Friday, December 26, 2003

Where does love come from? And where does it go?

On one level, this little art site, called "the lost love project," provides an anonymous way for site visitors to reminisce, confess, expound, etc, about old relationships and people lost in the past. On one level, a nice idea.

Viewed another way (a g.s. way?) it provides a rich set of examples of how some people fall in love, not with other people, but with their IDEA of other people. By that I mean, many of these stories clearly describe the process of falling in love with an imaginary person while never learning much about the real person. Not surprisingly, these relationships generally end with pain and separation, whence the site name, "lost love."

How does one avoid such relationships, such pain? I suggest that first and foremost, it takes a continual effort to see through the fog of romance. When you find yourself describing a person as "the only person who ever..." or thinking "I will never stop loving this person even though he left and never came back", stop and ask yourself a few questions, like:

  • Did he really say those wonderful things that made me love him, or did I just assume that that's what he meant?

  • How much of the "time we spent loving each other" really happened, and how much actually just took place in my head, in between real visits?

  • When she said something I found repulsive or hurtful, did I ignore it, chalk it up to a misunderstanding, or did I recognize it as a possible source of discord between us?

I contend that "real" love, the kind that will result in a long-lasting and life-confirming relationship, requires a balance and rationality that some might find cold or unromantic. I suggest that successfully loving another person depends on knowing (and loving) all their bad qualities as well as their good. You need to understand that the way you feel about someone comes from your head, not your heart, and that you create that feeling by what you say to yourself about that person.

If you repeatedly tell yourself (and others) that this person "is perfect" for you, or "completely understands" you, or "would never say anything to hurt me" etc etc, you create an image in your head that the living, imperfect human can never match. Later, when you become unable to ignore or overlook the imperfections, you may feel compelled to say "you've changed!" when in fact, you have simply detected a difference between your mental construction and the real world person. Millions of marriages have disintegrated in a cloud of such accusations--"you're not the man/woman I married!"

In Zen-like terms, you must learn to embrace the imperfect to find the perfect. Opening your eyes to the flaws in your beloved, so you can accommodate and accept them, will ultimately bring you to a "perfect" relationship, one that lasts and gives you comfort and satisfaction without illusion.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

A Clash of Abstractions

A teacher in Florida led her first-grade class in an exercise in critical thinking and caused a ruckus that led to a reprimand.

While reading a story about the tooth fairy, her class started to consider "what was real and what was not". When the subject of Santa came, she asked her students to evaluate the plausibility of his story--flying reindeer, coming down chimneys, etc.--and suggested that such things might be impossible.

Parents of some of the children lodged strenuous complaints, saying her actions have spoiled Christmas. One used the term "destroy" in referring to the effect on the kids.

What does this kind of reaction teach a child? Who set up the circumstances for this "destruction"? You no doubt know my opinion here.....

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Update on "To-Me" Factor

I find I do not stand alone as a woman who objects to the "blue for boys, pink for girls" movie review of "The Lord of the Rings" by Caryn James (see blog item below, December 20, 2003). In an editorial for (available only by subscription,) Stephanie Zacharek characterizes James' review as "the tired old Hollywood-marketing game" of gender-typing movies to influence who goes to see them. She also zeroes in the problem with such a review, namely the lack of thoughtful analysis:

"Why think critically, when you can just consult the imaginary focus group in your mind? "

Further into the editorial, Zacharek challenges the idea that a whole group united simply by their gender must necessarily respond to something all the same way. She asks the simple question: "Do you need to be a man to respond to "typically masculine" notions of nobility and heroism?" She notes that anyone "male or female, has the right" to like or dislike any given movie.

This editorial exhibits much more of the kind of awareness of abstracting that general semantics promotes. Zacharek states pretty unequivocally that each person has a personal response to a movie, dictated in large part by personal experience. She also points out that gender only plays a part in personal experience and doesn't determine it completely.

This falls into the g.s. category of "to-me-ness" that I found so lacking in the James review. Thanks to Stephanie for using her access to the wider Internet audience to call James on her lopsided and unnecessarily inflammatory review!

