Masque of Phobos

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After arguing with a friend, I realized a language problem.

We have words for “fer-it” and “agin-it” but not for “don’t care.”
Agoraphobia and agoraphilia are rare compared to those who show no symptoms. Claustrophobia and claustrophilia. This warps our thinking. We are manipulated into ascribing more importance to either end of a spectrum than to the massive middle.

I cannot find a good word in Greek, but there is an excellent candidate in Latin. There is a word that denotes “uninterested” or “unaffected“. It has the connotation of “whole” and “healthy.”

I am neither chromophobic nor chromophiliac, I am chromointeger. Halitophobia or halitophilia are almost nonsense. I am halitointeger. I am also homointeger.

I humbly submit that this minor addition to the language would promote sanity and reason.

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Authority

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Today we have a bold president standing athwart history gesticulating and crying ‘Stop!’ And the world pays no notice as it walks around him.

Why should anyone pay attention?

Authority is the name we give the power to demand attention. The problem is that there are several types. And most are ethically dubious.

Most Americans agree with Chairman Mao that power grows from the barrel of a gun. The man with the gun certainly commands our attention, but it is the authority of the brute. I know people who play chess by removing pieces until the game is simple enough to understand without effort. Such folk value the authority of the gun. It only works well when used as a symbol. If one actually rules that way society devolves to violence and revolt. The authority has the legitimacy of armed robbery.

The Roman concept of Auctoritas, as I was taught it, is much more congenial. [Thanks, Josiah Ober.] In republican Rome authority was a game: Those who were often right gained auctoritas. Those who were often wrong found no one to listen to them. The society elevated competing authorities and followed disagreements like battles. One had something to gain and lose by stating an opinion.
I fantasize about an America where candidates say what will happen and people keep score. Imagine a world where a nonsensical statement would be accurately remembered and checked against reality. Where Al Sharpton and John McCain lose their audiences. Where climatological predictions that work earn status and money. Rather than the money flowing to those who cause the greatest alarm. The scientific method as I was taught was a bit like that. Alas, I’ve never seen it work that way.

There is the authority of the leader. If you have hordes of people following you, you simply must be listened to. I don’t care what you think of, say, Glenn Beck or Noam Chomsky. They have large followings and must be paid attention. Sadly, having a following doesn’t make you right. I must listen to Justin Bieber. I needn’t take him seriously. In fact I cannot. I am sorry Miley Cyrus.

There is such a thing as moral authority. Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi spoke truth as they saw it. Their virtue shown out. One could not look upon them and believe them to be frauds. They had the power to compel an audience by virtue of their integrity. Moral authority does not make one correct. Jim Jones led his followers all the way to mass suicide. The Boxer Revolt and the Ghost Dance led to bloody folly. How many times did the Millerites go up that blessed hill for the end of the world?

Authorship gives authority. If one has been clever enough to come up with something novel people keep listening. England kept to Newton’s inferior calculus for some time after they knew better. Wozniak deserves his authority. Period. Yet authorship is not fallible either. Tesla. Tesla did so much good work – some he never claimed but we can deduce – that people kept listening long after he quit making sense. People still credit him with things he never did or did badly. Such is the power of what he did accomplish.

Money is a power anyone can achieve. As such it engenders deference without respect.

When I was in school I saw demonstrators marching on the television. I was moved by their passion. I couldn’t make out what they were chanting in unison, but I was impressed. The power of their passion moved me without even understanding the issue or their chants. In fact as I grew older and more jaded I grew to understand that such chants generally consisted of such intellectual statements as:

Hey, Hey,
Ho, Ho,
[Insert issue here]
Has got to go.

Authority that is reduced by understanding is dangerous.

Some people who wish to manipulate claim the authority of law. The power of 50 per cent plus one done long ago. Not compelling. But laws allow one to claim an authority that doesn’t exist in oneself. There is a sign I often see: ‘It’s not just wrong. It’s illegal.’ This drives me crazy. It has the power of argument exactly backwards.

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“He had learned a great secret: The engines must turn.” In the Sand Pebbles the engineer knew he was indispensable. He was the only one who could keep the ship moving. He had authority from need. You may outsource your billing to India. You may choose to go without things from anybody you dislike. But at 7:00 when your drains won’t flow, your plumber has all sorts of authority.

I know a bull-headed, intransigent man. The man lived in a small town. He was not a big wheel in business, nor wealthy, nor politically connected, but everyone knew him. No one had ever had cause to consider him to be anything but honest. Once he was given a traffic ticket for something he did not do. The stubborn man spent a night in jail rather than pay a fine for that which he did not do. This is notable because he told everyone what happened and what he saw when he went to jail. He was believed. In this manner he had much more authority than the ‘authorities.’ Within two years the police chief was demoted and three police officers were let go. Shortly after the old city jail was torn down and replaced with something more modern. No one ever, to my knowledge, said that what happened was a reaction to the stubborn man, but I believe it.

I think about this because most types of authority are nonsense or dangerous. I have a dream that auctoritas and radical honesty will be restored to preëminence. All that depends on it is a civilization worth having.

The Sine Curve of Day Length

Earth Tangent
The Slope of the Sine Curve is greatest at the equinox.

I am amazed that this was never mentioned when I was in school. Of course it should have been obvious…. The days are lengthening or shortening as quickly as they can. At the solstices, as slowly as possible. So spring and autumn are the times when the change is the quickest.

