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Strictly Speaking

Agreement in Number

IS ( + plural noun)

Structured language has evolved with mathematical underpinnings. Its parts of speech correlated to mathematical signs and equations. Used correctly, any communicative sentence is assembled in a self-checking way, like DNA encoding for synthesizing unique proteins, and for only those proteins required.

Current usage has become so casual that its mathematical checking program has collapsed. One of the most common and illustrative examples of this is the connection of the present tense singular of the verb to be (‘is”) with a plural noun. In contraction this might me “There’s some trees down the road.”

Problem: the singular “is” and plural “trees” are not in agreement in number. Correct would be “There are some trees down the road,” or “Trees are down the road a bit.” Technically the failure is in agreement in number between the subject and verb.

Correct language always provides certainty that an intended meaning is spoken or written by allowing the listener or reader to hear or see that singular subjects agree with singular forms of verbs, and plural subjects agree with plural forms of verbs.

If singular is preferred, it is handy to know that the trees may be clumped into groves, copses, lines, woods and forests. Singular predication is possible here, because these collective units are unitary. So "There's a grove of trees beyond the ridge," works.

In its requirements for agreement, English is both undemanding and informative but not tyrannical. Romance languages require agreement in number and gender between subject and predicate.

Rarely but occasionally English nouns have genders, but usually they are traditional and vanishing. For example, a ship was historically referred to as she. So, “She went down with all men aboard,” was not read, as in modern times is might be, “And a promiscuous woman she no doubt was.” Read More 
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Despite an inclination of word processing spell check to accept this usage, the thinking person will carefully consider the advantages of using a word that apparently hybridizes irrespective with regardless.

When decomposed to constituent parts, both of these words present meanings that are quite clear: (1) irrespective means without respect to; and (2) regardless means less regard, or without regard to.

Both irrespective and regardless mean that after considering a former point, it weighs less in the subsequent argument than it is purported to mean. By contrast, irregardless means without regarding a less regarded point. In other words, the derivative opposite of the two independent words that have fused to create it.

While no word is tagged substandard in the descriptive era, here is a word that reverses its intent mid-syllable, and turns intended meaning on its head. Among thinking people, its use is likely to be a social setback for the user. Read More 
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Measuring Things and Making Things


An instrument is a device for measuring a quantity of well defined physical parameter. Instruments differ from machines, which are devices of manufacture: they make things. A machine may make an instrument, but an instrument may never make a machine.

Instruments need not be elaborate, and often can be most effective as teaching devices if they are simple. The combination of a bellows, an affixed balloon inflated to ambient pressure, a balance pan atop the bellows and a scale against the side of the balloon to report an increase in volume, can be calibrated as fixed weights are placed on the balance pan, pushing on the bellows, forcing its volume of air into the balloon, which then expands accordingly. Since pressure comes in units of force divided by area, and the area on the surface of an expanding balloon can be calculated as A = 4∏r2 a pressure gauge can easily be made. If measurement is the objective, it remains an instrument.

If the pressurized gas is forced behind a projectile and the projectile used to hold material together, it becomes a machine. It has made a joint, or riveted together two I-beams.

Instruments are the basis for measurement and measurement (empirical verification) is the basis for science. In its purest form, all science must be testable, so instrumentation is always the doorway to knowing. The ability of instruments to measure increasingly fine distinctions both in small and weak signals often places temporary limits on what we can know through reproducible measurements. Read More 
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Pronunciation, Respect and Nation Building


Iraq is a modern nation state whose borders were drawn by the colonial British when they withdrew from the region. It includes the earliest locations of cultivated crops and the ancient Abyssinian, Sumerian and Babylonia empires. Its correct pronunciation, the one used and preferred by Iraqis, is ER-RACK, the one used by both candidates in the 2012 Presidential debates.

Its universal mispronunciation by American boots on the ground is EYE-RACK. This has become an shibboleth for being a genuine American abroad, and an offense to Iraqis whose civilization is thirty times as old as is the United States. One wonders how the occupying troops ever hoped to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis when they continually mispronounce their nation’s name, call them towel heads or hajjis, and describe their traditional native garments as man dresses. Even more pitiable is that not one in ten thousand American boots on the ground speaks a word of Arabic. Read More 
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Innovation is an unambiguous and useful word on its own legs. It doesn’t need any crutches. In its simplest definition it means the act of introducing something. It derives from the Latin root word novus, or new. Contemporary double-speak has created the unnecessary redundancy of the “new innovation.” This should produce the same reaction as fingernails dragged across a blackboard.