Monday, December 22, 2003

Media Abstractions

Recently the British Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health published results of a study that compared male and female mental health condition in light of marital status. In this age of almost-faster-than-light communication, the story appeared almost instantly in several media outlets around the world. However, if you only read the headlines, you might have had a hard time determining the "real" results of the study.

Many had a headline similar to these:

"Women, stay single to stay sane" --The Age, Australia
"Women 'should stay single to stay sane'"--Ananova, UK
"Single women stay sane"--The Australian, Australia

Others looked more like these:

"Men's mental health better if they stop short of marriage"--The Scotsman, UK
"Cohabiting Better For Men's Mental Health; Marriage Better For Women"--Newswise
"Getting Married May be Bad for Men's Health"
"Serial relationships bad for women's mental health"--ABC Online, Australia

Only one headline that I found, on the website headed by a former Surgeon General of the US, offered an appropriate equivocal evaluation of the study results:

"Love and Marriage: An Emotional Mixed Bag"

Someone reading just these headlines might want to ask "so which is it? good or bad to be married or single?" The actual results, as one so often finds with scientific analysis, sound much more equivocal than either of the first two sets of headlines above.

Indeed, I find that the following abstract, from the Journal's website, somewhat contradictory itself, which suggests to me that the researchers did not find clear or dramatic differences or similarities.

"Enduring first partnerships were associated with good mental health. Partnership splits were associated with poorer mental health, although the reformation of partnerships partially reversed this. Cohabiting was more beneficial to men's mental health, whereas marriage was more beneficial to women's mental health. The more recently a partnership split had occurred the greater the negative outcome for mental health. Women seemed more adversely affected by multiple partnership transitions and to take longer to recover from partnership splits than men. Single women had good mental health relative to other women but the same was not true for single men relative to other male partnership groups. "

I bring this to your attention not to criticize the headline-making skills of these media outlets but rather to illustrate the pitfalls inherent in the abstracting process. Just as these writers had to boil down a large study into a single phrase, we regularly zero in a single detail of an event to the exclusion of many other aspects, and then categorize the event based on that one detail. We often end up with just as little meaningful information as readers did from these headlines.

We cannot avoid abstraction. We could not function without it. But a healthy and habitual recognition of the bias that the abstracting process necessarily introduces can help us to avoid the repercussions of acting without thinking.

Saturday, December 20, 2003

Missing the "To-Me" Factor

Caryn James of the New York Times could benefit from some study of general semantics formulations. Or perhaps I should say her readers would benefit. In her heavily editorialized movie review of the recent "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, titled "Are Women Just Bored of the 'Rings'?" (no longer available online), James makes a series of assumptions, generalizations and personal evaluations with barely a hint that she might have projected her opinions onto the larger audience.

For example, several times she calls the movie "soulless" and contends that the only appeal of the movie comes from the special effects. As a woman who found the series deeply moving and personally signficant, and with a male life partner who has absolutely no interest in such movies, I have trouble with her bald and unsupported generalizations. (Update: guess I'm not the only one...)

The very fact that she and I, as two women, have completely opposite reactions to this movie demonstrates several principles James could learn from general semantics. To whit:

1. "To-me-ness"--the idea that when forming or stating an opinion, one should acknowledge the relativity of one's own perspective by adding a modifying phrase like "to me" or "from my point of view", mentally or verbally. This also relieves the reader or listener from having to object to an incorrect generalization that doesn't reflect their own "to-them" views.

2. "Non-allness"--the idea that you cannot know or say "all " about anything. James' scant references to statistics in support of her contention leave a lot unsaid and unreferenced. Again, the very fact of my personal evaluation of the movies as meaningful and soulful stands as a contradiction of her generalization. If one woman evaluates the movie differently, how many others might as well?

3. "Non-elementalism"--the idea that, despite having language that separates a class of things into two sides, the real things themselves fall over a wide range of attributes and don't necessarily qualify as one or the other of the two verbal sides. In this case, I submit that there exist many more personality types than "male" and "female" when it comes to evaluating movies. And that statements forcing real people into two verbal camps contributes nothing to a thoughtful discussion.

