Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Had I Known...

If I had known that arrests in NYC would plummet, I might have considered going to Times Square tonight, with my good flask nestled in my coat pocket.

Nah, I don't have the patience for that scene, never did. At any rate, if the police think they are punishing New Yorkers by not enforcing minor "quality of life" infractions like drinking in public, they have another think coming... Now where'd I put that bottle?

Happy New Year, everybody! Let's hope for a splendid 2015.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Anomalous Pudding

While running some errands, I stopped into my butcher shop of choice (yes, I live in a neighborhood which still has not only one, but two butcher shops). After the usual exchange of pleasantries, I decided that I would purchase something for breakfast. I usually get the house-made black pudding, but I noted an anomalous pudding in the display case:

This anomalous pudding was made from the tail ends of the butcher's black pudding and his white pudding after he'd packed the casings. I prefer the black pudding to the white pudding, but sometimes it's nice to have both, without having to buy two puddings. Balance is important, isn't that what the Yin-Yang symbol teaches us?

Monday, December 29, 2014

Creampuff or Lemon?

I recently stumbled upon a vintage car of dubious vintage:

I'd never seen one before, but I suspected that this car was a specimen of the infamous Edsel, a brand automobile produced by the Ford Motor Company. Sure enough, a closer view verified this:

Is it a creampuff or a lemon? YES!

POSTSCRIPT: How about this for hilarity? The Ford Motor Company hired modernist poet Marianne Moore to propose names for the car, with awesome results.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Afghan War, Now 90% Over!

Finally, after thirteen years, the war in Afghanistan is "formally" over- or 90% over, as about 14,000 troops are staying in-country. The Soviet war in Afghanistan was was a bit shorter. It has to be noted that the U.S. government backed, trained and armed the Muslim fanatics who created the Taliban and Al Qaeda in order to fight a proxy war against the Soviets.

As if that weren't bad enough, we didn't maintain a large presence in order to create the civil society that could have enabled a peaceful Afghanistan to develop. Now, a quarter century later, Afghanistan is still a mess, and still a threat. We used to treat our enemies well, and helped them to rebuild after armistices- at some point, we started treating our "allies" poorly, with predictable results. Well, now the Afghan War is 90% over, why am I not 90% happy?

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Baby Bottle... or Rip Van Whiskey

Today, I attended a first birthday party for the twins sons of old friends. I find it very hard to shop for such tiny children- I hate shopping in the first place (exceptions, food shopping or shopping in bookstores, preferably used bookstores, the more cluttered the better), and I find it especially tough to shop for something that the kids have yet to grow into and will grow out of in a matter of weeks. I figured I'd write them a check for their college fund, and then, in a stroke of inspiration, I went to the liquor store and bought a bottle of Scotch, which I had the boozeslinger wrap for me. I added a note: OPEN IN 20 YEARS.

I should have thought of this idea long ago!

Friday, December 26, 2014

You Won't Be Needing Those Childhood Memories!

Being enough of a Tolkien fan to have written a few blog posts about the good professor's work, I have assiduously avoided seeing any of Peter Jackson's "Hobbit" films. To quote the blurb from the back of the parody Bored of the Rings (which I love, not being a rabid fanboy):

"Those who have any respect for a certain living author won't touch this turkey with a ten-foot battle lance"

Yeah, no "Hobbit" movies for this guy... I didn't particularly care for Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" movies to begin with, and I viewed Jackson's expansion of a relatively slim novel to three films a crass pass for the brass. Regarding the movies, I'd heard some tidbits which convinced me that I was right to avoid these movies. The first movie had too many "roller coaster" type scenes, probably setting up action sequences for video game adaptations. The second movie had a character added to the story which looked suspiciously like a Mary Sue (She's an orphan! She rose quickly from a common birth to a lofty position! She's even a redhead!!!). I am certainly not complaining about the addition of a female character to the movie, but I think that several of the dwarfs should have been female... Melissa McCarthy as Bombur FTW!!! The problem with the "hawt elf chick" insert is Hollywood's insistence that every female character be a Daphne, with nary a Velma onscreen. The third movie was seen as soulless. I didn't watch any of these movies, so why am I writing about them? I don't do the guest-post thing, but I am going to bring in a special guest-star for this post, a friend and co-worker who is a devout Tolkien fan. I warned her that she would hate the movie, but she went ahead and saw it anyway. She sent me a text-message to wish me a merry Christmas, and I asked her the fateful question:

You see that hobbit movie yet?

