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Words, Wisdom and Nonsense
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Tuesday, 23 July 2019
Rediscovering Breadcrumbs
Mood:  happy

I started writing about language here a couple of decades ago. I have been writing elsewhere or, for a time, I was too ill to carry on. Computer systems change. Services vanish, new ones pop up. I wasn't sure these essays still existed.

But I wasn't really searching for them. I had given up on them. I've had to give up on lots of things, including a set of science fiction novels I had spent seven years writing. I also lost all of my essays and novels I had been writing, some because of equipment failures and some because Apple arbitrarily decided to delete everything that was not in a newly-approved set of formats.

As I said, I was not looking for these essays. I got an email from Lycos/Tripod about upgrading my service. I think I clicked the wrong button. Suddenly I was reading those old essays I thought had been lost.

There were ten essays written over about a decade, a very small fragment of all of the files I have lost. I came very close to losing these more completely, nearly fumble-fingering my record of the new password into oblivion.

This blog on Tripod is "Words, Wisdom and Nonsense". My Wordpress blog is "Word Wine". On Blogger I have "Am's rAMbles". I may have two blogs on Xanga, "WordJames" and "Am0", and I may have something on Yahoo! and elsewhere. Kids these days may take blogs, originally WebLogs, for granted but I was writing my essays long before the blog form came around.

One of the reasons I have so many blogs is that storage has become cheaper and more reliable. With my old KIM-1 machine, using audio cassettes, loading a file or program would typically take nearly half an hour with a probability of about 80% that the information could be read. My Sinclair computer was about the same but the tokenized instructions made recording and playback faster and the sorter wait times improved recovery slightly.

All computers were pretty crappy back then, before floppy disks. The 5.25 inch floppy disks were pretty crappy, too, and the 3.5 inch floppies were better. Then the standard configuration evolved to one hard disk and two floppy disks on each computer. You could back up your hard drive onto many floppies. There was even a slight chance that you could recover the data back to a hard drive when you had to replace a hard drive. The problem was that technologies changed, making the stored data incompatible. Hard drives uaually lasted three to five years, eight if you were extremely fortunate. Two or three times per decade you lost everything. That's just the way it was. 

We faithfully made our back-ups and grudgingly accepted it when everything was lost again. We got into the habit of leaving clues, breadcrumbs, about how to recover out data when a system went south.

Why do we need breadcrumbs? Audio tape cassettes were big enough that you could stick a label on. There were specialty labels you could get for both common sizes of floppies. Memory sticks and memory cards are too small to write on. Hard drives and the Cloud cannot be labelled. If you ever want to restore your data, you have to know where to look for it and what to look for.

Today I had a small victory in finding essays I thought had been lost. A few weks ago, I had a breakthrough in my ideas about how we invented language. I have tried explaining my ideas. That language was invented to allow us to think less was depressing. That almost nobody can understand my explanations is frustrating. I have a lot more work ahead of me and I am poorly prepared to carry it out. Seeing how I thought of the problem two decades ago and how my ideas have evolved may help a bit.

I get good ideas. Things that feel obvious to me often seem invisible to others. I thought at first it was just that I wasn't very good at explaining things. Now I see, more and more, that the problem is not entirely with me. There are many things in my theories that others, by being human, have trouble with. My ideas are not novel or unique. I have seen most of them mentioned elsewhere by others, others who did not realize their importance.

I have a new mantra: Avagat karaana. To make aware, to spread or share awareness. The language is Hindi, the national language of India, a language I don't know yet.

But I'm working on it.

 


Posted by wordjames at 1:54 PM PDT
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Sunday, 25 April 2010
Celiac
Mood:  happy

'Celiac' is more than just a new word I use to describe myself, it is a newly discovered condition I suffer from. It means that a mild (histamine) allergy to gluten has become a rampaging autoimmune disease. A mild allergy is a reaction that generates histamine, causing a variety of irritations to the eyes, skin and elsewhere. An autoimmune disease means parts of the body are being destroyed by the body's own protective devices.

I finally decided I have Celiac Disease last December. I've been suffering histamine-level symptoms, such as diarrhea of increasing frequency and intensity, since childhood; it reached autoimmune levels almost a decade ago ... but I had no idea what was happening.

My immune system has been happily destroying my small intestine, causing food not to be absorbed and toxins to be absorbed. It also has been attacking my thyroid, causing frequent and increasingly large swings between hypo- and hyper-thyroidism. My brain has also been under attack, as has the largest organ in my body, the skin.