4. "Non-Identification"--the idea that no two things, however similar, qualify as "identical". James has equated one woman (herself) with the class of all women, disregarding the multitude of differences that distinguish each of us from everyone else, male or female. I object to someone trying to force me into a definition just because of a few outward gender characteristics.

All this could have come across quite differently if James had simply employed a few of the formulations of general semantics. If she had said, "I'm bored of the Rings", or "I found no soul in these movies," I could not argue with her assertion, and I also would not feel the need to argue with it, since she had not made an attempt to include me in her assertion.

Fortunately, I know that I enjoyed the movie even though my driver's license has an "F" in the gender field. "To me", that's all that matters.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003


Upon the cunning loom of thought We weave our fancies, so and so.
--Thomas Bailey Aldrich 1836-1907, American novelist

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.... Original thoughts can be understood only in virtue of the unoriginal elements which they contain.
--Vittorio Alfieri 1749-1803, Italian poet

We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.
--Buddha ~563-483 BCE, Indian mystic and spiritual leader

All thought is a feat of association; having whats in front of you bring up something in your mind that you almost didnt know you knew.
--Robert Frost 1874-1963, American Poet Laureate

Words are tools which automatically carve concepts out of experience.
--Julian Huxley 1887-1975, British biologist and author

The safest words are always those which bring us most directly to facts.
--Charles Henry Parkhurst 1842-1933, American clergyman and reformer

A Word by Any Other Name

No doubt only days or weeks after people first started speaking organized languages, some purists began to complain about the degradation of the new grammar and vocabularies. Linguists know that languages only grow through change, but general semanticists consider change a multi-ordinal term, one with many forms and levels of meaning.

The Japanese language uses a special alphabet, called katakana, to write out non-Japanese words, similar to how we sometimes use italics in English to denote a foreign word. In English, however, we tend to eventually assimilate such words and they become indistinguishable from "real" English words (i.e. words derived from Old English rather than Latin, Spanish or some other non-English language.) In Japanese, the foreign word remains distinct forever due to the use of katakana.

Japanese linguists worry about the degradation of Japanese by these foreign bodies, but even more so, older Japanese citizens find it difficult to read the papers or understand to their grandchildren. In a move reminiscent of the French Academie, Japan has established a "Foreign Words Committee" to identify and promote Japanese native alternatives to the growing list of popular foreign terms, most of which come from English. They face a stiff challenge from younger citizens who detect a distinct difference between the foreign and native terms. Foreign terms tend to imply luxury, excitement and modernity apparently. Hard to compete with that.

Saturday, December 13, 2003

What's in a Name?

Within this humorous article on business names by Dave Barry, I found some interesting thoughts about today's culture. I especially like his theories on the logic of business advertising ("Never reveal what you are advertising" for example.) Despite the basic joke of the article, Barry offers some real insights into How Things Work, I think.

For many years now, I have used the mute button on my TV remote control to avoid the blaring sound of TV commercials. I do this partly because I object to the sudden change in volume and pacing that usually accompanies the ad. It also saves me from getting some obnoxious jingle stuck in my head. I have the impression that many others of you do the same thing.

But somebody in the advertising world must have noticed this, because in the past few years, I found that if I watched the ads without sound, I often could not determine the product or the company presumably featured in the ad. In some case, they don't even display the company logo at all during the entire ad. Instead, all of the content of the ad comes from the voice-over, while the visual component appears to tell a short and often mysterious story. They call these "zapless" ads, in the sense that people like me become so curious about the meaning of the ad that we feel compelled to leave the sound on just to solve the mystery.

Of course, most ads also make a concerted effort at metonymy, pairing their product with some greatly desired state like wealth or beauty.

Monday, December 01, 2003

The Weight of Word Choice

I clicked on the link to the article above on the basis of the title: "The Israeli Thought Police". Perhaps my own prejudice shows in the fact that I expected to find an article about the Israeli government suppressing the speech of Arab dissidents. However, what I did find presented an interesting study in "to-me"-ness on a cultural level.