An innovation can only, by definition, be new. An “old innovation” is an oxymoron, a phrase that contradicts itself. There cannot, logically, be an old newness. Or if so, it is only a as a confusing thought exercise in physics. If, as Stephen Hawking believes, only a completely degenerate, motionless cosmic egg existed prior to the Big Bang, then it was possible to construct it as an entity in space that lacked time. Time and motion are inextricably interconnected. No motion = no time.

This is why even at absolute zero degrees real systems have a zero point vibrational energy, an internal quantum mechanical clock that can tick no more slowly. But since humans are drawn by limited experience to an intuition that may be completely at odds with reality, as in relativity and quantum mechanics, there is a nagging desire to know what the universe was like “before” the Big Bang. Although Hawking has given us an out, for people who cannot stop the conviction that time in continuous and unending, then the Big Bang itself could be the oldest innovation we knew.

For people who don’t think physics, there was some unheard clock ticking away, like a time bomb, awaiting the moment when the universe exploded out of its degenerate seed. That seed was a dense pack of Higgs bosons, which have no spin. Ergo no motion and are, ergo, timeless. All particles subsequent to the Big Bang have the property of spin. They are little clocks set to a fundamental ticking that is inherent and neverending. Through supernovae and other insults, they take a licking and keep on ticking.

But the most objectionable problem with the expression “new innovation” is that it has become obligatory to tribal noise, a conjunction of sounds that, while unnecessarily redundant, nonetheless, has come to pass as transcendent insight. In fact, it is just verbosity inflating at a rate approaching that of the universe itself.

The consolation is that, in the end, dark energy will trump tribal noise, cosmic clocks and the rest. Read More 
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Junk Information


Information, as expressed in the information age as IT, has become one of the most amorphous and dangerously uninformative words in the emerging world. The notion that anything can be found on the internet, and anything that is found has been validated, is an admission of naivete that would shock even George Orwell. And in this protestation that anything one needs to know is available via computer is leading to a protracted laziness, a techno-dependence where if something cannot be Googled, then it must not exist or did not happen.

By implication, this means that if a universal IT erasure occurred, perhaps by a massive solar electromagnetic pulse, that a post accident world would emerge in which no one knew anything because all computer screens were dark.

Already IT devices are often wrong about a farrago of common matters, from directions by GPS to personal data on individuals. The trust that your data is absolutely secure will be followed in weeks or, at most months, by notification that your account has been hacked.

Citizens passing into Medicare will experience identity theft in greater than average numbers because electronic storage of information has made it available to medical personnel in records departments everywhere. On-line applications for bank loans or even automobile insurance can float your SSN out there for any phisherman to reel in and misuse.

My family includes people who work with the most powerful computers and defensive programs in the world, and still admit that advances in the vehicles of penetration (e mails, viruses, data diddlers, worms and trojan horses) are continually emerging. Chat rooms and dating services are open forums less for true love than to sexual predators and child pornographers.

Richard Feynman’s two admonitions remain as forceful today as they did half a century ago. Ask “How well do I know this ‘fact’?” and remember that “We better not fool ourselves, because we’re the easiest ones to fool.” If knowledge is power, how likely is it than megalomaniacs will share it?  Read More 
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At a Loss for Words


Incredible belongs in close association with the other words in tribal noise that banish silence at the expense of creating meaning. In no less than an NPR interview, where one might hope for information to be valued, the word “incredible” was spoken not fewer than eight times inside two and one half minutes, by both the host and guest. Whether or not they understood it, the word that had made their voices skip like a scratch on an old vinyl record means, “not credible, or difficult to believe.”

Now, since the purpose of the interview was, ostensibly at least, to communicate an experience that did happen, was witnessed and did, presumably, have reality, and, ergo, credibility, the repeated used of incredible was reduced to – at best – an interjection.

And there’s the rub.

An interjection is no more effective in communication than a stutter. At the bottom of the box of lazy, rapid, unconsidered speech, tribal noise provides and number of reliable “go to” options, words that have become interchangeable in usage, but on examination seem like fragments from the gibberish of “an idiot, signifying nothing.”

The sad reality of having only “amazing, awesome and incredible” to describe events that a larger vocabulary would make specific and memorable is that, of all languages, one of the strengths of English is the availability of exactly the right word or phrase. But in terms of conventional contemporary response, the effect of chanting one of the currently popular Cracker Jack treats is to get the tribe’s heads nodding, invoking, “Yeah, I know what you mean,” when it is far from clear – when the words are considered – what they can mean.  Read More 
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When the Same is Different


An impeller is a mechanical device involving curved concentrically arranged blades that function by rotating around an axis to which they are attached in order to convert the gravitational and kinetic energy of moving fluids, such as water and air, into other forms of energy.

