Archive for the 'writing and language' Category



Dear internet,

Please stop saying and writing “d-bag”.  It is trite, not benign.  You are calling someone a “douchebag”, which is inherently offensive (to them at least), and Bowdlerizing yourself isn’t going to tone it down.  All it does is make you look like a twee milquetoast pantywaisted grass-eater.  Knock it fucking off.

Love and Spydercos,


You keep using that word

I’m reading through Deirdre McCloskey’s generally-excellent and occasionally-surreal The Bourgeois Virtues at the moment. It’s a great read, although its target audience — people whose reflexive reaction to the term “bourgeois virtue” is a sneer and a snort — probably won’t buy or read a six hundred page apologia thereupon (let alone four of them).  Still, it’s far from a sermon to the choir, and I’m finding my hard-nosed stoic-existentialist naturalism gently and unsettlingly challenged.  (It’s also the first book I’ve read since Kierkegaard that is deeply Christian without being smarmy.)

I do have one complaint: McCloskey likes to use “democratic” when she seems to mean something more like “anthropophilic”*, as for example in:

True humility on the contrary is democratic, looking for the best in people, and often finding it.

(Emphasis added.)

Perhaps she does, in a subtle and precise way, mean that true humility is subject to rule by the people.  I rather suspect, however, that she uses the term in the more amorphous sense of “respectful of people in general, rather than an elite few”.  I think democracy is a pretty cool guy, but its generically laudatory use — “warm happy fuzzy feelings for everyone” — isn’t doing anyone any favours, least of all uptight usage Nazis like me.


* I’d compare to “philanthropic” if modern usage hadn’t reduced that one to “giving lots of money to colleges and symphonies”.


No content for you

Come back next month.  Starting a new job tomorrow, started month 3 of Big But Boring two days ago, expect to be leaking cortisol from my eye sockets for the next seven days at least.

Since I’m in a grammar nazi mood, check this out:

(h/t Reason magazine.)

I was scored a 21/22 because — spoiler warning! — the WSJ’s grammarian refers to a corporation as a singular entity rather than as a plural of people.  Being perhaps a bit too British in usage for my own good, I don’t.  (I also spell words like colour and favour with three vowels.  So does God.)


“Frictionless sharing” and internet speech

This is, in fact, a link post.

First of all Bruce Schneier posts the abstract of a paper titled “The Perils of Social Reading”:

Companies like Facebook, in collaboration with many newspapers, have ushered in the era of “social reading,” in which what we read may be “frictionlessly shared” with our friends and acquaintances. Disclosure and sharing are on the rise.

This Article sounds a cautionary note about social reading and frictionless sharing. Social reading can be good, but the ways in which we set up the defaults for sharing matter a great deal. Our reader records implicate our intellectual privacy ­ the protection of reading from surveillance and interference so that we can read freely, widely, and without inhibition. I argue that the choices we make about how to share have real consequences, and that “frictionless sharing” is not frictionless, nor it is really sharing. Although sharing is important, the sharing of our reading habits is special. Such sharing should be conscious and only occur after meaningful notice.

Previously, Schneier has pointed out that privacy is about controlling information, not keeping it secret.  I’m not particularly convinced that information about one’s reading habits is privileged over, say, information about one’s drinking habits or information about one’s fucking habits, mind, but the principle still applies.

While we’re on the subject of internet speech, control, and sharing, Ken over at Popehat has

Who’s this guy?  Ken has the skinny:

Ostensibly, George Tierney, Jr. of Greenville, South Carolina is a man who, using the twitter handle @geotie2323, wrote crass and contemptible tweets to Sandra Fluke when he disagreed with a political point she was making. When his comments were featured on the blog Tbogg, he reacted with silly legal threats.

Yep.  Tierney tweeted — that is, broadcast — some crass and contemptible things to Fluke, and then demanded that they be “taken off google” or he’d sue.  Ken reacts as we’ve come to expect:

[W]hat the fucking fuck? Seriously? From whence comes this all-to-common sentiment that you can act any damnfool way you like in public, but people can’t comment on it? Where do nominal adults get the idea that it’s somehow actionable to be quoted? Is this a signifier of culture shock — a sign that we haven’t worked out, in our own minds, whether the internet is public or private? Is it the incoherent grumble of a populace instructed that self-esteem is paramount, and raised to feel entitled to respect whether or not their conduct is respectable? Or is it simply a sign of atrocious civic education?

(Unwelcome pedantry: “Whence” literally means “from where”.  “From whence” thus expands to “From from where”, which is silly.  Don’t do it, kids!)

Perhaps part of the problem is that the private part of the internet looks more or less like the public part of the internet, with various forums and login screens blurring the line between the two.  It’s all HTML text fields and Javascript interfaces between you and some server way off over the wire.

And finally, here’s Robin Hanson kicking over my giggle box:

If the people willing to like a comment have on average better taste than the people willing to write a comment, readers and authors could avoid low quality comments by focusing on the most liked comments. It isn’t obvious why this assumption should hold, but I thought likes probably couldn’t make comments much worse, so, why not give it a try.

If my experience is any indication, Hanson just needs to write more about Formula One.


“Grexit”? Must we?

Tales of imminent catastrophe from the Eurozone are rather like catnip for me, but all I could think about whilst reading this one —

— is that the world does not repeat not need another twee portmanteau.  Like oh-em-gee a Grexit would be like totes cray-cray.  Knock it fucking off.


Fiction is bad for you, part 4

(Previously here, here, and here.)

Will Wilkinson finds a study:

Researchers at Ohio State University examined what happened to people who, while reading a fictional story, found themselves feeling the emotions, thoughts, beliefs and internal responses of one of the characters as if they were their own – a phenomenon the researchers call “experience-taking.”