Oh... worse than you can imagine. I died a little inside

Give it enough time and you'll come to hate Jacko's LotR movies too. I think he just wanted to make a big budget remake of "Hawk the Slayer"

I don't hate him. Just really disappointed. To be fair, I didn't have high hopes for this one.

Just think of the movies as a big budget "Hawk the Slayer" remake and you won't be so disappointed. The end of "Hawk" did leave room for a sequel.

Lol I'm currently watching the "Die Hard" movies in between cooking

Did Jacko at least include Thorin's dying speech to Bilbo? The "child of the kindly west" speech?

Not all of it but most of it. Thorin dies not on the battlefield, but on the mountain fighting Azog. Two words: war pigs

Peter Jackson can eat a bag of dicks. I can't wait until the novelization of the movie comes out, written by that Salvatore guy. Why couldn't Jackson just call his movie "Warhammer: Dwarfs vs Orcs" and leave the beloved children's classic alone?

True! *twitches at the mention of Warhammer* I'm a Warhammer widow ya know. My house has little painted men EVERYWHERE

Anyway, Peter Jackson's not going to poop on my childhood memories of the beloved classic (hell, did his movies even give the eponymous hobbit more than a few scant minutes of screentime?). No need for me to watch his three-course serving of pure CGI cheese. It seems that even my spoofy Ayn Rand/Hobbit mashup was more faithful to the books than these movies.

That being said, I'd watch the hell out of Peter Jackson's big-budget sequel to Hawk the Slayer, and he can add all the "Mary Sue" characters he wants!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas to All!

Here's wishing everybody a very merry Christmas. It's easy to succumb to cynicism this time of year, with the all-too-real commercialism and the all-too-fake controversies, but I genuinely, sincerely hope that everybody is having a wonderful time.

Thankfully, it seems that the most anticipated thing about Christmas is spending time with loved ones- people realize that it is more about the presence than the presents.

Merry Christmas, everybody!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Little Christmas Music

Longtime readers will know what my all-time favorite Christmas song is (for the record, my favorite traditional carol is Oh, Holy Night, but most of the versions on Youtube are sub-par). This year, I heard another great Christmas song about New York, Bells of St. Ignatius by Wormburner:

The song was written as a "response" to Fairytale of New York... while "Fairytale" tells the tale of the emotional trajectory of an immigrant couple as they fall in and out of love, with a (slim) possibility of a reconciliation, Bells of St. Ignatius comes across as a native New Yorker's slice-of-life view of the holiday. I'd wager that the "St Ignatius" referred to in the song's title is the storied St Ignatius of Loyola in the Yorkville section of the Upper East Side.

The song certainly won't knock "Fairytale" off its pedestal in my heart, but it's a fine listen, and one can't have too many good Christmas songs.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Sorry Righties, He's Yours!

Roy has a good dissection of the right-wing's attempt to pin the blame for the assassination of two NYPD officers on President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, and NYC Mayor DeBlasio. In yesterday's press conference with NYC's Chief Detective, a different narrative emerged... piecing together evidence from the shooter's social media revealed that the shooter was motivated by anti-government sentiments:

Sorry, righties, he's one of yours, just like your patron saint.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Winter of Our Contentment

Damn, it feels good to lock the gates to the property for three months. We had a lovely first night of winter- a mere dusting of snow that was limited to unpaved areas lent the evening a certain picturesque quality. We had a steady stream of visitors, with some especially comical children being among them. I asked one five year old girl what her favorite activity of the evening was, and she eventually opined that getting a chocolate-covered pretzel was the highlight... sorry, co-workers, you've been upstaged by a snack!

There's a twinge of melancholy about bidding the part-timers goodbye for three months, but that only makes the prospect of spring more happy. We year-rounders will keep things in order so they can return and shine... only to be upstaged by pretzels.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Punctuated Vacation

I'm back in New York- my department has four members, and on the weekends we have to cover three main sites, so I am back at work. Weekends are not the funnest of times for me, but I'm not complaining- having weekdays off generally means dealing with fewer crowds. Tonight, we had our second-to-last low-key December fundraiser- I will lock up the gates after tomorrow's fundraiser, and locked they shall remain until the spring. These nights are fun, I get to see co-workers who work during the day at other sites, and have met a couple of recent hires. Need I say that my co-workers are a lovely bunch of people?

