Social terminology

When you’re in a business, the jargon is like the air—you just don’t notice it. Then you listen to people outside your field using the same terms, and suddenly you see, yes, that can be confusing.

Recently someone asked, on a fairly tech-savvy mailing list I participate in, how best to describe social networking in a nutshell. I realized that I see a lot of confusion at times about this (in general, not on the above list), possibly because of how terms like social network and social media overlap. So I offered the following, which I thought I’d share here:

  • Social media is the set of communication features (sharing, reviewing, blogging, message boards, comments, etc.) used by many sites. For example, Amazon is not a social network, but helped popularize using social media to improve both user experience and the business.
  • Social network (noun) refers to a site dedicated to social purposes. It can also refer to a personal social network. A social network site’s social media features don’t merely supplement or enhance its business, they are the business.
  • Social networking (gerund) is the process of developing a social network, typically a personal one.

Stephen Fry makes a beautifully expressed plea for language lovers to share the love, not the pedantry. Matt Rogers tosses in some animated typographic eye candy.



Singing like a bird…

“Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it;
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love.”

Black-headed grosbeak

Cole Porter was wiser than he knew. Insofar as love songs and “territorial” songs are concerned, we do as the birds do. From The Scientist’s “Behavior Brief:”

Courtship songs of chestnut-sided warblers appear relatively stable over evolutionary time compared to those used for territorial displays, which have changed considerably over the course of two decades, researchers found, suggesting the presence of two distinct traditions in song bird “culture.”

Isn’t that the case with humans as well as birds? While each generation contributes its own songs to the ouevre, certain love songs continue to appeal decades and even centuries after composition: Someone to Watch Over Me, I’ll Be Seeing You, and of course the evergreen Greensleeves all have strong followings beyond their generations, from people born long after they showed on the scene.

In contrast, highly specific genre songs which help define cultural “territories” such as metal, punk, gangsta rap, indie, bluegrass, and others, frequently hold less appeal over time, even within the groups in question. Perhaps simple, cross-genre love songs are more likely to have lasting appeal simply because the audience is larger – but perhaps that’s because they engage on a more universal level.

P.S. On a related note, we should probably all stop using bird-brained as a derogatory term.


NYT asks Stewart, “Don’t shoot the messenger!”

The New York Times decided to take the bull by the horns, and tackle Jon Stewart’s accusations of poor reporting by the media. Unfortunately, David Carr’s Rally to Shift the Blame comes off as a poorly argued, disingenuous attempt to separate the media from the message.

Carr writes, “[Stewart’s] barrage against the news media Saturday stemmed from the fact that, on this day, attacking the message would have been bad manners, so he stuck with the messengers.” What Carr should know—and if he doesn’t, why is he writing for the New York Times?—is that the medium is the message. (Surely Carr has heard of Marshall McLuhan?) What the media sends out is the message we get, whether through the television, the internet, the radio, or paper.

Here’s Carr’s first attempt to make the distinction of message vs. messenger:

It was a beautiful day on the Mall, and who doesn’t like kicking the press around, but speaking of ants, media bias and hyperbole seem like pretty small targets when unemployment is near 10 percent, vast amounts of unregulated cash are being spent in the election’s closing days, and no American governing institution—not the Senate, not the House of Representatives, not even the Supreme Court —seems to be above petty partisan bickering. Mr. Stewart couldn’t really go there and instead suggested it was those guys over there in the press tent who had the blood of democracy on their hands.

The problem is that Stewart never said the press was responsible for unemployment, war, or hatred. What Stewart said is that the press makes it very difficult to effect change in any of these areas, because it’s driven by ratings. From the speech Carr complains about:

We can have animus and not be enemies. But unfortunately, one of our main tools in delineating the two broke. The country’s 24-hour, politico-pundit, perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems, but its existence makes solving them that much harder.

Stewart is absolutely right. I don’t see Tea Party rallies in person, I see what the news channels share of them; I don’t see the administration’s press conferences in full, I see what the reporters and cameras share of them. When politicians make claims, I don’t see investigation into whether the claims are credible; I see “he said, she said” coverage of claims that, if true, must come from alternate universes, since they’re radically incompatible with a shared reality.

The heart of the Stewart/Colbert message

What many media commentators, Carr among them, seem to have forgotten is that the very structure and content of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report is to provide satire and critique of the media. Sure, it’s comedy, but it’s the comedy of the court jester, mixing hard truth with silliness. Truth is relatively easy to say in comedy, and relatively hard to say in the 24/7 news cycle.  That’s probably why news coverage quality has devolved into its current state. (What does the media at large think inspired Colbert to coin “truthiness” as a word, and why do they think so many people immediately appropriated it?)

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are highly aware that the medium is the message, and equally aware of what drives media coverage. This rally was an attempt to expand coverage of their message by creating an event the news media could not ignore. That media might not understand their message or represent it as clearly as Stewart and Colbert would like. Still, those of us tired of seeing the media allow itself to be used by people, parties, and corporations they should be holding in check, were pleased to see that same media forced to cover an event calling them on it.

