"The function of words, then, is to be sensible marks of ideas." ~ John Locke

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Sensible Marks of Ideas

Friday, 13th Feb. 2015

4.08 pm - Literal Grammar Nazis

Recently on Quora, there was one of the usual threads about grammar Nazis, with the usual three response types.
1. Grammar Nazis are just mean people who use grammar as an excuse to be mean.
2. So-called grammar Nazis are just people who care about accurate communication.
3. So-called grammar Nazis aren't Nazis because they don't send people off to concentration camps.
1. and 2. have points for and against, but 3. is just silly. If I describe Uncle Joe as a piss-artist, would someone object because Uncle Joe has never exhibited a painting? If I describe Uncle Albert as a drag queen, would anyone object because he is neither female nor a hereditary ruler? The use of "Nazi" in this and other phrases takes one characteristic of Nazism - excessive authoritarianism - to create a metaphor. That's how metaphors work. You could argue that using "Nazi" like this is tasteless, but since Seinfeld's soup Nazi, there's no going back.

Speaking of metaphors, one comment listed as a symptom of grammar Nazism objection to the metaphorical use of "literally". Personally, though, I don't think this is the kind of carping pedantry that earns grammar Nazis their names. The word "literal" means "not metaphorical", so using "literally" metaphorically robs your utterance of meaning.

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4.08 pm - "Are you sure you...

"Are you sure you want to delete your account? Yes/No"
"I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that."

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Tuesday, 10th Feb. 2015

10.51 am -

Happy birthday chippiex!

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Tuesday, 13th Jan. 2015

6.57 pm -

I would never describe myself as a "traveller", partly because I haven't travelled enough, and partly because when a lot of people call themselves travellers, it means "stingy but pretentious tourist". But I do like travelling sometimes. I've had enjoyable holidays in Rome, Vienna, Zurich and various Greek islands; I've been Interrailing; and once I travelled to Turkey and wound up spending 23 years there. Nevertheless, I sometimes open travel websites, and think "Why do people bother?" OK, adventure, but as a wise hobbit once said, adventures make you late for lunch. Sometimes I think Lao Tsu had a point when he said "One may know the world without going out of doors. One may see the Way of Heaven without looking through the windows. The further one goes, the less one knows." And he wrote that before there was the Discovery Channel!

Oh well, it's probably because I'm ill and feeling unenthusiastic about going to Paris this month.

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Sunday, 11th Jan. 2015

10.04 am -

Keep calm, and do a failure analysis.

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9.48 am -

Looks like I won't be having my nose/sinus operation until Spring. I was hoping to get it done in the winter break, but now I need to plan my course around my non-appearance for a couple of weeks. Surprisingly, I don't relish this prospect - I'd like a medical procedure that allows me to teach but doesn't allow any kind of grading or admin work rather than the reverse, but such a thing has yet to be discovered. On the bright side, I may finally get round to reading all those articles I've saved to Pocket.

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Friday, 26th Dec. 2014

11.34 pm -

Facebook is giving me a preview of my "Year in Review", presumably in the hope that I'll share it. The cover picture is the black ribbon and pickaxe I briefly used as my profile picture in support of victims of the Soma mining disaster, but it's surrounded by cheery colourful stars. And people worry about Facebook knowing too much about you.

I haven't looked at the Google equivalent yet because I suspect it will be so chillingly accurate I will panic and cancel all my Google accounts (assuming that is even possible). I wouldn't be surprised if it shows photos of significant life events that haven't even been photographed.

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Tuesday, 23rd Dec. 2014

3.46 pm -

Apparently supporting Brianna Wu could render me the target of #Gamergate. As a great statesman once said, "Bring it on."

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Wednesday, 17th Dec. 2014

9.25 pm - Elite: Dangerous ...

Elite: Dangerous is finally out officially. I've been playing the gamma version for a while and loving every minute of it. Well, except for those minutes where my ship got blown up. If you like space simulation, flight simulation, combat, trading etc., this is the game for you. Be warned, though, it's not easy. Expect to spend a while just learning how to fly your ship, take off, and dock without crashing into things. Then people will start shooting at you ;-) I've been playing for a couple of weeks and I'm still getting the hang of it, doing short cargo hauls and simple missions (usually botched), and running away from fights. (Tip: when "interdicted" - i.e., yanked out of hyperdrive - head for the blue circle labelled "Exit vector"). I did get my first kill a couple of days ago, though, which made me inordinately proud. I reckon it was a real player, as any AI would have iced me.

