UK paperback

Geek

It’s all nerd to me

I scored nine ten ((I had somehow forgotten that I do actually own a sword.)) on the Geek Social Aptitude Test (via Brainiac), which is somehow both a relief and a disappointment. I didn’t know until I just looked it up, by the way, that “geek” was originally American circus slang for “sideshow freak”.

Meanwhile, is there any distinction left these days between “geek” and “nerd”? I had the impression that “nerd” used to be pejorative but was then reclaimed, as are so many negative terms for groups, by the very people at whom it was directed.

What’s your GSAT score, readers?

27


Blogrolling

Amnesty internet-ional

Shamefacedly, I realise that I missed the deadline to celebrate Blogrolling Amnesty Day. But hey, unspeak.net has never been devoted to zero-day critical news, so let’s do it now anyway. One way I could celebrate is by linking to some “smaller blogs” than mine, but I’m not sure I know of any; and what’s more, apparently I’m not even allowed to say that unless I have blogged every single day for a year, which is something I might try once one of my books becomes a New York Times bestseller. Luckily, there is a more generous concept of celebrating Blogrolling Amnesty Day, viz. to “celebrate the idea of linking or blogrolling in any way you see fit”.

So let me celebrate it, first, by laughing at Cass Sunstein’s poignant plea, in his book Republic 2.0, that people on the “left” should link more often to people on the “right”, for purposes other than critique (eg in their blogrolls), and vice versa, so as to help democracy. In other words, bloggers should proactively link to bloggers with whose writings they don’t agree at all. Well, the virtue of doing this somehow randomly, as a form of nonideological statistical “balance”, is mysterious to me, unless Sunstein cares to pop up and explain in comments exactly why, for example, I should arbitrarily link to people I consider idiots at best and, if proven not idiots, then liars. To take one example, Unspeak.net readers who have taken a close interest in the evolution of my blogroll (ie, I sincerely hope, none of you) will have noticed that I used to link therein to a quite well-known British group blog of pretend leftists who just so happen to spend all their time making excuses for acts of large-scale violence committed by their preferred states, joining in witchhunts started by fellow pretend leftists against people who write or say things they don’t like, and generally stirring up paranoiac fear about the Muslim horde of killers in our midst. I take it that those of my readers who aren’t already aware of that site are done a service by my omitting to provide a link that sends them there. Of course, the assumption that those who remain in my blogroll after I refuse to link to such maniacs must be people with whom I always agree is as dumb as a wet sock.

Secondly, I will celebrate Blogroll Amnesty Day by recommending to you some blogs from my current Google Reader list that I didn’t previously recommend here, and none of which, by the way, falls into Sunstein’s dully manichean taxonomy of the blogo-icosahedron: Brainiac, Paper Cuts, Stanley Fish, Ben’s Blogbox, An and für sich, and The Triforce. I won’t spoil your inevitable delight by describing them: just click on the links and see.

What are your favourite blogs, readers? (And yes, since it’s still Blogroll Amnesty Day hereabouts, you’re allowed to nominate your own.)

14


Punk

I wanna be anarchy

Via dsquared, I see that Conservative MP and Times columnist Michael Gove, author of one of the worst books I’ve read in recent years, is insisting that he is a “punk”. I take it that he means he has no skill on his chosen instrument (in this case, English prose), and that he tends to make everyone around him yawn at his tedious provocations?

26


Obviously

It doesn’t go without saying

Adam Kotsko’s investigation of the concept of the obvious reminds me of a story. One fine morning at a newspaper I used to work for, a global style edict came down from the editor. It sought to ban any use of the word “obviously” in the paper. “If it’s obvious,” the email complained, “we shouldn’t be saying it.”

