22 February 2017

The Motor Chums in Alaska: An Uninvited Eavesdropper [1979]


[Passage from The Motor Chums in Alaska, written 22 February 1979. Having borrowed a touring-car from the local rich kid, the lads discuss their plans to seek out the Gold City of the Incas. But it turns out that they are not alone; an unknown girl has overheard their scheme.]
“What’s that sound?” demanded short Ned Eliot.
“The fuse-valve,” explained Tom. “It’s about to explode!” With all the skill and knowledge at his disposal he fought for control of the Hartrod, attempting to avert disaster.
“I suggest you stop the car,” came from Harry.
“Yeah,” agreed Dick Trefoil.
“You’ll have to jump,” replied Tom. “I don’t dare put on the brakes—it will heat up the carbonizer to the boiling point!”
Tom had no sooner spoken these words than the others had removed their persons from the car and distributed themselves in various attitudes along the dusty road, Dick, with characteristic gallantry dragging the strange girl along with him. Giving a powerful twist to the wheel, Tom leaped nimbly from the seat just as the car overturned into the ditch, at once catching fire.
“Shit,” said Dick, as the lads rose to their feet, and the others let this comment stand for their own.
“Herbert won’t thank you for what you did to his car, I’m sure,” the unknown young lady said. “You’re in trouble now,”
“Waverly ought to be thankful I don’t turn him in,” Tom retorted, “Assuming I don’t. I should—that car wasn’t safe to be run on the road. It could have blown up at any time!”
The girl laughed scornfully. “Nonsense. While you’re all in jail for wrecking Herbert’s car, we’ll be taking a trip to the gold city, see if we don’t.”
“Not without the map,” said Ned.
“Who needs a map?” said the girl, “I know it’s in the Sootka Valley—with an airship finding it will be a cinch—how can a city stay hidden?”
“Well, I like that!” burst out Ned.
“You’d think a fellow could plot with his friends without having eavesdroppers,” said Tom coldly. “If you weren’t a girl I could think of a word to describe such cowardly behavior.”
“What were you doing hiding in the rumble-seat anyway?” demanded Ned.
“When your colored lad attacked poor Herbert I thought it safer to hide,” she said. “There is no telling what he might have done in his berserk rage.”
“Herbert?” asked Tom incredulously.
“She means Ersatz,” Harry explained. “This is Clara Langword, who has often been observed in company with Waverly.”
“I don’t believe I know who you are?” Clara retorted angrily.
The chums laughed at this. “You don’t know who the famous Motor Chums are?” asked Ned. “That takes the cake, frosting and all, as the baker said about the delivery van.”
“You—the famous Motor Chums?” said Clara. “I don’t believe it. I’ve read the books, you know.”
“It’s true, though,” said Tom.
“The question is,” said Harry, “what are we going to do with her now? We can’t let her go, to sell out our secret to the highest bidder. I suggest we leave her in the clubhouse prison for two or three weeks. Once we’re on our way we can let her loose.”
“What, and reveal our clubhouse location to some one who isn’t one of us?” asked Tom. “No thanks.”
“Let’s beat her up,” suggested the practical Dick.
“I think Harry’s right,” said Ned. “Herbert’s rich and we need money for our trip. Why don’t we hold her for ransom at the same time? Of course we’ll pay Herbert back after we find the gold city,” he added hastily.
“My thought is,” said Tom, “that we take her money and jewelry and abandon her somewhere a ways off—say Mexico—so it will take her awhile to get back.”
“If we do that, why not simply abandon her in Riverside at night,” said Harry. “It will have much the same effect, be less trouble for us, and likely be more permanent. You know the criminal element have no love for Waverly in any case.”

21 February 2017

Surging Towards Redundancy [2007]


