Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Wonderful Art of Lucy Montgomery

Lucy Montgomery --or L. M. Montgomery-- was the author of the series of children's books that began with Anne of Green Gables.
Green Gables is short---and most of them are just about 200 pages long---but how astonishingly powerful the writing was!  We have the intense personality of the main protagonist shoved right in our faces, while we split our sides laughing!  If I've known one person like Anne Shirley I've known a dozen: total space cadets with runaway imaginations who can barely stop talking for a few seconds!  Many of them are delightful to meet (briefly), but they're impossible as undergraduates.
A few years ago, dozens of them signed up to be Physics majors at our school.  I despaired; I had to teach them trigonometry, and they tended to relate to the subject in strange ways.  Luckily for everyone, many of them switched to other majors, such as Archeology, or Psychology, or even Religion, all of which were better suited to their mystical propensities.
To get back to our heroine, Anne Shirley: what distinguished her was a charm that not every Anne wannabe has.  Most definitely, it is a combination of Anne's charm, her hot temper and her stubbornness that carry us through that first book to its end.

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Animals in Our House

Currently, our home is also home to two cats and a dog.

Let’s start with the latter.  He is a large boxer-mix called Hank.  He was an amazing specimen until he hurt his spine trying to chase a cat.  (He tripped on something, or tried to jink just a little too suddenly, and he was rolling on the ground, howling in agony.  That was several months ago; he’s most good now, but he doesn’t have good control over his hind legs.)  But he can get up to quite a fast gallop, and unfortunately he gallops up the ramp we put in for him, back when he couldn’t walk, due to the injury.

He and the little Pit Bull female next door are in lust.  She occasionally comes over and whines at our back door, asking whether Hank can come out and play.  Hank, on the inside of the door, keeps saying: yes, I can!  I can!!  Tell her yes!  But we don’t want her getting pregnant, and we don’t want him hurting his spine again in the throes of passion, and his human, Fred, doesn’t want him to be de-nutted.  I don’t know what the thinking is, there, but it means we have to be very careful that Hankie does not service any fertile female, simply on principle.

A photo of Hank doesn’t do him justice, because a lot of his charm is how he looks at you, and wags his tail, and rockets up and down the ramp with his ears flapping!  In many ways, he’s the archetype of an old-time family dog.  He isn’t a big slobberer, though he certainly is very food-focused, and doesn’t leave the dining room when a meal is in progress.  If we toss him a viand, he is likely to take off from the ground and catch the morsel in mid-air, as if he were grabbing a low-flying bird.

The older of the two cats is a (neutered) boy called Bigfoot.  This 16-pound ambulatory ornament is a striped cat with a coat of dark grey and tan and gold and touches of off-white, and lovely solemn eyes.  He hates to be rushed, except to rush towards his favorite snacks, which are cheese, and smoked meats.  The mere odor of these sorts of foods, or even the refrigerator door opening, tend to inspire him into joining in long arguments with you, where he says such things as “Mack!” “Mrrp!” “Frrp?” and so on, and you can echo these things to him, and he comes back with something else, and it goes on.  After about six of these exchanges, he sits down and stares moodily at the floor.  Sometimes he sort of rises, defying gravity, like an Indian Rope Trick, and reaches towards the kitchen counter-top with his paw.  He doesn't really expect to snag anything, but he can’t help himself.  Because he is a castrato, he has a high soprano voice.  (He would probably have the same voice even if his equipment were intact, I suppose.)

He’s mostly a spectator of the passing scene, but he is such a grand-looking cat that it is rather intimidating just to be peacefully observed by him.  He’s totally harmless, and is sort of resigned to being picked up (if you’re strong enough), and being carried around for a while, after which he tires of it and wants to be put back on the floor.

The most junior member of our menagerie is a three-year old little lady called Lola.  For some reason my wife got it into her head that she wanted a white kitten, and we went out all the way to Danville, and discovered this tiny entry—she wasn’t actually a kitten; she was practically full-sized.  She was very unhappy at being put in a carrier, but we brought her home, and she zipped out of the carrier and hid under some furniture.

After several months spent as a classic scaredy-cat, Lolz (as I called her) began to explore the house, and the outside.  She finally got up the courage to hiss at Bigfoot, and take over the bed of Hank on occasion.  (I just can’t figure out why dogs allow cats to annex their beds as needed.  It defies reason.)