They found that, in the right situations, experience-taking may lead to real changes, if only temporary, in the lives of readers.

This isn’t always such a great thing.  While reading American Psycho, I rather disturbingly found myself thinking in run-on sentences like Patrick Bateman.  Speaking of Bret Easton Ellis:

In an interview celebrating the launching of his most recent book, Imperial Bedrooms, Bret Easton Ellis recounted how many fans of his work would come up to him and say “You’re the guy who wrote Less Than Zerothat’s the book that made me want to live in L.A.!”

(Don’t click on those last two links if you’re not willing to fall down the Tropes Wiki black hole.)

So, should we only read stories about good people, the kind to whose lives we ought to aspire?  Yes, careful reader, that is a lead-in to a Robin Hanson link:

Imagine that all you know about someone is that they have zero interest in stories. Not movies, not novels, not nothing. They prefer instead to stay focused on the real world. The only “stories” they want are accurate histories of representative people. What do you think of this person?


You might want to hire this person. But would you trust them to be loyal? Would you date them? Marry them? Most people feel a little wary of such story-less people, just as they are wary of atheists. People fear that atheists will violate social norms because they do not fear punishment from gods and spirits. Similarly, people fear that story-less people have not internalized social norms well – they may be too aware of how easy it would be to get away with violations, and feel too little shame from trying.

This is perhaps more plausible if they believe those story-less people never went to high school.

A few days ago I asked why not become religious, if it will give you a better life, even if the evidence for religious beliefs is weak? Commenters eagerly declared their love of truth. Today I’ll ask: if you give up the benefits of religion, because you love far truth, why not also give up stories, to gain even more far truth? Alas, I expect that few who claim to give up religion because they love truth will also give up stories for the same reason. Why?

One obvious explanation: many of you live in subcultures where being religious is low status, but loving stories is high status. Maybe you care a lot less about far truth than you do about status.

Next question for the interested reader: Am I attacking stories, in part or in whole, because I aspire to/identify with the subculture that includes Will Wilkinson and Robin Hanson, and thus makes skepticism of stories a high-status behaviour?  Answers in the comments, please show your work for full credit.

Here’s Will again:

So the next time you hear a good story about why the financial recession, or any other economically significant event, was caused by a single collection of bad actors — or how a simple linear narrative “explains” an important event — remember this: Just as we are wired to like a diet rich in fats and sugars, we have an appetite for simple, coherent narratives. Neither habit is good for our long-term health.

(Inevitable aside: We’re not necessarily wired to like a diet rich in fats and sugars.)


Courtesy and respect are independent

It occurs to me that a lot of people mistake courtesy for respect.

If I make eye contact and nod and smile when you join the group; if I refrain from interrupting you while you’re speaking; or if I address you as “sir” or “ma’am”, I’m being courteous.  I’m being proactively polite within a particular set of social conventions.  Courtesy towards others is — or at least ought to be — an assumed default state, one of those little pieces of social convention that makes it easier for us to get along with each other without verbal or physical violence.  Courtesy is not earned — although for obvious tit-for-two-tats game-theoretic reasons I think it makes sense to treat generally discourteous people rudely.

Respect, on the other hand, goes much deeper.  Respect is derived specifically, from someone’s abilities or achievements.  You might respect me as a researcher and a software developer, but not as a lifter (or at least not until I put 225 overhead).  Respect is earned.  And respect is always on the table: If I respect your philosophical insight, and find out that you hold a position incompatible with one of mine, respect demands that I at least reconsider my position in light of the fact that someone I respect holds an opposed point of view.  If I write you off as generally insightful, but tragically wrong where we disagree, I call into question whether I respect you at all.  (Even if I conclude, after deep and thorough examination, that you really are tragically wrong where we disagree, the fact that you hold opposed points of view to my own should reduce my confidence in my beliefs.  Yes, I’m basically regurgitating Aretaevian epistemology.)

With this in mind, we should be courteous towards most people, even though we have no reason to respect them.  Tit-for-two-tats suggests that we’ll still treat with courtesy the majority of people we learn to respect.  (Christopher Hitchens makes a compelling counterexample.)

(File this one under “overthinking it makes easy blogfodder”.)


“Well, you’ve got these two white lines….”

Will Wilkinson has an article up on the question of what “fair” means in the latest SOTU address:

“Fairness” in this context — as opposed to, say, describing a random number generator, a complexion, or a surface — is one of my favourite flavours of haterade.  Inevitably it’s used as a rhetorical cudgel by sanctimonious assholes to bully and browbeat those who don’t agree with sufficient fervour.  Will eviscerates the trope masterfully:

Suppose I’m a surgeon pulling down six figures. Perhaps doing my fair share is to pay 33% of my income in taxes. But, hey, wait! My sister, who could have been a surgeon, chose instead to make pottery in a little hippie arts colony. She makes only as much as she needs to get by, works relatively short hours, smokes a lot of weed with her artist friends, and pays no federal income tax at all! If paying 33% of the money I make saving lives is doing my fair share, then it’s hard to see how my sister—who could have been a surgeon, or some kind of job- and/or welfare-creating entrepreneur—is doing hers. But if she is doing hers, just playing with clay out there in the woods, benefiting next to no one, paying no taxes, then clearly I’m doing way more than my fair share. Which seems, you know, unfair.

Are you doing your fair share? How would one know? Actually, I just made myself feel slightly guilty for not going to med school and joining Médecins Sans Frontières. But unless government can come up with a way of taxing the leisure of people who aren’t doing as much as they might for kith and country, I reckon I’ll just stick to part-time pro blogging and let all you 9-to-5 suckers finance the necessary road-building and foreigner-bombing.

(Emphasis in the original.)

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