[A belated contribution to the late and lamented Word, originally posted 21 February 2007]
O
ur president—Mr. Stay-the-Course—is talking about a surge in Iraq. The media, the pundits, whatever, have picked up that word and run with it. Surge. What, if anything, do they mean by surge?
It’s a word I’ve had troubles with before. A century or so ago, when I was in grade school, I remember having to use “surge” in a sentence. I recalled the climax of Henry Kuttner's “What You Need”—when the anti-hero, wearing the smooth-soled shoes given him by the proprietor of a mysterious shop, can’t keep his footing in a crowd on a slippery platform, and falls in front of a moving train. Remembering the scene I wrote, “There was a surge towards the edge of the platform.” My teacher didn’t accept that as a legitimate use of the word. I took my case to a higher authority—my mother—but she ruled that while my sentence was perfectly correct, I had not demonstrated in it that I actually understood the use of the word. Our definition had used the word swelling, or something like that, and from my sentence it could have been supposed that I thought that the platform was swollen at one edge.
Webster’s defines surge as a “violent rolling, sweeping, or swelling motion,” among other things. My own feeling is that President Stay-the-Course and the media celebrities trailing in his wake have failed to demonstrate, at least as badly as I did, that they know the meaning of the word. What we are talking about is the gradual introduction of twenty thousand, or forty thousand, or whatever the real number is—not that we’ll ever be told—to Baghdad, to assist in trying to establish order there. Not a surge. More like a seep, or an ooze, a trickle, or maybe a creep. The thesaurus comes up with bleed as a possible synonym, grimly appropriate, but not in the sense I had in mind.
Language change is eternal, or at least so the linguists seem to think, but I feel that a kind of creeping obfuscation has grown up over our language that obscures and defiles the sharp distinctions that should exist. While the infer/imply debate seems to be a lost cause, to the impoverishment of the English language, surely we can still resist new misuses of words, particularly when important distinctions are lost. Parody and burlesque, for example. What Liam Lynch does is parody. What Weird Al does is burlesque. There is a difference, and calling burlesques parodies, and parodies also parodies, makes the language less precise. Likewise, calling a ripple a surge seems to me to blunt the instrument we communicate with, and perhaps we even think with, if Dr. Watson and his followers are right.
Which brings me to the three Rs—Reduction, Redundancy, and Redaction. All three of these words are under attack by creeping obfuscation. Redaction has been confounded with Censorship, Redundancy with Joblessness, and Reduction with Expansion.
Okay, reduction. How on earth could anybody confuse reduction and expansion? Are not increase and reduce opposites? Well, let’s take a look at the position of the Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate on this word. The APPCDC is a little-known outfit. The United States belongs to it, as well as Australia, South Korea, India, Japan, and China. According to one writer it is one of George Bush’s unsung triumphs. The APPCDC is promising to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by half by the end of the century. And this without slowing the economy down or requiring any painful sacrifices by the people of the world. Sound impossible? Well, actually, it is, at least by the methods pursued by the APPCDC. The thing is, the APPCDC has its own private definition of reduce. We usually think of reduction as meaning decreasing the amount of something. The APPCDC has its own notion. For it, reduce means increase at a lower rate of speed. A scene from The Motor Chums in Strange Waters may perhaps illustrate the point:
“Slow down,” shrieked Ben Hangdog wildly, as the car increased its pace down the narrow country lane. “We’re going to crash!”
“Oh that’s impossible,” chuckled short Ned Eliot, “as the piano tuner said of the twelve-inch pianist. Not with Tom Wilshire driving.”
“In any case,” Harry Fletcher observed precisely, “Tom is in fact slowing down.”
“How can that be?” inquired Ben Hangdog incredulously. “The speedometer just rounded sixty.”
“As you just observed,” replied Harry, “It took Tom no less than thirty-eight seconds to go from forty miles per hour to sixty.”
“So what?” screeched Ben. “We’re almost up to sixty-five! The gear box will never stand it!”
“But it took him almost twelve seconds. At the present rate we will only be at seventy-five when thirty-eight seconds have elapsed. The car is thus slowing down.”
“You’re crazy,” muttered Ben nervously, reaching for the door handle.
“No, it’s the simplest of simple math,” said Tom Wilshire confidently.
Made redundant is now a synonym for being without a job, redundancy refers to joblessness, and the word is a synonym for superfluous, even useless. This blunts the meaning. A certain amount of redundancy is necessary in a system, to make it robust. Redundancy refers to multiplication, not to necessity. We have perfectly good words for the concept of lacking necessity—superfluous, for one, and unnecessary, for another. Gratuitous. Uncalled for. Unneeded. Unwanted. The language itself uses redundancy as a device to counter noise, with such points of grammar as agreement of subject and verb, or of adjective and noun. The fact that the same information is delivered in more than one way is an example of redundancy—but the redundancy is nonetheless necessary grammatically. Huge systems (like the electrical grid that supplies the power we use to write and read this very entry) are designed with a certain amount of necessary redundancy in order to ensure that the failure of a part doesn’t mean the failure of the whole.
Now the other day when I was watching TV, or at least I had it on in the background, I heard a bit of dialog. The prosecution offered the defense a copy of an avadavat. “The name of the witness has been redacted,” protests the defense attorney. Redacted! I believe the term she was looking for was removed, or perhaps obliterated. The technical term is censored. Redacting a document does not mean censoring it—though censorship may well be one object of a redaction. Redacting a document is editing it—creating a new edition, perhaps to add material, perhaps to abridge it, perhaps to combine it with another account of the same events. Redaction criticism examines such an edited document, focusing on the differences between it and its source. This new and perverse use of the word to mean censor seems to me a kind of political correctness—censor is a bad word, so we just say redact. Never mind the damage done by this abuse of language.

