Archive for the 'Language' Category

Visual discrimination test

Posted in Language, Stuff on February 9th, 2015

At least one of the three numbered terms below is the name of a physics subject repository. At least one is not.
Can you tell which is which?

Comments open for a few days.

(A note: the terms appear as a screen capture from Word…because WordPress’ visual editor literally will not let me retain the proper glyph; it autotranslates it to X, no matter how I enter it. Cute.)

Yes, I’m a feminist

Posted in Language on December 29th, 2014

In the past, I always thought of myself and, when appropriate, called myself a feminist.

Which doesn’t buy me anything–gratitude, etc.–nor should it. It’s just a fact.

The last year or two, seems like there have been some who think men shouldn’t call themselves feminists because issues–essentially, that we should just shut up.

That’s their privilege. But for me to not say I’m a feminist is wrong and stupid. John Scalzi’s excellent statement reminded me of that.

So: No, it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) buy me special treatment. No, it doesn’t give me authority to explain to anybody (much less women) what women’s issues really are. But…

Yes, I’m a feminist.

Favoring the ALA Statement of Appropriate Conduct

Posted in ALA, Language on January 16th, 2014

It appears that there are still people coming out of the woodwork–sometimes people in high-profile situations–who are unhappy about the ALA Statement of Appropriate Conduct.

I honestly don’t understand this, except in two cases:

  1. People who themselves are guilty of conduct that is frowned on in the Statement, or who operate from such a position of privilege that they regard such conduct as acceptable.
  2. People whose understanding of free speech is seriously flawed.

I fear that my previous post on this topic in my earlier post, “Codes and levels“–a post that said I probably wouldn’t be writing more on this topic, partly because I’m not the right person to be doing so.

I think that latter clause is still true, but just so there’s no misunderstanding:

I believe the Statement of Appropriate Conduct is both appropriate and useful.

I believe it will have a good effect on ALA conferences.

I do not believe it limits free speech in any meaningful sense.

I do not believe it would hinder the speech or action of any reasonably responsible grown-up person during a conference.

I emphatically do not agree that it is a solution in search of a problem. Honestly, if you’ve been to, say, half a dozen or more library conferences (ALA or otherwise) and have never witnessed, overheard or been subject to inappropriate conduct (including unwanted attention), then I suspect you’ve avoided hotel bars, receptions, social events–and I wonder whether you’ve been paying attention during discussions and programs Q&A sessions. I’m not saying the problems are rampant; I am saying they’re frequent enough that “show us the problems!” strikes me as coming from a very sheltered perspective.

And that’s enough to say.


Freedom of speech

Posted in Language on December 20th, 2013

Freedom of speech (in America) means that the government may not prevent you from saying or publishing something in a public space.

Freedom of speech does not mean

  • That you can say anything you want anywhere you want, even on the job or on private property.
  • That there can’t be consequences for what you say.

Freedom of speech is all about prior restraint, not about consequences.

Freedom of speech doesn’t mean you can’t be successfully sued for libel or slander.

Freedom of speech doesn’t in any way prevent your employer from taking action against you because of something you said or wrote.

Freedom of speech sure as hell doesn’t mean that a TV production company can’t penalize you, suspend you or cancel your show because of what you said.

On the other hand: Freedom of speech does mean that absurdly partisan ignorami can spout off as though, if you happen to be one of them, freedom of speech should mean freedom from consequences.

Because freedom of speech does mean the freedom to be wrong and willfully ignorant.

Chances are, you already know this. But sometimes it needs to be said.


Added 12/23/13: It should go without saying, but apparently does not, that freedom of speech does not require a publisher to publish what you have to say (or keep publishing it), or a bookstore (online or physical) to carry a publication or anything of the sort.

Because anecdata

Posted in Language on November 27th, 2013

That title is too short, but then this post is pretty short.

The newish use of “because” as a preposition is being discussed. I like it, when used appropriately. I’ve even used it. As a prescriptive old fogey when it comes to language (well, sometimes), I’m happy with this–because concise.

Here’s another one that won’t make it, but maybe should:

But anecdata


However anecdata

Mostly interchangeable, and used to summarize the counterarguments you see to well-done survey results, especially when the results are at odds with whatever Today’s Common Wisdom is. And the counterarguments against strongly-established scientific theories/facts.