It's quiet now- all of the other two-legs have left the property, and the Rodent Abatement Team is working in the small building that houses the dayshift's lounge. The site manager had seen mice in the building, so I will be letting Fred and Ginger into that area for a couple of hours every night. During our fundraiser, one of the ladies from the office was working in an area which is usually kept cat free- tonight, Ginger had a special dispensation to be present because, you got it, there are mice in the area... last week, she caught three of the critters. A good performance evaluation goes a long way toward changing typical workplace procedures. Similarly, I get quite a bit of leeway when it comes to ad hoc responses to worksite conditions.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Repulsive Road Trip, Delightful Destination

Having a few days off, I headed down to Northern Virginia to where mom hangs her hat. I drove down on Tuesday, in conditions which were, at times, harrowing- there were fog banks which reduced visibility to a single car length. In conditions like these, I keep my eyes on the reflective white dashes which separate the lanes of the highway in order to avoid going off the road. Needless to say, I leave a lot of space between my car and the one preceding it.

There was one moment of absolute horror- I was in the right lane, and I saw, in my rearview mirror, a huge tractor-trailer barreling down the left lane at prodigious speed. Another glance revealed that he was riding up the tailpipe of a subcompact car. They flew past me, but I could smell burning rubber as the truck driver must have stood on the brakes. I passed the truck, which had come to a standstill, and saw no evidence of the little car. I couldn't tell you if it had sped off or had been plowed under.

My driving motto is, "You have the rest of your life to get to your destination." I don't want my highways looking like a Hieronymous Bosch painting.

On a happy note, I am having a delightful time in VA.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Post Lecture Recap: Future of the Brain

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn for the latest Secret Science Club lecture, featuring Cognitive Scientist Dr Gary Marcus of NYU.

Dr Marcus began his lecture by displaying President George H. W. Bush's 1990 Proclamation 6158, declaring the "decade of the brain". He then noted that, sadly, little has been done to follow up on this lofty declaration. Twenty-four years after the proclamation of the "decade of the brain", we still can't reliably use brain scans to diagnose such mental illnesses as autism and schizophrenia.

Regarding the biology of the brain, there are many unknowns, the basis of short-term memory, the full role of Broca's area, the mechanisms behind the brain's ability to process sentences- all are unknown. How does the brain "decide" which part performs which functions? What changes to the brain are made in the formation of long-term memories? Is the brain "analog" or "digital"? Can we even abstract brain function?

There is no serious Theory of Brain, despite the fact that a lot of researchers are doing a lot of research on various related topics. Regarding the development of Artificial Intelligence, Dr Marcus quipped that it is always "20 years in the future", whereupon some bastard in the audience likened it to workable fusion power. The core problems of AI remain unsolved: machine reading is stuck at a 4th grade "D" level, sketch understanding is extremely limited, there is no genine language understanding, there is no "common sense" reasoning. Despite the advances that have been made, there is not a lot of real progress.

Regarding the lack of progress in the development of artificial intelligence, Dr Marcus joked that there is a misguided search for "silver bullets", but there are no "three laws to put on a T-shirt". He then catalogued some of of the various models that were put forth- Parallel Distributed Processing, Neural Networks... the model that is currently generating excitement is Deep Learning. Dr Marcus noted that it is easy to fool "deep learning" systems- if an artificial intelligence is trained to recognize one thousand items, item number one thousand and one will stymie it. Such is system is limited, it only functions within a "closed world".

Whole brain emulation, while seemingly a great idea in the long term, is unrealistic in the short term- scientists currently can't model the 302 neurons in a worm's brain, much less the 86 billion neurons in a human brain. The quest for a single "Canonical Cortical Computation" model is in its early stages- a single common principle is hoped for.

Regarding the structure of the brain, even though there are considerable differences in the various parts of the brain, scans of these areas appear to be similar. There is no satisfactory account for what a "canonical circuit" might be- Dr Marcus quoted noted scientist Bono, we "still haven't found what we're looking for". There is no reason to think the brain is simple- complexity is found at every scale.