Now, Lolz has discovered the upper floor.  At present, her most favorite thing in the world is to zip upstairs when she finds the stairs door open for even a second, and settle down on our bed, my wife’s and mine, and go to sleep.  She has also found out how to use the toilet.  We’ve caught her squatting down on the seat and taking a peaceful dump.  But she also drinks from the toilet.  I sincerely hope she knows when it is safe to drink out of.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Libraries, and those who Love Them

For decades, the institutions (or the Institution) called libraries have suffered gradual loss of support from their communities, and their sources of funding.  Initially, libraries were collections of books, for the benefit of those who could not afford their own copies of important books.  Often, libraries were the nucleus of universities (even if the university was not built around the library, at least the university considered its library--or libraries--the symbolic nucleus of the institution), and many other institutions have at their center a library, for example the US Office of Patents and Trademarks.

There are many obvious reasons why the use of libraries is in decline.

People do not read very much anymore.  Even if they do, they don't all read the same books; at one time, there were the important books everyone had to read; today, one reads what one likes, and there is simply such a variety of books being published that the annual acquisition process for the library is become a great gamble.

People are also reading online, and reading e-books.  Once, too, the trend of making movies out of works of fiction became common, we never needed to read anymore; even more convenient than reading the Cliff's Notes, we could watch the movie.

Some of the greatest books were written at least fifty years ago, and while some modern authors are inclined to improve on them, some of those classics can simply not be improved upon.  The authors writing today are no less capable than their predecessors, but the sheer volume of literary output can be expected to result in the best of the new books being a smaller proportion compared to the whole.  Self-publishing is now common, further aggravating the problem.  (I myself use a self-published book to teach out of, which is used only at my institution, so that I, too, am contributing to the destruction of libraries in my own small way.)  Entropy has reared its ugly head, and those who have loved books forever, and librarians, and teachers of literature, are all up in arms, opposing the trend towards decline of libraries.  My faceBook news-feed is full of desperate pro-library propaganda.  On top of everything, Government support for libraries has declined, along with every other good thing that the government should support, but doesn't.  It's almost as if our representatives are saying, We've read the books; the rest of ye find other things to do.

Alongside the libraries which are in survival mode, are the librarians.  Training of librarians initially had to expand, to include use of Internet-related resources: databanks that were accessible online (and some of them only online), volumes only available at select libraries, but deliverable to clients via network, and searchable indexes.  These are all things that computers made possible, and librarians are highly knowledgeable front-ends to these information services.

But of course, as libraries come under pressure to defend themselves, so do librarians.  At least part of the hostility of librarians is directed towards e-books; essentially a piece of data which is an electronic version of a book, sold or made available for free by various sources, such as the Gutenberg Project, which is in the process of making available electronically every book that has gone into the public domain.  Once the process of transforming all books into e-books nears completion, they feel, their jobs will be in jeopardy.

I cannot be the only one who believes that the jobs of librarians are not as much in jeopardy as they fear.  Certainly, paper books are going to be far fewer in number.  Some books will continue to be triumphantly paper: children's books, picture-books, such as collectors' books for such image-oriented items as record-sleeves, or fashion magazines, or comic-books, or even books on automotive repair, or even any sort of repair (though a lot of support for do-it-yourself repair is coming to us through video).  But librarians have been adept at delivering strategies for locating the help their clients need, and one can expect that to continue.

But if most fiction becomes available electronically, I don't think that it a tragedy, and certainly not from the point of view of the landfills.  I regard my own collection of books with horror; eventually most of them will definitely have to be put in a landfill, since no one in my family, or among my acquaintances, are interested in some of the older books.

However, for things to be ideal, we simply have to get away from our modern tendency to throw away our electronic devices.  (This is not going to happen under the current leadership, but one can always hope . . .)  The thought of every pen available being a disposable item, every camera, every telephone, every TV set horrifies me: they all get eventually thrown in the landfill.  I have a tablet that I used as a e-book reader, and I see no option but to throw it out, because it cannot be upgraded; obsolescence appears to be built in.  American Industry, which triumphantly ushered in the modern industrial age, has also guaranteed that the single business that will not be at all under threat is the trash business.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

How Trump?

