British English

Filed under: — Joe @ 8:55 am

Mindstar RisingI’ve read quite a bit of Peter Hamilton (as I’ve described before) lately. So recently I stumbled on two volumes (the first and last, Mindstar Rising and The Nanoflower) of his earliest trilogy. These books have some of his strengths, but not all, and they’re certainly rough around the edges (besides having among the cheesiest of examples of cover art in recent SF history–I mean, the macho 22nd-Century secret agent in a Guess jacket, moussed hair, and a digital watch!), but it’s always fun to see a good writer at an early stage, before he gets the full confidence to do his real work. There’s an excellent portrait of a post-global-warming, post communist, neo-capitalist, England.

His protagonist, Greg Mandel, in these books uses a couple of phrases over and over again, and I’m wondering if they’re common British English, or just Mandel/Hamilton English. I’ve never heard them used before. The first of these, “no messing,” means (obviously) something like “seriously,” or “no shit.” Like “this is a bad situation, no messing.” And the other one is less unusual, but still I kept catching my toe on it, so to speak. He has several characters consistently say “telling you” as an intensifier (similar to “no messing”). So there are sentences like “telling you, Lisa’s in a bad way, no messing.”

There are other Britishisms that I recognize, and have seen before, and they’re just a fun flavor. But those two really did keep disturbing me–I couldn’t seem to read through them transparently.

Among the more familiar ones, too, there’s one that I’ve always wondered about. Where American English would use “it’s up to me” (or “you” or “them” or whatever), the British English version is always “it’s down to me” (as in the well-known lyric from the Stones’ “Under My Thumb”) to mean “it’s my responsibility” or “fault” or “depends on me.” That one gets me very curious. Why the divergence? Where and when did it come from? Neither usage carries a particularly apparent logical or semantic advantage–it seems just arbitrary. But why are they down and we up? Puzzling!


Some Encouragement

Filed under: — Joe @ 5:46 pm

In a follow-up to my rant a couple of weeks ago, I should report that I emailed all the members of the NY State Assembly’s Education committee, to tell them how I felt about the idiotic Assembly Bill 8306 (requiring the teaching of “intelligent design” in NY public schools). The majority of them responded with the standard automated “thank you for your interest blah, blah, blah” email.

But Scott Stringer (who represents Manhattan’s West Side and Clinton), bless him, not only responded with a real email, written by a real human being, he also has exactly the right position on this stupid bill.

Dear Dr. Ugoretz:

I am writing in response to your email regarding Assembly Bill A. 8036.

I strongly oppose A.8036. Assembly Bill A. 8036 would require all New York
State public schools to teach intelligent design alongside the theory of
evolution. While I respect the right of individuals to their personal
beliefs, it is the state’s duty to make sure that recognized scientific
theory rather than religious doctrine shape the curriculum of the public
schools. The Theory of Evolution has been a widely accepted foundation for
modern biology. Lacking comparable support within the scientific community,
intelligent design should not be taught alongside the theory of evolution.

Thank you for contacting me with your concerns. If you have any further
questions or comments, please do not hesitate to contact my office.

Scott M. Stringer
Assemblymember, 67th A.D.

Applause, Assemblymember Stringer!!!


New Reading Rule

Filed under: — Joe @ 11:17 am

The first implementation of my new rule–if I see (or hear) a book mentioned in two different places within one week, and I haven’t read it yet, I have to buy and read it (if I want to! :smile:).

So I’ve just placed an order for Sagan and Druyan’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (love that one-click two-day delivery!). In this case, I saw it mentioned in two places on the same day–once in a thread on the Secular Web Forum, and then again in a terrific post on Unscrewing the Inscrutable.

Of course, with Carl Sagan’s books, this new rule is not any kind of a risk!


“Increasing Opportunity for Self-Indulgence”

Filed under: — Joe @ 1:26 pm

Michael Schrage of MIT Media Lab’s E-Markets Initiative is telling us, in the keynote at Baruch College’s Schwartz Symposium (IT Matters: Redefining Effective Communication), that really the major thing digital technologies are giving us is more opportunity for self-indulgence. His idea is that self-expression and self-indulgence are really equivalent and that what matters is not what a writer wants to say but what an audience needs to understand.

Now I’m all for audience awareness, and I’m all for his related point that a focus on editing is all too often missing (but if he thinks that the fact that students don’t want to edit means that we don’t want to teach editing, his experience with current composition instruction must be incredibly limited-and thanks to a commenter from Baruch for pointing this out).

But I keep being troubled at this symposium by an idea (I’ve mentioned it before) that practical training for success in business is the only appropriate purpose for higher education.

