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Which words do you own?–Miami Rhapsody June 11, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Blogs and Blogging, Books, fiction, Haiku, libertarians, linguistics, luck or time, narrative, vocabulary.
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[Note: This is part of a continuing series on the actual vocabulary in use in the blogosphere.  Posts on this subject started here and will continue on a somewhat weekly basis. There is an interesting (to some) analysis of the most common words here.  And there is some discussion of method here and here.]

There is a potentially offensive word below.  You have been warned. 

I just finished reading Carl Hiaasen’s Lucky You, a novel about two people who play the same lottery numbers and win the same Florida Lottery jackpot worth $28m.  One is a black woman in her late twenties who is working as a veterinary assistant in a small town.  The other is a racist living in the Miami area who wants to use the money to finance a militia group, which he will use to fight the UN/Nato/Jewish/race-mixing invasion force he believes is preparing in the Bahamas.  So the guy steals the woman’s lottery ticket.  The story’s about how she gets it back. 

I’ve been thinking about the story a little for a number of reasons, but the most pertinent of them is that the racist character in Lucky You can’t utter the most prominent word in the vocabulary cloud below.  When he was in his early teens he spoke this word at home, once.  Then his father, who never used corporal punishment, but for this one exception, beat him with a razor strop.  After dad was done with him, his mother took him inside the house and washed his mouth out with a well know abrasive tub and tile cleaner containing bleach.  Consequently, he has this gagging reflex whenever he even thinks this word.  The only other member of his militia, his accomplice, teases him about this. 

Carl Hiaasen uses this word in the book a number if times, which seemed daring to me, in a weird way.  Hiaasen makes this word come from the mouths of racist bad guys, and some of the story attempts to explore racism and bigotry (but not so much that it disrupts the comedy).  Nevertheless, it seemed daring to me because I don’t think I have ever spoken this word, though I often curse like a sailor.  My parents never beat me for anything, much less using this word.  But I grew up in a family of Libertarians who pretty much ignored skin color.  And I was sheltered enough in white suburban California that racial issues were never prominent in my experience.  Racism in the news always seemed somewhat unreal (well, a lot of the news did).  It was only later, studying history in college, that I began to see racism as a real and contemporary problem.  Well, that’s how sheltered I was.

Say the word as an insult and it brands you a stupid bigot.  Say it ironically, or even analytically (as a commentary on language, for example) and it is too easy to be misunderstood, or come off as a priveledged white intellectual (which is what I am, basically, but I try not to flaunt it).  It was an easy word to avoid, until this post.

Anyway, the blog under the microscope today is Miami Rhapsody, a truly fascinating read published by Yvette.  I recommend subscribing.  She won’t fill your inbox as often as many others, and seems to write only when she has something interesting to say.  Her word sample runs from July 28, 2006 to June 1, 2007–every word she posted up to that point.  There were only 20,000 words in the sample, so the numbers will look a little low in comparison to other blogs examined recently (where the samples tend towards 30,000)  Yvette added 510 words.  There were 3,608 different words in her sample, a little above the norm, I think.

Here is a word cloud comprised of the words used more than twice by Yvette but not at all by any of the other 23 blogs sampled thus far.

And here’s those words in a font called Floribetic:

And here’s the Venn diagram I usually make out of these words.  The left lobe consists of words that were new in the sample, that nobody else had used, sized relative to the frequency of use.  The middle lobe consists of words that everybody has used so far, sized according to how much more frequently Yvette used them in the sample.  And the right lobe consists of only two words that everyone else sampled thus far has used, but that Yvette did not.  She doesn’t seem to care about money or looks.  Refreshing, isn’t it?

Here is another effort by my Haiku-generating algorithm.

You professor’s racists!
The louder nuns not potted
are the nuns you mow.

“Professor’s racists.”  I kinda like that, although I’m not sure what it would mean.  A group of brown-shirted nerdy bigots?  Something in the phrasing seems like a badly-translated Maoist slogan of some sort.  And “mowing the louder nuns” also puts me in mind of those jokes we told as a kid: What’s black and white and red all over? 