Affixed in various numbers to a shaft or rotor, an impeller may look identical to a propeller, but a propeller employs an internal source of energy (as in prop driven aircraft or nuclear submarine) to propel an attached object through a fluid that is discharged behind it. By contrast, impellers in hydroelectic plants simply rotate on a shaft by resisting the direct gravitational descent of water that would otherwise make a waterfall.

Similarly, a wind turbine does not have a propeller, but an impeller. Since the relative motion (of fluids past the blades) is independent of end use, it would be theoretically possible to place a powerful engine inside a cowling affixed to the wind turbine and, on a windless day, propel it free of its pylon. The force generated by reversing the intended use would, as in submarines, be all backward, with no upward component. Read More 
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I Mean... You Know?


I have strayed from single words to common expressions, or combinations of words that appear in speech with such frequency that they have become virtually obligatory to entering the conversation, a prerequisite to acceptance. These expressions are the equivalent of passwords provided to guards at a military encampment in order to gain safe access to the shelter of the camp, its food, and its commanders.

Time to think.

Why start with “I mean” unless one’s normal pattern of conversing is to say things that are unmeant, and thereby insincere. And yet to begin with “I mean” communicates the possibility that any utterance made without the introductory words, “I mean” must be taken as insincere, and that unless prefixed by “I mean” the individual is speaking insincerely. And yet again, since the purpose of language is to communicate intended meanings, the use of “I mean” merely creates a larger suspicion that the speaker sometimes, if opening without this parenthetic bookend, is prevaricating, or being insincere.

Yet “I mean” is at best uneconomical. Junk phrase. Tribal noise.

As a more economic alternative, why not just say what you mean without prefix?
After what is claimed to be meant is uttered, there comes the closing bookend, “you know?" Not offered as a genuine interrogative, which would require a pause expecting a response, “you know” is often thrown down more like a gauntlet, as if to challenge the audience to disagree, or as a means of asserting that no other conclusion is possible from the assertions bookended between “I mean” and “you know.”

“You know,” could be better acquitted as respectful conversation if it were used the way that the Japanese use the same phrase in their speech. In Japanese it is slipped in at the end of a train of thought as, “You know?” Then there is, after and during eye contact, waiting for the listener to nod or shake their head. Disagreement is possible. The course of conversation can be diverted, or a point returned to with Richard Feynman’s famous, “How well do you know that fact?” Or, “Isn’t it equally true that...”

Here’s the distinction. The purpose of tribal noise is concealment, to melt in and be accepted. The purpose of language is communication and exchange of ideas. Progress depends upon the understanding of words with well grounded meaning, or interpretations that leap cultural hurdles to clarify parochial similes. An example of this latter intent would be the United Nations interpreter who made the English phrase “Like carrying coal to Newcastle,” into the Arab equivalent, “Like carrying sand to the Sahara.” She did not translate, word-for-word, but her choice better communicated the intentions of the English delegates to Arab ears. She did not add either “I mean,” or “you know.” The pace of simultaneous translation does not afford the luxury of meaningless excess.  Read More 
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Like: The Universal Interjection

I’M LIKE (+ e.g. ‘How can you say that?’)

Here’s a commonly occurring fragment of tribal noise that has added a socially obligatory but linguistically cumbersome predecessor to so many communications that could easily and elegantly do without it.

The traditional linguistic form that it seems to pursue is a simile, a comparison using the words “like” or “as.” In, “When I’m with my bong pipe I’m like an eagle, flying high.” But in the too commonly overheard intro, the expression simply provides an opportunity for the interjection of the word “like” that, on examination, might provide a useful a silence, a time for brief reflection before speaking.

But these days when a speaker pauses, it merely provides an opportunity for someone else to interrupt. And so the articulation of the useless “like” reserves the permission to continue once the slow-moving mind has stumbled onto something more useful for addressing its needs.

The process of converging nearer to the answer with each iteration is known in mathematics and successive approximations. A better indicator of both analytical thinking and power of expression is to get it right the first time. Le mot juste, as it were.

As contemporary speech is almost entirely free of similes, unless the word “like” is used as a verb, it is almost always a needless interjection, a junk word. An example, par excellence, sine qua non, ne plus ultra of tribal noise. People use it because it is in common use, without fear that they, themselves, become more common by using it. The economy in using like is that it never requires thinking before speaking, of lining up the words most suited to expression in the most elegant form before the first sound comes from your lips.

Alternatively, instead of blurting, “I’m like ‘how you say that?’” in confidence, to a third party, better by far, more direct and economical, is “I’m still baffled how he could say that.” Another corrosion to thoughtful speech that is stimulated by what I call yabber.

Yabber is a neologism invoked to describe a response that fails to stimulate true thinking, but serves both to express an apparent agreement and, worse, to encourage a predictable descent into tribal noise.  Read More 
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