Dr Marcus prefaced the next part of the lecture with a quote from pioneering neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal:

Unfortunately, nature seems unaware of our intellectual need for convenience and unity, and very often takes delight in complication and diversity.

He likened evolution to a tinkerer, fiddling around with spare parts- it is difficult to reconcile a canonical circuit model with developmental, molecular, or evolutionary biology... the biology of the brain is haphazard. The traditional view of the brain, proposed by the visual cortex researchers Hubel and Wiesel, is one of a hierarchy of features. In a simple visual system, cells would differentiate between light and dark, with more complexity, a simple line could be distinguished, eventually, a right angle would be perceived. In reality, single neurons can be stimulated by very specific visual input- the infamous Jennifer Aniston neuron.

The lecture then shifted to the topic of making brain maps. Dr Marcus opined that neuroscience has a sorry history of attempting to explain the brain using metaphors drawn from the latest technology. The brain is not a hydraulic system, nor is it a hologram, nor a computer- one cannot download a brain app. The brain performs as many "devices" acting at the same time.

The computation that occurs in the brain is massively parallel- the brain is not subject to the limitations of Von Neumann architecture, it is probably more like a Field Programmable Gate Array in which many blocks can be configured to do different things. Although the structure appears homogenous on a superficial level, it is customizable in order to perform many tasks. While the anatomy of the brain is fairly uniform, the brain is "tuned" by experience- "nurture" is an important factor in brain structure. There is a lot of parallel "architecture" in the brain to integrate the many "computational blocks" needed to perform the brain's myriad functions.

Gene expression differs across the cerebral cortex, but the closer two parts of the brain are to each other, the more closely they configure- there is no grand principle of the brain, there is variation across the brain. Evolution reconfigures its toolkit over time. If synthetic biology progresses to the point in which a synthetic brain can be "wired" according to code, the computational blocks could be configured in customizable ways.

Once again, the Secret Science Club delivered a fantastic lecture. In the Q&A, some bastard in the audience brought up the subject of plasticity in the brain, and Dr Marcus reiterated the importance of experience "tuning" the brain. For a taste of the Secret Science Club experience, here's a video featuring Dr Marcus:

Pour yourself a libation and drink in the SCIENCE!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Two Years, No Progress

It's been two years since the massacre of twenty little children and six educators in Newton, Connecticut. I was really hit hard by the massacre- the children who were killed were as old as the youngest children I coach on Saturdays. Yesterday, we had our annual luncheon before our two-week break, so I was surrounded by kids all day. Over the years, we've lost a couple of the kids I coached... one mischievous-but-lovable teenager succumbed overnight to a sudden outbreak of pericardial inflammation- the last time I saw him alive, I "ripped him a new one" when I caught him smoking in front of his younger cousin, who is now a stunningly gorgeous woman who is helping with the administrative duties necessary to run the program. We lost another participant to lung cancer brought on by the toxic cloud produced by the destruction of the Twin Towers- his daughter, who was a babe-in-arms when her father died, is now an adorable, earnest five year old participant. A former athletic director was unable to attend- he is fighting a terminal brain tumor. When you have history with people, you have loss. You remember the fallen fondly, and lend emotional support to the survivors.

The real tragedy is that, two years after the massacre, there have been ninety-five school shootings, and nothing has been done to institute a national gun policy involving background checks prior to gun purchases. Nothing's going to get done- the fearmongering about confiscation of guns is too effective a political issue.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Swiss Degrees of Separation

Today, a new sensei joined our ranks for our kids' judo classes. On hearing that our new colleague was from Switzerland, I asked him from which of the cantons of the Confoederatio Helvetica he hailed, he told me that he was from Zürich. I mentioned that my brother Sweetums and his family lived in the town of _____, a lovely suburb of Zürich, whereupon my new Swiss friend said that he grew up in that town, and gave Zürich as his origin in order not to confuse people... much like I tell people who from out of the area that I am from "New York", even though I live three blocks north of the Bronx border- if pressed, I can tell them I live in the Greater Woodlawn neighborhood, on the Yonkers side of the border.