It’s all cable TV

Carr also argued against Stewart’s observation that, “We work together to get things done every damn day! The only place we don’t is here or on cable TV.” Somewhat disingenuously, Carr responded:

But here’s the problem: Most Americans don’t watch or pay attention to cable television. In even a good news night, about five million people take a seat on the cable wars, which is less than 2 percent of all Americans. People are scared of what they see in their pay envelopes and neighborhoods, not because of what Keith Olbermann said last night or how Bill O’Reilly came back at him.

I call this disingenuous because since everything went digital—since broadcast news ceased to be aired and had to be obtained via cable companies—it’s all cable TV. If it’s not, it’s online, (frequently obtained through cable companies as well), and is driven by either TV channels, stations, or online “newspapers.” And more people than ever are watching the news one way or another, according to the Pew Research Center.

There are many more ways to get the news these days, and as a consequence Americans are spending more time with the news than over much of the past decade. Digital platforms are playing a larger role in news consumption, and they seem to be more than making up for modest declines in the audience for traditional platforms. As a result, the average time Americans spend with the news on a given day is as high as it was in the mid-1990s, when audiences for traditional news sources were much larger.

…The net impact of digital platforms supplementing traditional sources is that Americans are spending more time with the news than was the case a decade ago. As was the case in 2000, people now say they spend 57 minutes on average getting the news from TV, radio or newspapers on a given day. But today, they also spend an additional 13 minutes getting news online, increasing the total time spent with the news to 70 minutes. This is one of the highest totals on this measure since the mid-1990s and it does not take into account time spent getting news on cell phones or other digital devices.*

I think that pretty much speaks for itself.

The media should take responsibility

That same Pew report noted that, “About eight-in-ten (82%) say they see at least some bias in news coverage; by a 43%-to-23% margin, more say it is a liberal than a conservative bias.” Jon Stewart isn’t the only one to see skewed coverage, he just had a larger platform to speak out about it. It’s not bias that’s the problem, though, it’s the choice of what’s covered, the style of presentation, the lack of critical evaluation of the data being presented.

Sure, we like seeing conflict and meltdowns. It’s sad but true that it’s more exciting to see someone rudely yell “You lie!” at the President, than to learn whether it was or was not a lie. Whatever side you’re on, you’re more easily engaged by the strong emotions of outrage or support. But shouldn’t at least as much coverage as the video clip be provided about the truth behind the furor? It shouldn’t be necessary to dig deeply online while watching the news to discover the truth behind the news. If it’s not informing us, it’s less news and more entertainment.

My personal plea to the news media: We are fully capable of being engaged and enlightened at the same time. Please, don’t turn a necessary critique into another conflict. Help us be the educated populace we need to be to defend ourselves against those with more power and bigger pockets.

* The increased attention to news is good for the New York Times web site. From the Pew Research Center: “This year, 17% of Americans say they read something on a newspaper’s website yesterday, up from 13% in 2008 and 9% in 2006.”


12 September 2010. Americans Spending More Time Following the News, Pew Research Center.

Carr, David, 31 October 2010. Rally to Shift the Blame, The New York Times.


Science funding shouldn’t depend on ignorance

Physics World editor Hamish Johnston blogged about the difficulty of public perception, research funding, and scientists commenting on God and religion in the public square. Most recently, Stephen Hawking spoke out about M-theory making God unnecessary. From Johnston’s blog:

There is just one tiny problem with all this – there is currently little experimental evidence to back up M-theory. In other words, a leading scientist is making a sweeping public statement on the existence of God based on his faith in an unsubstantiated theory.

I could see why Johnston was concerned. A BBC video, linked in the Physics World post, had this in the descriptive text:

Theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking has said that he sees no necessity for God in the creation of the universe and that philosophy is dead.

Things like this just make me shake my head. Hawking is so, so brilliant, but perhaps not very wise.

Johnston’s concern was driven by the possible adverse effect such pronouncements could have on science:

Physicists need the backing of the British public to ensure that the funding cuts don’t hit them disproportionately. This could be very difficult if the public think that most physicists spend their time arguing about what unproven theories say about the existence of God.

I know he’s right. Personally, I find this situation both sad and frustrating. That science’s direction and funding can be at the whim of the public; that scientists and philosophers don’t speak of and to each other with respect; that willfully ignorant people end up pitting people of good will against each other (read the comments in any blog touching both science and religion)—this kind of particularly human screwball black comedy just seems, well, wrong. I know, I know—I’m not the only one.

I commented, of course. Here’s what I said, for what it’s worth (the comment was still in moderation as of this writing):

Personally, I wish science fell into the same category as infrastructure and education when it came to funding: a must-have, something without which a society cannot thrive.

I have no problem with Hawking or anyone else pronouncing on God or religion. They are scientists, so I take their opinions in this area to be that of lay people in the field, much as my opinion in it is. I’m not offended, but I do wish they would formulate such comments with more of a “it’s my opinion that [insert sweeping religious view here]” attitude.

