Tuesday, October 07, 2014

More About Sex

In a previous post, I mentioned that we have lost quite a few formerly perfectly good words--words we cannot use in their literal meaning--because they have become euphemisms referring to sexual matters.

I'm reminded now how many words have become slang references to women's breasts. The thought was brought up again recently by a friend who washed a van for a female friend. He was on top of the van wiping down the luggage holder bolted to the roof. Enthusiastically, he shouted down to her, "You have a great rack!"

Sure, sure, "Think before you speak," but why do we have to step so cautiously through these verbal minefields lest we convey the wrong idea?

"Boobs" used to mean "simpletons," or incompetent folks. A 1920's silent film took advantage of this  change in meaning by the title, "Bathing Beauties and Big Boobs," the boobs being some slapstick characters.

Words that in the singular are still largely safe, take on anatomical slang meanings in the plural: Jug, jugs; hooter (an owl), hooters; knocker (door rapper), knockers; and so on. One web site lists 138 slang terms for breasts.

I guess some folks are so obsessed with "the girls" that they need lots of synonyms in order not to sound repetitive. And, for some, the terms are slightly humorous, so it's a cheap way to sound a bit scandalously witty. For others, it's just for the titillation.

Aesop's moral: Isn't it kind of a shame that we are so sex-obsessed that we have to keep prostituting formerly nice words into sexual meanings?

Reading Is Only the Beginning

I've recently begun my fourth journey through the Rambler essays of Samuel Johnson, and it occurred to me that there is a great difference between simply reading something--such as a novel for enjoyment or a magazine for information or a textbook for an assignment--and reading for improvement.

It further occurred to me that reading for improvement tracks the three steps of hermeneutics (Biblical interpretation).

1. What does it say? This step is in common with ordinary reading. We want to comprehend the material, to grasp the writer's point. Of course, we need to be alert for metaphors, irony, exaggeration, and so forth.

2. What does it mean? This step might be thought of as understanding in context, or as the larger significance of the work. As we read at this level, we always have the "so what?" in mind. What are the implications? This step shows we care about the ideas we are reading and are thinking about them and their role is the great conversation.

3. How does this apply to me? This last step takes the reading home to ourselves as we ask how it should affect, challenge, influence, or change the way we act, think, feel, and understand the world and our place in it.

Reading only for comprehension, so that you can do well on a test, limits the effect of the author-reader interaction to a simple, safe level. But if you want to grow wiser, better, happier, you must examine the ideas in the text at a higher step.

There is a saying, "We read because we find ourselves there, and we read because we don't find ourselves there." That is, we read in order to feel human, maybe normal, and to recognize our own feelings and thoughts, fears and hopes, ambitions and hesitations though those we read about (fiction or nonfiction). And we also read to escape from ourselves and our patterned lives, to move into the magical realms of story and interesting people, circumstances, challenges, and events.

To read well is to read through all three steps.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Why Our Culture Is Declining

As a culture, we've moved from admiring a poem by Shakespeare, John Donne, or George Herbert to admiring (if that's the right word for it) scantily clad young women shaking their body parts while singing quasi-melodious songs with lyrics that push the definition of superficial banality to new depths. Why, you ask, is this so? What has caused this? Several factors are at work in a perfect storm.

First, there is the human desire for constant novelty, exacerbated by the supply of constant novelty. Lots of leisure time has turned us (especially the young who seem to have lots of leisure time) into a culture of entertainment. In the entertainment economy, there is a constant flow of entertainment, that, however derivative, needs to continue to demand attention. In the attention economy, ever more surprising, shocking, amazing things must be included in the entertainment package so that people will pay attention to the next new thing instead of the competition's next new thing. Thus does the stunt ratchet get constantly cranked up. One movie blows up a car. The next movie blows up three cars. The next movie blows up a building. The next movie blows up a town. And so on.

That's how we got from a young woman singer holding a microphone twenty years ago to a naked young woman singer swinging on a wrecking ball today.  What was surprising yesterday is soporific today. What was shocking yesterday is cliche today. So, in order to maintain a shock value to get attention, ever more exaggerated, low brow events must be staged. We're already passing by vile and detestable into regions that have no words for them.