When I first heard the word 'celiac' I thought it didn't apply to me. Then I found the word 'antibody' associated with descriptions of my symptoms and made the connection. It was my diabetes doctor whose description enlightened me, but she doesn't believe it applies to me because the first test came back negative.

 I would expect doctors to dislike handing down a diagnosis of celiac disease because there is no medicine for them to prescribe to treat it. All I can do is stop eating foods with gluten in them, such as wheat, rye and barley. That doesn't put any money in the doctor's coffers.

So why am I happy?

I stopped consuming gluten four months ago and I'm starting to feel better.


Posted by wordjames at 5:19 PM PDT
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Monday, 17 March 2008
A New Word
Mood:  mischievious

A few years ago I wrote about that which makes us human: language. Words, if you will. One word in particular, as I'll explain in a bit.

First, let's look at a primative group of people, the Bushmen of the Kalahari. They are physically modern humans and the differences between them and groups elsewhere are subtle. I started looking at genetic geneology last year, tracing first my paternal line and then my maternal line back into prehistory. We all began in Africa. Several lines (haplogroups, people sharing the same genetic mutations) remained in Africa while a single line emerged about 60,000 years ago to populate the rest of the world. Somewhere, that single departing line learned that one word, probably while still in Africa. Of the lines that remained in Africa, the Bushmen, in particular, reflect the older development with the lack of that one word.

The Bushman language is rich in sounds, probably over 150 of them. The name for most creatures is an accurate rendition of the sound they make. A word for rain might sound like rain falling. For comparison, English, which has actively pursued other languages in order to steal from them, has about 47 sounds that get used regularly. Hawaiian has fewer than 20 sounds. Most other modern languages fall somewhere between these two. Bushmen learn to speak English; almost nobody else in the world can learn to speak the Bushman language adequately. For the most part, Bushmen can communicate well with the rest of us.

There is only one word that gives them problems: why.

It isn't that they lack curiosity. They can be curious in several ways and about many things. But their religion is indifferent and they have no drive to discover the reasons things are the way they are. The concept is totally foreign to them.

Somewhere around 60,000 to 100,000 years ago, after we had split from the line the Bushmen continue to follow, a mutation took place with survival value: a deep, abiding seekings for reasons, a chase after explanations.

Asking why led to religion, which has been shown to have survival value regardless of the correctness of the beliefs involved. Just believing in something protects our minds. Asking why has also led to science, with its strict methodology for questioning the correctness of answers it derives. Religion saves us by accepting the answers we devise, science advances us by questioning the answers.

We can map our human migrations by looking at our genes. My ancestors, when they emerged from Africa, spent some time in the Fertile Crescent before moving into Central Europe and Asia Minor. Then they came back to Europe and the latest ice age pushed them into Spain and North Africa about 12,000 years ago. About 5,000 years ago they returned northwards, settling in the British Isles. Roughly seventy percent of the people of Europe belong to Haplogroup R. At the moment, I'm pretty sure I belong in R1b1c, a fairly large group found in Scotland and Ireland and a few other places. During the coming year, I expect the study to be refined and new groups defined. Genetics is becoming more precise.

If evolution of our brains leading to a genetic predisposition for asking why was the defining moment for humanity, I have seen a roadmap leading from the earliest of our kind to myself.

 


Posted by wordjames at 9:42 PM PDT
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Sunday, 16 March 2008
Words Fail Me
Mood:  happy

I've been away from this site far too long.

A lot has transpired since I last wrote here. I stopped trying to write my books the hard way: in HTML on a Linux machine, moving first to Power Writer on a Windows machine and recently to Scrivener on a Mac Mini. I've set aside my two novels, Chosen and Healer, which take place over a period of six billion years, to write a shorter novel, Sam, which will take place over just a couple of years. The first books were just too difficult.

My health has deteriorated. I now wear an insulin pump for my diabetes. What the doctors were treating as a possible kidney problem has turned into severe arthritis of the spine that severely limits my ability to walk or even to stand comfortably for more than a few minutes, a disability that earned me a handicap placard and license plate.

I still write Weblogs (I dislike the word Blog and its derivatives), mostly LiveJournal; there are links to most of my Weblogs on my site Am0.us. I even have one Weblog dedicated to writing. I was annoyed at the lack of programs to facilitate writing to a variety of systems (Xanga, LiveJournal, Blogger, WordPress and even Lycos/Tripod). I had been using a Windows program that would send my submissions to about three machines I use often. Then the nice people at Mozilla developed a social browser called Flock which allows me to prepare material for a variety of Weblog machines. Flock has become my preferred browser as well as the composition machine for many of my Weblogs.