I thought that was silly then, and still do. Very often, in order to lead the reader through some line of thought to some (as we hope) subtle conclusion, it is first necessary to state the obvious, so that we can all agree on our starting point. Surely it can’t hurt to signal this rhetorically by starting with “Obviously…”. ((We ought to distinguish starting with the word “obviously”, as in “Obviously, bees can fly”, with shunting “obviously” into the middle of a sentence, where it is more often exploited as mere phatic emphasis, and indeed will often be read as protesting too much – as, for example, if I were to say: “Oliver Kamm is obviously an obituarist and music critic of rare talent.” You might even be alerted to a particular weakness in that very statement, compared to others I make around it, by my own decision to buttress it with a pleading “obviously”.)) I think that to do so is actually a courtesy to the reader. The message of “obviously” is: “I know this is self-evidently true, but please be patient, I do not mean to insult your intelligence: I state this because I am going to do something with it in a minute that you might find more interesting.” ((I distinguish this use of “Obviously” from the more radical rhetorical apology for obviousness, “It goes without saying”. If it really does go without saying, then there is no need for you to say it.))

Similarly, it isn’t a redundancy to say of some claim, “That is obviously false”, compared with saying “That is false”. By adding “obviously”, you mean that it is not false in any subtle or sophisticated way, just plain wrong. At the same time, you also imply a criticism of the person making the claim (who should have seen that it was obviously false).

It is also quite common for the negative connotation of “obvious” to be used for suspense. If you are working rhetorically through some problem, you might well say at an early point, “The obvious answer is p“, deliberately invoking the idea that what is obvious is not necessarily the case (because, indeed, you plan later to refute it).

We know, after all, to be suspicious of what is obvious. Often, too, “obvious” is a term of disapprobation in artistic criticism: you can lament that the painter or screenwriter, as it may be, did the obvious thing, not some other thing that might have been more unusual and piquant. Meanwhile, to conclude of some claim, “That is obviously true”, is very often to take a position of superiority, to affect the pose of having no time to waste on simple facts that are evident to all.

Perhaps the difference between the courteous and the critical uses of “obvious” or “obviously” is simply this: it depends on who is making the claim you are describing as obvious. If you’re making it yourself, then to call it “obvious” is an apology for starting from basics (as well as, perhaps, a tiny boast that what follows is going to be less than obvious, in some satisfying way). ((A more comically boastful use of “obvious” is available, too, as when a mathematician or chessplayer calmly announces that the solution to some tortuously anfractuous puzzle is “obvious”. Sure, it’s obvious to you, because you’re a genius!)) But if someone else has made the claim, then to call it “obvious” seems nearly always to be an attack on that person. It’s not clear to me why this asymmetry should exist.

What are your favourite uses of “obviously”, readers?

12


Preserve some flexibility

Why Obama shouldn’t follow Cheney’s fitness routine

In a gibberingly egregious article speculating about how the new President will handle the TWAT, Newsweek says that the Cheney-Bush regime was unfairly criticized for its approach:

The flaw of the Bush-Cheney administration may have been less in what it did than in the way it did it — flaunting executive power, ignoring Congress, showing scorn for anyone who waved the banner of civil liberties.

Right… So, for instance, torturing people was fine, they just shouldn’t have been so obstreperous about it? Well, y’know…

The issue of torture is more complicated than it seems.

Really? Is it?

Waterboarding — simulating drowning by pouring water over the suspect’s mouth and nostrils — is a brutal interrogation method.

It’s not “simulating drowning”, it is drowning, just stopping before the victim’s death.

But by some (disputed) accounts, it was CIA waterboarding that got Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to talk.

It was CIA forced partial drowning that “got” KSM to “confess” to plotting to bomb a bank that didn’t exist until three years after he was arrested.

It is a liberal shibboleth that torture doesn’t work — that suspects will say anything, including lies, to stop the pain. But the reality is perhaps less clear.

Perhaps less clear. And our evidence is… er… say, are you following the new season of 24? (By the way, try saying “liberal shibboleth” very quickly, ten times in a row. Fun, huh?)

As president, Obama may want to preserve some flexibility. (Suppose, for instance, that after a big attack the CIA captured the leader who planned it; there would be enormous pressure to make the terrorist divulge what attack is coming next.)

Sure, Obama might want to preserve some flexibility by torturing the “leader” who “planned” a “big attack”. On the other hand, he might want to preserve some flexibility by doing yoga, or perhaps studying the Feldenkrais method. After all, Cheney’s chosen exercise regime of torturing all and sundry doesn’t seem to have panned out too well.

What are your favourite methods for preserving some flexibility, readers?

29


Proactive

Is our readers learning?

