29 September 2009

Actually, Rape-Rape Is Exactly What It Is

For those strugglers at the back, Whoopi Goldberg is an idiotic fucking disgrace.

But jaw-dropping apologetics for forcibly fucking drugged kids in the arse don't just happen. Fuckwits don't take place in a vacuum. How do you get to the point where having sex with a minor against her will doesn't count as rape? Well, it's because it's both. Polanski was charged with rape because the girl was thirteen at the time. Because she couldn't give consent at all, the fact that she repeatedly asked him to stop was immaterial.

Statutory rape is sort of a different matter in that sense. The problem isn't the coercion, it's the numbers and the perviness they imply. This is, I reckon, our principle objection to having sex with children is that it's perverse and wrong and paedoey. Thing is, I'm not exactly for paedophiles getting their rocks off, but, as a problem, it's sort of dwarfed by people too young to understand what they're agreeing to being pressured, tricked or forced into having sex. Adult-on-adult rape sets off our sexual-violence emotional alarm. A 44-year-old raping a thirteen-year-old sets off our prurient-obsession-with-other-people's-orgasms alarm, which is louder than our sexual-violence alarm, but which we've trained ourselves to ignore for fear of being curtain-twitchers and Victorians.

What Whoopi Goldberg seems to have meant by "it's not rape-rape" is that it's only rape because of the girl's age, and because he drugged and forced her into it. Which, I admit, would move it into a slightly different moral area if it wasn't for the minor fact that both are the case. So, in the sense that it's rape on two counts, "rape-rape" is sort of exactly what it is. Maybe she just fumbled her words, and meant to say that the two rapes cancel each other out.

24 September 2009

Glenn Beck the Shit Magician

Watch this clip of Glenn Beck throwing a frog into boiling water. Watch it carefully. Watch when nothing comes out of his hand. Wind back. Watch when he goes to pick up the frog and it jumps out of his hand after he's closed it. This guy makes Gob Bluth look like fucking Gandalf.

18 September 2009

Literally in a Figurative Sense

Via Unspeak again, I came across this concerned citizen complaining about "literally". This is a bone I've had to pick with the world at large for a while, and I pick on Jeff Strabone because he seems to have summed up most of the arguments and a couple of the failings around the word.

Firstly, he gives a good example of, what is in my opinion, the only merit of prescriptivism: pragmatism, saying that
If we lose the literal meaning of 'literal', we would be depriving our language of one of the two words, the other being 'figurative', that most help us understand how language does and does not work.
And he's basically right. The opposition between 'literally' and 'figuratively' is a highly useful one. And in 'literally' acquiring a figurative sense, it basically falls prey to the exact kind of semantic shift that makes it necessary. But we're not dealing with a binary here. People can use metaphors in several senses, and just two words doesn't cut it.

I'll give you a couple of examples: 'to drink someone under the table' has, ostensibly, two meanings - the metaphorical sense of outdrinking someone, and the literal sense of outdrinking them to the point that they slump under the table. But the metaphorical meaning is itself ambiguous: did you carry on drinking after your opponent had thrown in the towel, or did you just get more in before closing time? 'To laugh your head off' means 'to laugh a lot' in the figurative sense, in the literal sense, nothing. But, being naturally prone to exaggeration, people might say they laughed their heads off for levels of hilarity well below the average for that idiom, in the same way someone sitting with a face like a slapped arse might type 'rofl'.

How to distinguish between the two? 'Figurative' announces metaphor, hyperbole or both. 'Literal', in its old sense, declares no hyperbole, no metaphor. What do we say when there is metaphor, but no hyperbole? "I was literally laughing my head off" could not possibly mean decapitation by hilarity, it could only mean "I was laughing hard enough to merit this colourful figure of speech". But what about drinking under the table? Here we have three possibilities: outdrinking, outdrinking with a clear victory and outdrinking with the opponent physically slumped under the table. One is clearly literal, one is clearly figurative, but what about the one in the middle? Well, have you ever met anyone, anywhere, ever, who would say "I literally drank him under the table" and leave it at that? When you hear where the losing inebriate ended up, and believe me, you will, then you know what kind of 'literal' you are dealing with. Nine times out of ten, the context and the intelligence of the listener is enough to clear up most ambiguities.