Just quickly: my thoughts on how Donald Trump got elected.

Every person who gets elected has a variety of people voting for him or her, with quite different objectives.  They hope they can get the candidate of their choice elected, but of course, with a large electorate, it isn't a sure thing.  [I try to explain below the amazingly diverse sorts of people who may have voted for Trump, but understand that there is just as wide a variety of people who probably voted for Hillary as well.  Unfortunately, many of potential Hillary voters probably stayed home, not being able get up the enthusiasm to venture forth on Election Day.]

This time around, there were a lot of diverse voters [or rather, a great diversity of voter objectives, and many categories of voter], none of whom could have won the election for Donny by themselves:

1. There were the disgruntled members of the white working class (as Noam Chomsky observed), who did not get anything (from Obama) except Health Care, and didn't really care too much about that, both because of their belief in the lies of the conservative Press (the only information they believe), and because they have never been interested in health care, and have no basis for assessing the quality of a healthcare system.

2. There were the frustrated Republicans, who were furious about the gains the Liberals had made under Obama, despite the fact that the gains were not spectacular.  Some of these were desperate to get a conservative judge into the supreme court, and they don't understand that very few judges are as heedlessly political as Scalia, who was partisan to the last.

3. Some of those under the heading (2) above might have been disgusted with the advancement of the LGBTQ community.  There is a significant number of people who hate the very thought that gays and lesbians no longer need stay in the closet.  The same can be said of those who hate equality of women.  These gains had little to do with Obama; they would have come no matter who was in the White House; their arrival was hastened little, if at all.

4. Some simply could not deal with a black or a minority president in the White House, and wanted an affluent white businessman to be president, simply because it fit in with their image of what a president should look like, even if he didn't talk right.

5. Some hated the very guts of Hillary Clinton, for various reasons.  They could not identify with her culture, her voice, her husband, the fact that she was a Democrat insider.  Some simply could not reconcile themselves to having a woman in such a high office.  This is exceedingly sad.

6. A few did dislike the large number of immigrants in modern US society.  Very possibly, rural folks in Pennsylvania and Indiana and Ohio just do not like to see brown skinned folks walking their streets.  Ironically, some brown-skinned folks do not like it either.

7. As I have suggested earlier, there probably is a large group of people out there that despise highly-educated people; they like people who talk with a vocabulary of fewer than 50 words, as Trump does.  He's a down home boy to them.  A fat white guy with a limited vocabulary who repeats himself endlessly: just the thing!

8. And finally, there are a vast number of former Bernie Sanders supporters who were persuaded to either stay home, or vote for Trump.  These are probably kicking themselves in their secret hearts, but are likely not going to confess that they're disappointed.

Some commentators believe that this (effective, but not intentional) coalition of voters was engineered by some genius.  The geniuses engineered a few details of the circumstances, but I doubt whether the entire thing could have been predicted, except in a very general way.  Unfortunately, many of those who voted at all are not intelligent enough to understand the consequences of the outcome, and the long-term effects of Trump being President.  I doubt whether Trump himself understands them completely.  He certainly realizes that ignoring the health of the air and the water will--temporarily, in his mind--mess up public health, but he probably thinks that the boost to the economy of permitting unlimited use of fossil fuels will offset the return of heavy pollution.  This is probably the single biggest fallacy that drives the conservatives and Big Business.  Business will save America.  And if it doesn't, it will (at least) reward Trump.

So Trump will, unwittingly, destroy America, and never see it coming.

I once read a novel in which something very like this happens.  The surface is stunningly polluted, but people live on, in highly decorated cities insulated from the devastated environment outside, their health supported by an invisible sub-race of janitors and workmen, who live in caves below the cities, who emerge late at night to pick up and clean up after the main population that spends its time in one continuous party.

A number of political commentators on both sides are furious at Trump violating the understanding that Presidents must put their investments into a blind trust, to avoid violating the Emoluments Clause.  One of them has blogged about possible avenues to hold Trump accountable without depending on the heavily Republican Congress.
It seems as though Trump is the only president in modern history who has been determined to exploit the commercial possibilities of being President of the US (though of course there is some reason to suspect that the Bush family benefited from the Iraq Wars).