General semantics contends that different people interpret the "same" experience based on their different personal histories. What might seem "harmless fun" to one person, for example, feels like "bullying" to another. In many cases, the deeper the history, the more dramatic the interpretation. The more dramatic the interpretation, the greater the distance between the object level and the verbal. Deep wounds lead to extreme evaluations that leave less partial observers with very little on which to base their own evaluations.

After reading the article, can you determine the "real" story behind it? Does Zahava Gal-On want to reduce tensions in Israel or does she want to suppress free speech? Does the author of article, Ariel Pasko, simply want to protect the rights of all Israelis or does she have a different standard for the Arab members of her culture?

The Scientific Method in Education?

As a child in elementary school, I learned reading through the magic (to me) of phonics. This secret code to written language gave me the tools I needed to master any piece of text I came across. I taught my son to read the same way, and at the age the five he could tackle at the least the sound of the words in any writing he encountered, if not always the sense of those words.

Today's children don't often have that same pleasure. Sometime in the past twenty-five years, the principle of "whole-word" reading gained ascendancy and reading success scores have steadily eroded ever since. This teaching method requires the learned to grasp the meaning of words strictly from context and to memorize their spelling and meaning for future use. How does such a reader ever decipher or look up an unfamiliar word? Furthermore, how do such readers make sense of a statement like "f u cn rd ths, u cn gt a jb in crt rprtng"?

In this article on The Empire Page, author Onkar Ghate identifies the logical flaw in the thinking of the proponents of whole-word reading and argues that reading scores will never improve until educators abandon the approach completely.

I agree.

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Cultural Differences

As this story from the Ball State Daily News says, in conversation we convey only a portion of our intended meaning with words. The rest depends on gesture and facial expression. If words have individual meanings for each person, how much more so with gesture? A knowledge of grammar and dictionaries helps improve our awareness of the verbal abstractions we make, but few such resources exist for gestural meaning. Furthermore, we know we face a challenge when learning a foreign language, but how many of us remember that we need to learn the gestural component of that language in order to successfully communicate?

Read the story here: The Ball State Daily News - Body language can cause confusion

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

On Silence

Aldous Huxley, writer, scientist and philosopher, obviously understood the important different between the verbal and object levels. Imagine what he might have said about television!

Aldous Huxley - On Silence

Monday, October 20, 2003

An Interesting Take on Education

Professor Theodore Gray, co-founder of Wolfram Research, makers of Mathematica software, has some very strong opinions about what today's children need to know. He believes that children need to learn a different set of skills than their parents, today more than ever. He says:

"The most profound engine of civilization is the inability of a larger and larger fraction of the population to do the basic things needed to survive....Technology's greatest contribution is to permit people to be incompetent at a larger and larger range of things. Only by embracing such incompetence is the human race able to progress." He states his case articulately and with great sense and some humor.

Read the story here: Brain Rot

Another Take on "Like"

Language purists have long decried the rampant use of "like" and "you know" among younger speakers of English. Mike Guest, writing for the Daily Yomiuri On-Line, drawing a parallel to similar interjections in Japanese speech, offers a thoughtful analysis of these grammatical puzzles. He suggests that these terms may have reached a level of usage that might qualify them as legimate and acceptable alternatives to the phrases they usually replace.

Can you, like, see the signals?

Sunday, October 12, 2003


"R.D. Laing said, according to Bill Eddy,
'The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.' "

Thursday, October 09, 2003

Breaking Down Elementalism

Scientists have detected a neurological signal in the brain when a human experiences an emotional pain. The big news? This signal occurs in the same area of the brain that senses physical pain. That fact caused the science writer for ABC to state "emotional and physical pain are more closely related than was previously thought." My reaction? DUH.

This story represents an outstanding example of how elementalism in thinking can affect perception. Our language distinguishes between the "emotional" and the "physical" and because of that, we find it remarkable when they overlap. Even though science has never found evidence of a soul, or any other mechanism for the existence of emotions or thought separate from the physical brain, our language encourages us to see a split where none exists.

A similar split occurs between the terms "cold" and "heat". These "two" "entities" have no physical equivalents. In the physical world, a material experiences more or less agitation of its molecules due to one or another of the thermodynamic effects. Depending on the circumstances in which we find this material, we might call it "hot" or "cold" when in fact, its temperature falls somewhere on a single spectrum from "warmer" to "not so warm".