Of course, finding out that he was from the town in which my brother is living, I mentioned that I had visited his home dojo so I could watch my nephews' classes. Of course, the boys' sensei is a good friend of his. When I was in Switzerland, I had a great conversation with their sensei, in which we discussed the international nature of the sport, the shared experiences and vocabulary of the community, and the importance of ethics and empathy in a sport in which we engage in potentially dangerous activity. I was elated to meet another friend from this beautiful judo club.

It's funny how you can travel far away from home and have experiences which "echo" in your home life. It just goes to show you that, no matter where you are, you have to comport yourself in a decent fashion, because you never know when you'll run into someone who knows someone you've run into.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Space Race

Once again, I find myself pressed for time, so I'm putting up a post which I've expanded from a comment I left

Earlier this month, there was a nerd-kerfuffle over the casting of an actor of African descent as a "Star Wars" Imperial Stormtrooper. I believe there's a significant amount of racism in the nontroversy, but I'd apportion most of the blame to simple nerdrage over an alteration of "canon". For the "Comic Book Guy" contingent, a simple deviation from their interpretation can inflame passions that "mundanes" can't understand:

Some Star Wars fans were upset that Boyega was apparently cast to play a Stormtrooper. These fans claimed that Stormtroopers were clones of Jango Fett, and since Fett wasn’t black, no Stormtroopers should be. There is only a black Stormtrooper because of “political correctness,” they lamented.

Despite the fact that "Star Wars" is fiction, I'll play along with the canon-trolls... In the fictional milieu of the "Star Wars" saga, the original Stormtroopers are, indeed, clones of the Jango Fett character. In the course of the movies, these clones exhibit such poor marksmanship that they are the "trope namers" for bad shots. Even the "higher quality" clone, the bounty hunter Boba Fett, was an incompetent boob who was killed by a blind man and George Lucas' vagina dentata anxiety. Given the poor performance of these clones, the Empire must have made the decision to recruit competent individuals in a bid for its very survival, so the ranks of the military would eventually be filled by individuals of all races, from all planets (except for critters like this which couldn't be equipped with helmets). Of course, these new merit-based hiring practices weren't put into place in time to save the Empire.

The people complaining that there's a black Stormtrooper (of course, this assumes that the character isn't in disguise) are the same sort of people who whine about affirmative-action subverting the meritocracy when a qualified minority candidate is hired instead of the boss' golfing-buddy's "gentleman's C" earning frathole son.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Tokyo, Memphis... I Believe You've Met

This is a busy week for me- I have to attend some classes for certification necessary for my job. This is a perfect time to fall back on the "post a video" gambit... and have I got a video for you! Back in 1992, Kiyoshiro Imawano, the father of Fuji rock, toured Japan with Booker T. and the M.G.'s, the legendary Stax Records house band:

Besides showcasing the musical virtuosity of Booker T. and the M.G.'s and the inimitable showmanship of Kiyoshiro, the video features Booker T. Jones, the master of the instrumental, singing- he has a rich voice that should have been featured on more recordings. On a sad note, Kiyoshiro and Duck Dunn of the M.G.'s are no longer with us. Booker T. Jones is still going strong. Back in 2009, Mr Jones played a memorial concert for Kiyoshiro during the Fuji Rock festival.

The video is a lot of fun- it features a flamboyant frontman backed by one of the greatest backup bands in the history of popular music. Tokyo met Memphis, and they had a ball!

Monday, December 8, 2014

Violation of the Geneva Fur Conventions!

In a shocking story from the Heartland, a chlorine gas leak disrupted the Midwest FurFest in a hotel in a suburb of Chicago. It is suspected that the chlorine gas leak was intentional:

The manner by which the substance, which was consistent with powdered chlorine, was released “suggests an intentional act,” according the statement from Rosemont police, who are investigating the incident as a criminal matter.

Chlorine gas, which was used extensively in WWI's trench warfare, is now considered a banned substance under the Geneva protocol. The use of this banned substance on the furry community, whose members often wear headgear which may dull their sense of smell or prevent them from hearing alarms, might represent a hate crime, verging on a war crime, committed by mundane extremists. The Geneva Conventions should be in effect to protect fur conventions.

The best case scenario, in this ugly incident, is an accidental chlorine gas release by a green dragon otherkin. Should this be the case, better regulation of the more dangerous "kindred" must be implemented to protect the community at large.