20 February 2017

Lameass Greeting-Card Alert [2011]


[Originally posted 20 February 2011]
H
ere’s an e-card to send to that special someone you never want to hear from again (be warned; clicking on this link will start an idiotic recitation playing over your computer’s speakers). Entitled “We Need God in America, Again” and written by somebody called simply “Carmen” (possibly New Jersey born Xian singer Carmelo Dominic Licciardello) it shamelessly plagiarizes that demented internet bagatelle often referred to as “Forsaken Roots” or “History Forgotten” to produce the following gems attributed to various founders:
Our country was founded on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.—Patrick Henry
Fake. As mentioned here till you’re no doubt sick of it, first written in 1956 in The Virginian.
We’ve staked our future on our ability to follow the 10 commandments, with all our heart.—James Madison
Even faker. The original fake (which first appeared in 1958) didn’t have any of this “with all our heart” stuff; this is a fake version of a fake quotation.
You can’t have national morality apart from religious principle.—George Washington
Actually it was the Reverend E. B. Webb who said that “There is no national morality apart from religious principle.” What Washington said in his farewell address was “…reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle,” which is the text Webb was paraphrasing.
The philosophy of the school room, in one generation, will be the philosophy of government in the next.—Abraham Lincoln
Another fake—probably. It first surfaced, sans citation, in the mid-twentieth century, and nobody has ever been able to find where ol’ Honest Abe actually said it, or anything much like it.
And this is the crop—not a genuine quotation in the bunch. And these rags are stitched together with the worst kind of blood-and-semen-drenched jibber-jabber: “rape and murder are the trend” in our public schools while “Every day, a new holocaust of 5,000 unborn die”. “[P]ornography floods our streets” and “the spirit of Sodom and Gomorra” runs amok alongside “the blood bought saints of the living God” waiting for “Jesus Christ [to come] back again, in all His glory” to “send this evil lifestyle back to Satan” because “History tells us … to live like there is no God makes you a fool” and “Astrology won’t save you”. The only solution to America’s problems is “stop handing out condoms and start handing out the word of God in schools”; that should take care of America’s high teenage pregnancy rate [which has actually been declining since the mid-fifties] and its low literacy rate [apparently this pig-ignorant author has never looked at the literacy rates in such places as Chad, Niger, or Afghanistan].
Reading this gilded cat-vomit makes me wonder something: where was this “Carmen” educated? If this combination of mendacity and ignorance is a product of America’s public schools, then, yeah, it’s obviously time for an overhaul. The disinfectant of critical thinking would be more to the point than more religious hogwash—does this jerk really suppose that handing out Qurans or Books of Mormon or whatever is actually going to help somehow in this dire situation? Especially with all those spirits and saints and whatnot wandering around loose like a scene out A Christmas Carol. Maybe Kool-Aid™’s the real answer for you, eh, “Carmen”? I’m just saying.

19 February 2017

Sidewinder and Flies


M
orton Subotnick’s Touch first shows up in the Billboard Classical chart on 14 March 1970, and that fits reasonably well with my memory of when I first heard it, but I don’t seem to have a specific note of the event. I do know, however, the date that I first heard Sidewinder, at a concert on 19 February 1971, forty-six years ago today. It “was one hell of a trip,” I wrote, “gut-wrenching and exhilarating at the same time.” Held at the Reed College College Commons, the experience was marred somewhat by some pretentious and boring bearded asshole sitting at the next table who insisted on giving his views of the piece while it was in progress in a booming voice clearly intended to be heard by everyone in the room. Thanks to the presence of multiple speakers front and back the sounds of the piece seemed to be all around us, undulating from side to side and front to back like some sinister mechanical serpent.
But the reason I went to hear Sidewinder in the first place was hearing Touch, a favorite of mine to the present day. I must have got it in early 1970, I guess, though if I were relying solely on my memory I would have placed it in late 1969. In any case I definitely had it on 3 April of 1970 when I ran into a guy I’d known back in high school, who’d transferred from San Francisco in 1968 and regaled us with stories of Haight-Ashbury and the summer of love. He wanted to listen to albums, so I threw on my copy of Touch. As the opening crystalline crackling introduction came on he stared at me in horror. Is it all like that? he wanted to know. All like what? I wondered, staring at the eye from a broken chocolate rabbit it a bowl. Broken and abstract, he said, or words to that effect. I guess, I replied, puzzled. Take it off—it’s hurting my head, he moaned, and started rummaging through my brother’s records. This is more like it, he said, picking up a copy of After Bathing at Baxter’s, and he played it, singing along to it as we listened. He had been there when one of the tracks was recorded, he insisted, and claimed you could hear him singing in the background on it. Well, life is strange, as John Wyndham might have observed, and certainly differs from the rocks.
Subotnick, however, remained in my memory, and when I was taking an electronic music class in Claremont—not all that long after A Sky of Cloudless Sulfur came out—I did a short piece intended as a kind of Subotnick homage. I was using an ARP 2600 rather than a Buchla, but the soundscape I carved was sufficiently evocative of the original that at least my teacher got it. It was called simply “Flies” and I “performed” it (my performance consisted of turning on a tape recorder, letting it play, turning it off, and stalking off stage) at Lyman Hall on the evening of 19 February 1980, nine years to the day after I had heard Sidewinder. I never actually noticed the coincidence of date until recently, but it does have a pleasing symmetry to it. It may not be much, but sometimes that’s all you can ask for.