If you start with terminology that recognizes the more "true-to-fact" "organism-as-a-whole" nature of the human body, you would probably expect the result of this study, rather than finding it noteworthy. Pain registers in the brain, in an area of the brain devoted to registering pain. End of story.

News in Science - The anatomy of a broken heart - 10/10/2003

Tuesday, September 02, 2003


We should have a great many fewer disputes in the world if words were taken for what they are, the signs of our ideas, and not for things themselves.
-John Locke, philosopher (1632-1704)

Sunday, August 24, 2003

Rewriting history

Apparently the textbook industry and their school district clients have collaborated to institutionalize a kind cultural correctness that I find quite alarming. In this article from The Age Online in Australia, Jane Sullivan reviews a new book by Diane Ravitch, called "The Language Police" which reports the author's research on two dozen standard history texts used in US schools in the past few years. The examples should shock you.

With the motivation of reducing or eliminating language that might offend or intimidate young learners, textbook publishers have created a fantasy world in which a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer carries no reference to Jews and a story cannot mention pumpkins because they have pagan connotations.

I read once that the alarming increase in allergies and asthma in the US might result from reduced early exposure of young children to dirt. The body responds to its environment and encounters with dirt encourage the body to develop a healthy outer-oriented immune system.

So goes mental health as well. Exposure to lots of concepts, pleasing and not-so, encourages the mind to develop a healthy mental immune system. How can you recognize foolishness if you have never encountered it? Or bias? Or pain, or prejudice or the hundred other difficult concepts that these texts have so tenderly hidden? Couldn't the teachers read these awkward passages with their students and then discuss WHY such things occur? Shouldn't children have the opportunity to learn how to handle the REAL world, rather than learning about some fantasy land of bland positivism?
Language police arrest a child's learning - Books -

General Semantics in Art

An artist inspired by Korzybski's ideas and the writings of Stuart Chase...Meet Liz Lee

Saturday, August 02, 2003

Choose your words

Recently, on an email group concerned with birds and birdwatching, someone posted an article that seemed to suggest that the increase in peregrine falcons has directly contributed to an apparent dramatic decrease in the numbers of several shorebird species. The article generated a great of heat, but not as much light as one would hope. As a number of the regular list contributors chimed in, the posts got longer and longer and drifted further and further from fact and closer and closer to opinion and insult. Lurkers like me no doubt found it both amusing and irritating, but who wants to point out the weaknesses in somebody's arguments only to have the flame of their disdain aimed at you instead of somewhere else?

Finally, in a post boldly titled "This thread is reaching the 'dead horse' stage," list contributor Dave Irons wrote an eloquent and rational message that reminded us all of the importance of choosing your words, and your facts, carefully. The post is four paragraphs long and contains a number of bird related references, but I have included it all because I think you need to read his argument as a whole to get the full impact:

"I am surprised at the willingness of all parties involved to continue a discussion that has no end point. As pointed out by others, the complex predator/prey relationships that exist between falcons and various shorebirds evolved long before humans were a factor in the equation. Our experiences as observers of these relationships have been so short, relative to the time scale over which the relationships have developed and existed, I would argue the human created database is statistically irrelevant. Over geologic time, the Earth has been in a state of constant change. Landmasses, estuaries, mudflats and vegetation communities where we make our observations today were dramatically different as recently as 15,000 years ago during the last glacial maximum.

"Humans define reality in the natural world based on perceptions we develop over comparatively short lifetimes. For any of us to say that Peregrine Falcons are having a greater impact on shorebird populations now than in the distant past assumes we know a lot more than we can possibly know. "Endangered", "threatened" and "sensitive" are totally subjective terms that are defined by our reality not the species to which we attach them. Given the human impacts on the Earth's surface over recent centuries, it could easily be argued that no organism on Earth is at or near "natural" population levels. Eskimo Curlews and Passenger Pigeons darkened the skies over the N. American continent as recently as 200 years ago and the historical numbers of these species far exceeded any known numbers for Peregrine Falcons. Both these species are considered extinct or very nearly extinct (Eskimo Curlew), but some are arguing that there are too many Peregines around. Numbers of Peregrines will be controlled by their ability to find food. If left alone (without other human interferences or environmental degradation) Peregrines and their varied prey base will likely find a state of equilibrium. I have no idea where that balance point will be.