As always, the vocabulary clouds and Haiku are the property of the volunteers, except that said volunteer may not have them taken off of my site but may otherwise do with them what they wish.  Thanks for participating, Yvette!

Next up: two more Floridian blogs, A Mom, A Blog, and the Life In-Between, then “Klotz,” as in “Blood,” then Silverneurotic, who is not from Florida, if I remember correctly.

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I’m still here March 9, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in bookmooch, Books, Education, history, literature, narrative, Philosophy.
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I’ve been really busy lately.  Our campus has been searching for a new Chancellor, which is what we call our chief executive here.  What with the public meetings, newspaper articles (for one of the top candidates is the Congressman of the Massachusetts Fifth District, the Honorable Martin Meehan, gaining us national attention), and attendent gossip and what if talk, it is awfully hard to get things done and also accomplish my new, and more demanding, position. 

On  a distantly related subject (trust me on this, for now), it occurred to me the other day that I had been unfair to someone in the past that I am building much more respect and admiration for these days.  That person is the new President of Harvard University, Drew Gilpin Faust.  Back in graduate school I had to read her book Southern Stories: Slaveholders in Peace and War, and my review of this book was . . . ungenerous. 

Southern Stories is not only excellent scholarship, it is also good writing and has some interesting things to say about how narrative shapes worldview.  My objection to the book at the time was twofold, I now realize. 

  1. It is about Slaveholders in the Antebellum South (and during the war, too, of course).  Let’s face it, people, I should have studied philosophy.  I would have, too, if there had been a well-funded Ph.D. program at the university where I ended up.  Mostly I didn’t care about history and still don’t.  There are times when it is relevant, deeply relevant and important.  Mostly, though, you can get by without it, I think.
  2. Dr. Faust is one of those scholars who don’t say things that are overtly controversial.  For ADD-related reasons, I found her book difficult to handle.  My usual tactic with reading books that didn’t hold my interest was to attempt to disprove, or at least seriously undermine the author’s main thesis.  This usually didn’t sway the opinion of the professor running the class, mind you.  But that wasn’t the point.  It did accomplish its main goal–proving that I had read and understood the book and that I took it seriously.  This book is a collection of essays, which made it even more difficult to overturn. 

So, let me say, Dr. Faust, I am sorry about what I wrote.  The sheer amount of underlining in my copy (which you, gentle reader, may have, if you request it from my bookmooch or paperbackswap account, for I am done with it now) demonstrates that I found much of interest, but few fat targets.  I think that your diplomatic and reasoned approach to Antebellum scholarship and culture will make you an excellent administrator for America’s oldest University.

For the rest of you, I will make a concerted effort to read your blogs this weekend.  I have been adding subscriptions this week to my bloglines account, because I am losing track of all of you with blogspot addresses, unwittingly dropping discussions on comment threads and all of that.

Pirate Story Story Ends Happily February 27, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in fiction, history, narrative, Other, writing.
6 comments

It took me quite a bit of time to decide whether to put a comma after the word “Ends” in the title above. 

Anyway, I finally came up with a beginning section that made the story work, so I’m sending it in to Shimmer tonight.  I don’t expect it to be published, of course.  But the editors claim that they always comment on submissions.  And then, in a few weeks, I’ll be able to try to rework it for a different market.  

The key, I realized (or probably more accurately my wife realized and then said it in words that even I could understand) late last night, was that I wasn’t having any fun writing it anymore.  No fun for me = no fun for readers.  It’s an ADD thing, I guess.  If I’m not engaged in the story, I just can’t make it work.

I was in school with this guy once who was substantially smarter than me (I was meaner than him, though, so most people never suspected).  When he was having trouble focusing on a paper he would make it intentionally harder on himself.  He would tell himself stuff like: Well, fine and dandy, you need to write a paper on recent holocaust scholarship, which you know like the back of your hand.  Let’s see how quickly you can do it in iambic pentameter.