The same goes for evangelicals and fundamentalists of any religion who proclaim their ignorance of science loudly and proudly. Please, take a moment to reflect. Surely a creative God would want his thinking creations to view his work accurately and clearly, and support an unflinching, honest appreciation and understanding of the universe? What artist doesn’t want their craft appreciated? Therefore, fund science! Promote it! Support it in the name of understanding the world God gave you clearly and without fear.


It’s not what you believe, it’s what you do with your belief

The New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof put the fear of Islam into a historical context in his latest column, Is Islamophobia the new hysteria? He pointed out the many times U.S. citizens have rallied against various religious or national groups, using much of the same language used today when speaking about followers of Islam.

Sadly, many of the comments seem oblivious to his point, and actually repeat the very mistake he’s pointing out. So I had to comment myself:

Religions go in cycles. There was a time not too many centuries ago when Islam was a more tolerant religion than Christianity – when Jews sought refuge in places like Turkey to escape the Inquisition.

I keep reading comments that argue Islam is different from Christianity and Judaism because it is “political” and seeks to harm us. Clearly these people have forgotten that Christianity and Judaism have extremely active political elements in the U.S., and that there are many countries who presently have some flavor of Christianity as a state religion. Clearly they’ve forgotten the Christian element in Ireland’s decades of terrorism, or abortion clinic attacks, or the mostly Protestant KKK (mind, most Protestants do not support the KKK – but most KKK members believe a Christian God is on their side).

While the United States may pride itself on constitutional separation of church and state, the reality is very different, as we can see from the constant efforts by a vocal minority of U.S. Christians to inject their version of Christian concepts and language into law, government buildings, and schools.

I’m also a little disheartened by those claiming that religion as a whole is dangerous. People can be broken and dangerous with or without religion (e.g., Stalin was an atheist, KKK members are primarily Christian), and outstandingly good with or without religion (Desmond Tutu and Clarence Darrow). Danger occurs when people use any institution, be it church or state, to rationalize and cloak sloppy thinking and fear-driven bigotry.

It’s not what you believe, it’s what you do with your belief.

Kristof, N. Is Islamophobia the new hysteria? The New York Times, 7 Sep. 2010.


Nature and nurture, not nature or nurture

Recent research reported in Scientific American shows that for some people, mother’s milk may promote a higher IQ. That’s all very well and good, but it was this paragraph that had me skipping with joy:

As for the study’s implications on the nature / nurture debate, Linda Gottfredson, a professor of education at the University of Delaware, says that a person’s DNA is not really a blueprint, as it is commonly portrayed. “[Genes] are more like playbooks,” she says. “It’s not nature or nurture, but your genes operate frequently by making you more susceptible or less susceptible to certain environmental conditions.”

I find this a beautiful example of stepping away from the tyranny of dichotomy (I’ve been saying “nature and nurture” since high school). One of my pet peeves is either-or conceptualizing being applied to more complex discussions. Such black-and-white, right-or-wrong pigeon holing erodes critical thought.


Julia Rubiner of Editorial Emergency wrote a great follow-up to her article, Stop Abbreviation Abuse Now! (to which I replied ). It’s a nice article, and not just because Rubiner called me her “favorite taxonomist” in it ;–)

Read Call-back: My Epic Fail Failure.


Thomas Huxley’s letter, on the death of his son

The below is from Leonard Huxley’s The Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley, courtesy of Project Gutenberg. Quoted by Stephen Jay Gould.

A letter written in response to well-meant advice from Cambridge professor and priest Charles Kingsley.

14, Waverley Place, September 23, 1860.

My dear Kingsley,

I cannot sufficiently thank you, both on my wife’s account and my own, for your long and frank letter, and for all the hearty sympathy which it exhibits–and Mrs. Kingsley will, I hope, believe that we are no less sensible of her kind thought of us. To myself your letter was especially valuable, as it touched upon what I thought even more than upon what I said in my letter to you. My convictions, positive and negative, on all the matters of which you speak, are of long and slow growth and are firmly rooted. But the great blow which fell upon me seemed to stir them to their foundation, and had I lived a couple of centuries earlier I could have fancied a devil scoffing at me and them–and asking me what profit it was to have stripped myself of the hopes and consolations of the mass of mankind? To which my only reply was and is–Oh devil! truth is better than much profit. I have searched over the grounds of my belief, and if wife and child and name and fame were all to be lost to me one after the other as the penalty, still I will not lie.

And now I feel that it is due to you to speak as frankly as you have done to me. An old and worthy friend of mine tried some three or four years ago to bring us together–because, as he said, you were the only man who would do me any good. Your letter leads me to think he was right, though not perhaps in the sense he attached to his own words.

To begin with the great doctrine you discuss. I neither deny nor affirm the immortality of man. I see no reason for believing in it, but, on the other hand, I have no means of disproving it.