Monday, May 26, 2014

An Unwanted Feature Can Be a Drawback

A few months ago, we traded in our electric clothes dryer for a gas model, to save money. A "feature" of this particular dryer is that if you don't take the clothes out at the end of the cycle, every few minutes the dryer rotates the clothes a bit (ostensibly to prevent wrinkling) and then sounds the "laundry's done" buzzer again. Now, that might be a great feature for many people, but for us, when we do a load of laundry at bedtime, the rotation and buzzer every few minutes is annoying. True, the buzzer can be turned off, but the rotation cannot, and our dryer is only feet from the master bedroom. So we still hear the rotation noise.

Another example of this "unwanted feature is a drawback" is the LED flashlight that I acquired recently. Push the button once and you get the full light. Push it again and you get a dim light (to allow the batteries to last a longer time?). Push once again and the light goes off. This feature is a drawback for two reasons. For those who expect simple on-off operation, requiring two clicks from on to off won't happen. (A friend clicked the light from on to dim and put it back into the glove compartment.) Second, it's just a tiny irritation to need to click, click to off, especially with the button on the base of the flashlight.

So think before you chase after all the features you can get on some new gizmo. You might be chasing a hassle.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Our Choices Are Determined by Our Options

Suppose that, after a sumptuous meal at some friends' house, you are offered a choice of chocolate or vanilla ice cream for dessert.  You choose from the alternatives available to you. However, the person sitting next to you asks the host, "Are there any other alternatives, such a coffee-flavored ice cream, a pie, or  fruit dish?" The host says Yes and the other guest orders. Now, since these are three of your favorite desserts, you are disappointed with your choice.

Problem 1 with choice selection: Failure of Imagination. Insufficient recognizing of alternative options. (Rush to make a decision and get it over with.) If only you had known or asked about additional alternatives, you could have made a more satisfactory decision.

On the television show, Naked and Afraid, the two contestants  are allowed to take one item with them to help them survive in the jungle. In the past, contestants have chosen to take a pot, swimming goggles, or a flint-and-steel fire starter.

Now, everyone knows that the two most crucial things to have in a wild jungle of a forest are water and fire. Next would be a tool for digging, and a tool for chopping and a tool for sawing. So which two to pick?

The failure of imagination here occurs when the so-called survivalist candidate in the contest chooses a knife, sometimes a rather small, folding knife. And his partner, who might not choose a pot, instead selects a flint-and-steel fire starter. But to take the second case first, why a flint and steel? Why not just take a butane fireplace match? You can get hundreds of quick, long-lasting lights with it. And remember that the survival challenge is for 21 days, not the rest of your life.

Then to the knife. There is an abundant choice of survival knives available, many of them large enough to work as digging tools. Some have serrations on the top of the blade, making them useful as saws. And some have survival kits in the handle, including compass, matches, fish hook, fishing line, and so on. A few come with blade sharpeners. So one tool can cut, chop, dig, saw, produce fire, show compass directions, fish and do whatever else your imagination can discover.

Once again, we make our choices from the options we believe are available to us. To make better choices, identify more options. (It is said that people who kill themselves believe they have run out of other options.)

Monday, May 12, 2014

Go to the Ant, You Sluggard

Scripture tells us, "Go to the ant, O sluggard, observe her ways and be wise, which, having no chief, officer or ruler, prepares her food in the summer and gathers her provision in the harvest.  --Proverbs 6:6-8 So the ant's industriousness is recommended to us as a model.

But are there other characteristics of the ant that we might emulate? Here are some thoughts.

1. Ants are opportunists. They roam around looking for a tidbit of something sweet or greasy, and when they find it, they descend on it full tribe, like a locust attack. They don't bypass opportunity. They seize it.

2. Ants are proactive. They manage to seize opportunity because they send scouts out to roam all over the ant domain, looking for any chance encounter with food. They know that you cannot seize an opportunity you don't know about.

3. Ants are team players. If you watch ants, some are communicating with other ants, some are keeping the ant highway systems open with chemical trails, some are managing security (as when the soldier ants come out). As team players, ants are always ready to take one for the team.

4. Ants share everything: Food, shelter, trails, even ant poison, unknowingly. They have huge air conditioned spaces for the young and take care of huge quantities of eggs by assignment.

5. Ants are committed to maintaining the roads scholarship and some of the money must come from this fund. So, when you see these scouts or an entire colony on the move. They know, for example, that storm drains are useful, even though it's not raining right now.

