Or, In Defense of a Much-Loathed Linguistic Trend
So I was talking to my boss the other day and I was like, “Does anyone know what they’re doing on this project?” And he was like, “I wish.”
Now, what did I just say there?
People have been lamenting the decline of the verb to say for a surprisingly long time — at least as long as I’ve been around, which is enough. When I was growing up, the culprit was goes:
“So he goes, ‘What are you doing this weekend,’ and I go, ‘Going to a stupid family reunion’.”
I never liked goes very much. As a writerly type, I always felt an obligation to speak properly, whatever that meant, and to not give in to imprecision, trends, laziness or other bad linguistic habits. (That doesn’t mean I correct other people when they do it, but that’s for another post.) In college I took some linguistics courses — well, all of two, but it didn’t take much to change the way I think about language. The thing that struck me most was the distinction linguists make between being descriptive and prescriptive. As far as I had always known, as far as I had ever been taught, the only relevant issues concerning writing, speaking and language related to what you should do. Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. (Actually, it’s OK to do that.) Avoid double negatives. Make positive statements rather than negative ones (“I forgot” versus “I didn’t remember”). It hadn’t really occurred to me that it was possible to take a different stance: that of the impartial observer, dissecting the ways in which people bend and shape the language to suit their needs, just as they’ve been doing ever since they started talking.
Reading blurrpy.com earlier this week, I came upon a link to a most wondrous thing. Some design firm called O*GE Creative (the asterisk adds a lovely note of pretension, don’t you find?) created a giant, human-habitable bird nest:
The giant birds’ nest was created “as a prototype for new and inspiring socializing space, which can be seen as a morph of furniture and playground … Ready to to be used, to be played in, and be worked in.” I think it’s a marvelous idea, and one I am certain to have in my house, once I win the lottery and begin establishing my network of seasonal homes across the globe. But a work space? The thought of clambering into this thing with my colleagues to discuss our latest projects gives me the heebies. It would feel way too much like climbing into bed and I really want to stop thinking about it. Besides, I sometimes have a terrible time staying awake in meetings, and nestling into this, well, nest would be like mainlining an Ambien drip straight into my cerebellum, or whatever part of the brain gives me that happy tired feeling at the end of the day.
So I won’t be pushing to have the giant birds’ nest installed in our office anytime soon. But it did remind me of an idea I had a long time ago that I can’t seem to let go of. It concerns hamsters.
Or, How to Convert an Atheist in Seven Extremely Difficult Steps
Faith, defined a little too simply, is a belief one holds without evidence. Perhaps that definition sounds somewhat derogatory or appears to contain an implied rebuke. But people of all stripes have beliefs they cling to for no intellectually defensible reason, whether they be common superstitions (“Crime is more prevalent during the full moon” — it isn’t), personal idiosyncrasies (“Something good always happens to me when I wear my lucky sweater”) and even moral or philosophical precepts (“If I make a point of being trusting and kind, others will be encouraged to follow my example”). Most beliefs of this sort are quite harmless, a few are beneficial and the rest are a small price to pay for the freedom to be occasionally irrational. I think it would be a terribly dull world if everyone had a solid empirical basis for everything they did. Besides, I’d probably have to stop buying lottery tickets, and I like having something to fuel my daydreams.
The snag is that a belief held without evidence is also extremely resistant to change. Christopher Hitchens once said that anything that is claimed without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. That’s an intellectually justifiable position, but not a very satisfying one, at least not if you find yourself wrangling with someone whose judgement you otherwise respect about an issue you can’t agree on. Faith beliefs are felt in the gut; they accord with our sense of how the world operates and are the result of influences we are mostly unaware of, from our parents and families to the media messages we’re exposed to every day. Though I defend recreational irrationality, I don’t hold it as justification for never changing your mind. Resistance to evidence is usually rooted in fear: fear of admitting you may be wrong and feeling stupid, fear of having your worldview attacked, fear of having to start at square one in determining just what it is you believe. This kind of fear is unhealthy and ought to be stood up to, at least once in a while. So occasionally I undertake the mental exercise of determining what it would take to change my mind on an issue I care deeply about. Today’s issue: religion.