"It would be nice for a change to hear some of us profess to know as little as we actually know, rather than boldly proclaiming that we are experts. As an example, Merlins and Dunlin migrate together and have been for as long as any humans have been observing them. Both species seem to be doing quite well at least here in Oregon. If for some reason we started observing a few thousand less Dunlin wintering in the southern Willamette Valley, would there be an outcry to do something about all those pesky Merlins? I hope not.

"Let's all agree that everyone participating in this discussion would like to see healthy, stable populations of both Peregrine Falcons and Western Sandpipers. We should focus our efforts on reducing the negative human impacts on their habitats and cease making meaningless value judgements about the population numbers suggested by the poorly conceived article Lee Cain brought to our collective attention.

Dave Irons"

Monday, July 21, 2003

Mark my words

Many languages have the ability to express a particular thought in a variety of ways. Indeed, we instinctively base our choice of words on the current circumstances, casual for friends and peers, more formal for authority figures, playful or curt with children and so on. The differences sometimes don't amount to much and yet we have known since childhood how to make these adjustments and what they mean when others make them.

One form of language adjustment leads us to use what linguists call "marked" language. In this case, we use a form of address somehow inappropriate to the moment, but for a distinct reason. The article below discusses "marked" language and the way such language can complicate interpretation in a multi-national situation.

The Italians have a saying, "Traduttore, tradittore" which means "To translate is to betray." I think they mean that any translation to some degree misrepresents the original meaning, especially a direct translation which often misses the not just the essence but even the sense of the statement. Marked language may lead to just such a "betrayal".
Read the full article: Daily Yomiuri On-Line

English as a "first" language?

Many of us have had the experience of having to speak English slooowly and care-full-ly to a non-native English speaker. I think most of us would believe that learning English as our first language qualifies us as the "best" speakers of English. Now that English has emerged as the de facto language of world business, we have a natural advantage over all those millions of competitors who speak it as a second language.

Or do we?

In this interesting article by Peter Krouse of the Newhouse News Service, the author offers evidence that many people who have learned English as a second language can understand each other better than they can native speakers, regardless of their first language. Apparently ESL teaching has produced a somewhat simplified form of English that transcends accents and the lack of idiomatic understanding. Those of us who don't know this new form of English may soon find ourselves unable to communicate effectively in multi-national situations.

Perhaps I should title this item "English (1) is not English (2)"?

Read the full article: Newhouse News Service

Saturday, July 19, 2003

"It's just a word..."

In the literature of general semantics, we learn again and again that the words we use directly influence our thoughts and feelings. In this article from the British newspaper, the Guardian, Oxford professor Richard Dawkins reveals his changing perception of the importance of little words.

Guardian Unlimited Books | Review | The future looks bright

Friday, June 27, 2003

On Reality and Language

The poet Fernando Pessoa describes the way our use of language manufactures reality:

"We generally give to our ideas about the unknown the color of our notions about what we do know"


Tuesday, June 17, 2003

"Some things are better left unsaid"

This conclusion sums up research on the phenomenon of "verbal overshadowing" reported on in a variety of cognitive psychology journals recently. Researchers tested the ability of eyewitnesses to identify a criminal after giving a detailed verbal description of the the criminal immediately after the crime. They found that the amount of detail given, and the time allowed to elapse between the event and the retelling, had direct effects on whether the witness could accurately identify the perpetrator. As little as 24 minutes between witnessing the event and having to describe it, during which the witness was allowed to do an unrelated task or listen to music, improved the reliability of the identification significantly.

