Friday, June 25, 2010

Regarding Grammar Nazis

i gotta wunda yzit dey tinkin wedadumwuns wen ryting disway canb far moar efishunt and expresiv. peepol who thro a fit abowt sumdin liek da cowrecked form uv ther mussb dadumwuns cuz da meenins clear frum contxt... uddawyz ther, ther, an ther woodall sownd diffrnt to. point izat if i sed ther sittin ova ther on ther lawn, yad no wat i meen, so ynot makit da same for rytin.

There are occasions that call for communicative and thus linguistic precision, which demand the correct use of words, syntax, grammar and so forth. However the notion that any non quantitative language can be used with maximum communicative efficacy is foolish. For instance, a studied linguistic prodigy could write a whole story with what was intended to be communicated hidden (but nonetheless objectively discernible) in the etymology of choice words while maintaining a coherent facade--in other words steganography by etymology. Similarly a word might be used such that several of its meanings yield sensible interpretations. The mere fact that many words have multiple distinct meanings is enough to indicate that absolute precision in communication by this language is unlikely. Despite this lack of objective precision, communication is surprisingly robust; people often use words thinking they mean something other than what they actually mean, yet the intended meaning comes across (more often than not, in my experience). The modern paragon of this situation is the phrase "beg the question," commonly used as though it means "causes the question to arise." This usage is unequivocally false: the phrase comes from formal logic as the fallacy of assuming what is to be proven, first defined by Aristotle ~350 BCE.

It's not just the uneducated masses who abuse conventions, a good number of celebrated authors have as well: Emily Dickinson's work is superficially characterized by a distinct misuse thereof, Jose Saramago won the Nobel Prize for literature for a book that abandoned all rules regarding punctuation of speech, and for his best known work "A Clockwork Orange" Anthony Burgess successfully discarded much tradition in favor of a largely fabricated and evocative lexicon. Even authors for whom the principle intent is not to explicitly subvert tradition will occasionally see fit a bit of unrestrained expression. Intentional subversion of convention is not necessarily better than the accidental, as the important consideration is efficacy of communication; if technically incorrect writing communicates more effectively than the cowrecked alternative it must be qualitatively superior. Objectively the rules of writing should only matter as much as they aid in communication since it is the primary objective. This is a good thing, as the rules of writing are so complicated that even professional authors require editors to point out all the errors. If technical proficiency is more important than communication then language kinda loses its point, amirite?

Clearly there are cases in which abandoning standards is more effective or desirable than abiding by canonical stricture, thus rendering the concern at hand nebulous. Are we simply to assume that people who replace 'because' with 'cuz' are idiots, or is it possible that certain other people are inflexible pedants unable to realize that 'cuz' is an efficient, effective and unambiguous replacement of 'because'? The truth is that language is evolving, as it has from inception, the only difference being that presently it is happening fast enough for crotchety pedagogues to notice and complain. If it weren't for such odd sociological pressures I think this evolution might happen much faster, at the very least cuz it does (with intriguing results) when distinct languages intersect.

Some portion of people who started reading this won't make it to this point cuz of my possibly disconcerting choice of ostentatious diction (further rent til but a tortuous enigma did remain :P), which is too bad because they don't get to see this part where I expose my erudite articulation to be a Planck thick veneer over an idiocy so profound it is capable of using cuz and emoticons, and in, liek, a run on sentence. Another portion will get here having not fully understood what I've intended to communicate. Notice that for both of these cases it isn't my failure to comply that causes a communication breakdown but my technically acceptable overzealous use of multisyllabic words that might appear on the GRE.

To me the emergence of glyphic phenomena such as lol, \o/, :/, :|, :), :D and :P indicate a previously irrelevant deficiency in the ability of our communication medium and language to express ourselves sufficiently; in other words it's really hard to convey any emotion in the terse typed (not even handwritten!) form which has recently rapidly grown to unprecedented ubiquity. To not recognize the validity of these modern phenomena even in traditional print just seems stodgily conservative. Similarly if my use of unconventional symbolic representation lowered a persons judgment of my already limited intellect, I'm afraid I may no longer consider their ability to judge sound.

I cannahelp but tink dat deybdadumwuns tinkin as dey do dat da comma is anemor dan vizul garbish.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Garrett Lisi: Unification Theorist

Garrett Lisi is a particle/theoretic physicist who has come up with a very intriguing theory, one that mathematically unifies the quantum and relativistic branches of physics. The theory is fascinating and attractive, despite being essentially beyond comprehension. I had read about his theory at some point a while back and found it of general interest and know I've brought it up in discussion many times. Those times though my recollection was poor and didn't communicate the very important bit that is the author's name, but now I don't think I'll forget.

Unification is of course the holy grail of modern physics, an achievement similar in magnitude to curing cancer. A great thing about Lisi's theory is that it makes predictions which should be answered when the LHC makes it to full power. I have mentioned already that the theory is naturally appealing, and I wasn't lying: his paper is the most downloaded of all on, which is probably the largest online collection of pre-print scientific articles.

At the 2008 TED Lisi gave a presentation, his attempt at a lay explanation of the theory. You might want to take a moment to breathe deep and clear your mind before you watch...

Saturday, June 12, 2010

A Million in a Briefcase

A million dollars in a briefcase is almost the ultimate cliche, and accordingly diverse in its performances. Cliche is usually regarded as derogatory, but I must disagree--after all, where would we be without a million dollars in a briefcase? It is certainly cliche, but not in the sense that it is indicative of an absence of creativity; the briefcase by itself is totally ambiguous, lacking narrative, but it has strong potential to characterize any scene that it is placed in. In this sense the briefcase is more a character than a simple plot refrain.

For the other half of the brain: have you ever wondered if a million dollars would actually fit in a briefcase? These things are easy enough to figure out these days. The dimensions of US currency (from here) are about 6.1 x 2.6 x 0.0043 inches, and a common briefcase size is 18 x 13 x 5 which is enough space to hold around 17,450 bills. If each of those were hundreds, that would be $1,745,000. In fact a slim 3-inch briefcase can hold a million dollars. If someone really wished to avoid being cliche they could take the money in pennies, though it would be a poor choice; a hundred million pennies weighs just over 550,000 lbs, and all of them stacked would make a tower almost 79 miles tall.