So let's take Jeff's example:
Now, normally this redtape is a nuisance. We work through it. It is inconvenient. It is a nuisance. But we just sort of move through the redtape of Government. But in this case, it is literally a noose that is around the necks of people, of business owners, large and small, family members—strangling their efforts to recover their communities that were devastated.
Jeff adds
Is it time for Northern troops to occupy Louisiana again as they did during the Reconstruction? Is someone literally lynching people down South with nooses made of literal red tape? Senator Landrieu seems to think so.
No, because that would be ludicrous. Would anyone seriously interpret it that way, even for a second? What Senator Landrieu seems to be getting at is this: "Many politicians, possibly myself included, would call this bureaucracy a 'noose' when it is really just a nuisance. This is not the case here. Though not actually a noose in the physical sense, it is serious enough to merit the comparison".

From the supposed degeneration of 'literally', we've actually gained a handy tool against the degeneration of other words and idioms. Jeff seems to think 'literally' has swapped places with 'figuratively', but that's clearly not the case. 'Literally' has found a niche in the clarification of figurative speech. However, because this inevitably ends up strengthening the idiom, prescriptivists and pedants often assume it means nothing more nuanced than 'really'.

Jeff adds:
One of my standard parlor tricks (no, not a literal parlor) in the classroom is to de-familiarize everyday figures...My favourite is 'planet', thought today to mean a big chunk of matter that orbits a star. The Greek word for those bright lights was 'planetos', literally 'wanderer'. They called them wanderers or wandering stars because they moved idiosyncratically against the backdrop of the celestial sphere of all the other fixed stars that rotated as one. Thus, when we call a big chunk of orbitting matter a planet, we are using a dead metaphor, for the word literally meant 'wanderer'.
This is a rather charming etymological fact and a clear illustration of just how necessary this distinction is. But I can't imagine how general ambiguity in the word 'literally' would introduce ambiguity to this specific context. The rest of this QI-nugget makes it clear what information should be expected - a meaning of the word which is literal in the old sense. Even with the false assumption that the new sense of 'literally' is purely emphatic, that makes no sense in this context. In the same way, there is no ambiguity if I ask whether the Greeks literally believed the planets to be wandering. Emphatic belief makes no sense here.

Aside from that, language is often enriched by ambiguity, and can easily survive it. Even a word like 'literally' can. Not convinced? What does 'planet' mean literally in English? Is it a big, round space-rock, which is not true to its Greek origins, or is it a wanderer, in a sense which is never used in English? Does 'month' literally mean 'moon'? Is a porcupine "literally" a spiny pig? Discuss. 'Literally' seems to have a third sense involving etymological regression which nobody's ever had a problem with. Go back to "He said he was literally laughing his head off." I'm sure you'd agree that's literally impossible. But does that mean it's utterly impossible? Or does it mean it is impossible to do literally? And other, similar words and phrases have coped with the same ambiguity. "I'm not exaggerating, I laughed my head off" works much the same as with 'literally'. 'Actually' and 'really' can both mean both 'literally' and 'emphatically', as long as there's context and intonation to help distinguish.

But even if you don't agree, it's not really any of your business how other people use words, and besides, it's happened now. Complaining about it somehow seems as much use as shouting at the waitress to take the milk out of your tea. So why not learn to love milky tea and start using the figurative sense of 'literally' to your advantage? If there's one thing I love about language, it's that it shows how intelligent, resourceful and witty people can be when left to their own devices. The English language is a testament in itself to how naturally human communication adapts to any kind of change, so I'm sure we'll muddle our way through. Look up. When I wanted to clarify 'literally' I found myself using 'physical' twice. I like to think it worked. Or we could try playing games with 'quite literally'. Either way, I for one am both curious and optimistic about how this will pan out.

16 September 2009

Go On, Shoot the Messenger

This PDF gives lots of useful tips on whether to believe health stories in the press.

Now I've always had a fairly cynical attitude to the press. I remember one time when I was a kid I saw an advert for some lucrative prize draw in The Sun and asked my dad why we didn't get that particular newspaper. I can't remember his exact words but they were along the lines of "it's full of bollocks", though with more temperate language. I spent the whole second year of Uni fuming at Daily Express headlines (this was during their "NOW ASYLUM SEEKERS ARE HITLER WITH YOUR MONEY" phase, before they discovered Muslims). But until I started reading the Bad Science blog and got my mum the book a year or two ago, me and my dad had a theory.

This theory explained why there was always something new causing/curing cancer in the headlines. I'm sure we've all had this theory, and it was along the lines of "Some scientist, right, wants an excuse to drink more red wine or eat more chocolate or something, so he does a study to show it cures cancer, then goes home and tells his wife". It didn't explain why forgetting anniversaries or fucking your doctoral students was never found to cure cancer, but we're both literature graduates, so go easy on us. Anyway, Dr. Goldacre's explanation, that the papers are feeding us bullshit on a daily basis, made more sense. But to this day I can't understand why that never dawned on me, that it might be the press, which I knew was full of shameless, cynical lies, was actually at fault and misrepresenting research. I just sort of bypassed that and went straight to speculating about the scientists. Weird how, even if you know not to believe everything you read, sometimes you mentally cut out the middleman and don't even notice you're doing it.

