Saturday, February 26, 2011

Language and its consequences

Words have consequences. It's said often enough that I can't nail down who said it first. (My gut feeling was that it was Dick Cheney, but google it and you get a bunch of answers.)

Anyway, I often wonder what are the consequences of English, the current global lingua franca. It has some quirks and chinks that, in certain contexts, make it very easy to misunderstand and to propagate misunderstanding.

A big one is the fact that our words for a million, a billion, a trillion etc. all sound alike--alike enough that a figure quoted when you're not paying attention is hard to remember accurately. Do we spend millions or billions on higher education? On defense? On subsidies to the tar sands?

It's not a trivial distinction. The difference between a million and a billion is the same as the difference between a thousand and a million. If I told you three million people died in the World Trade Center, you would immediately know I was off by several orders of magnitude. But when we learn that Government Program A costs a million dollars a year, while Program B costs a billion, we have a hard time feeling the difference and therefore deciding how we feel about them.

The other one that's occurred to me is the word "falsify."

Did you know that climate scientists have spent decades systematically trying to falsify the science on global warming?

Here's the definition of the word:

falsify [ˈfɔːlsɪˌfaɪ]vb (tr) -fies, -fying, -fied
1. to make (a report, evidence, accounts, etc.) false or inaccurate by alteration, esp in order to deceive
2. to prove false; disprove

The second definition is the essence of science. Scientists test theories, look for evidence, and try to disprove each other's theories. That's why you can trust science--it's set up so that whatever theory someone advances, there are a legion of very smart people whose careers can be made by successfully demonstrating that one of their rivals is wrong.

But the same word is used for fraud, for manipulating evidence, for concealing truth. It is the direct opposite.

This makes it all too easy for the exact same statement to carry two contradictory meanings, and thereby to sow confusion instead of understanding.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A plug: Hyperbole and a half

Usually when people with blogs don't post for awhile, they start their post with "Sorry I haven't posted lately." I refuse to do that. It's a blog; I'm doing it for free; I post when I feel like it. Dammit!

Which is why you should not interpret my posting twice in one day as a kind of spasm of remorse, massive overcompensation for failing to update a blog that is mostly followed by immediate family members who have heard this stuff a million times already.

Okay, that said: I found an awesome blog by a girl named Allie, who is one of those rare creatures whose ability to tell a story with a combination of words and pictures qualifies as genius. She seems to be both genuinely eccentric and hyper-talented--an exceedingly rare combination, as anyone who's been to art school can attest. Allie seems to draw using some low-res image program like Windows Paint or some such. But she's so good with a mouse (I am told she actually draws with a mouse, not a stylus) that her drawings come out with a kind of gestural energy combined with master draftsmanship that reminds me of Ralph Steadman without the splatters.

And her stuff is funny. Go see her blog. It's called Hyperbole And A Half.

Okay, that's my second post today. There might not be any others for awhile. Depends how I feel.

Please come back from time to time, though, just to make sure.

Friday, February 11, 2011

They don't make 'em like they used to.

I was nine years old when I first saw The Empire Strikes Back and, like most kids, what happened in that movie was a source of speculation and anxiety for the next three years. What's gonna happen to Han Solo? Is Darth Vader really Luke's father? These were deep and vexing questions. But the one that nagged at me the most was this: How's Luke gonna be a Jedi without a lightsaber?

As you'll recall, Luke gets his fighting hand lopped off in that climactic battle. Off it goes, saber and all, into the big screaming vaccuum-cleaner void underneath Cloud City. The hand's no big deal. It's sci-fi; they'll build you a new one. They have the technology. But a lightsaber? Where are you gonna get another one of those? The Jedi are extinct; you can't just walk into the Jedi Supply Store and get another one. That was the last one. They just don't make 'em anymore.

I'm not a materialistic person in the usual sense. I don't want a big house and a ten-thousand-dollar stereo and a garage full of sports cars. But I'm not serene enough, evolved enough or masochistic enough to embrace a fully minimalist lifestyle.