Another speaker earlier in the day proposed that what higher education needs is more input, more direct instruction, from business people, business leaders. When I suggested that this kind of input and interaction needs to go both ways, that we as academics had a lot to teach business, too, she heard that comment as saying that professors should come sit in the back of boardrooms and listen to how things work–not really what I was suggesting.

So there’s really many kinds of self-indulgence. If we as academics can be accused of isolation and elitism, there’s a very good case to be made that the exact same accusation can be levelled at the business world. What is practical and efficient has value, but what is abstract, multi-faceted, aesthetic and humane has at least as much value.

When business neglects this kind of value, privileging only its own needs, the self-indulgence…and the consequences!…are severe indeed.


Not Just in Kansas

Filed under: — Joe @ 3:20 pm

For those of us who thought we were immune from anti-science interference in school curricula here in the blue states, a sad surprise.

The NCSE (among many others) reports on Assembly Bill 8306, introduced last week in the New York State Assembly. The bill will amend the state’s education law to require the teaching of “intelligent design” along with evolution in the state’s schools. The official bill summary claims that

The purpose of this bill is to assure that all theories regarding the existence of man, the universe and all it contains, are being taught to students in publicly funded schools by requiring that they teach both theories of intelligent design and evolution in their curriculums, and that all aspects of the theories, along with any supportive data, be examined.

Of course, this is dishonest on its face, since “intelligent design” is not a theory, and teaching it alongside evolution, which is a theory (under the scientific definition of that term) is hardly the same as assuring that “all” theories (under whatever definition you choose) are taught.

And the dishonesty continues in the bill’s justification:

The basic rule of science is to evaluate and examine all theories rather than to present just one. Teaching just one theory can inadvertently result in that theory being looked at as an absolute truth.

I’ll ignore the barely literate prose of this (“…that theory being looked at…”)–it is, after all, a bill, not sonnet. But just looking at the attempt at logic is enough to spin my head. The bill’s true purpose is right there–to promote an idea that evolution is somehow “not true.” And to present “intelligent design” as an alternative. But even if we accept that “intelligent design” is a theory, testable, and worthy of study in a science class, I can’t see how even an ideologue of the worst stripe would be able to claim that presenting two theories is the same as presenting “all theories.”

Of course, speaking of ideologues of the worst stripe, the whole thing becomes a bit more clear when we notice (as NCSE does) that the author and sponsor of this bill, Daniel L. Hooker (R–did you have even a moment’s uncertainty about that?), also recently introduced bills that would, if enacted, permit the display of the Ten Commandments on public buildings and grounds, declassify sexual orientation from civil rights status, and prohibit the solemnization of same-sex marriages. All, all, of a piece. His stripe is as clear and as broad and as bad as can be.

The bill has approximately zero chance of ever passing, or even making it out of committee. But that it would even be proposed is not at all a good sign.


Something fishy in PC Magazine

Filed under: — Joe @ 11:06 am

PC Magazine runs a humorous last page (“backspace”) in every issue. It’s usually a bunch of funny misprints and typos, or photos of road signs, or other silly little chuckles. In this month’s issue (May 24, 2005), they decided to run a “Special Event: Bountiful Bonanza of Blogs.” The premise was set up this way.

Is blogging really the new journalism? Is mainstream media truly obsolete? We browsed through hundreds of blogs hosted at Blogger.com to judge for ourselves. Here are some highlights:

And then they posted the usual collection of silly blog entries–teenagers ordering new CDs, thoughts on dead skunks, “what I ate today,” and so forth. The piece was intended, apparently, to show how inane and insipid most blogs (contrary to “new journalism” claims) really are. A bit of sour grapes from a mainstream media outlet–no big deal.

But one of the entries they included was this:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Except PC Magazine did not attribute this passage (from the “Notebooks of Lazarus Long”) to Heinlein at all. They just attributed it to “About a Guy.” Now, maybe the unattributed quote (we call it “plagiarism“) orginates with “About a Guy.” But, as it turns out, there doesn’t seem to even be a blog by that name with that passage at blogger.com.

And, for pity’s sake, a very simple Google search, which one would think PC Magazine could manage, would have demonstrated right away that this passage has an author, a well-known and respected author, who has a right to be cited when he’s quoted!

UPDATE: To his credit, Don Wilmott responded very promptly when I emailed him about this:

Thanks for the heads up. Heinlein has many fans out there! We’ll be sure to give credit in an upcoming issue (the blogger obviously didn’t). I’m not too familiar with Heinlein so I didn’t catch it.

Don Willmott
PC Magazine

I guess he got more than a few of these gentle reminders! 🙂

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