You’ve seen them. “I know surveys show 90% of people do X and Y and Z, but my acquaintances all think alpha, therefore X and Y and Z are wrong.”

In other words, “Yes, you have overwhelmingly strong evidence, BUT ANECDATA.”

Prime recent examples? Those who are absolutely certain that The Kids These Days Don’t Read Print Books…because their kids, or at least two kids they know, prefer tablets.

Or, for that matter, the pundits who tell us that nobody borrows books from public libraries anymore, because their drinking companions don’t.

It won’t catch on, but it’s useful, noting that “But anecdata” is another way of saying “in response, I got nothin’.”


I do not live in Cali

Posted in Language on September 11th, 2013

Dunno why, but I’ve been seeing way too many references lately to “Cali” as short for California.

Some of them from Southern Californians, who should know better.

I do not live in Cali.

Cali is a city in Colombia.

I don’t live in NoCal either. If y’all down south want to call it SoCal, that’s your privilege. NoCal is everywhere except California. NorCal is OK, I guess, if you really must. (Although people in Chico and Eureka and Healdsburg would say that I don’t live in Northern California anyway…but let’s not go there.)

Cali? Ugggh.

I was pleased to see this when I looked up “Cali”–from the Urban Dictionary:

*The first definition has two parts, the first of which is the city in Colombia, the second of which is:

2) An annoying name for California.

*The third definition–after one for the city in Colombia–suffers from urban spelling, but:

A name that non-native Californian’s use when refering to California and trying to seem like a real Californian.
Typical of an East coaster

*The fourth:

A word for “California” used by no one who has ever lived in California. Use “Cali” and you will immediately sound like a hick.

Sigh. Unfortunately, there are people in the bottom half of the state who have used that term. Not many, perhaps, and the last part of that definition may still apply.

This being the Urban Dictionary, definitions go on and on (and get worse and worse)…

If you live in California, and find anything longer than two syllables and four letters just too overwhelming to deal with, a couple of suggestions: Move to Utah. I would mention Iowa and Ohio, but those are each three syllables.

A tiny little listy grump

Posted in Language on June 14th, 2013

They’re email lists. Or just lists.

Some of those lists use the Listserv® software from L-Soft.

Many others different list software from other companies.

It’s sort of like there being librarians (or professional librarians) and others who happen to work in libraries.

And, y’know, librarians really should be able to make the distinction.

Heck, at home we use Safeway Home (previously Softly) facial tissues rather than Kleenex® tissues. Because we like them better.


Ad hominem or learning from experience?

Posted in Language, open access on June 8th, 2013

One of many, many so-called logical fallacies is ad hominem–“to the person,” short for argumentum ad hominem.

That link is to a Wikipedia article, and in this case (as in many others, although not always), it’s a pretty good discussion. If you read it, read the whole thing–including the Talk page (which I always recommend reading if you’re using Wikipedia for anything more than quick lookup).

I find it interesting that some academics and philosophers argue that ad hominem isn’t a fallacy at all.

I won’t go quite that far. I will say that some things that can be faulted as ad hominem are really something else: Learning from experience.

Viewed through the prism of long experience and various arw–sorry, awkward–attempts, it’s not unreasonable to be deeply suspicious of new initiatives from old antagonists emerging to a chorus of selective praise from the usual suspects.

That’s not ad hominem; it’s learning from experience. It’s learning that, based on oodles of previous cases, you should view proposals from certain parties with extreme skepticism, even reasonably beginning with a stance of “demonstrate that this isn’t another trick” rather than “sure, sounds like a good idea, let’s investigate further.”

Technically, it’s true that just because an agency or group or person has been wrong 100 times doesn’t mean that they couldn’t be right the 101st time. But saying “well, you can’t judge the future by the past, so you have to give them the benefit of the doubt” is just silly–and calling an inclination to judge the future by the past argumentum ad hominem is equally silly.

I won’t claim that I won’t get fooled again–that would be as absurd as hoping that I would die before I get old. (A bit late for that by now!) I will claim that I’ll apply substantially more critical analysis, looking for loopholes, questioning underlying motives, assuming the worst…all those nasty things…to proposals coming from parties and groups with long histories of suspicious proposals.

If doing so is a logical fallacy, so be it.

The case against overgeneralization

Posted in Language on January 15th, 2013

I have to give a shout-out to Jon Carroll’s column today in the San Francisco Chronicle (available on SFGate, the Chronicle‘s website).