I am an atheist, and I am an atheist of a particular stripe: I do not believe in a god or gods. That is not the same as saying “there is no god.” The latter is a statement about the nature of reality, the former about one’s own knowledge and the limits thereof; another way of saying it might be “I have seen no evidence of a god.” This distinction is sometimes called “soft atheism” versus “hard atheism” (neither of which are to be confused with agnosticism, an oft-misused word that describes the belief that true knowledge of god’s existence or non-existence is unknowable by human standards). In practical terms, there is not much daylight between the two positions, and holders of either belief/nonbelief would be indistinguishable in how they lived their lives. The only difference is that one has come to a conclusion and the other hasn’t. In the spirit of jiggling a knife into that small chink in the armor of certainty, and in keeping with Carl Sagan’s dictum that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” here are the conditions I would require to renounce my atheism and adopt a belief in god.
Dear Valued Customer,
As the chairman and CEO of BuyAbsolutelyAnything.com, I wanted to take a moment to personally apologize to you for the extreme inconvenience that resulted from a mistake in fulfilling your recent order.
I have conducted an extensive internal investigation into this matter, and could find no satisfactory reason why our fulfillment system substituted your original order of a case of Nev-R-Die D-Cell Flashlight Batteries 12-Count (KI139809) with a Live African Bull Elephant (WL897189). I further understand that the animal arrived dead in its shipping crate, and that it had actually been dead for some time, evidently long before it was dispatched from our warehouse. This was traced to fraudulence on behalf of our supplier and you may rest assured that our relationship with this supplier has been terminated and a strongly worded letter of opprobrium sent.
Of course, we realize it takes more than a strong letter to correct a situation of this magnitude. It is one thing to say that a dead elephant was delivered to one’s doorstep; it is quite another to have to deal with the consequences. I can only imagine the horror — I believe no other word will suffice — on opening the crate and being confronted with the carcass, a once-majestic beast surrounded in a blinding cloud of flies, its skin rippling with the movements of dozens of rats that had occupied the husk as though it were some ghastly putrefying mansion. I do not doubt that your children continue to have nightmares about it, nor that it raised a host of questions about life, death and the laws of nature that you had had no expectation of addressing for at least several more years. Furthermore, our customer service team “dropped the ball” in processing your return, and while the laws for transporting animal remains are admittedly obscure, that is no justification for our failing to retrieve the crate for eight days. I understand your homeowner’s association levied numerous fines against you and our legal department is currently reviewing your claims in this manner.
I further want to assure you that the anti-Semitic graffiti on the interior of the crate was in no way the doing of BuyAbsolutelyAnything.com and that we addressed this with the aforementioned supplier. Finally, please accept my apologies regarding the behavior of the delivery driver. We use this courier service on millions of deliveries a year and they are normally the picture of reliability. That your driver was intoxicated and repeatedly challenged your family to “step up and see if you can take” him is so far beyond the realm of what we typically experience from this firm that I am at a loss to explain it. Sometimes misfortunes come together in a “perfect storm” and that seems to be what happened in your case.
With that said, what is BuyAbsolutelyAnything.com going to do to rectify this situation? Here are the remedies I have personally instructed our Customer Service team to provide:
Apple announced today a new service or product or category or something called Mastered for iTunes. You can see the thing for yourself in iTunes at this link courtesy of The Mac Observer; here is the description from Apple if you don’t want to bother reading it there:
Mastered for iTunes means these albums have been specially tuned for higher fidelity sound on your computer, stereo, and all Apple devices. Browse a range of music across all genres below, and keep checking back as we add more music that is mastered specifically for iTunes.
What this means is anyone’s guess, at least until people prod Apple for details and if Apple deigns to respond. Most likely they’re just compressing the tracks to make them sound louder and punchier. This would make them sound worse rather than better, especially on an iMac or a pair of pack-in iPod earbuds, but that does seem to be where modern tastes have landed us. I don’t suppose I will ever know, as I’m not going to re-buy any of my (relative few) iTunes purchases to compare old and new versions.
What caught my eye was the categories of music available in this new format. You have your Jazz, your Classical and whatnot. And then you have this:
Tastes come and go, but any format meant to appeal to serious audiophiles has to have the Floyd catalog. One day, music players may be able to stream music directly into our brains, leveraging the mind’s extraordinary sensory powers to make you feel as though you are within and surrounded by the music, inhabiting it in every fiber of your being, every nerve ending ablaze with it. And no one will buy it until you can play Dark Side of the Moon in it.
Edited the title to improve the Floyd reference. I can’t believe I got that wrong.