Once I told myself that I was free to create outrageous, illogical characters, that somehow I’d make the story work anyway, it all just clicked. 

I guess I had some practice, too.  That was the fifth introductory section I had written for the thing.   

Books–Tribulation Force February 21, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Books, narrative, Other, speculative fiction.
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Left Behind Series #2–By Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins

I’m guessing that this will be the least memorable of the Left Behind series, because it is mostly set-up for the events of the next few books.  The first book in the series was action-packed, since it covered the rapture and the rise to power of the Anti-Christ.  The second book takes a small band of new believers, who missed out on the rapture but understood that they had better become Christians very quickly, and positions them so that we can see the seven-year period of tribulations through their eyes.  It is, thus, a little tedious.  And I wouldn’t post on it at all, except that wanted to be absolutely certain that I never say to myself at some future point “Hmmm, I wonder if I read that one.”

All of this positioning in the service of later installments in the series will be forgiven, of course.  Harder to forgive is the fact that the book is also really, really, really, really, really wordy.  Really. 

My favorite part:

The book contains a romance, which is also a comedy of errors.  The errors, the “Three’s Company”-style misunderstandings, are supplied by the Anti-Christ. 

Warning: Spoiler Ahead.

Two of these new Christians are naturally having difficulty with the idea of falling in romantic love during this period in history.  There are only seven years left before Armageddon, after all.  Is this any time to think about raising children?  And what if we really want to, you know, but don’t want children.  Shouldn’t we be thinking about more serious sorts of things?  I’d be confused, too, folks.  But other things complicate the already complicated affair, most notably, somebody anonymously sends her a beautiful bouquet of flowers.  She thinks it’s him, as a sort of apology for her accidently finding out that he already has a fiancee (he doesn’t–that’s another misunderstanding).  But it is finally revealed that the Anti-Christ sent her the flowers so that her father would accept a job as his personal pilot (reasoning that having secret admirers is dangerous, he would move them both to Washington, DC.)

That’s where we get the word “devious,” folks.

Textbook for the School of Rock-Introductory Preface January 29, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Education, Memory, narrative, Other, postmodernism, Rock.
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The week before Christmas my son and I got “The School of Rock” from Netflix, and after I prescreened it I watched it with him.  We don’t play much rock music in the house, partially because I can only really do one thing at a time.  Playing loud rock music (’cause if it ain’t loud, what’s the point?) with a 9-year old in the house is actually two things, since he would have to play with the dog at the same time, or whistle along with it, or talk about it, or pace.  But he seems very interested in rock now that he has seen the movie.  So when I take him to school in the morning, about a ten-minute drive, he asks for another lesson, which I give him, a blasting CD and commentary afterward, a short quiz.  The school commute has become a rolling school of rock.

I guess my own musical education is pretty typical of most consumers of rock in my age group, in that I had four guitar lessons, which came free with my first guitar, an incredibly crappy Les Paul knock-off made by Memphis (all of the rigidity of an actual Gibson Les Paul, without any of the sustain, solid electronics, or prestige).  I was a pretty strange 18-year old, and instead of asking the lanky, long-fingered, long-haired guitar teacher to teach me some ACDC (where is the little lightning-bolt symbol on the keyboard, dammit?) I asked him to teach me some theory.   It never occurred to me that there was no rock theory, or that this guy might not know it.  At any rate, he taught me how to tune the thing, as well as three very different moveable jazz chord forms, barre chords, the blues scale, and a couple of other things, mostly by accident.  And then the lessons were over and I was on my own. 

Consequently, much of my knowledge of rock is stuff I have made up in my head, stuff I have interpreted incorrectly by watching rock videos on MTV, concert movies, going to actual concerts, listening to the radio, doing some reading.  What I like about rock, though, and its history, is that this is the way most people experience rock.  You go to a concert in a alcoholic daze, sit in a pot-fueled haze and you really can’t tell truth from apocrypha anyway.  So that’s what I’m giving him, myths that are better, more dramatic, than the ugly commercial reality of the actual business.  And I fit them together in a narrative, which reshapes and warps what little is left of its relationship to the truth.