Rather like Groundhog day is nearly midway between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. Not quite but close. So with 12 weeks of winter, of course there are about six more weeks of winter on Groundhog Day. The only scandal is that the joke is not quite on the right day.

On Believing That Which You Are Told

March Of Folly book

My friend Elizabeth has a wicked and old-world sense of humour. [If it is old-world I think I must spell it humour.] I first met her when she had an article in the magazine for a club we belonged to about ‘Growing Light Bulbs from sets.’

Elizabeth is a professor of education. She once told me that the most frightening sense of power she experienced was standing before class. Elizabeth would stand before these twenty-year-olds and say anything. Anything at all. And these industrious students would write it down. Worse, they would believe it. For a while breaking this instinctive gullibility was a focus of hers. Once she told me she had told her students that ninety per cent of their grades would be determined by their sincerity. She waited all semester to be challenged.None did.

I really believe Elizabeth told me just to see if I would get it. It was not fair; I wasn’t her student. In her honor I occasionally ask people, ’Do you know the word “gullible” isn’t in the dictionary?’

Colors

One of the funny things about being a man is that you’re only expected to know seven colors. And two of those are black and white. If you use colors such as puce or mauve people question your masculinity. I once had to call the police about a theft. The car was a sort of greyish brown. I knew General Motors’ cars of that color were listed as champagne on the car title. When I told the dispatcher the car was champagne, she cracked up.

Not Guy Colors
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The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

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Amanda and Johnathan,

One thing I’ve been talking around is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Or rather a corollary. The idea is that for most people a great deal of thought – and almost all out our communication – is linguistic. An internal monologue, if you will. This limits us. We cannot concisely express thoughts for which we have no words. A computational theorist would say our minds are general machines and can express any thought. But the concision and thus speed of our thoughts is limited by such circumlocutions.

Jargon, properly used, is a shorthand to think more quickly about things that are slow to explain formally. With time and use they become formalized and speed up the thought of everyone who uses them. Skiers know there is a great difference between powder and mashed potatoes. Police call the long, scraping dents between the wheel wells of cars ‘drunk marks.’ Concise and explicative of the common deduction. Laser has become more precise and accurate than ‘Light Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation’ could ever have been. It also allows for faster thinking through grammar. “The tungsten alloy LASED under the effect of the nuclear blast.” Try and say that without the word ‘laser’ or using it as a verb. I dare you. So better language makes us think faster.

Of course bad usage makes us think more slowly and thus more dimly. Salesmen like this. ‘Hand rubbed finish’ is just a complicated way of saying ‘linseed oiled’ without imparting information to those unfamiliar with the code. Sometimes it is used to segregate the ‘right’ people from the ‘wrong’ ones.

After Fukishima I was mystified by the radiation dosage being given in Sv. Sievert. I knew REM. Two different definitions. Rads. Curies. Roentgens…. I never heard of Sieverts. It turns out 100 REM == 1 Sievert. The Metric System does this all the time; it changes names without changing anything else to define who is in good standing. Heck, it’s not even the Metric System any longer. It’s SI. When I was young, Charles had transceivers labeled cycles per second. Dad spoke of Centigrade. When I was in college they were purging Degrees Kelvin for Kelvins and the AMU for u. Angstoms were replaced by nanometers with a decimal move. This sort of jargon made everyone slower as we limped to our dictionaries to find what the new term was for the same old thing.

Political Correctness does the same thing. By having to stop and determine the ‘Correct’ term for something we already knew, we are stopped cold. And since the new words don’t quite fit, they make a hash of the language, which makes us all slower. For thousands of years man meant person. Woman meant a man who could bear children. The name for a male person was struck from the language in a very old case of thought policing. ‘Retarded’ was a euphemism meaning slow. Now we need a further euphemism to hide unpleasant thoughts. I guarantee that whatever the word is which is thought correct today, we will soon need a euphemism for that too.

I once read a letter to the editor from Leslie Charteris where he complained about the word ‘gay.’ I didn’t understand then. We had lost a word from the language. That is not a small thing, for we had lost a thought from our minds.

So better words lead to better thinking. It follows that worse words lead to slower, confused thoughts. [I swear I really will discuss Auctoritas eventually!] Restricted vocabulary leads to a restricted palette to paint our thoughts. Did you ever read 1984? That was the point of Newspeak. By eliminating ideas from the vocabulary, the government tried to eliminate the ideas. This haunts me because I grew up reading Conan Doyle, Walter Scott, and Rudyard Kipling. Even low-brow writers – apologies! – such as E. R. Burroughs and E. E. Smith wrote with a clarity and precision not easily available today. Our current language will not support it. Think of writing a program in BASIC versus Python. We have enfeebled our language while our science and power have grown. This is not a stable state.

The last writer I read who actually wrote in a manner to expand my faculties was Rex Stout. [Well, maybe Neal Stephenson in Anathem.] If you’ve never met Nero Wolfe, I encourage you. Actually it is not just the language. He embodies an America which has faded and lost liberty.

Of course I exaggerate. There are other types of thought. Charles is a great proponent of visual thinking. And I have met painters who thought in a formalized way I do not understand. But since we communicate by words, I am preoccupied by our linguistic retreat.

Yours,

Uncle David