

One of my favorite intellectual pastimes is tracing branches backward until I find where they meet at the roots. Whether it is two species that evolved from a common ancestor, or two words that did, I love learning about it. When you think about it, this world is full of things that are--in a conceptual sense--tree-shaped. To see the tree, you have to look at how related things have evolved over time. For example, all the branches of the tree of life, from bread mold, to elephants, to redwoods, can be traced back to one root: a lowly single-celled organism that existed billions of years ago. All the diversity of life on earth--millions of species--also has a fundamental unity. As different as they are, redwoods and elephants have a common history, somewhere in the distant past. Because of this shared history, they have things in common: shared features they inherited from common ancestors. For example, all living things share certain genes that code for a few universal proteins, which may have been around since life began. These genes and proteins may differ very slightly between, say, E. Coli and humans, but they are basically the same, and usually still have the same function. The more recently two lineages diverged from each other, the more they will have in common. Orangutans have a lot more in common with gorillas than with seaweeds, because they shared a common ancestor with gorillas more recently.

Culture evolves too, although the process isn't directly analogous to biological evolution. Still, culture tends to unfold in tree-like patterns, where unity branches into diversity. You see this pattern with language, music, fashions, and just about anything else that people transmit to each other and modify over time. One thing that makes this interesting is that, as you look backward in time, you see unexpected connections. Here's a trivial example. A while back, I noticed the word "disaster", and for some reason thought about where it might come from. "Aster" means star, I realized, so disaster means "bad star". I looked up the history of the word, and my guess was right. Now, I could go see a bad Jerry Bruckheimer disaster movie about an asteroid threatening the earth, and lean over to the guy in the seat next to me and say "Did you know 'disaster' and 'asteroid' both come from words for stars?" When he gets up and moves, I'll have more room. See, this stuff is more useful than it looks.*

But really, what I love about noticing connections like that is that one minute you are looking at a word like "disaster" and taking it for granted. The next minute, you are looking into the word, seeing the history encoded in its structure. With disaster, you might guess (rightly) that the word comes from a time when people took astrology very seriously. Disasters were thought to happen under bad stars...disasters happened because of dis-asters. I love the fact that sometimes you can look at a word, notice the root words it's made of, and get an insight into how people thought when the word was coined.

* Just wanted to point out that "asterisk" also comes from the word for star. Just look, it even looks like one.