We aren’t going in chronological order in these lessons.  It gets a little confusing, but that’s the postmodern world, pal.  “No,” I tell him, “the Brian Setzer Orchestra, a 1990s group, re-envisioned the music of the 30s and 40s; it was Setzer’s first group, the Stray Cats, a 1980s band, that re-envisioned the music of the 1950s.”  And we aren’t going thematically either.  So it may be confusing to put these lessons online.  But that’s what I will probably end up doing.  Check this space for lesson one soon.

Ken Stein’s anti-Carter Phlegm January 26, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Books, history, Israel, Jimmy Carter, Logic, narrative, Other.
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I was listening on the way into work today to an interview with Ken Stein about his reaction to Jimmy Carter’s new book and I have to say that I don’t really care for him.  I have not the expertise to really talk constructively about the disagreements between Carter and Stein, unfortunately, much less the Israelis and Palastinians, and I probably never will.  I’ve never read any of his books, including the one he wrote with Carter back in the 1980s.  But if the imprecise language and odd, traditional dualist logic of his interview persona is any indication, I would find them a trial.  Two quick examples:

1)  He believes that Carter is characterizing the bad situation in the Occupied Territories as entirely the fault of Israel.  And he claims, simultaneously that (and I’m paraphrasing a little here on this one because I couldn’t write it down while driving–not in Lowell, not during the commute time of the morning) if you tell this story, you can’t “unpack it” in such a way that one side is at fault.  Note: that is exactly what he accuses Carter of doing–unpacking it in such a way that it shows that Israel is at fault. 

Perhaps he meant to say that one shouldn’t.  Such statements require a different mode, a subjunctive one, which is used in English to indicate value judgements like this, among other things.  Perhaps Stein didn’t want his statement to sound like a value judgement.  Perhaps he wanted it to sound like a statement of fact. . . .

2)  This one is a direct quote, because I had reached the frigid wasteland of the faculty/staff parking lot by this point in time. 

“History always tells us the truth is somewhere in-between.”

Not to pick nits, here, Dr. Stein, but it tells us nothing of the sort.  Perhaps the ones that you write tell us this.  I have read many histories that do not simplistically group conflicts into two opposing sides and then claim that the truth is in-between. 

Is the glass half empty?  Is it half full?  To Dr. Stein, the glass is three-quarters full, or something close to that.

January Writing Contest at Write Stuff Concluded January 19, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in fiction, narrative, writing.
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I have lost my second short-story-writing contest, the January Creative Carnival over at The Write Stuff.  I have been advocating these contests all over other blog comment threads as a way of motivating one’s fiction writing with solid deadlines and low-pressure, low-stakes, quick turn-around contests. 

It was the first writing contest I ever entered, but the second I have lost, the one at The Clarity of Night having been concluded first (the Write Stuff contest, having taken place in Missouri, was creamed by power outages and out of action for a week.)  All in all, I prefer contests where I can get feedback on what I have written.  The prizes don’t really interest me that much.  As my participation in NaNoWriMo last year shows, token prizes are good enough for me at this point. 

So, I have joined Writer.com and Duotrope’s Digest, looking for others to enter, to keep the fiction flowing.  I will probably participate in The Write Stuff’s February contest, which they have already posted near the above link.  I’m writing something for Glimmer Magazine’s pirate story contest now and will probably enter the first chapters contest over at Gather.com.  I’m trying to push The Moon Topples into starting a contest (his idea, I’m just pushing it).  If anybody has any other suggestions (again, at this point I’m looking for firm deadlines and some feedback, not simply a market) please let me know. 