It has been more than four years. Who knew then that we'd see a woman and a nominally black man both running for president? Who knew than that our president would become the Terrorist President by declaring war on two basically innocent countries rich in petroleum as a tool to attack our civil liberties? Who knew then that a search engine company would contribute to the fall of the world's richest man to third place? Yes, the world has changed considerably in that short period. I'm sure nobody has missed me here or even noticed my absense.

I'm back.


Posted by wordjames at 2:43 PM PDT
Updated: Sunday, 16 March 2008 3:33 PM PDT
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Monday, 29 December 2003
Resolution
Ah, yes, the annual promise we make to ourselves or to the world is called a resolution: we resolve to become better in some specific way. The fame of this process is that it often fails. The failures are given more attention than the successes, as if failure was a part of the process. We don't resolve to do something at the end of the year unless we expect to fail. You can make the same resolution year after year because you will always fail at it.

But resolution also means the solution of a problem or conflict. Out of several alternatives we choose one that satisfies as many of the parameters or people involved as possible. We like wars to have peaceful resolutions.

In optics, resolution refers to the fineness of lines that can be distinguished. Good optical systems distinguish fine lines close together that poorer systems would see as a single broader line.

One word, multiple meanings that we distinguish mostly by context. The English language has about 600,000 words in active use at any time, with a thousand or so added or lost each year, and a highly educated person may have an active vocabulary of 100,000 of those words (the average person recognizes 10,000 to 20,000). Yet we use fewer than 800 words for 96% of our communications.

We do so by overloading those words (giving words multiple meanings) and depending on context to sort out the meanings.

It is miraculous that this doesn't lead to chaos. It is natural that it does lead to unintended humor as multiple meanings are extracted from what we say and write.

Posted by wordjames at 3:51 PM PST
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Friday, 28 November 2003
I cannot tell a lie ...
Words fail us.

We cannot tell the truth because words are imprecise tools for the job. Words have multiple meanings, meanings we often do not care to have included when we attempt to express our thoughts.

Write a book. Suppose your book is of average length, between 200 and 300 pages. Most of it will consist of the same 750 or so words, repeated in a variety of different ways. Yet English, with about 650,000 words to choose from in the active language, gives us many alternatives to choose from.

Many of those core words, so vital to communication, are general purpose tools, like 'it'. They are vague and misleading. "My wife took the dog for a walk and she hurt her foot". Whose foot got hurt? Who caused the pain? There are four different ways it could go, assuming the dog is female.

So we can only approach the truth of a thing by sketching it loosely with words, then correcting the possible misinterpretations, then filling in details, until we fill in a picture of the truth by a series of successive approximations.

It is much simpler to tell lies.

Posted by wordjames at 8:51 PM PST
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Tuesday, 29 July 2003
Adding Words

Incorporating Nonsense Into the Language


All languages borrow words from other languages, although some attempts are made to limit this process in the name of purity. The English language has been said to be particularly vigorous in the process of borrowing words from others, sometimes being accused of brutally ripping words by force from other languages to feed its continual need for growth that has already made it the largest language on the planet, at least in number of words in current use.

Nonsense words are also picked up. We have seen the words 'geek' and 'nerd' appear seemingly from nowhere. In one case, 'geek,' the word was lurking, forgotten, in our collective vocabulary, referring to the carnival performer whose specialty was biting the heads off of fowl and reptiles. But 'nerd' comes to us as pure nonsense invented by Dr. Seuss in one of his children's books.

The word 'googol' is a nonsense word invented in 1938 by the mathematician Edward Kasner to represent an equally nonsense concept, the number ten raised to the hundredth power, represented as a one followed by one hundred zeroes. The concept is nonsense because there aren't that many of anything in the universe. Stories vary, but the word was invented in a discussion between Kasner and his nephew, Milton Sirotta, as was the even more nonsensical term 'googolplex,' which names the number ten raised to the googol power.

The googol and the googolplex are the largest numbers which have been given specific names, although the googol could be called 10 duotrigintillion in more conventional terminology.

The words entered the language because of their value in discussing very large numbers and the concept of infinity. Both numbers, while absurdly large, are finite, a concept that elementary school children have little difficulty grasping.

The name of the search engine 'google' is a deliberate reference to the number googol, to imply that it has vast capabilities for discovering information.

But many words entering the language have no known origin. Some of them even look funny, if you think about them. Here is a representative sample of words of unknown origin that entered English since the year 1900: bozo, chad, codswallop, dippy, dogie (a heifer), dweeb, dyke, fink, flivver, floozy, flub, fuddy-duddy, gandy dancer, gimmick, gink (person), gizmo, gorp (a concentrated food), grungy, hooey, hootenanny, jake (all right, fine), jalopy, jazz, jimmies, jitney, jive, malarkey, moola, nitty-gritty, palooka, pizzazz, pokey, raunchy, rinky-dink, scam, simoleon, snazzy, snit, stooge, tizzy, tootsie, twerp, willies, wingding, wonk and zit.