If anyone wants to meet up in-game, drop me a message.


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Sunday, 14th Dec. 2014

11.39 am - "Students these days ..."

I'm sceptical of "students these days can't do X" comments because it usually turns out that either we couldn't do X that well either, or that X is a skill that died out because it really isn't that useful these days, like card indexing or using a microfiche reader. On the other hand, I just caught myself wondering if students' observational skills had atrophied. After writing "The citation needs to come after the quotation marks and before the full stop" it occurred to me that really I shouldn't have to write that because the students in question must have seen hundreds of parenthetical citations. Why on earth did he decide that the citation should come inside the quotation? Then there are the times that I have to painstakingly explain blockquotes or hanging indents, things which should need no explanation because almost every text they read has them. It's like there's a disjunct between reading and writing.

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Saturday, 13th Dec. 2014

2.14 pm -

Happy birthday bram!

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Tuesday, 9th Dec. 2014

9.07 am - BBC: "the officer...

BBC: "the officer whose chokehold contributed to a man's death." Contributed? Like he had a terminal disease and being choked just made it a bit worse.

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Sunday, 7th Dec. 2014

9.17 am - 10 things about Elite: Dangerous

  1. It's as addictive as the original.

  2. There isn't so much a learning curve as a learning cliff. You'll need to keep trawling the forums and wikis just to work out how to get through the tutorials.

  3. Docking is much easier than the original game. Those who played the original will probably be able to dock successfully the first time; others may have to crash a few times first.

  4. Nothing else is easy.

  5. The police shoot first and ask questions ... well no, it doesn't get to the asking questions stage. Think American cops in a world where everyone is a black teenager. I've been shot at for loitering. Tip: pay your fines before they turn into bounties.

  6. So far, I have not found a way to start with a clean slate. Even if the cops blow you out of the sky, your fines will be reborn with you.

  7. The good side of everything being difficult is that you feel an amazing sense of satisfaction whenever you achieve even the smallest thing.

  8. The game has a wicked sense of humour. I took on a humanitarian mission to provide food for the starving people of Aiabike only to find what I was required to find, buy and donate was tea - one of the pricier luxury goods in that part of the galaxy.

  9. Apparently there are 4.5 billion stars systems in the game. So far I've managed to visit five of them.

  10. I haven't tried group play yet. If anyone wants to join me, I'm Commander Bold Sir Robin.

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Tuesday, 2nd Dec. 2014

8.50 pm - Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies

Police hug"Liking this picture as a definitive image of America’s race crisis is the equivalent of locking yourself in and turning up the volume to weep at Frozen while the streets are burning outside. Which is exactly what white Americans apparently want to do. Truth is a flimsy thing. It can be destroyed by a hug." So writes Jonathan Jones in The Guardian.

Well, yeah, except if the streets were burning, I might think locking the doors and watching Frozen would be a pretty good choice too. And yeah, I'd rather see a photograph of a white policeman hugging a black teenager than one of him smashing someone's skull with a baton, not because I somehow think this is typical but because it's so refreshingly atypical. Hell, these days we should be giving cops promotions simply for not shooting people. "Officer Barbrady, did you shoot any black kids this week?" "Uuuh, I don't think so." "Congratulations, you'll make detective before the year's out."

And now the other side will rush in saying that actually very few police officers shoot anyone, let alone unarmed kids. Indeed, police shootings are not typical, yet they are news. And police hugs are not typical, yet they are still news. So probably you are not lying if you share this photo.

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Friday, 28th Nov. 2014

5.03 pm - Immiseration

(Originally posted as a response to a post in RmspacedashRfspaceslash)

Something I find interesting is what Marx got wrong ... more-or-less. Marx's theory of the inevitability of the collapse of capitalism rests on two concepts: surplus value and immiseration. Surplus value is the difference between the value of work and what the worker actually gets paid. You can argue with the details of the labour theory of value, but it's a no-brainer that you don't want pay workers the full value of their labour because if you did, there'd be no profit. As technology improves, the value goes up, but, Marx claimed, capitalists would do everything they could to keep wages at subsistence level, so surplus value increases. This process is immiseration. Marx argued that immiseration increases to the point where (a) workers get sufficiently pissed off to revolt and (b) even if they weren't, capitalism would still go into crisis because there aren't enough people with enough spending power to buy the goods that are produced.