This doesn't surprise the student of general semantics. We have heard a great deal about the problems that come from over-verbalization of the non-verbal experience. Now we have a new scientific term for the effect--verbal overshadowing. This terms refers to the loss of perceptual material that results from the abstraction forced on the experience by verbalization. No set of words will completely describe a person's face, or the sound of a voice. But once we have converted the event from a perception to a story, we apparently lose the ability to access the raw perceptual memory. Indeed, researchers found some evidence that the harder we try to describe something, the more likely it becomes that we fill in with guesses, leading to a further distortion of the original event.

Silence on the verbal level, waiting before speaking, allowing the non-verbal to sink in and become stored intact--these practices help improve the quality of the memory.

On the other hand, I have found that these same practices also keep the emotional content of the experience fresh and sharp, not always a desirable thing. A painful event when recalled vividly, seems to replay with the exact set and level of emotions as when it first occurred. In this case, verbalizing the event, telling the story, can help abstract it from the non-verbal level, reducing the impact of the emotions surrounding it. The same effect that renders an eyewitness account less accurate also softens the emotional impact, making it possible for the witness to accommodate the experience without reliving it.

Perhaps "better left unsaid" depends on the purpose for the saying.

Read an article on the subject:

Monday, May 05, 2003


"So difficult it is to show the various meanings and imperfections of words when we have nothing else but words to do it with,"
- John Locke, philosopher (1632-1704)

Friday, March 07, 2003

New Writing

This article from Reuters about a text-messaging essay for an English class may generate a few emotions in your mind, ranging from skepticism to amusement to concern for the long-term health of language skills among today's youth. Did the author of this "report" intend it as a joke? Or has the abbreviated and heavily symbolic script of the Internet become second nature to a generation that learned text messaging right alongside their alphabet? Does this kind of transformation of communication represent a fundamental change, or does it represent just the latest step along the same evolutionary line that gave us punctuation, third-person dialog and the textual representation of slang?

I don't know.

Tuesday, February 25, 2003

Blogging goes to college

Cnet's Paul Festa interviewed David Winer today about his new fellowship at Harvard University's Berkman Center for the Internet and Society. Harvard called upon the long-time software executive and Internet innovator to promote communication amongst its departments by teaching staff, faculty and students how to blog. They hope to end up with at least a hundred good blogs filled with information about the goings-on at the various schools within the University.

During the interview, Winer discussed the evolution of weblogging and the ramifications it has for the more traditional forms of public information. He noted that private individuals provided the first pictures of the Columbia disaster, and commented that people will more and more look to weblogs for their global news rather than to professional journalists.

Festa: "So you're saying that professional journalists don't provide any value, any context, any background that helps make sense of the news?

Winer: "The typical news article consists of quotes from interviews and a little bit of connective stuff and some facts, or whatever. Mostly it's quotes from people. If I can get the quotes with no middleman in between--what exactly did CNN add to all the pictures? Maybe they earned their salaries a little bit, but Web logs have become journalism, and it's much richer. Journalism is a high calling, but it's really no more than points of view on what's taking place. I think the pros are going to use this tech, and they are doing it more and more.

No more than "points of view"? That sounds to me like Winer might claim that "one point of view is as good as another". I think many people confuse a "constitutional" or "inalienable" right to have an opinion with a total equality of the opinions held. Journalists generally have an education and a certain amount of experience, not to mention a professional interest in distinguishing between fact and inference. Any general semantics student can tell you that few people have an awareness of the difference, much less the skill to discern it in their own thinking. While I do not wish that fewer people would have weblogs, I do wish that the people who read blogs would keep a conscious awareness of the potential vapidness of the content.

I would also wonder about the impact of school-sponsored web logging on the reading and writing skills of students. While some blogs come from professional writers, most blogs lean heavily toward the subjective and personal, with an almost institutionalized disregard for both form and fact. This results in casual and emotion-laden content without adequate evidence for the facts involved. Subjective material can have great value in developing emotional bonds among readers, but it does not generally lead to clear thinking or constructive decisions.

Finally, we must consider the question of quantity. Most intelligent people support the idea of sharing information. Only some stop to consider the whether everything they read qualifies as information, and furthermore whether having more information always qualifies as a "good" thing.

Thursday, January 16, 2003


Belief like any other moving body follows the path of least resistance.
-Samuel Butler, poet (1612-1680)