You may or may not find his primary topic–the bizarre new logo for the University of California that is no longer the bizarre new logo for UC–all that interesting. Heck, you may even love the “UC’s a hip dotcom” replacement for UC’s established, conservative, effective logo that suggests one of the world’s great universities.

That’s not why I’m giving Carroll a shout-out. Instead, it’s this (after quoting a portion of a piece from a designer complaining about the complaints about the logo, that includes this: “But throughout this controversy, no one wrote about the strategy behind the new identity. In fact, no one wrote about the identity.”)

First, a word of advice: The phrase “no one wrote about” is, in this Internet age, inevitably untrue. Somebody writes on every side of every issue. Since an individual human cannot read everything on the topic, it is almost certain that you’re going to miss something that makes your statement untrue.

Once you’ve made one unsupportable claim, the other claims seem a little less convincing. This very newspaper, for instance, in its news story on the issue, quoted university officials with regard to what the thinking was behind the new branding campaign. So did other places. Perhaps the story was not covered the way Simmons would have covered it, but the issues he brings up were discussed.

Emphasis added in the second quoted paragraph, to be sure–and that’s what I’d hope that some library folks given to hyperbole would pay attention to.

The rest of the column’s also good stuff, of course. (I’m admittedly biased: Carroll–who I met when we were both at UC Berkeley and who convinced me that I shouldn’t be a humor writer–is one of the reasons why we still subscribe to the San Francisco Chronicle, albeit now as a Kindle app. I think he’s one of the best writers around.)

But that’s the message. When you say “every academic library has drastically falling circulation and reference,” change that to “most libraries” and you may be right; “every” is almost certainly and demonstrably wrong. When you say “Everybody’s using smartphones as their primary computing tool” (I’ve seen variants on this) you make yourself look foolish.


Beyond Confrontation: An Editorial Experiment

Posted in Language on October 26th, 2012

Since I grumped about and reacted badly to the tone of Michael Ridley’s Introduction to Beyond Literacy, I started thinking: OK, hotshot, how would you do it better?

With that in mind, here’s a quick editorial experiment: Ridley’s introduction, modified to avoid inevitabilities and confrontation while encouraging conversation. Something like 98% of the text that follows is Ridley’s; a tiny little bit is mine.


Imagine a future in which reading and writing are doomed and literacy as we know it is over. Let’s call it the post-literacy future.

Beyond Literacy is a thought experiment about the demise of literacy and the rise of other capabilities, capacities or tools that would effectively and advantageously displace reading and writing. While the prospect of the end of literacy is disturbing for many, it need not be a decline into some new Dark Age but could rather the beginning of an era of advanced human capability and connection.

I’ll even argue that the post-literate world is to be welcomed not feared. Of course, getting there could be a bit disruptive.

Writing about the end of literacy is certainly ironic and probably slightly foolish. However, for the purposes of this discussion, I’ll assert that literacy is doomed and this is the best way available to chart its decline and replacement.

Literacy or “visible language” is a profound capability. The ability to read and write is a transformative skill that fundamentally changes the way we think, act, and engage with each other. The power of reading and writing is undeniable. And yet there are challenges to the human condition for which literacy seemingly fails. Has literacy run its course? Has our allegiance to its capabilities blinded us to its failings?

This project explores something which I’ll assert to be inevitable but for which we have grave misgivings. The alphabet is simply a tool, and a relatively recent one in terms of human evolution. Humans excel in making tools. It only seems reasonable that we will create a tool that will work better than the alphabet does.

And so this book will explore that possible inevitability: that literacy will be displaced or replaced by a capacity, capability or tool more powerful, valuable and useful. The premise for this possible future is that literacy is doomed.

Beyond Literacy is also an experiment in participation. The issues and ideas presented here are intended as the starting points for a larger and wider discussion. I hope these chapters will encourage you to engage further by commenting on specific posts, adding your own posts, or by publishing commentary on your own sites and linking back to Beyond Literacy. The objective is to nurture a distributed dialogue across many venues and in many formats.