UPDATE: If there's anything that can make a horrible event even worse, that thing is coverage on the "Morning Joe" show.

This scene is rather unusual, in that Mika Brzezinski runs off the set after learning what "furries" are- she is a sophisticated, jaded coastal elite type, so I doubt that a mere paraphilia, no matter how outré, would phase her. I believe she is running off the set so she can jet out to Chicago to join the furries, now that she can put a label to the yearning which has always been in her heart. I imagine her "fursona" is a golden jackal. Also, please note that, at the 32-second mark, there is a green dragon present in the crowd. I believe that this individual is a dragon of interest and have alerted the authorities, namely St George and King Pellinore.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Right-Wing Hive Ass, Pooping Out Talking Points

I've long maintained that the American right doesn't have a hive-mind, it has a hive-ass from which it pulls out bullshit talking points. The current crop of crap is the assertion that Eric Garner's death can be blamed on high cigarette taxes, not a chokehold forbidden to police officers. The usual suspects, such as repulsive Rush, crackpot Rand Paul, ghoulish Ann Coulter, idiotic Jonah Goldberg and most likely your goofball right-wing uncle/cousin/in-law, are all poop-parroting.

I imagine that Jon Stewart will have quite the montage of right-wing creeps spouting this nonsense about "liberals" and the "nanny-state" cigarette taxes being responsible, never mind what the goddamn video tape shows. The crazy thing is that the mainstream media won't be calling any of them out about their patent-falsehoods.

UPDATE: Tengrain has this covered!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Low-Key Nights

For the next few weekends, we'll be having a nice, low-key fundraiser, compared to the madness that is October. My running joke about the attendance at these events is a cheery greeting: "Welcome NPR listeners!" Being an NPR listener myself, it's an affectionate jest, not a put-down at all. I have some vacation time I need to use before year's end, but I'll be working on the weekends because my department is overextended. No worries there- work sure beats dealing with holiday shopping traffic!

It'll be nice to have people onsite after a few weeks of quiet, and it'll be even nicer at the end of the month to settle in for a nice, long winter of peace and quiet. Over the years, I've come to know quite a few of our regular visitors, and they are all lovely people. It'll be nice saying "thank you, goodbye, enjoy your holidays and we'll see you in the spring" to them.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Happy Birthday, Sweetums!

It's that time of year that I wish my older brother Sweetums a happy birthday. Last year, I had the great good fortune to celebrate his birthday with him at his home in the Greater Zürich Metropolitan Area. This year, the Europe trip just wasn't in the cards. One of these days, I'll have to try to get the photos out of the memory of my old phone, which met its demise shortly after I returned from Europe- I had had the thing for almost seven years and broke the damn thing while I was contemplating the fragility of the shiny new company iPhone.

Anyway, happy birthday to Sweetums and love to the fam!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Current Earworm, Courtesy of NPR

This morning, local NPR 10AM-Noon personality Brian Lehrer hosted a show with a bunch of time-related topics. One of the songs that he used as a musical bumper has embedded itself in the auditory centers of my brain:

I don't know much about the singer- apparently she opened for Miley Cyrus on a leg of her tour... I'll forgive her that. She also seems to be a "Pitchfork" darling... I'll forgive that:

It's the producers at WNYC I won't forgive for infecting me with this earworm.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Secret Science Club North Lecture Recap: Sense of Style

Last night, I headed down to the scintillating Symphony Space for the third Secret Science Club North lecture, which featured the triumphant return of Harvard psychologist and linguist Dr Steven Pinker. Regular readers will remember that Dr Pinker presented a lecture last April at the Bell House concerning the decline of violence over the course of history. Last night's lecture touched on topics covered in Dr Pinker's new book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. In this book, Dr Pinker, the chair of the American Heritage Dictionary's usage panel, analyzes writing style manuals through the prism of cognitive science and linguistics.

The Sense of Style is a modern answer to the hoary old Strunk and White. He began the lecture by asking why writing is so hard, and why bad writing is so common, joking: "Bad writing is a choice!" He singled out "legalese" and "academese" as particularly egregious examples of bad writing. Bureaucrats use gibberish to evade responsibility, nerds use jargon as "revenge" on mundanes, and pseudo-intellectuals use gobbledegook to bamboozle their readers in order to seem smart. Being a kind man, Dr Pinker quickly followed these assertions with an acknowledgement that even good scientists and earnest people engage in bad writing.