Pray understand that I have no a priori objections to the doctrine. No man who has to deal daily and hourly with nature can trouble himself about a priori difficulties. Give me such evidence as would justify me in believing anything else, and I will believe that. Why should I not? It is not half so wonderful as the conservation of force, or the indestructibility of matter. Whoso clearly appreciates all that is implied in the falling of a stone can have no difficulty about any doctrine simply on account of its marvellousness. But the longer I live, the more obvious it is to me that the most sacred act of a man’s life is to say and to feel, “I believe such and such to be true.” All the greatest rewards and all the heaviest penalties of existence cling about that act. The universe is one and the same throughout; and if the condition of my success in unravelling some little difficulty of anatomy or physiology is that I shall rigorously refuse to put faith in that which does not rest on sufficient evidence, I cannot believe that the great mysteries of existence will be laid open to me on other terms. It is no use to talk to me of analogies and probabilities. I know what I mean when I say I believe in the law of the inverse squares, and I will not rest my life and my hopes upon weaker convictions. I dare not if I would.

Measured by this standard, what becomes of the doctrine of immortality?

You rest in your strong conviction of your personal existence, and in the instinct of the persistence of that existence which is so strong in you as in most men.

To me this is as nothing. That my personality is the surest thing I know–may be true. But the attempt to conceive what it is leads me into mere verbal subtleties. I have champed up all that chaff about the ego and the non-ego, about noumena and phenomena, and all the rest of it, too often not to know that in attempting even to think of these questions, the human intellect flounders at once out of its depth.

It must be twenty years since, a boy, I read Hamilton’s essay on the unconditioned, and from that time to this, ontological speculation has been a folly to me. When Mansel took up Hamilton’s argument on the side of orthodoxy (!) I said he reminded me of nothing so much as the man who is sawing off the sign on which he is sitting, in Hogarth’s picture. But this by the way.

I cannot conceive of my personality as a thing apart from the phenomena of my life. When I try to form such a conception I discover that, as Coleridge would have said, I only hypostatise a word, and it alters nothing if, with Fichte, I suppose the universe to be nothing but a manifestation of my personality. I am neither more nor less eternal than I was before.

Nor does the infinite difference between myself and the animals alter the case. I do not know whether the animals persist after they disappear or not. I do not even know whether the infinite difference between us and them may not be compensated by THEIR persistence and MY cessation after apparent death, just as the humble bulb of an annual lives, while the glorious flowers it has put forth die away.

Surely it must be plain that an ingenious man could speculate without end on both sides, and find analogies for all his dreams. Nor does it help me to tell me that the aspirations of mankind–that my own highest aspirations even–lead me towards the doctrine of immortality. I doubt the fact, to begin with, but if it be so even, what is this but in grand words asking me to believe a thing because I like it.

Science has taught to me the opposite lesson. She warns me to be careful how I adopt a view which jumps with my preconceptions, and to require stronger evidence for such belief than for one to which I was previously hostile.

My business is to teach my aspirations to conform themselves to fact, not to try and make facts harmonise with my aspirations.

Science seems to me to teach in the highest and strongest manner the great truth which is embodied in the Christian conception of entire surrender to the will of God. Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing. I have only begun to learn content and peace of mind since I have resolved at all risks to do this.

There are, however, other arguments commonly brought forward in favour of the immortality of man, which are to my mind not only delusive but mischievous. The one is the notion that the moral government of the world is imperfect without a system of future rewards and punishments. The other is: that such a system is indispensable to practical morality. I believe that both these dogmas are very mischievous lies.

With respect to the first, I am no optimist, but I have the firmest belief that the Divine Government (if we may use such a phrase to express the sum of the “customs of matter”) is wholly just. The more I know intimately of the lives of other men (to say nothing of my own), the more obvious it is to me that the wicked does NOT flourish nor is the righteous punished. But for this to be clear we must bear in mind what almost all forget, that the rewards of life are contingent upon obedience to the WHOLE law–physical as well as moral–and that moral obedience will not atone for physical sin, or vice versa.

The ledger of the Almighty is strictly kept, and every one of us has the balance of his operations paid over to him at the end of every minute of his existence.

Life cannot exist without a certain conformity to the surrounding universe–that conformity involves a certain amount of happiness in excess of pain. In short, as we live we are paid for living.

And it is to be recollected in view of the apparent discrepancy between men’s acts and their rewards that Nature is juster than we. She takes into account what a man brings with him into the world, which human justice cannot do. If I, born a bloodthirsty and savage brute, inheriting these qualities from others, kill you, my fellow-men will very justly hang me, but I shall not be visited with the horrible remorse which would be my real punishment if, my nature being higher, I had done the same thing.

The absolute justice of the system of things is as clear to me as any scientific fact. The gravitation of sin to sorrow is as certain as that of the earth to the sun, and more so–for experimental proof of the fact is within reach of us all–nay, is before us all in our own lives, if we had but the eyes to see it.

