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

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Sensible Marks of Ideas

Friday, 24th Apr. 2015


6.40 pm -

I love teaching this ENG 102 course. Where else could my gamer and linguist personae combine to produce lesson materials with sentences like:

Speaking of Super Mario Brothers, should it be singular or plural? If you're talking about the game, then it's singular; otherwise (and with different formatting) you are referring to Mario and Luigi, who form a plural noun phrase.

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Thursday, 12th Mar. 2015


2.22 pm - Faustian Fringe

The other night while watching Project Runway, I had to explain the term "fringe" to my wife, which inevitably led to the question of how this related to the eponymous TV series. This in turn got me thinking about Fringe, why we loved it so much, why we found the last season rather disappointing, and what this means in a broader context.

There is one obvious reason why the last season of Fringe couldn't possibly be as good as the others: Fringe was all about mysterious possibilities, and once they'd decided to wrap everything up, they couldn't play that game any more; instead, the last season warped into an entertaining but much less intriguing "resist the alien invaders" adventure.

However, there was something that went further and actually irritated me about the last season that I couldn't put my finger on until now: it uses the Faustian deal-wtih-the-devil trope clumsily. The Faustian bargain is a staple of science fiction, and it can be done well. Frankenstein is a secularised version where there is no devil to make a deal with, but just a line in Nature which shouldn't be crossed (Shelley subtitled her novel "the Modern Prometheus" but Frankenstein is more like the hubristic doctor than the altruistic Titan). In fact, earlier on in Fringe we see two good examples of this trope: first where Walter experiments on children to enhance their psychic abilities, and later where he crosses into a parallel universe to save the son of his parallel self (by kidnapping him), thus creating a rupture in the time-space-quantum-thingummy, not to mention some unusual family drama.

Season 5 is an example of how not to do the Funky Faust. Our world has been invaded by our descendants, who have come back in time because they've messed up the environment so much. They also have amazing psychic powers, something you associate less with the kind of people who create ecological mayhem and more with cute natives who live in harmony with Nature (so I suppose we should award the writers points for avoiding one common cliche). The road to environmentally unfriendly transhumanism starts when some Dr. Faustustein finds he can short-circuit the part of the brain used for jealousy, freeing up neurons which then go on and develop psychic powers because quantum. This is the kind of neurological wackiness that is fine in a show like Fringe; the problem is in what happens next. Having got rid of a thoroughly unpleasant and fairly useless emotion and got some cool new abilities in return, our future selves get addicted to their new powers and use more and more of their brains to get them, resulting in all normal emotions getting thrown out. Yet the future folk we see are prone to primitive emotions like anger, and even lust after 21st century women, as we see when our heroes sneak into a private club where the Übermenschen unwind after a hard day of world domination.

Now the whole point of the Faust story is that Faust is a pretty smart fellow; in fact his problem is that he's too clever for his own good. The Faustian bargain has to look like a smart idea at the time, but this looks downright silly. I get rid of a negative emotion in return for some psychic powers, so I then go on and eliminate all of my positive emotions while keeping as many negative emotions as possible? Hmmm, we can't do without lust, anger and greed, so let's get rid of love, compassion and humour. If you want to raise some questions about planned human evolution, this is not the way to go about it.

The other Faustian bargain is the familiar one where humans seek power over Nature and end up destroying it. Arguably, this is the one we are living at the moment. Yet Fringe presents this in a very short-sighted way by simply projecting current environmental degradation into the future. We're creating a lot of environmental damage now, so as we get more technologically advanced, we'll create even more, right? In fact we'll have screwed up the Earth so thoroughly, the only way out will be to transport the whole population back in time.

Whoa. This is a society so advanced they can send millions of people back in time, but they can't work out how to clean up industrial pollution? Not even with those hyper-intelligent psionic megabrains they've developed? A similar silliness lurks in the ending of Avatar, where the humans are sent back to live in the ashes of the Earth they had plundered. Now I'm not saying that humans can't make the Earth uninhabitable; what I'm saying is that they would not develop the technology to go all over the galaxy looking for rare minerals yet be unable to clean up their home planet. Stupid species don't make it into space.

Of course it's good to post warnings about our potential to destroy our planet, but we need to be careful about the way we frame them. This century looks like being make-or-break for our species, as we are at the most dangerous stage of technological development, half way between technology that is too feeble to have much of an impact on the environment and technology that is sophisticated enough to protect it. In contrast, the Observers were created in 2167 and didn't make the planet uninhabitable until 2609! That's nearly half a millennium of technological progress powered by superbrains. When we compare this to the actual timeline, we don't seem to be doing so badly: a few maverick scientists started warning about climate change in the 1970s; less than half a century later we have developed solar power that's as cheap as fossil fuels and are looking to have workable fusion energy in a few decades. It may not turn out to be enough, but it's actually quite impressive considering we haven't even swapped out parts of our brains to do it.

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Tuesday, 10th Mar. 2015


6.33 pm -

Happy birthday asteriskhere!

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Saturday, 7th Mar. 2015


8.28 pm -

Happy birthday trochee!

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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"
"Yes."
"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.

http://ift.tt/1mjIpvH

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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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