I do not know whether Trump's exploiting his hospitality enterprise located in Washington D.C. is a source of embarrassment to some citizens (it certainly is an embarrassment to me), or whether they feel that the conflict of interests interferes materially with the running of government (it probably will, since foreign heads of state can bribe their ways into obtaining preferential treatment by the White House via gifts disguised as custom for his companies).  I try not to get upset over the total lack of class of the Trump family and administration; it is almost as if they deliberately set out to grind any sense of Presidential Style we may have had into the dust.  No class in speech, no class in action.

If the Trump Administration were to do something positive for the poor working class, the unemployed, the elderly and other weakest members of society, it would have to be something enormous, to offset my sense of disgust at the way they carry on.  From what I hear, the Supreme Court nominee has potential, and is regarded with some respect.  I am suspending judgment.

The Republican Party, too, is on thin ice with me (of course).  I expect less than nothing from the leadership of the National and State GOP, and all the Republican intellectuals I know are carefully distancing themselves from the Trump Administration, only rushing out occasionally to endorse an appointee whom they support.  There is some support for Betsy deVos from members of my extended family, mostly because they teach in New York State, where they feel that their activities are micromanaged too much by the NY Board of Education.  But I can never bring myself to believe that private enterprise can be entrusted with things such as Health Care and Education, and I expect both to go to hell in a handbasket if privatized.  The Pennsylvania Senator, Pat Toomey, is apparently a spineless sycophant.  His appointment to his second term is huge victory for stupidity over reason.  Unfortunately, his opponent in the election Katie McGinty was not a very charismatic campaigner, which made it an uphill struggle to elect her.

So, it is a bleak picture.  Only the fact that so many of my friends, with whom I seldom discuss any political matters (since we usually agree so completely that we don't need to, or we disagree so completely that we don't dare to,) seem to articulate reasonable opinions so well gives me enormous satisfaction.  Even a local conservative political leader remarked to me recently that "We're all in this together!"  I did not feel confident to pursue the matter, but I get the impression that they despair of managing the President, and even the local GOP leadership, to keep government working for everyone.  At the local level, even the Republicans know that it is one thing to jettison the safety-net put in by Democrats of the Franklin Roosevelt era completely, and quite another to keep a city or the county working as it should.


Friday, February 3, 2017

Shutting down the Department of Slacker Phrases

A recent article on the website called Grammarly comes out gunning against what is seen as superfluous words and phrases, which  they call filler phrases.

Let's look at a few of these.
At all times : Watch out for flabby phrases at all times.

OK, let's agree that this particular example doesn't really need the additional "at all times" qualification in exactly that way.  But saying Watch out for flabby phrases doesn't get across the urgency of Always watch out for flabby phrases, which the grammatical prophet, or grammatical personal trainer would prefer.
Each and every: Look for filler words in your writing each and every day daily.
(And root them out, please.)  I can see the use of each and every being annoying when it isn't needed.  (I was going to say actually needed, but I had gotten a bit intimidated already by the Flabby Police.)
As yet: We don’t know as yet whether we’ll succeed.
Now, this one really needs to be put in the trash.  There are some people who talk this way: "At this point in time, the outcome of the plan under consideration is not known, but ..." but the word yet is available, and it does have a use.  Some things are not known, and other things are not known yet.  What's the problem?
In order: Eliminate excess verbiage in order to clean up your writing.
Hmm.  There are some places where I simply have to use in order to.  Compare these sentences:
It was necessary to use the words "in order to" in order to draw attention to their possible usefulness.  Compare with:
It was not necessary to use the words "in order to" to draw attention to their uselessness.
I don't know; it doesn't quite work without them.