Not only, then, do I disbelieve in the need for compensation, but I believe that the seeking for rewards and punishments out of this life leads men to a ruinous ignorance of the fact that their inevitable rewards and punishments are here.

If the expectation of hell hereafter can keep me from evil-doing, surely a fortiori the certainty of hell now will do so? If a man could be firmly impressed with the belief that stealing damaged him as much as swallowing arsenic would do (and it does), would not the dissuasive force of that belief be greater than that of any based on mere future expectations?

And this leads me to my other point.

As I stood behind the coffin of my little son the other day, with my mind bent on anything but disputation, the officiating minister read, as a part of his duty, the words, “If the dead rise not again, let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die.” I cannot tell you how inexpressibly they shocked me. Paul had neither wife nor child, or he must have known that his alternative involved a blasphemy against all that was best and noblest in human nature. I could have laughed with scorn. What! because I am face to face with irreparable loss, because I have given back to the source from whence it came, the cause of a great happiness, still retaining through all my life the blessings which have sprung and will spring from that cause, I am to renounce my manhood, and, howling, grovel in bestiality? Why, the very apes know better, and if you shoot their young, the poor brutes grieve their grief out and do not immediately seek distraction in a gorge.

Kicked into the world a boy without guide or training, or with worse than none, I confess to my shame that few men have drunk deeper of all kinds of sin than I. Happily, my course was arrested in time–before I had earned absolute destruction–and for long years I have been slowly and painfully climbing, with many a fall, towards better things. And when I look back, what do I find to have been the agents of my redemption? The hope of immortality or of future reward? I can honestly say that for these fourteen years such a consideration has not entered my head. No, I can tell you exactly what has been at work. “Sartor Resartus” led me to know that a deep sense of religion was compatible with the entire absence of theology. Secondly, science and her methods gave me a resting-place independent of authority and tradition. Thirdly, love opened up to me a view of the sanctity of human nature, and impressed me with a deep sense of responsibility.

If at this moment I am not a worn-out, debauched, useless carcass of a man, if it has been or will be my fate to advance the cause of science, if I feel that I have a shadow of a claim on the love of those about me, if in the supreme moment when I looked down into my boy’s grave my sorrow was full of submission and without bitterness, it is because these agencies have worked upon me, and not because I have ever cared whether my poor personality shall remain distinct for ever from the All from whence it came and whither it goes.

And thus, my dear Kingsley, you will understand what my position is. I may be quite wrong, and in that case I know I shall have to pay the penalty for being wrong. But I can only say with Luther, “Gott helfe mir, Ich kann nichts anders.”

I know right well that 99 out of 100 of my fellows would call me atheist, infidel, and all the other usual hard names. As our laws stand, if the lowest thief steals my coat, my evidence (my opinions being known) would not be received against him. [The law with respect to oaths was reformed in 1869.]

But I cannot help it. One thing people shall not call me with justice and that is–a liar. As you say of yourself, I too feel that I lack courage; but if ever the occasion arises when I am bound to speak, I will not shame my boy.

I have spoken more openly and distinctly to you than I ever have to any human being except my wife.

If you can show me that I err in premises or conclusion, I am ready to give up these as I would any other theories. But at any rate you will do me the justice to believe that I have not reached my conclusions without the care befitting the momentous nature of the problems involved.

And I write this the more readily to you, because it is clear to me that if that great and powerful instrument for good or evil, the Church of England, is to be saved from being shivered into fragments by the advancing tide of science–an event I should be very sorry to witness, but which will infallibly occur if men like Samuel of Oxford are to have the guidance of her destinies–it must be by the efforts of men who, like yourself, see your way to the combination of the practice of the Church with the spirit of science. Understand that all the younger men of science whom I know intimately are ESSENTIALLY of my way of thinking. (I know not a scoffer or an irreligious or an immoral man among them, but they all regard orthodoxy as you do Brahmanism.) Understand that this new school of the prophets is the only one that can work miracles, the only one that can constantly appeal to nature for evidence that it is right, and you will comprehend that it is of no use to try to barricade us with shovel hats and aprons, or to talk about our doctrines being “shocking.”

I don’t profess to understand the logic of yourself, Maurice, and the rest of your school, but I have always said I would swear by your truthfulness and sincerity, and that good must come of your efforts. The more plain this was to me, however, the more obvious the necessity to let you see where the men of science are driving, and it has often been in my mind to write to you before.

If I have spoken too plainly anywhere, or too abruptly, pardon me, and do the like to me.

My wife thanks you very much for your volume of sermons.

Ever yours very faithfully,

T.H. Huxley.


How not to ask questions

From the NY Times, Yes, Running Can Make You High, 27 March 2008:

Yes, some people reported that they felt so good when they exercised that it was as if they had taken mood-altering drugs. But was that feeling real or just a delusion? And even if it was real, what was the feeling supposed to be, and what caused it?

