Friday, May 31, 2013

"Old Mother Flanaghan"

A simple fiddle tune, played on banjo (me) and guitar (Nancy Levine).  It's a little slow, but I like these tunes a little on the slow side, as opposed to rushed.


Update: Boyne tow-path and castle, County Meath, Ireland; photo by Wade Tarzia.

Monday, May 27, 2013

The tyranny of One

Author Stephen King, in his book On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft (Scribner 2010), calls for, among other things, the reduced use of adverbs. But that's not what I want to focus on. I want to call your attention to this sentence from the book:
(1)  With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.
This is almost painfully clumsy to read. Of course, it is a reaction to the years of prescriptive "grammarians" telling us, untruthfully, that he is a generic pronoun referring to anybody, which in those bad old days would have made King's sentence look like this:
(2)  With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he is afraid he isn’t expressing himself clearly, that he is not getting the point or the picture across.
The problem with this last sentence is that while the Noun Phrase the writer carries no gender, he does: it's masculine.  We know that he has never been a true generic, and we also know that the idea that it should be used as generic originated in England as Rule 21 in John Kirkby's 1746 treatise Eighty-eight Grammatical Rules.  Rule 21 states that male is "more comprehensive" than female and therefore he should be taken to include both feminine and masculine gender.

It was reaction to this rule that got us he/she-ing and himself/herself-ing all over the place.  The result is clumsy language; if you don't believe me read sentence (1) again.  Fortunately, there is a more elegant way: Make the sentence plural.  In English, the third-plural pronouns carry no gender at all, and King's unhappy screed against adverbs would look like (3):
(3)  With adverbs, writers usually tell us they are afraid they aren’t expressing themselves clearly, that they are not getting the point or the picture across.
Why don't we just do this all the time?  I think there's another aspect of our culture at work against us, and that is the tyrrany of the number one, or singularity.  One is one of our magical numbers: we like one Right Answer, one Most Valuable Player, one Winner, and so on.  We prefer singular when we can get it, and our default form for talking about generic entities is singular (the writer, the whatever).  

By the way, King also recommends that writers have at hand a copy of Strunk and White's Elements of Style.  This is bad advice, unless accompanied by the caution not to take anything they say about grammar too seriously. But do start putting sentences in plural form, to avoid both Kirkby's wrongheaded gender prescriptivism as well as the awkwardness of those double pronouns.

Memorial Day, again...

OK, once again it's Memorial Day, the day when we "honor" and "thank" those who have lost their lives in our many military adventures over the years.  And, as usual, I post a photo of my Mom and Dad, getting married during World War II.

WWII may or may not have been a war that we entered for good reasons.  After all, the event that put us in the game, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, was an attack on an American colonial outpost in the Pacific, not on America itself.  But I'll leave that discussion, if I may, for another time.

If we grant ourselves WWII, that still leaves numerous activities that are far more easily labeled "wars of choice": Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, the first Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq...  In every case, many many lives and much resources could have been saved if our involvements in these places had been carried out differently. In some cases, if not all or at least most, we are looking at war crimes and crimes against humanity.  Do we really want to keep sending people to be maimed or die while committing such crimes, crimes ordered by people who who are taking no risk themselves since they don't recognize the jurisdiction of the relevant international judicial bodies?

It just seems to me that rather than "honoring" and "thanking" our fallen, we should be apologizing to them and their families and friends, telling them we are sorry that we have done this to them.  And then we should stop doing it.

Friday, May 17, 2013

A simple (?) question

I just gave the students in my summer Introduction to Anthropology class a "practice test" to make sure they are familiar with Blackboard, which I use for online testing, communicating, and discussing things with students between our class sessions.  One of the questions was:
Which is the most valid statement regarding human evolution?
  1. Humans evolved from chimpanzees.
  2.  Humans evolved from theropod dinosaurs.
  3. Humans evolved from lobe-finned fishes.
  4. Humans evolved from bats.
Interestingly, 100% of the students answered (1), chimpanzees.  The correct answer is (3), lobe-finned fishes.  Humans did not evolve from chimpanzees, humans and chimpanzees both evolved from a common ancestor that was neither a human nor a chimpanzee.  And this common ancestor, like all tetrapods, evolved from lobe-finned fishes.

Students didn't lose any points over this, but it is instructive. This is a sort of snapshot of the level of general awareness and understanding of evolution that people have, if they are forced to think about it.  I wonder what would have been the result if I had included a choice like "Humans evolved from Adam and Eve, who were created in the Garden of Eden some 6,000 years ago."

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Happy Mother's Day!

I found this photo of my Mom and me, taken in August 1950.  We were living in a little cottage in the pass over South Mountain, Washington County, Maryland, just off US 40.  Now, Interstate 70 also goes over the same pass. The house was less than half a mile from the Appalachian Trail.