Meanwhile the BBC is at it again, this time attacking an innocent academic for using the un-PC "insect" label.

15 September 2009

Ian Pilmer: Utter Delingpole

Ian Pilmer, climate change sceptic and coward, has, as yet, failed to answer George Monbiot's questions on scientific claims made in his book. He's also failed to answer his own (ludicrous) questions, even with ten quid sterling up for grabs. Mounting evidence that literally anyone James Delingpole agrees with is a horse's arse.

14 September 2009

Unspeak Returns

Little more than a month hanging up its hat, Unspeak is back. Now I might be jumping to conclusions, but it looks like this sudden and hopefully permanent return was brought about by a Johann Hari cash-in. This ended up as basically a potted summary of his journalistic output. There’s some very good points (about the “politics of envy”), some borrowed points that deserve an airing (the practice of labelling fair, rather than unfair, trade), some old grudges aired, some rather silly points that nonetheless raise an interesting point (that stuff about the Queen), and then some utter car-crashes of ham-fisted hypocrisy. Stephen Poole tackles most of the latter, concluding that
Hari is confusing “honest” with “argumentative, but on my side of the argument”.
Hari, in fact, seems to be unspeaking the term ‘unspeak’, using it not for words that deliberately distort language contain an unspoken argument within them, but for words he disagrees with. Which an intelligent, rational person who understands the term would never do.

You also get the classic Hari move of making a good point, then bollocksing it up (as I also mentioned in the Unspeak comments):
“Out of context.” I would allow this phrase to be used, but in highly restricted circumstances. Sometimes, a quote is taken out of context, but if you are going to make that accusation, you should be required to give the original context, and explain why the quote was wrong.
Absolutely great. If you’re going to claim you were misquoted, give the real quote. If you think someone got you wrong, put your money where your mouth is and set them straight. Give the context, and we’ll make up our minds if that makes it ok. It’s a great point, and Hari could have left off there and come off well. Unfortunately, he didn’t:
For example, when I revealed that Jake Chapman said his art-works performed "a good social service, like the children who killed Jamie Bulger," he simply said this was "stripped from the proper context." How? I have read it in context repeatedly and can't see his argument.
I haven’t read it in context [pdf] (well, I did ages ago but I forgot it) and I know exactly what he means. The Chapman brothers piss people off. They’re sort of upmarket hate-figures, for members of the chattering classes who consider all that child-murderer stuff a little too plebeian. And they do it very artfully, playing on the peculiar and irrational sensibilities of bourgeois art punters, scratching away at fetishes like “originals” (like with the Goya etchings) and “authenticity” (like with the African Ronald McDonalds), and by saying deliberately provocative things. Hari doesn’t get this. Hari also got very annoyed when his artistic sacred cows got satirised. But Hari also considers printing this context beneath him. We can read what the context wasn’t, if we’re really curious:
It wasn't preceded by a sentence saying "If I was an attention-seeking fool who didn't take anything seriously, I would say..."
But otherwise we have to keep the faith and assume that, because he read the quote in context and failed to understand it, he must be right about it.

But there was one interesting little story caught my eye. Hari’s take on it is that bland, statistical terms like ‘infant mortality’ don’t do them justice, which Stephen Poole makes short work of. But the story is:
In Malawi in southeast Africa, the country's soil became badly depleted by overuse, so the democratic government there adopted a sensible policy of subsidising fertiliser. The nation's hungry farmers were given sacks of it at a third of its real cost – and the country bloomed. Then the World Bank damned this as a "market distortion" and said that if Malawi wanted to keep receiving loans it had to stop them at once. So the subsidies stopped, and the country's crops failed.[...]Three years ago, the Malawian government finally told the World Bank to stick its loans, and subsidized fertiliser again. Now nobody there is starving, and the country is the single biggest exporter of corn to the World Food Programme in southern Africa.
Now, what we see here, is the triumph of rationalism over superstition. You have to remember, we’re dealing with a group with a very strong belief system and who can get quite aggressive and petulant when confronted with evidence to the contrary. This primitive people live in terror of what they call “market distortion”, which, they believe, brings bad luck and can make you uncompetitive.

12 September 2009

I Wonder Why...

Notice which class of arthropod this video on the BBC focuses on. Why could this be?

Edit: Just thought about a bit more and realised it's because the BBC is inherently biased towards spiders. Should have been obvious really.