18 February 2017

Exaltation and Fall [1974]


[A passage from my journal, 18 February 1974]
11:08 pm PDT—Pseudojournalentry. Pseudolife, pseudohope.
Mood vacillates like winding serpent. One moment coldly rational, one moment joy in despair, one moment cast down, one moment transcendental, one moment disgust, one moment nostalgia, one moment self-hate, all churning, mixing, recombining, flotsam, scum, alphabet soup.
Sounds come from a great distance, then surround and merge. Pinpoint, expand to become all. Return to normal, cold objec­tive. Alone. World turning, great events, Prometheus on the mountain, Christ on the cross, Gandalf in the trance, moment of exaltation and fall
Disgust. Junk I’m writing. Fragmentary impressions fleet­ing moods. Daily life reasserts itself—I must get up and pre­pare my supper.
Feeling of nonself. Feeling of selfworthlessness. Self­hate—I hesitate to write this—almost as if self weren’t worth enough to hate. Challenge to ego doesn’t exist—no ego to chal­lenge.
Frogs croak, rain on the roofs and windows, radio playing “Last time I saw him”, timer ticking, oven sounds, refrigerator.
Light bright and cold. Wrong end of telescope ending in cold objectivity.
Fuck off Telly Savalas!
Cold and warm.
Alone, in a tower, remote, above, beyond, untouched, fall, plunge, slide into darkness, slippery, chaos.
Touch real and unchanged. Uneven linoleum felt through my socks by the soles of my feet, lettering on pen against my fingers.
The bell rings.
Disconnectedness and connectedness. Things flow into one’s hands, reflexes are automatic, all is done by reflex. No feeling of purpose.
I break off two fragments of fish sticks for the cats but meaning is gone—no continuity with past and none with future. I can remember and understand intellectually the feeling of sharing—giving my pet my food, symbolic of relationship, but all feeling gone.
Pointless items (the layout of fries on my plate) seem endowed with an uncomprehendible meaning significance.
Unconnected—follow conventional line of thoughts in words at third level thoughts while considering/wondering/thinking something else.
End of meal. Hershey square HE/.
Hello darkness my old friend.
I’m sustained by the thought that it will pass, although time seems moveless now. It always passes. Defenses against it are: objectivity, joy through despair, exaltation, give in to it.
My moods oscillate wildly, I’m not capable of sustained thought, I have trouble reading.
No thoughts of suicide this time. I just read an article about (partially) suicide, but I had no thoughts of it. It’s not worth it.
Divorce between meaning and action.
Pain dull and remote.
Taste unrelated to food.
Self unrelated to me.
Chaos and torture and loneliness and pain and hell.
It isn’t real.
One moment // one moment // one moment // one moment // one moment // one moment
Each moment is self-contained, unrelated to the next.
It’s no goddamn good cheap intellectual attempts to make the ungraspable tangible and understandable and even this is horseshit.
There’s no relief from the pain.
There’s no relief from the clichés.
There’s no relief from self-criticism.
“How do I hate me: let me count the ways.”
Grim sardonic laughter. (12:05 m)

17 February 2017

Can a Creationist Teach History? [2008]