Basically, essentially: These words basically don’t add value. They’re essentially useless.
Oh, I don't know.  They're pacing words.  They alter the rhythm of a sentence in order to (there we go again) to throw emphasis on something different from how it would sound without the word "essentially".
Totally, completely, absolutely, literally, actually
Well, yeah.  These add color; they're useful in dialog; you have to be careful with literally, because most times you don't mean anything literally unless it's obviously literally intended.
Very, really, quite, rather, extremely: These very common words are really not useful. They’re rather dull.
Oh yeah?  So you see no difference between "I'm upset," and "I'm very upset"?  This article has been written by someone who writes non-fiction, obviously.  Just the facts, Ma'am.
That: This is a word that you should only use when you need it for clarity.
Up, down: We don’t care whether you stand up or sit down to write, just write cleanly!
Sit down, fall down . . . well, these are common phrases, and when people write like they speak, why not?  Falling down is understood; I mean, you can't fall up.  My wife keeps saying "Fall down", and I can't make her stop.
In the process of: We’re in the process of learning to remove wordiness.
As a matter of fact: As a matter of fact, Your skills have improved.
I use this phrase to mean you might be interested to know (whatever) ... Which actually means: I expect you couldn't care less, but let me place on record that (whatever).
All of: All of Your readers will enjoy reading cleaner copy.
Some of your readers may enjoy the cleaner copy, but if you charge by the word, all your readers will appreciate the economy of verbiage.  (All of is a deplorable low-class Americanism, which you must forgive me for having it in for.)
As being: You’ll be known as being a proficient writer!
That one went right past me.  I guess some people use this phrase inappropriately.
Being that: Being that Because you’re the best writer in your class, you’re sure to get good grades.
I think this phrase being that is used in the sense of "Seeing as how," or "because".
During the course of: During the course of the writing lesson, we learned some new tricks!
Well, when did you learn these tricks?  All at once, the minute the lesson started, or ... as the lesson went on?  We've got to beware of these quick-fix gurus who have cures to make writing punchier and racier.  It might work for sports writing, but it sure makes one's expression a lot less exact.

For all intents and purposes, For the most part: For all intents and purposes, Our writing has improved.
"Algernon was designated as Monty's chauffeur, but he was, for all intent and purposes, a nursemaid."  How you gonna fix that to convey the meaning we want?
Point in time: You don’t need to use filler words at this point in time now.
Let me endorse this phrase for elimination with all enthusiasm.  This is also one of those pacing words, but, damn, it's the stupidest word of that sort.


Monday, January 30, 2017

Gaslighting - I just found out what it is / The example of Venezuela

Here's one instance in which not watching movies slowed down my understanding of a commonly-used term: gaslighting.  Apparently it has little or nothing to do with gas or lighting (except for maybe some tangential element in the movie Gaslight).

As I understand it, it is the systematic psychological attacks on a person's grasp of reality.  The methods have to do with constantly making the person doubt his or her reason, by a constant onslaught of stupendously contradictory disinformation.  The link above will give you a better description of how it is done than I can, since I'm new to the idea.

In an earlier post, I discussed how Donald Trump was the source of a stream of confusing statements (many of them via Twitter) that ultimately had the effect of forcing a large number of voters to look to him exclusively for The Truth, since he (and many on the Alt Right) maintained that the Press was untrustworthy.  This could be considered an extension of the idea of gaslighting, on a massive scale.

Meanwhile, in another post, a Venezuelan writer explains how a dictator can polarize a country in such a way that the minority which can clearly see the harm that is being done can be made out to be The Enemy, and no appeal to reason or science or common sense can save the targeted scapegoats.  The writer does not suggest a plan, but you should read the post anyway.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Women's March, 2017

I have just finished listening to Gloria Steinem.  Oh, what an inspiration; this was America at its classiest.  Articulate, gracious, insightful, determined!  So many wise observations.  She said, at one point, that one of the advantages of being long-lived, is that you can remember when things were worse.  Amen.  But we survived the deaths of Lincoln, John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and so many numerous inspirational leaders who were snuffed out, and we still were here to see Barack and Michelle Obama occupy the White House with such grace and decency, and to see Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton stand for election.  They are still alive, and there is still hope.

Gloria Steinem said that when we elect a "possible" president, we elect him and go home.  But we have an impossible president, and we're never going home!  What a great sense of humor!  But most of all, her long perspective allowed her to be optimistic and enthusiastic about the march.  It was an unprecedented gathering, and we must all hope that the women at the march caught fire with the success of it, in terms of the turnout.

Constant pressure: that's imperative.  If we tire of the effort, this administration will have an easy time of dismantling everything that not just Obama achieved, but Clinton, Carter, and even a few reasonable laws passed under Reagan.

[More later.]

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