The bit that bothers me is the middle sentence. Unless the NY Times is seriously proposing that all runners reporting a high are either lying or confabulating, a feeling is a feeling is a feeling. It is real, and originates and is reflected in your physical being, just as every aspect of your experience is. The only relevant definition of real in the context of feelings is “real to the individual experiencing them,” and that cannot be questioned. Of course it’s real, they experienced it.

The question What [is] the feeling supposed to be? has the opposite problem. Instead of a universal affirmative (Of course it’s real), this question can have a variety of answers, some or all of which may be correct. It’s a useful question to ask, since it helps us parse the situation from different angles, but it cannot be answered definitively.

The question most able to be answered here, at least on a biological level, is not Is it real?, but What caused it?, asked in the last sentence.

Psychology will not have come into its own until there is a general understanding that there is no difference between mind and body. This is why the talking cure, journaling, and other cognitive therapy works, because they subtly affect—in essence, reprogram—the brain. Our experience occurs in the interaction of our selves with our environment. The challenge in psychology is in defining the parameters of the environment, and the capabilities of the self in reacting to and understanding it.


Old school feminism

I love it when I encounter feminist thought from previous generations. Much of my lunchtime reading material comes from Project Gutenberg, where I discovered Arthur Conan Doyle’s Beyond the City. In it I found the following. The first is from a middle-aged feminist:

“I am sorry that I have no tea to offer you. I look upon the subserviency of woman as largely due to her abandoning nutritious drinks and invigorating exercises to the male. I do neither….”

[Another character suggests that “woman has a mission of her own.”]

The lady of the house dropped her dumb-bells with a crash upon the floor. “The old cant!” she cried. “The old shibboleth! What is this mission which is reserved for woman? All that is humble, that is mean, that is soul-killing, that is so contemptible and so ill-paid that none other will touch it. All that is woman’s mission. And who imposed these limitations upon her? Who cooped her up within this narrow sphere? Was it Providence? Was it nature? No, it was the arch enemy. It was man.”

“Oh, I say, auntie!” drawled her nephew.

“It was man, Charles. It was you and your fellows. I say that woman is a colossal monument to the selfishness of man. What is all this boasted chivalry—these fine words and vague phrases? Where is it when we wish to put it to the test? Man in the abstract will do anything to help a woman. Of course. How does it work when his pocket is touched? Where is his chivalry then? Will the doctors help her to qualify? will the lawyers help her to be called to the bar? will the clergy tolerate her in the Church? Oh, it is close your ranks then and refer poor woman to her mission! Her mission! To be thankful for coppers and not to interfere with the men while they grabble for gold, like swine round a trough, that is man’s reading of the mission of women. You may sit there and sneer, Charles, while you look upon your victim, but you know that it is truth, every word of it.”

And this is from a respected male character in the book, a retired doctor, in another scene:

“She is quite right. The professions are not sufficiently open to women. They are still far too much circumscribed in their employments. They are a feeble folk, the women who have to work for their bread—poor, unorganized, timid, taking as a favor what they might demand as a right. That is why their case is not more constantly before the public, for if their cry for redress was as great as their grievance it would fill the world to the exclusion of all others. It is all very well for us to be courteous to the rich, the refined, those to whom life is already made easy. It is a mere form, a trick of manner. If we are truly courteous, we shall stoop to lift up struggling womanhood when she really needs our help—when it is life and death to her whether she has it or not. And then to cant about it being unwomanly to work in the higher professions. It is womanly enough to starve, but unwomanly to use the brains which God has given them. Is it not a monstrous contention?”

And of course, the best and my ever-favorite, from Tolkien. Eowyn is ranting at Aragorn:

“All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more.”

A small aside: I do wish they’d left that exchange in the movie. It’s the heart of the Aragorn/Eowyn relationship; and I notice Aragorn says his heart is where Arwen dwells…


A respectful dissent

Comment left in response to Salon article “The Jesus Symbol, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.”

I’m not particularly invested in the Christianity of Narnia—I enjoyed them while an atheist as well as a Christian—but I know the books and Lewis deeply and the arguments used here to make them non-Christian are somewhat misleading. Comments come not just from myself, but my husband, Bart Odom, who holds a PhD in religious studies from the University of Virginia, so we’re writing to straighten out some theological/Narnia issues. The mistakes are basic ones, common to people who speak from their personal understanding, and not from rigorous theological study.

I will list my husband’s comments first, with my bracketed Lewis/Narnia notes where appropriate.

“Whenever a professed Christian feels he must create some wholly other world to explore the meaning of his religion, he is flirting with bad faith.”

A wholly other world is the perfect place to explore, with a tabula rasa, the meaning of one’s religion, a way to try to avoid entanglements with one’s own life and the actual events of the world we live in. In short, it is a good faith way to avoid invidious associations and roman a clefcharacters, to minimize one’s own prejudices about the world. Bad faith would only enter if the nature of the other world were contrived to facilitate proseletyzing or apologetics.

Including “the make-believes of other religions” is polytheism.