These are all new words, although some of them are older than some of us are. Some, like 'gink,' are old enough to have gone out of style. These are words we grew up with. Yet they popped into our language out of nowhere.

Some of them, if you weren't used to using them, would look like nonsense. Dweeb? We've made it what it is today because it became useful to us, even though it looks and sounds like nonsense.

Posted by wordjames at 12:50 PM PDT
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Wednesday, 16 July 2003
The Problem With Mathematics

The Problem With Mathematics


We like to think of ourselves as rational, logical creatures. We are far from it. Rational behavior, behavior directed to obtain a goal or avoid unpleasant consequences, has to be learned, studied and practiced. Logic is a recent development forced upon us by a growing awareness of the universe and is a subset of language governed by strict rules that have to be learned and obeyed for logic to function. Neither comes with the package we call language. They are both additional features that have to be purchased with hard work and study.

Mathematics is a diverse set of tools developed to help us understand the universe. The basic tool upon which all others depend is logic, for it is mathematical logic that justifies and validates the remaining tools. All of the tools that are mathematics must conform to a number of criteria, such as having consistent rulesets by which operations within the tool are defined. Any inconsistency will invalidate the tool and make it useless. Mathematicians go to great lengths to test their tools and demonstrate that they are up to the tasks set for them, the dreaded "mathematical proofs". These 'proofs' are logical meta-tool examinations of the basis and validity of the tool's ruleset.

And that statement highlights one of the biggest problems we have with mathematics: it is hard to talk about mathematics and even harder to teach to someone to whom the tools are unfamiliar.

When we teach arithmetic and basic logic in elementary and middle school, we don't stress the concept of layers of meta-language, of talking about language itself. Many of the tools of mathematics function like language. Logic is, as I have mentioned, a strict subset of natural language. When we apply logic to geometry, logic doesn't become a part of geometry. Our proofs are done in the meta-language 'logic' as applied to the tool 'geometry'. But we teach it as one subject.

Geometry is simple enough, once you learn it. So is algebra. Trigonometry is based on geometry quantified, although too little is done with imaginary numbers. Calculus is based on geometry, algebra and trigonometry with the concept of infinitesimals thrown in. They build upon each other, so that if one is learned well, the student has a solid basis for learning the next. There are lots of little fiddling details to remember and some people have enough of a problem with spacial visualization that they are unable to conquer geometry, but apart from the complexity, the tools are pretty simple. Once you learn them, they are easy to use, particularly now with the computing problem eased by the use of calculators and computers.

But mathematics isn't being sold as simple. It's being painted as being horrible difficult. For some people, it is.

Some people are incapable of learning logic. They will never admit it. In fact, should you suggest it they will shout you down or bully you into withdrawing your suggestion. Being capable only of highly emotional thought patterns, they don't have any idea what logic is and are incapable of learning it. Such people will most likely do sports while in school, then get into politics or business, where they can strive for alpha status, later. They would make poor scientists.

Still, for those capable of learning and using the tools, there is no point in confusing them by starting them off with the misconceptions we are currently generating. Mathematics is a heirarchy of little tools, each simple enough in its own way, integrated to work together. We can teach the tools individually.

We have to learn how to talk about mathematics.

Posted by wordjames at 1:00 PM PDT
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What Makes Us Human

What Makes Us Human?


100,000 years ago, our ancestors were physically and mentally very much like us ... except that the only innovation they seem to have made is that they started using red ochre, probably to decorate their bodies. Their tools remained unchanged for millennia. About this time their population was reduced to a total of about 10,000 members.

They probably had a very simple form of language. Almost certainly they had what we now call nouns, names for things. It is highly likely that they had verbs, action words. Their language probably resembled what you now expect from a two-year-old.

At some time between 35,000 and 70,000 years ago a great change took place. During a period of roughly 5,000 years, our technology changed more than it had previously and the changes spread throughout the race.

When a child reaches about three years, it normally begins using a new language feature, syntax. The ability to use grammar seems to be built-in, instinctive. Starting to use grammar takes place so easily and automatically it is easily overlooked.

This may be the transition that made us human about 50,000 years ago.

How will you know when your child has made this important transition? That's simple. He'll do what the human race did when we discovered the power of syntax and grammar: ask questions.

This endless stream of questions may be our most human characteristic. It goes beyond animal curiosity, which is immediate, of the current moment only.