Do you feel proactive when you consult a reference work? Jorge Cauz, president of Encyclopaedia Britannica,thinks you should:

What we are trying to do is shifting … to a much more proactive role for the user and reader where the reader is not only going to learn from reading the article but by modifying the article and – importantly – by maybe creating his own content or her own content

The reader is going to “learn… by modifying”? So the people modifying the articles don’t actually need to know anything about the subject before they start modifying? The modifying itself is supposed to be the way they learn? That’s “proactive”! ((But what, dear readers, does the horrible term “proactive” actually add to the sense of, um, “active”?)) Oh, but luckily, edits won’t go live until approved by “one of the company’s staff or freelance editors”. I suppose they can always check whether the new material looks correct by, er, going to Wikipedia. ((I confess that I have never edited my own Wikipedia article so as to make myself look more important and central to the critical intellectual debates of our time, etc. Do you think I should?))

But it ill behoves me to carp at this exciting news. We can at least be very confident that, in time, Britannica will become a much more reliable source of information than it has hitherto been about old videogames and science-fiction TV series. Everybody wins!

29


Rancid water

You can’t make a vase-omelette without breaking vases

An awe-inspiring takedown of Thomas Friedman by Matt Taibbi of the New York Press:

And who cares if it doesn’t quite make sense when Friedman says that Iraq is like a “vase we broke in order to get rid of the rancid water inside?” Who cares that you can just pour water out of a vase, that only a fucking lunatic breaks a perfectly good vase just to empty it of water?

(Via Daring Fireball.)

10


Preconceptionally

Immaculate conceivings

University College London announces:

The first baby tested preconceptionally for a genetic form of breast cancer (BRCA1) has been born.

William Saletan at Slate:

[L]et’s take a closer look at the announcement, starting with the test “before conception.” This baby was tested as an embryo in a dish. She was one of 11 such embryos made by injecting drugs in the mother to stimulate production of excess eggs, which were then fertilized with the father’s sperm. Six of the embryos had the gene for breast cancer. Three more had “other abnormalities.” All nine were “discarded.” The other two were implanted, and one became this baby.

In sum, at least six human embryos were made and then thrown away because they failed a test. We now call such tests “preconception.” This is the next step in our gradual devaluation of embryos. First, we said IVF embryos weren’t pregnancies. That’s technically correct: Pregnancy begins when the embryo implants in the womb. Then we called early embryos “pre-embryos” so we could dismantle them to get stem cells. That was technically incorrect, but we did it because it made us feel better. Now we’re adjusting the word conception. Henceforth, testing of IVF embryos to decide which will live or die is preconception. Don’t fret about the six eggs we fertilized, rejected, and flushed in selecting this baby. They were never really conceived. In fact, they weren’t embryos. According to Serhal, each was just “an affected cluster of cells.”

Saletan’s outrage at the apparent “adjusting of the word conception” here seems to depend on the assumption (natural enough) that “conception” occurs at fertilization. However (I Am Not a Fertility Scientist), it seems as though he is somewhat late to the party in complaining about the “adjusting” of the word, since the medical meaning of “conception” changed from what he and I find intuitive more than 40 years ago. Since the mid-1960s, “conception” has been defined as the implantation of the blastocyst rather than its initial formation. Obviously the UCL team is using “conception” in that sense, so there is no absurdity in their story of preconception embryo testing.

Was the change in the meaning of “conception” that occurred in the 1960s itself argumentative, politically as well as scientifically motivated? It looks that way. ((Wikipedia has a Dr Bent Boving saying in 1959: “the social advantage of being considered to prevent conception rather than to destroy an established pregnancy could depend on something so simple as a prudent habit of speech” — which makes my Unspeak antennae vibrate; but I’d like to know more.)) Is it important to keep tabs on such linguistic changes? Definitely. (I like what Saletan subsequently does with the word “inflicting”.) On the other hand, Saletan is going a bit far to claim that anyone is trying to Unspeak the very existence of embryos, which he does by the sleight of hand of linking to a Daily Mail story: the original UCL press release clearly says “embryos”.

And is he perhaps a little too quick to turn this into a scare story about those crazy eugenicist scientists riding roughshod over “conscience” and “the truth”?

22



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