Not polytheism but inclusivism or pluralism. What it excludes is the odor of Christian exclusivism. [Personally, I find the phrase “make-believes” shows that same unpleasant exclusivity.]

Werewolves, the White Witch, etc., display Manichaean dualism.

It is not obvious that werewolves etc are evil per se. They are what they are. The assumption that they are evil is itself a Manichaean one, grounded in the belief that one is on “God’s side” and can make such a judgment. The White Witch is not necessarily Satan and Satan is not an independent entity. If Christians believe these things, they are in heresy, but most Christians have a proper understanding of the situation. [Those who believe in Satan believe in an ultimate fallen entity. Satan is not placed on a level with God or Jesus except by Satanists; to Christians, he is better equated with the Archangel Michael.

Re: Narnia in this context. The White Witch is a created being, perhaps the character Jadis from another book in the series, who has set herself in opposition to God’s will through pride. Lewis never portrays evil on a level with Aslan. Like Christ on the cross, Aslan is always ahead of the game, even when the most powerful fallen creature, the White Witch, seems to have won.]

Belief in Satan is heretical.

Satan tempts Christ, is rebuked by him; demons possess people. This is in the canonical Christian scriptures, and can therefore hardly be said to be heresy.

Exercising free will in opposition to God is the cause of evil.

This is by no means the only, or even an adequate account of why evil arises, and what God’s responsibility in the existence of evil is. The entire vexed field of theodicy deals with this issue. Moreover, the “free will” argument ignores the Luther’s insight of the bondage of the will, as well as the doctrine of original sin.

Creating a Secondary World…is in effect a declaration that God’s creation is deficient.

No, it is a technique of fantasy fiction, and a way of communicating a message indirectly that cannot be communicated directly, as Kierkegaard believed was true of the Christian kerygma….What do preachers do each Sunday but convey the gospels in a different way?

Relocating the Christian story in a different place is wrong and Lewis thought so.

The point is that the Christian story is universal and can be visualized in many ways without losing its identity. After all, it has escaped first century Judea and is still going after 2000 years, in a vastly different setting. The Christian story is sui generis, unlike Fenimore Cooper or any other literature.

Lewis challenges our level of responsibility, and this is the real problem Goldthwaite and others have, I think. Lewis felt Christianity to be a very demanding religion, and his work reflects that. These are not simplistic, good vs. evil stories unless you’re not paying attention. There is an us vs. them quality, but “them” is a concept that changes as people gain and lose faith for a variety of reasons. God asks more and more of Lewis’s characters, and one of the more difficult questions Lewis asks is how to answer that need.

A major theme is Lewis’s awareness of our responsibility for creatures other than our species. The children come into the world because to Lewis, humans are made to be stewards of the world, and as “sons of Adam and daughters of Eve,” these children must take stewardship of Narnia. The White Witch is a daughter of Lilith, and not the “true” steward. Whether God put us in charge or not, our own power over the environment makes us de facto responsible for our world. So soon after the introduction of the atomic bomb, in a world where industry’s rape of the planet was beginning to show, Lewis’s non-humans teach children that they have responsibilities beyond people. As a lion, Aslan was also making a point about Christ being over all of creation, not just humans. This is not the work of a man withdrawing from the world, but a man using his best skills to exhort people to act responsibly for a world worth saving.

And here I will write as a Christian: if to write Christianly is to write solely about the world we know, then we must ignore one of the greatest gifts we have: imagination. I do not think such a gift would be given lightly. I would think Goldthwaite, as a Christian, might consider that.


Cannot vs. can not

There is a grammatical misunderstanding common to many U.S. Americans, largely because we learned about grammar in the either/or terms of right vs. wrong. Here’s the misunderstanding: can not or cannot? My public school teachers said can not was the correct form, and that cannot was a corruption. A friend of mine from a previous generation was taught the opposite. Her son, much better at using the language than either of us, said both were right, but usage depended on context.

Here’s the explanation: If I can not do something, then I can also do it. I can not write these words if I choose (and you may think I shouldn’t), but I also can, and am, writing them. What I cannot do is know who will read them, or what they will think. I can imagine such things, but I’m limited by my experience and perceptions. So this is the rule: if you either could or could not do something, then you use two words, because you can leave out the second word if you so choose. If you could not do something no matter how much you desired or tried, then you use one word, cannot. There is no other option.

Sometimes both are true. Witness:

I cannot change the world.

I can not change the world.

It’s true, I cannot change the world. What I mean, and what many mean when they say or think this to themselves, is that the world’s problems are too big for any one person, or group of people, to take on. Poverty, sickness, hatred, love, weather, earthquakes, political and religious differences—these are inevitable conditions. Even Jesus said, “the poor you will have with you always,” and, “Let the dead bury the dead.”