Our questions give our universe a new dimension, the metaphysical, taking us beyond the realm of the physical. What other animal would consider the possibility of life after death. Other animals live in this world and this time, rather than asking where the world came from or what was here before it was created.

A child normally completes his transition to becoming fully human some time in his ninth year. The transition to regular use of rational thought processes, rather than more emotional reactions, if it is to happen at all (it doesn't always), waits more than another decade, until the raging stew of hormones has calmed down. The use of rational thought also requires practice and is not automatic.

There is another use of language that may generally be ignored or even considered a disease. The two sides of the forebrain perform distinct functions. Communication between them is limited. But there appear to be channels for the two sides to pass verbal information directly from one to the other. Verbal communication is very efficient but hearing voices may be misinterpreted. If the information is accompanied by visual or auditory hallucinations, used to give emphasis to the message, the message may be seen as sent by a god or angel. We are good at manufacturing visual and auditory hallucinations -- we do it when we dream. There is even a small spot in the brain which, when stimulated, gives a feeling of deep spirituality, of something sacred happening. If the right side of the brain sends a message to the left side using some or all of these signals to indicate its importance, the person may believe he has been visited by a god. The rest of us may consider him a nut case, a schizophrenic -- or, in some cultures, a prophet.

We differ in the extent to which our frontal lobes communicate verbally between themselves. Some people may never experience it, others may have to put up with a constant chatter. In the latter case, it helps to understand what is happening.

It may not show in the fossil record and the exact dating may be difficult to determine when examining the tools and art our ancestors left, but the human race began with grammar and syntax.

Posted by wordjames at 12:16 PM PDT
Updated: Wednesday, 16 July 2003 1:14 PM PDT
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Thursday, 3 July 2003
New Words
Every decade a new volume of the Merriam-Websters Dictionary of the English Language is issued, complete with a list of new words added during the previous decade. This is almsot always greeted, when it is noticed at all, by surprise that the newest words are those used by the most economically active segment of our population. The decades of the rise of personal computer gave acceptance to words like 'nerd', 'geek' and the greatly misused 'hacker'. The Internet decade has finally brought acceptance of that ugly word 'blog'.

Our language is constantly adding and dropping words. Every language does. Without writing the process would take place much more rapidly, but without writing we wouldn't notice it happening. Individuals don't see their spoken language changing within their social group within their lifetime, even though it does. The change is too subtle for that.

How many words are there in a language? Your personal word set may run between 15,000 and 50,000 words, depending on your level of education and the amount of reading you do. There are, of course, people whose vocabularies are much greater than that, highly educated, well read people, but Joe Average will probably not have a really big collection of word tools. If you know multiple languages, the number of words you know in your primary language has probably increased due to contamination with new concepts.

But you use only a fraction of that total for most of your daily communications. When you encounter a new word, its meaning usually is clear, to some extent, from the context in which you heard it ... or you get feedback and it is explained to you. The process is automatic and unconscious. You don't catalog it, saying, "Okay, this is word number 50,273". You hardly notice that you've learned a new word. Forgetting an old word is even easier.

But people do catalog written words. Written words have a history, they leave footprints, they can be tracked back to the first time they were published. It may be necessary to determine their meanings from the context of that first use, by the roots of the word or by the way people have come to use it. Then some authority, often self-appointed, decides whether the word is legitimate or not.

My "Webster's Third New International Dictionary" is an old volume having 2,728 pages and defining 450,000 words, a large portion of the modern English language. It's a large, awkward, heavy tome, only to be resorted to when smaller, more streamlined dictionaries fail me. It is also rather old and battered. My most recent dictionary is the "Random House Webster's College Dictionary" which was discontinued because the German firm who acquired the rights was uncomfortable with a long term commitment to maintaining it. I also have specialized dictionaries, such as Eric Partridge's "Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English" which, unfortunately, is slanted more to British than American word use.

I find it enjoyable to prowl through these dusty word bins. You never know what kind of gem you'll run across. I even have a friend who makes his living playing with words, a most enjoyable manipulator of word and phrase and one of the world's most formidible punsters, Richard Lederer. Several of his books are in my collection and I sometimes listen to his radio program on KPBS radio on Sunday mornings.

Don't worry about the new words. If you are going to learn them it will happen so naturally you will hardly notice the process. If you don't learn them, well, that's tough. But you probably won't miss them. You'll just use several words you do know, like 'thingy' or 'whatzit', to talk around the situation, like all of us do at some time or another. That's probably where words like 'widget' or 'wicket' came from in the first place.

Posted by wordjames at 5:54 PM PDT
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