In a recent conversation with Cristyn, we somehow came to be talking about the sentence: Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo.
This sentence, sometimes with a couple of extra “Buffalo”, is often used as an example of a grammatical sentence which is hard to parse.1 In a less perplexing form, it says: Bison whom bison baffle— they themselves baffle bison.
News of the Cambridge Analytics debacle has prompted several of my friends to quit Facebook. They say (rightly) that anyone who needs to reach them has their e-mail address or phone number. Perhaps their choice is the politically and morally right move, yet…
Over at Crooked Timber, Harry Brighouse exhorts readers to write philosophical clerihews.
I was unfamiliar with the form, but it’s not complicated. A clerihew is a four-line poem about some person or other with an AABB rhyming pattern. The sort of thing Ogden Nash would have written if he’d been less pithy.1
I contributed a couple, and I shamelessly cut and paste them here.
The Scotsman Thomas Reid
had a commonsensical creed,
a fondness for calico cats,
and questionable taste in hats.
The mustachioed John Dewey
might have gone all kablam and kablooey
if he had not understood inquiry
in a way that avoided such injury.
Mark Simonson’s blog got me thinking about information technology and the original aspirations of hypertext. Simonson laments that current technology is too much driven by concepts taken from print media. Part of the problem is the lack of a clearly defined alternative. Ted Nelson, who coined the word “hypertext”, had a vision of multiple texts floating on-screen with lines connecting points in one to points in another. I don’t see how that wouldn’t end up like items on a cork board linked by lengths of yarn, the idiom for madness from A Beautiful Mind which has become Hollywood shorthand for crazy conspiracy theories.
Old school blogging actually seems like a pretty good realization of hypertext. Good blog post take a while to write because you’ve got to provide pointers so that someone who hasn’t got context or who is curious can follow up. Someone who wants even more can search on key terms.
All of this crystallized for me what I don’t like about Twitter. In order to cut a thought down to Tweet length, people leave out context. What are they enraged about? What’s the thrust that drew their clever riposte? I can’t always tell.
Sometimes thoughts that won’t fit into a single tweet are written as a stream, possibly with numbered entries 1/9, 2/9,… I see entry 4 of 9 because someone reweeted it, and it’s a serious investment of effort just to view the original series in order. Even then, I can’t always suss out the context.
Twitter, in short, is hypotext. It eschews the links of hypertext but also the context you’d expect from a letter or newspaper article.
Part of the shift is that many people go on-line primarily with phones or tablets, appliances that are great for scrolling and clicking but bad for following multiple threads. Twitter and Facebook turn our feeds into one-dimensional things. We can scroll through, liking and reposting as we go. But reposting just drops another log somewhere into the flume.
Based on your own sense of how words work, pick one of the following:
Every word is an anagram of itself.
Some but not all words are anagrams of themselves.
No word is an anagram of itself.
There’s a principled case to be made for every answer. Cristyn and I hashed it out over goat cheese last night, but I won’t tell you the considerations we mustered on various sides or what we concluded. I’m curious about what you think.
Today is a day of action in which technology companies plump for net neutrality. Action seems to mean talking on the internet.
In filling out a petition-thing, I wrote this:
There’s a form letter I could have cut-and-pasted here, but this is important enough to write my own words. As a user of the internet, I want to be able to access the content which I decide matters. I want it to come at the same speed other content would come at, rather than having it be faster or slower based on whether someone who owns that content has decided to pay more for access to me. If they get control over accessability and relative speed, then I’m not a consumer anymore but instead I’m the product that the service provider sells to their customers. That’s why net neutrality matters.
There is a short review of Hi-Phi Nation in today’s Guardian, topped by a nice picture of host Barry Lam.
Cristyn and I were in Poughkeepsie last week to talk with Lam about cover songs. He plans to do a show about musical covers. He called us because he had read the paper we wrote with Christy Mag Uidhir and we’re local.
Godwin’s Law, as posed in 1990, was this: “As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.”  As internet forums replaced the Usenet, people generalized Godwin’s Law: Given enough discussion about anything, eventually somebody makes an analogy with Nazis and kills the conversation.
It was initially posed as a descriptive law, like gravitation or electromagnetism. In recent years, I’ve seen people more often describe the invocation of Nazis as a “Godwin’s Law violation”. That requires treating it instead as a proscriptive law, a commandment like Thou shalt not make an analogy between your interlocutor and Hitler.
In 2017, we are living in a post Godwin’s Law world. It isn’t funny or provacative to draw analogies with Hitler, nor is it a norm violation to say that something is what Nazis would say, when the current political scene involves actual Nazis.
Of course, President Trump isn’t literally Hitler. But some small fraction of his political base are actual Nazis, he has emboldened them to sieg heil in public, and part of his political strategy is not to distance himself too far from them. When we can ask whether it’s right to punch Nazis, not as a moral thought experiment but as a question about something we saw on the news, then Godwin’s Law just misses the point.