6. Ants are resilient. They bounce back from tragedy with an eagerness to go on again. Think of those tens of thousands of ants you kill with your bug spray can, only to find next day thousands more, each with the same purposefulness and opportunism.

7. Ants persevere. Ever tried to wipe the ants out, to prevent them from coming back? But as long as  you leave the sugar or fat item out, they will soon be on it in huge numbers again and again and again. Ants don't know the meaning of the word surrender.

8. Ants recycle. Ever spray a stream of ant killer, and wipe out a few thousand ants? Then  you came back later only to discover that all the ant bodies were gone. Yes, the ants cleaned them up, took them away so they could recycle their juices. Look for a pile of shriveled up ant bodies near the backdoor.

These, I think, are the cultural strengths and weaknesses of modern societies populated by humans. Maybe we should go to the antlll

Saturday, May 10, 2014

It's About Sex

One of the unfortunate things about our cultural obsession with sex is that we've invented too many euphemisms, innuendos, and synonyms for matters sexual. As a result, you can be chatting along and suddenly find yourself betrayed into an unintended sexual reference. Here are just a few off-the-cuff examples that come to mind.

"Yeah, our camping experience was a great time for bonding. We ate together, worked together, fished together, told stories together, slept together--" Ooops, Didn't mean that. And what a dumb euphemism, since sleeping is the furthest thing from two people's minds when they are, um, well, "having relations."

That brings up a problem with the English language. We have only one non-slang, transitive, active verb for having sex, and that's the popular four-letter one that is considered crude and formerly taboo in company. There was a socially acceptable transitive verb arising from middle English, swive, but it has long been obsolete.

And we lose perfectly good words to sexual meanings. "We have an intimate relationship," used to mean you were very close. Now, people assume you mean you're skin diving. And take the word "intercourse," which means "communication." You can read nineteenth-century novels and find statements such as, "I learned little about the forest from my daily intercourse with Jane," and you might think you're not reading a G-rated novel after all. But the damage to the word is the result of laziness. The expression, "sexual intercourse" (sexual communication = having sex) was truncated to just "intercourse" and a very useful word was lost to us forever, except as a sort of euphemism.

Another interesting betrayal of language occurred in radio advertising. A Los Angeles car dealer's ads touted the low prices of the cars, and finished each ad with the promise of a great deal, concluding with "And remember, Nick can't say no." Then, Nick decided to let his daughter do some of the spots, so the ads concluded with, "And remember, Elizabeth can't say no." It wasn't but a month or two before the dealer realized that when it's said that a woman "can't say no," it means that she is, um, promiscuous.

Now there is another word, just like "intercourse," that we have lost to sex. The actual meaning of "promiscuous" is "not discriminating" or "not choosy," "indiscriminate." But now it just means slutty.

Another problem is male-to-female talk, where an expression that would be clearly understood in a male-to-male interaction would be taken as an obscene comment when coming from a male to a female. This almost happened to me once when I was getting parts to install a new water heater. I was at Home Depot looking for the short pieces of pipe that connect an iron water heater tank to the copper plumbing. There was a young woman working in plumbing. I just caught myself before I asked her, "Do you have dielectric nipples?"

I recall a British actress in the US for a talk show appearance, who reported that the concierge acted oddly when she asked him, "Can you knock me up at seven tomorrow?" The expression in England is a request for a wake-up call (or knock on the door).

I thought about listing a few of the slang uses of formerly perfectly good words that we have lost to sexual references, but for the sake of good taste, I will refrain. Too bad we can't just invent new words and keep the good old ones for their innocent uses.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Global Warming Questions

A major problem with the news media is that complex issues get compressed into little sound bites and short presentations, often framed in a script that the journalistic community has adopted. (Compare the use of the term "black boxes" for the orange data and voice recorders on commercial aircraft, or the term "Richter scale" in the discussion of earthquakes--a scale not used since the 70s or so.)

When there is a multiple shooting somewhere, the media dusts off its gun control script. Not too long ago there was a mass stabbing, but the media, having no "knife-control script," couldn't advocate tighter laws for knife ownership.