And if you have any feedback on my story, linked at The Write Stuff, above, I’d love to hear it.  I’d love to hear feedback from people who have written fiction, especially.  I’d love to hear feedback from davidbdale, strugglingwriter, Cyndi, and others I know write short fiction.  I imagine that the others who participated in the January contest would like to hear feedback on theirs, too. 

Introduction to Radical Constructivism V January 18, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Books, Constructivism, fiction, literature, narrative, Other, Philosophy, postmodern, postmodernism.
17 comments

I’m going to take a slight digression before unleashing Postulate III to respond at length to a comment that anxiousmofo left on this thread.  I do this partially because he has tried so diligently to answer a question that has puzzled me for years.  He made me see some aspects to my position that I never quite understood (but also, of course, because he introduces the expression “intuition pump,” which I think is pretty funny and had not heard before).  The question at hand is something like “why should one even concern one’s self with the question of whether or not there is some sort of real world out there?”  This is the “question 2” which he refers to in his comment below (initially posted as comment #5 here).  –WARNING: CONTAINS SPINOZA

To answer your question 2, here’s a thought experiment (or, more honestly, an intuition pump). Suppose that you have been happily married to someone you love for twenty years, a kind, intelligent, attractive person named Pat. One day, Pat’s doctor informs you that Pat is a philosophical zombie. Pat has no mental states at all, and only appears to love you in return. The hypothesis that Pat loves you and enjoys being with you and is committed to you is consistent with all the data and makes useful predictions about how Pat will act towards you; it just happens to be false. Wouldn’t knowing that make a difference to you? Similarly, if what I see as objects and people in the real world don’t actually exist, my life would be meaningless.

Of course, the notion that Pat (or anyone else) is a philosophical zombie is an extremely far-fetched and unparsimonious* notion, and so (I would argue) is the notion that the world we experience is unrelated to the real world, or the notion that there is no real world.

*Unparsimonious because it would require that there be at least two kinds of people in the world, those with mental states and those without.

An intriguing thought experiment/analogy.  It reminds me of a passage in Neal Stephenson’s voluminous Baroque Cycle trilogy of novels, which I am going to reproduce here, it being relevant and hoping that since I worship his writing he will forgive me.  A black man (Dappa) and a Puritan (Daniel) are meeting the Puritan’s nephew (Peer, who writes for a sort of newspaper) in a club/pub in London, circa 1715.  The scene is one of the fifteen funniest in the 3000+ page work, but I will omit some of the funniest parts to focus on what is relevant to my response to your thought experiment.

“. . . Dappa was, at a very young age, taken aboard a ship by pirates as a sort of pet.  And these pirates, being a polyglot group, amused themselves by training Dappa to spead twenty-five different languages fluently.”

“Twenty-five different languages! Peer exclaimed.

“Yes.  Including English better than you, as you just saw.”

“But . . . he doesn’t actually understand any of them,” Peer said.

“No more than a parrot does, when it squawks out a demand for a cracker,” Daniel affirmed, then let out a squawk of his own as Dappa kicked him in the shin under the table.

“What a remarkable feat!  You should exhibet him!”

“What do you think I am doing right now?”

How was the weather yesterday?” Peer inquired of Dappa, in French.

In the morning it was miserable and rainy,” Dappa returned.  “After noon I thought it would clear but, alas, it was still overcast until nightfall.  Only as I was getting ready for bed did I begin to see stars shining through gaps between clouds.  Could I trouble you for a cracker?”

“I say, the French pirate who taught him that trick must have been an educated man!” Peer exclaimed.  Then he got a look on his face as if he were thinking.  Daniel had learned, in his almost seventy years, not to expect much of people who got such looks, because thinking really was something one ought to do all of the time.  “One would suppose there would be no point in holding a conversation with a man who does not understand what he is saying.  And yet he described yesterday’s weather better than I could!  In fact, I think I’ll use his wording in tomorrow’s edition!”  Again, now, the thoughtful look. “If he could relate other experiences-such as the tete-a-tete with the Duchess–as faithfully as he recalls the weather, it would make my interview with him ever so much easier.  I had come prepared to do it all in grunts and sign languages!” And Peer gave a note-book in his hip-pocket and ominous pat.