[Originally posted 17 February 2008]
James Hanley at Uncommon Liberty writes:
And it’s not that I would ban creationists from the public universities—I don’t care if someone who believes in special creation teaches political philosophy, French literature, theater, art, exercise science, history, economics, etc. But not biology, because creationism isn’t scientific.
Okay, maybe theater or economics—but history? Me, I wouldn’t go there, since the philosophy of special creation is inherently anti-history in its formulation. History is based on hard evidence, not speculation made up out of whole cloth. Creationism, on the other hand, dismisses evidence that doesn’t fit its bizarre world-view. Creationists, for example, don’t buy into the (to their minds absurd) notion that human beings invented or discovered agriculture. Mankind was specially created to garden, and had agriculture forced upon him as a result of the Fall of Man. (I’ve had this argument before. More than once.) Hunting and gathering peoples aren’t cultures that haven’t taken up agriculture yet—they are cultures that have fallen from the natural state imposed by the creator. One of the historical consequences of this belief was the underestimate of the time it would take to transform hunters and gatherers to agriculturalists. Nineteenth century American policy dictated that native Americans convert instantly from a hunter-gatherer way of life—perceived as laziness—to one based on agriculture—perceived as godly industriousness. A utopian idealist named Meeker tried this notion out on the Utes in Colorado in the 1870s, and ended up dead as a result.
And this is one of the most basic facts of history. Creationists have strange notions about many other aspects of history—the development of language, the accomplishments of the Sumerians, the role of Babylon, the role of Egypt—in fact, they seem to have a distorted view of the entire history of the Near East. But what can you expect from a group that denies the validity of radio-carbon dating, of dendrochronology, and yet believes in a recent global flood? These guys aren’t playing the game of History any more than they are playing the game of Science, and have no business getting into the ring, or even suiting up for it.
Given this, it’s not surprising that Creationists tend to jump onto other popular historical bandwagons for which evidence is lacking—the Christian America myth for example, currently being enshrined in HR888, the Inflate Religious Pretensions Act. I’ve already mentioned Flood Geology, of course, but there are also Eurocentricism, the denigration of Islam, the conspiracy notions behind modern Asian history, and so on and so forth—none of which may be inherent in Creationism—but once you've agreed to voluntarily blind yourself in one area, it’s easy to extend it to others. If your eye offends you, pluck it out and all that, I suppose. Of course you won’t be able to see where you're going, and if you lead others you’re both going to end up in a pit, but that’s a small price to pay for being doctrinally correct.
Now I’m speaking here of YECs, of course—Young Earth Creationists, for those who aren’t hip to the current lingo. It really ought to be YUCs—Young Universe Creationists—but for some reason that hasn’t caught on. Old Universe Creationists are another matter. Some of them, anyway. I used to watch a cable-access show by an Old Universe Creationist—from his comments I believe he was an astronomer by trade—and on the whole I’d have confidence in his ability to teach astronomy at any rate. I don’t know about French Literature or exercise science, but I’d have more confidence in his ability to teach them than in the average YUC’s ability to teach anything whatsoever that depended upon his ability to evaluate evidence accurately. Sloppy thinking in one field carries over to another—or at least I’d have trouble believing that it doesn’t. Intellectual laziness in evaluating the evidence of astronomy, biology, geology, and history—all of which are key to being a card-carrying YUC—do not suggest a likelihood for intellectual rigor in political philosophy or economics. And willful blindness in one field easily carries over to another.
As for the Gonzales issue, well, anybody who thinks that denial of tenure is persecution is living in a fantasy world. Sorry, but denial of tenure is a fact of life in academia. Most of the time the reasons boil down to cold hard cash. An institution has to think long and hard before making the long-term commitment that tenure implies. My sympathies tend to be with the instructors in these cases, not surprisingly since my mother and step-father were both professors in institutions of higher learning. In Gonzalez’s case my sympathy is somewhat muted by the fact that he appears to have been spending too much time on outside interests instead of keeping his eye on the ball. The guy was working in a highly competitive field, and if he wasn’t bringing in the bacon, so to speak, then I’m not surprised his employer chose to let him go. Them are the breaks. As Superchicken used to observe, “You knew the job was dangerous when you took it, Fred.” If denial of tenure is persecution, then I’ve known a lot of victims, and many of them much more obviously qualified in their fields than Gonzalez appeared to be in his.

[By the way, James Hanley’s original post on the Gonzalez nonsense seems to me to put things in the right perspective. Denial of tenure is never fun; it would be lovely if every instructor in the world could find a permanent teaching position. But the dishonest campaign being run on his behalf is beneath contempt.]

16 February 2017

Not Exactly a Winning Proposition


A
ll things posed at the entry-level to Valhalla come past a frog; hell is for Christians. It’s not a Norse world, anyway—even if God created the Norse, much as weevils make their presence known to flowers in the appropriate season. They are like human beings in that respect. I mean, carrots are okay, but they’re also a little bit lame—like eating them all day. Do you eat carrots all day? What is the story of the frog and the cricket? I don’t quite remember it from days of yore, but the frog ends up eating the cricket anyway.
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