Dr Pinker then took on the assertion that digital media are undermining the language. He had a very funny slide which addressed the limitations of Twitter's hundred-and-forty characters:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Ri

He quickly torpedoed the "Dumbest Generation Theory" by displaying various quotes concerning assertions like this dating back to 1785, following these with a relevant cartoon. He then quoted Darwin on the difference between speech and writing: “Man has an instinctive tendency to speak as we see in the babble of our young children while no child has an instinctive tendency to bake, brew or write.”  Speech is instinctive, writing is hard, and there is no feedback from the readers (readers are imaginary and can't interrupt during the writing process for clarification). Writing is both an act of pretense and an act of craftsmanship.

The talk then shifted focus to improving the craft of writing, whereupon Dr Pinker brought up Strunk and White's The Elements of Style While generally praising the book, Dr Pinker opined that language style manuals are largely collections of a particular stylist's preferences and peeves, not an understanding of how language works. He characterized some of the book's advice as "baffling" and asserted that we can produce a better approach to writing style by using science and modern scholarship. Much of the old stylistic advice was based on Latin grammar (not splitting infinitives is a perfect example of this- it can't be done with the one-word Latin infinitives). He also stressed the use of cognitive science to help determine whether a sentence is easy to read or difficult.

Dr Pinker made an argument for using "classic prose style", which involves showing an object, not describing the act of studying it- prose should be a window on reality, and should credit the reader's intelligence without apology or hedging. He also brought up the topic of the overuse of cliches, which can lead to mixed metaphors (with some particularly hilarious examples) and joked about membership of "AWFUL: Americans Who Figuratively Use Literally"

One particularly amusing example of bad stylistic advice was Strunk and White's admonishment to not use the passive voice, which uses the passive voice:

The habitual use of the active voice, however, makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative principally concerned with action, but in writing of any kind. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is, or could be heard.

Dr Pinker defended the use of passive voice in the sciences, where an emphasis must be made on replicability (anyone should be able to replicate an experiment, this is encouraged by use of passive voice). He also noted that passive voice is useful to place emphasis on particular words- the word order in English is important due to the lack of case endings such as Latin or German have.

Dr Pinker also discussed the various approaches to acting as custodians of the language. Should there be a central authority determining proper usage (this has been attempted in countries such as France) or should changes in style occur naturally in a "bottom-up" fashion.

Since Dr Pinker is currently on a book tour supporting his new authorial endeavor, he has been delivering lectures on this topic all over the U.S. Here's a recording of one of his lectures, if you want to listen to the whole thing rather than my rehash of the topic:

Dr Pinker's talk blended humor, theory, and policy prescription. His criticisms were gentle and good-natured, his proposed solutions sensible. All-in-all, it was a lovely lecture which contained good advice for writers. Myself, I like to engage in wordplay... I like ambiguity and an occasional touch of grotesquerie in my writing. In the Q&A, I asked how one should differentiate between "plain bad" and "so bad it's good" writing, and Dr Pinker noted that exaggeration or an intentional misuse of language can be employed to comic effect, but that much of this is subjective.

Once again, my friends Dorian and Margaret of The Secret Science Club curated a fine lecture. The main hall of Symphony Space was packed for the lecture, and many attendees were new to the S.S.C. There was a hint about further Secret Science Club North lectures- hopefully, now that the word is out, the events will all take place in the main performance space (Dr Pinker is a celebrity- he has appeared numerous times on Stephen Colbert's show- let's hope there will be a "coattails" effect on future lectures). Kudos all around!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Coming Out of the Closet, So to Speak

Yesterday, I published a post about my fifth-year blogiversary. Today, I want to ask everybody out there who's blogging, do you tell your family and friends that you are a blogger? A handful of co-workers, a handful of family members, and a handful of friends of mine know that I have been writing this blog... but it's not general knowledge. I've had a couple of cousins post comments here, and occasionally the subject of a post will discover it and post a comment. It's kinda weird, though, telling people that you rant on the internet, and it's especially weird telling them that you've been doing it for five years. How do you casually bring that up in conversation? Do you? It's kinda like telling people that you're a novelist without having anything published... at what point does someone become a novelist rather than someone who's just waiting tables?