It’s also true that I can change the world. I, and every other person on the planet, can make a difference. We can give to the poor, and try to cure ourselves of the sickness of wealth (more on that later). We can be courteous, we can provide emotional (listening) or physical (assisting) or financial (donating) help to others, we can feed and help and forgive each other. (More about forgiveness later, too.) We can take in an abandoned dog or cat and give it love. We can plant a garden. We can put in a day’s work and know we earned our pay, and someone, hopefully, was the better for it. We can not cut off someone in traffic. We can dedicate our lives to healing. We can dedicate our lives to loving our family and community. We can respect the differences of others. In other words, what we can do, we can do.

Grammar is the tool we use to communicate and should be taught as such. Our bodies, our minds, and our voices are the tools we have to interact with our universe. We must use them while we live; we cannot evade using them except through death or dire injury. In this sense we cannot not change the world. And now, while the world suffers on every level, from the sky to the deeps of the sea, from humans to tiny coral polyps, we can make what time we have count.

Don’t berate yourself for previous behavior. Don’t congratulate yourself, either. Just take the next opportunity to make a difference to the next person, and help make what we cannot change bearable.

29 December, 2003

Further discussion

6 January, 2009

Occasionally I get emails from people in response to this, ranging from pleased thanks to detailed explanations of why the option cannot be other than “can not” or “cannot.” Recently one of these linked to, a site dedicated to improving English skills.

I dipped into the site and found a message board with varying perspectives, and replied, signing up as “Logical.” The discussion was fruitful (among other things, I got a nice refresh on modals). Below are some arguments against using both forms in different contexts, along with my response, drawn from this discussion and email exchanges. (Read the English-Test discussion in full.)

  • The two forms mean the same thing, so we should just pick one and use it.

    The point of grammar is to make sense, and making “cannot vs. can not” an either-or situation ignores the logic of the words themselves. They are two different forms, and therefore necessarily mean different things. “Cannot” means it cannot happen at all. There isn’t a “can” option to contrast to it. I cannot go back in time, for example. The reason we don’t have an equivalent “shouldnot” or “mightnot” is because the essence of should and might doesn’t lend itself to this option. “Can,” though, readily implies its absolute opposite.

    “Can not” means it might happen; it can happen, or it can not happen. I can not post this comment if I choose. If you might not do a thing, then you can choose not to do it. So a person can say, with perfect consistency, “I can not do that, therefore I might not do that.”

    The very fact there is such a debate over this should be taken as a symptom that there’s a problem with the either-or scenario. It simply doesn’t make sense to restrict the language artificially, in order to force an illogical rule (whichever rule you learned). If it doesn’t make sense, it’s not good grammar.

  • The scope of the negation is the same in both, because “not” or “-not” belong to the following verb phrase

    Thanks to OxfordBlues on English-Test.Net, because this argument forced me to think things through more deeply.

    The idea is that “can” is apart from the “not _____” portion of the statement, whether in “cannot” or “can not” form. But it seems to me that if “not” is a syllable within the word, rather than a word following it, then it clearly belongs to the word itself, not to a subordinated phrase. This implies “cannot” bears a different meaning from “can not.” The ability of “can” in “can not” to exist without the word “not” implies there is an alternative state to not being able to do a thing, just as the permanency of “-not” in “cannot” implies no alternative.

    OxfordBlues suggested using a version of “be + able” to evaluate the difference in forms. To me, this made sense with “cannot” but not with “can not”, which demonstrated my point:

    David cannot drive. (David lacks the skill set for driving.)

    David is not able to drive. (This accurately describes David’s state.)

    Caroline can not drive. (Caroline could drive, but can choose to let someone else do it, or to walk instead.)
    Caroline is not able to drive. (This doesn’t accurately describe Caroline’s state.)

    Applying “will” options looks like this:

    David will not be able to drive. (Perfectly accurate.)
    Caroline will not be able to drive. (This doesn’t accurately describe Caroline’s state, since she might very well be able to, but choose not to do so.)
    Caroline will not drive. (This only works if it has been decided Caroline will not drive.)

    After much discussion, Bart (my husband, a much more accomplished scholar than I am) suggested the following sentence, which I submitted to English-Test.Net for feedback:

    I cannot not pay my rent and live in my home.

    Alan, the charming co-founder of the site, responded, “This to me suggests that non-payment of the rent is an impossibility for me. Surely in that case ‘can’ and ‘not’ are joined at the hip.”

  • Separating out the not from the word is merely an emphatic form with the same meaning.

    There are two arguments against this:

    • Emphasis is, for the most part, not written down, apart from the occasional bold-faced or italicized rich text formatting, or in eye-dialect. There’s nothing to stop emphasis from being added to either form by a reader or speaker. Interpretation of emphasis is dependent on context and the individual reader or speaker.
    • This is not a rule used in other verbs that I can discover, but a rationalization springing from lack of understanding. For example, the emphatic nature of the sentence, “I will not do that” depends on what is being refused. “I will not take the bus” is quite different from, “I will not murder.” The sentence stands well enough on its own, which is probably why we’ve never developed the form, “I willnot do that.”