Literacy is a capability we privilege above all others. It is a universal good. It is widely viewed as a prerequisite for success and personal development. By contrast, illiteracy is understood to be an impairment. While I will argue that literacy is doomed, and while I will try to make the case that what replaces literacy will be more powerful, like you, I harbour strong allegiances to literacy. I have been transported by poetry; I have been enriched by lucid and complex arguments; I have been entertained, touched, moved, and enraged by the writings of great people; I have shared my thoughts with friends and recorded ideas for my great grandchildren. I have reveled in reading and writing.

Given our experiences, it is difficult to escape the perspectives imposed on us by literacy. As Walter Ong notes, literacy is a “pre-emptive and imperialistic activity” since it displaces other ways of conceptualizing (Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, 1982). While we are children of literacy, we are also prisoners of literacy. Marshall McLuhan has observed, “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”(Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1964). However, despite this, it is possible to conceive of a technology or a capacity that would replace literacy. “Post-literacy” is defined here as the state in which reading and writing are no longer a dominant means of communication.

A Note on Terminology and Notation Systems

Obviously thoughts about post-literacy are purely speculative. This project is a thought experiment not an objective consideration of the facts. One can easily dismiss these speculations as mere science fiction; interesting but insubstantial and highly unlikely. Perhaps. The history of human communication suggests that literacy itself was unlikely. It is a fairly recent development and only in the past few hundred years has it become widespread (i.e. mass literacy). This is in stark contrast to spoken language which is innate and universal in humans.

As a librarian, proposing that literacy is doomed is a provocative and challenging assertion particularly given that libraries and librarianship are fundamentally grounded in the acts of reading and writing. However, visible language is simply a technology, albeit a tremendously powerful and successful one, and technologies come and go as their value waxes or wanes.

Why is this idea so compelling? The process of thinking about it, talking about it, and studying it with the students in the courses I have taught has reinforced the profound value of literacy. Contemplating the end of literacy has magnified its importance. It is a reaffirmation of the fundamental power of literacy even as we contemplate its demise.

Do I really believe literacy is doomed? Yes.

Do I think this is a cause for concern? Yes. And No.

Will I feel a sense of loss when it happens? Perhaps.

I, like you, am a child of literacy. I have experienced the enormous pleasure and personal advantage of being literate. But I have also seen the complexities of the world challenge our ability to respond. In The Ingenuity Gap (2000) Thomas Homer-Dixon speculates on whether our world has become too complex and fast-paced. How will we deal with the emerging problems? Where will the new ideas come from? From this perspective, is it possible that our literate selves are one of the barriers to new thinking and to critically important new ideas?

People are quick to defend literacy against any threat. It is a universal good. It is the key to success and personal growth. While all these things are true, our passion for our literate condition clouds our view of alternatives and new possibilities. Just as we can experience the magic of literacy, so can we imagine the possibility of another tool that would bring with it even greater transformation and personal power.

Of course, post-literacy is not simply a new gadget or an innovative piece of technology. Neither computers nor the Internet are examples of post-literacy. Displacing literacy is going to require a capability or capacity far more profound than these. What that entails and how that will happen are central to this project and the commentaries of those who choose to engage in the discussion.

Now here’s the thing: I didn’t really change that much. I transformed the Big Brother statements into a less-confrontational paragraph. I changed two or three words in the first regular paragraph, added three words at the start of the second, and changed two words in the third.

Otherwise, I added a qualifier whenever some form of “inevitable” was used–because, you know, once you’ve stated that something is inevitable, there’s very little room for discussion other than “I agree” or “I disagree.” The claim of inevitability is the end of discussion: To me, it’s generally a sign that the case for a position won’t stand on its own merits.

An interesting thing happened when I made these changes and read through the rest of the introduction. Namely, I noticed that Ridley’s hedging his bets. His definition of post-literacy is not at all that portrayed in the first two BIG STATEMENTS. Instead, it’s “the state in which reading and writing are no longer a dominant means of communication.” [Emphasis added.]

That’s a very different thing. You could make the case that we’re already in a post-literate society if you use that definition: At least in terms of bandwidth used, TV and movies (including various web visual media) far outweigh reading and writing, if only because text transmits so efficiently.

If I’d read this modified introduction, I would have probably gone on to read the remaining chapters (which I have not attempted to revise nor reread). Would I have become a full-fledged participant in the discussion? Maybe, maybe not. I certainly wouldn’t have felt the need to vent about the project and its ACRL/OLA sponsorship.

Am I right to prefer this nonconfrontational, nonabsolutist, non-inevitable version? I’m not sure there is a right or wrong.

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