So... anybody out there have any stories about coming out of the blogging closet? Any "I think you should know this about me before we get too serious" narratives? How about breaking the news to your parents that you've posted about, let's say, frog voyeurism or the dangerous allure of hoochie-coochie LaRoucheys?

To what extent do you allow "meatspace" and your online activities to intersect? Are you "outies" or "innies", people?

Monday, December 1, 2014

Five Years of Bastardy

Five years ago, I started this blog with a somewhat unauspicious post, figuring that the hardest part of blogging was starting the whole endeavor. Ultimately, the inspiration for this blog was the Sadly, No! community, both headliners and commentariat. The immediate inspiration for the blog came from Thunder, zrm, Substance McGravitas, M. Bouffant and the antipodean genii at "Riddled"- I needed a Blogger profile to post comments at their blogs, and their blogs were so entertaining that I just had to join in on the fun.

Regarding the 'nym... I've always considered it a tongue-in-cheek jab at "machismo", which I consider a "toxic cult of failed masculinity". That being said, the "Big Bad Bald Bastard" is a character that mild-mannered Mr _________ of the City of Y______ can readily slip into when it is to his advantage- I admit that I can be somewhat fierce on those rare occasions on which fierceness is called for. I chalk a lot of the "Bastard" character's traits, and my traits which I exaggerate when I have to be the Bastard, to the tutelage of this departed gentleman. Regarding the "Bad", I've always meant that in the non-pejorative slang sense... I am a generally law-abiding, responsible individual. For the record, my parents were married when my four siblings and I were born, so the "Bastard" is a self-deprecating bit of slang. Also, I'm a sucker for alliteration, being a fan of Old Norse Poetry.

Early on, most of my posts were short, pithy bits of snark, written to amuse me on the cold nights after the jobsite had closed to the public for the winter months. I had a lot of quiet solitude on the job to crank out short posts that were mainly personal observations of little consequence.

Soon after starting the blog, I put up my first short "political" piece, but I really didn't realize the potential of blogging until I put up my first (woefully skimpy- I've since taken to bringing a memo pad to lectures) recap of a Secret Science Club lecture. The lecture recaps quickly became a regular feature of my blog and the recaps actually became kinda good sometime in 2010. Besides the SSC recaps, I also had the privilege of writing up a recap of a lecture by Ned.

Speaking of Ned, I had the pleasure of meeting him in person back in ought-nine and we get together every so often, but not often enough. I have also had the honor of hanging out with Substance McGravitas, Actor212, Major Kong (who I took to my workplace on one occasion), and Thunder (who let me hang out on his famous deck).

In 2011, I finally realized that the second biggest reason for the internet is posting cat pictures, so I got smart and started regularly featuring my co-workers Fred and Ginger, who I met shortly before starting this blog. I also posted about our dear, departed Moses, but I didn't post more about him because he had a higher profile than Fred and Ginger, and I'm leery about revealing too much about the job.

Perhaps my single most unusual blogging achievement was my 24 Posts in 24 Hours stint, which took place on Sunday, June 19, 2011, when I was working a split double shift (midnight to 8AM, 4PM to midnight). This day also saw the birth of Objectivist Morrissey, who desparately needs a revival. Thunder, being a trouper, commented on each and every one of those posts. Maybe my single greatest blogging achievement was my recap of the post-Sandy Secret Science Club lecture- that lecture had scientific, political, and social pertinence. Another big achievement, in 2012, was being invited to join the snarky geniuses at Rumproast (I'm overdue for a post there). Also in 2012, I began to get some serious linky love from all-around great and good guy Tengrain, who recently put up a post similar to this one.

If I were asked about any regrets I might have had in the course of my blogging career, I'd have to say that my only big regret is not starting this blog in time to cover the entire run of Secret Science Club lectures. One minor regret is neglecting to label any of my posts, but that's a minor thing.

Over the course of my five years of blogging, my blogroll has expanded to seventy-seven blogs owned by diverse people from all over the planet. I am very proud of everyone in the "bloggerhood" and I love you all. Thanks for all of the support you've given me over my five years of bastardy. Writing this blog has always been a great pleasure, in large part because of you. I am looking forward to the next five years with you. Thank you for everything!