I used to. For years I lived out of a backpack and a duffle bag, sleeping in a sleeping bag on the floor or on friends' sofas, a stripped-down hobohemian unburdened by material possessions, utility agreements or a fixed address.

But what feels fun and free when you're 25 is much less so when you're pushing forty. You want some stability in your life. Your back hurts and so you need a bed, a proper desk and chair, not a thermarest and a laptop. You want cooking utensils and a place where your mail can find you. The Buddha reminds us that everything is temporary but we don't have to like it.

A few years ago I started gathering the accoutrements of a settled, mature existence--mainly furniture and clothes. I'm a professional adult who works in an office and so it's appropriate that I look the part. From the outset, the goal was to buy quality stuff that I wouldn't have to replace in six months; stuff that would cost more up front, but that would be well-made enough to last for decades, to age gracefully, to accumulate a lifetime's patina of personal history and meaning.

If I thought I could persuade you I was some kind of environmental saint, I might say this is because I resent the idea of a throwaway society, where resources are used up forever to make a thing that will have to be replaced next year. But this would only be half true. The other half is that I'm a cheapskate and I really, really, REALLY hate having to pay money for something and then, almost immediately, have to pay again. Goddammit!

If you want to be that kind of cheap, though, you have to be prepared to spend a whack of money, at least up front. You get what you pay for.

Unfortunately, what I'm finding is that quality goods are exceedingly hard to come by, no matter how much you are willing to pay. The old saw is false: You don't get what you pay for. You pay for what you hope to get, but you probably don't get it.

Last summer I went out and bought a navy blazer with the full intention of never buying another one. I bought a very reputable, high-quality brand in a classic cut and spent about six hundred dollars on it. It fit very well.

Now, this winter I put on a bit of weight. Not much; about ten pounds. But enough that I needed to get that jacket let out a bit so it would fit comfortably. So I took it to my tailor, who opened it up and informed me that the manufacturer hadn't left any material on the inside of the seam. (Historically, tailors and clothing manufacturers left enough material that you could let a garment out by up to an inch and a half--which you're going to have to do if you intend to keep something into middle age.)

So he couldn't do anything with it. He was as annoyed as I was; the manufacturer had saved about twenty cents' worth of material, but at the expense of creating a $600 jacket that becomes unwearable if you eat a box of donuts.

I've had comparable experiences with shoes, furniture--well, I was going to run off a whole list of all the things I've tried to buy quality and gotten junk, but there haven't been that many categories. For eight years I've kept buying clothes, shoes and furniture in the hope that I'll finally be getting something worth the trouble, and keep having to replace it for one reason or another. The hamster wheel of trying to get a pair of dress shoes that lasts more than a year has eaten much of my disposable income.

The point is this: It is increasingly starting to seem as though quality goods cannot reliably be had, no matter how much you're willing to spend.

This is deeply distressing. I don't want my civilization to be in decline. I think about the last days of the Roman Empire and imagine people walking around, looking at these magnificent marble buildings built by their grandparents, and saying "Hmm, it's funny.... they don't make 'em like that anymore. I wonder why?"

I have had to resort to buying antique furniture and vintage clothes. The difference in quality is obvious and overwhelming; I'm talking about department-store jackets from 1950 that are twice as good as anything you could buy today. All right, perhaps there is a survival bias at work here. Maybe there was always this much crap in the system, but all the crap has since been sloughed off to landfills and only the quality stuff is left.

I don't know. What I do know is that when I do find something in a vintage shop that fits me, or a piece of furniture in an antique shop, I feel an overwhelming need to buy it because I will probably never find another item that good. The "vintage horizon", that consumer K-T boundary before which things were made well and after which the fast-turnover junk economy took over, is receding fast. Items from Before become increasingly rare, lost to entropy or quality nuts like me who know the score. Things as prosaic as a good-quality jacket become priceless relics, not to be had at any price, except when fate smiles upon you and entrusts you with an heirloom like a grandfather on his deathbed.