To the point:
Discussion of global warming or its much more vague but newly popular alternate concept, climate change seems too often to conflate, bypass, and ignore a number of questions relevant to the discussion. Here, then, are just a few:

1. Is global warming occurring? That is, Is the climate getting hotter?
2. If the answer to 1 is Yes, then what is the base measurement? In other words, if the earth is getting warmer, since when? Since 2000? (It seems that global temps haven't changed since then.) Since 1950? Since 1850? Since 1500? Since 1000?
3. If the earth has warmed since the named baseline, is that an absolute rise or a rise on a larger cyclical pattern or rising and falling global temperatures? Do the Medieval Warm Period or the Little Ice Age suggest a cyclical pattern?
4. How can we know whether the earth is warming or not? This is a question about measurement reliability.

  • How reliable are old data, such as the temperatures recorded a hundred, two hundred or more years ago?
  • How reliable are new data? Was a parking lot installed around a measuring station that used to be surrounded by grass or trees?
  • How representative are the data? Inductive leaps can be problematic.
5. If global warming is occurring indeed, is that bad? During the age of the dinosaurs, the planet must have been pretty lush to leave behind enough plant matter to give us all the oil we now have. And anyone who has raised vegetables or fruit in a hot house knows what huge and delicious produce results.
6. How can we know if global warming will, on balance, be a negative? Sea levels could rise, but starvation might be almost eliminated because of a crop-friendly atmosphere.
7. If global warming is occurring and it is bad, what is causing it? It's popular to throw a dart at human activity such as burning fossil fuels, but is that really the cause? Sunspot activity has also been proposed. Is there a suite of causes and not just one?
8. If global warming is occurring and it's bad and humans are causing it, what can be done to ameliorate it? It's interesting here that some solutions are more popular among the chattering classes than others. Solar power? Got it!, Nuclear power? Not so much. Wind power? Yay. (But those wind generators slice and dice endangered bird species. Guess you have to choose your eco-priorities.)
9. If you have developed a list of what can be done, then what should be done? Who's going to pay for it? Why them? 
10. What if nations don't cooperate? Third world nations just now ramping up their energy needs and production are unlikely to shut down their power plants.

Whatever your position on global warming or climate change, I think it will be helpful to consider some of these questions as entry points for fresh thinking and analysis.

I Disagree, But Don't Hate On Me

Why do some people get so upset when you disagree with them?

Blaise Pascal references a question by Epictetus: "Why are we not angry if someone says that we have a headache and are angry if someone says that we are arguing badly or making a bad choice?" Pascal's answer is that we are certain that we don't have a headache, but we're not sure that we aren't arguing badly or making a bad choice. Indeed, it seems that the more some people fear that they might be wrong, the angrier they are.

It's been noted that disagreement and argument, rather than bringing about compromise or a search for common ground, actually polarizes the contestants further, making them argue in even more extreme terms.

To return to our initial question: Why do some people get angry when they face opposition or challenge to their assertions? Here are some possible reasons.

1. They are upset by what they view as error.  Having perhaps arrived at their stated conclusion only after long and hard thought, or having adopted a position that seems to be the only one that corresponds to their other, deepest beliefs, to hear someone contradict them is a source of frustration, as if they are afraid that the long set of reasons and arguments must be revisited, to their distress.

People who invoke ideas such as "settled science" or "historical fact" are sometimes hoping to quash a rehash of what they consider long concluded arguments.

2. The introduction of a contrary fact or claim upsets some people because they believe it will result in confusion that would require a long discussion to clarify. Speakers (professors, presenters, etc.) who are attempting to present the basic ideas or arguments about a topic sometimes react with heat when one of their hearers raises a conflicting idea or an idea that shows the speaker's thesis to be oversimplified.

3. The disagreement is a misunderstanding, which, to the angry presenter's mind, shows a lack of understanding, knowledge, or expertise on the part of the objector. For example:
Presenter: "The circumstantial evidence convincingly points to the guilt of Frimpson."
Objector: "But Frimpson passed a lie detector test.  He said he didn't do it and he passed the test. He therefore wasn't lying. He was telling the truth."

Here, the presenter gets upset because he perhaps was lecturing to an audience he assumed knew that passing a lie detector test is not an absolute guarantee of truthfulness. He is frustrated with the objector because a lengthy explanation would derail the presentation.

4. For people who are advancing a point close to their strongly held ideological framework, anyone who disagrees with their position is not just wrong, but is evil. This is especially true of leftists, who see many political, social, and economic ideas in moral terms of good (their position) versus evil (their opponents' position).

All of these reasons should be considered in light of Pascal's Headache. Is the degree of anger commensurate with their degree of self doubt?