This didn't happen for a number of reasons, three of which are:

  1. Basic goods became absurdly cheap compared with the past, so workers enjoyed better life conditions even without a rise in wages.
  2. Governments intervened with things like progressive taxation and minimum wages.
  3. Trade unions forced companies to increase wages.
(I'm ignoring the international dimension here just to keep things simple.)
These came together in the twentieth century to create a large, prosperous and politically powerful middle class, and a working class that could at least get by. Capitalism survived by inoculating itself with a little socialism. It didn't just work, it worked better than anyone could have imagined. In 1850, a typical British industrial worker made enough money to keep himself in bread and gin. In 1910, he could take his family to the seaside for a weekend. In 1970 he could take them to Spain for a week. Marx was proved conclusively wrong, the end of history happened, and in the 21st century we have achieved the dreamed-of workers' paradise ... not.

What now seems to be happening in America (and other post-industrial countries to a lesser degree) is that government intervention is regarded with horror, and the unions are toothless, so the only thing that is keeping capitalism from collapse is factor #1: technological change happening quickly enough to soften immiseration. This is a dangerous strategy, because even if electronic toys continue to get cheaper, the price of food rarely falls much. All the circuses in the world aren't enough if you can't provide the bread.

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10.54 am -

The main reason given by Christians for dumping on the Jews is that the Jews rejected Christ. Didn't it occur to anyone that these people had a long history of God doing nasty things to them whenever they followed false prophets, worshipped false gods, or just were a bit lax in their religious observations? Someone coming along and saying "I'm the son of God, and I bring you a new covenant" is bound to ring alarm bells.

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Tuesday, 25th Nov. 2014

2.59 pm - In the war betwee...

In the war between diet and chocolate, a giant box of chocolates brought by some your favourite students is a killer move. I've nearly finished the top layer already.

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Sunday, 16th Nov. 2014

6.14 pm - Somewhere, I hope...

Somewhere, I hope, there is a middle ground between #shirtstorm and #gamergate.

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Monday, 10th Nov. 2014

4.44 pm -

Happy birthday eve_prime!

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Sunday, 9th Nov. 2014

3.14 pm - More stirring words from our man in the Vatican

"We must be careful not to slip toward the path of being pagan Christians, Christians in appearance. The temptation to get used to mediocrity, the mediocrity of Christians, these Christians, it is their undoing because their hearts cool, they become lukewarm. And the Lord had strong words for these lukewarm [Christians]: 'because you are lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth'. These are very strong words! They are enemies of the Cross of Christ. They take the name, but do not follow the requirements of Christian life.

"Do I like to brag? Do I like money? Do I like pride, arrogance? Where are my roots, that is, where am I a citizen of? Heaven or earth? ...

"How did this steward in the Gospel arrive at this point of cheating, of stealing from his master? How did he get there, from one day to the next? No! Little by little. One day a tip here, the next day a bribe there, and this is how little by little you arrive at corruption."

Mohammed also railed against the "munafiqun" (hypocrites). If you're only going to read one chapter of the Quran, read Al-Ma'un ("Kindnesses" / "Charity"). Well, considering it's so short, here it is.

Have you seen the one who denies the Recompense? For that is the one who drives away the orphan And does not encourage the feeding of the poor. So woe to those who pray [But] who are heedless of their prayer - Those who make show [of their deeds] And withhold [simple] assistance.

The pope's homily also puts me in mind of one of my favourite poems.

If I had been a Heathen,
I'd have praised the purple vine,
My slaves should dig the vineyards,
And I would drink the wine.
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And his slaves grow lean and grey,
That he may drink some tepid milk
Exactly twice a day.

If I had been a Heathen,
I'd have crowned Neaera's curls,
And filled my life with love affairs,
My house with dancing girls;
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And to lecture rooms is forced,
Where his aunts, who are not married,
Demand to be divorced.

If I had been a Heathen,
I'd have sent my armies forth,
And dragged behind my chariots
The Chieftains of the North.
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And he drives the dreary quill,
To lend the poor that funny cash
That makes them poorer still.

If I had been a Heathen,
I'd have piled my pyre on high,
And in a great red whirlwind
Gone roaring to the sky;
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And a richer man than I:
And they put him in an oven,
Just as if he were a pie.

Now who that runs can read it,
The riddle that I write,
Of why this poor old sinner,
Should sin without delight-
But I, I cannot read it
(Although I run and run),
Of them that do not have the faith,
And will not have the fun.

~ G.K. Chesterton

Of course, none of this is meant as disrespect to my pagan/heathen friends. In fact it struck me that the pagans of today are in some ways like the Christians of the first century or the Muslims of the seventh century, and Muslims and Christians today are all too often like the pagans of the first century.

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