“I suppose that whenever one speaks in the abstract–which is to say most of the time–what one is really doing is interacting with some sort of image that is held in the mind,” Dappa said.  “For example, yesterday’s weather is not here in the Kit-Cat Clubb with us.  I cannot feel yesterday’s rain on my skin, nor can I see yester-eve’s stars with my eyes.  When I describe these things to you (in French or any other language) I am really engaging in some sort of internal colloquy with a stored image inside of my brain.  It is an image I may call up on demand, as a Duke might demand that a certain painting of his be brought down out of the garret.  Once it is before my mind’s eye, I may see it as if it were there, and describe it.”

“That is all well and good for recollecting what you have gathered in through your senses, and stored in the garret, as it were,” Peer said. “So I could ask you to relocate your observations of the Duchess of Qwghlm today, and rely on your account.  But as you do not understand the conversation you had with her, or indeed the one you are having with me now, I fear your interpretation of what went on at Leicester House might be wide of the mark.” He spoke haltingly, unsure of how to converse with someone who didn’t understand what he was saying.

Preying on this, Daniel inquired, “But how could he interpret anything if he didn’t understand it?”

This stopped Peer’s gob for a few awkward moments.

“I would refer you to the work of Spinoza,” Dappa said, “whose words are of course perfect gibberish to me, but who wrote in his Ethics, ‘The order and connexion of ideas is the same as the order and connexion of things.’  Meaning that if there are two things, call them A and B, that have a particular relationship to each other, for example, my lord Wragby’s wig, and my lord Wragby’s head, and if I have in my mind an idea of  my lord Wragby’s wig, call it alpha, and an idea of his head, call it beta, then the relationship between alpha and beta is the same as between A and B.  And owing to this property of minds, it is possible for me to construct in my head an whole universe of ideas, yet each idea will relate to all of the other ideas in precisely the same way that the things represented by those ideas relate to one another; lo, ’tis as if I have created a microcosm ‘tween my ears, without understanding a bit of it.    And some of the ideas may be records of sensory impressions, for example, yesterday’s weather.  But others may be abstract concepts out of religion, philosophy, mathematics, or what have you–not that I’d know, since to me they are all a meaningless parade of hallucinations.  But insofar as they are all ideas, they are fungible.  Whatever their origins may have been, they are all now con-fused into the same currency, and so I may speak of the Pythagorean Theorem or the Treaty of Utrcht as well as I may speak of yesterday’s weather.  To me, they are all just crackers–as you are, my lord Wragby.”

“That is quite clear,” Peer said vaguely, for he had gone a bit glassy-eyed round the point where Dappa had begun to use Greek letters.  —The System of the World, pp 168-70 (ISBN-13 978-0-06-075086-2).

So anxiousmofo’s dilemma concerning Pat is very similar to Peer’s w/r/t/ Dappawork–both being in anxiousmofo’s terms “philosophical zombies.”  And my answer is the same to both: There is no discernable, measureable difference between what goes on in Dappa’s head and the heads of others.  Peer’s sanctimonious feelings of superiority over Dappa let him fall into that trap.  Anxiousmofo notes that there is something “unparsimonious” about asserting that someone else is a “philosophical zombie.”  And I agree wholeheartedly.  After all, in the days in which Stepehenson’s novels are set they still killed one of a set of twins, arguing that only one could possibly have been born with a soul. 

N.B.: I never said that there was no “real world,” only that we do not have any access to it, and that since the worlds people construct inside their heads are so much more complicated, and so often in conflict with the ones that other people are creating inside their heads, it is useful to set aside the quest for that “real world” and focus upon the ways in which we construct our own.  I will be examining some of the advantages of this particular strategy as I continue to formalize this exposition of the Radical Constructivist worldview.