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Strictly Speaking

Disrespect

DISRESPECT

Decomposing this word by separating the prefix dis- (which also appears in an identical linguistic role in the word disintegrated = dis + integrated) from the following noun “respect” means removing or destroying or nullifying the root word “respect." This approach to analysis then directs attention to the word respect. Respect is often misperceived as a unidirectional relationship between two people of different rank or value. In traditional systems, respect stems from a formal command system that subordinates one individual with respect to another based on a permanent and immutable relationship.

A familiar example would be “Respect (also translated from the Aramaic as ‘honor’) thy father and thy mother,” a Biblical directive that if inviolable would direct a daughter to accept sexual relations with her father. This misguided perversion is dramatized in the film Chinatown between Faye Dunaway and her screen father John Houston, who was then angling for similar “respect” from his own granddaughter/daughter by his screen daughter, in perpetuity until his libido or testicles failed him. The dynastic Egyptians had a word for it, and if it was incest, that hieroglyphic translated in pharonic times to a moral and social connotation opposite that currently associated with the word incest. To wit, legitimate marriage between brothers and sisters long before John Irving began wrestling with the idea.
The traditional application of respect is unidirectional, irreversible and unassailable.

Father-daughter incest escapes the confines of Chinatown or Nuts or The Color Purple, expanding to brother-sister incest in The Hotel New Hampshire and The Shipping News and a mothers-son variation in Tom Jones and Spanking the Monkey, to real life situations playing out in dark, dingy, secret basements in Austria where the happy, unexamined family included a father, his daughter/mistress and their bouncing little baby, their tragic situation perhaps enforced not just by doors and locks but by the unilateral social glue of commands like “Respect thy father and mother.”

The problem is that currently popular capital offense of disrespect reflects not only an insecurity and hypersensitivity in the accusation, but a fundamental misunderstanding – with no apologies to Aretha Franklin – of the word itself. In the film Grand Canyon, a black man employed by a towing services (played by Danny Glover) appears to rescue a frightened white man (Kevin Kline) whose car has broken down in Inglewood. Glover is soon confronted by a pack of gangbangers who use their hostility to let truth determine whether they will kill Klein and Glover, or just hassle them as the rescue evolve

The gangbangers are most offended by Glover’s character, as he appears to be humbling himself in service to whitey in exchange for the Almighty dollar that too often both measures and reinforces the separation between the social and economic status of blacks and whites in America.

Aware that he is close to death and must maintain both a non-provocative and proud posture, Glover proceeds to continue hooking up Kline’s inoperative BMW. He recognizes the surrounding hostiles by answering them as honesty and thoughtfully as he can, agreeing in principle with a barb that one of the young blacks throws at him. At which point another one says, “And you agree because you, like, respect us,” punctuating the interrogative by waggling a Glock under Glover’s nose. “Or is it just the gun.”

Calmly, both afraid and recognizing a truth that is known to these guys before they asked the question, Glover provides the flat, matter-of-fact response, “Without the gun, this conversation isn’t even happening,” then continues to secure the broken down car, aware that it might be the last thing he says.

But the other brothers, knowing he has given them a hard truth, simply back off, melt away. All they can do is kill him, but they can never kill him so thoroughly that he is going to pop to his feet and scream, “Why you do that for? All the time I respectin’ y’all.”

It wasn’t, as is currently said, going to happen.

Respect is a reciprocal chosen relationship chosen between two or more participants in which a regard freely given by one is returned in kind by others because the enforcement of such a relationship is not just mutually beneficial in the immediate sense, but provides an example of how the freedom to choose mutually advantageous courtesies encourages the formation of similar relationships by others. Such reciprocal courtesies are based not on enforcement by unilaterally authoritarian devices, but on a community of common values practiced by example, without regard to larger acceptance or need for any external mediation.

It does not necessarily mean that the most humane, compassionate or altruistic society necessarily ensues. Head hunters in primitive societies agree and respect their neighbors for the hunting, shrinking and displaying of human heads and gourmet preparation of other body parts as might even blanch Julia Child. They would raid nearby tribes, engage in battlefield slaughter, drag off their women for purposes of cultural and genetic (although usually not gastronomic) assimilation, and operate via a a standard operating procedure deriving from their peculiar understanding of respect. The exact protocol required by respect is often regional, of limited duration, or confined to cultures and religions. A neat little travel guide entitled Dos and Taboos informs travelers on ways to stay out of the local pillories.
But the matters of choice and mutual acceptance address the central element of freedom, an element that makes a non sequitur of the question, “You tryin’ to dis me,” at least unless the dis- is an abbreviation of disparage, not disrespect.

Respect is a relationship not only chosen but earned by anyone seeking to enter its umbrella or to invoke it as a justification for action. It cannot be claimed by simply climbing into a uniform and attempting to impose it based on rank. A police force that is unresponsive to and dismissive of public concerns cannot accurately claim that anyone has disrespected their authority, since the respect for authority is not established by shouting and swearing or by a generous application of batons, mace, tasers and boots.

By contrast, respect is fostered by the calm and, yes, respectful observance of the laws that they are pledged to uphold, including – in the United States of America – the freedom to speak, the freedom from illegal search and seizure, the citizen’s expectation that their employees – because this is the role that police hold with respect to the community – will practice a manner of civility, lawfulness, competence, good manners and act as peace officers, not as men – and now women, too – who escalate situations to privately gratify violence, but those who restore public safety and defend individual freedoms.

These considerations get back to the word under discussion, disrespect, and the mistake of some police officers that they are being disrespected. These public employees seem unable to comprehend that if necessary it is their duty to be killed in protecting a citizen rather than to accidentally kill a citizen because of a mistake on their part.

In any person seeking respect from another, the best hope of being granted respect is to behave respectfully. Because in semantic truth, no one can dis- you before you have first earned their respect. While courtesy may be obligatory, respect is never free, nor will you find it other than subsumed by the principles of the United States Constitution.

Respect is like any other worthy, valuable and desirable situation. If you want it, earn it. If you haven’t earned it, then - with no disrespect intended, least of all to language – then nobody can “dis” you, even if everyone wanted to.  Read More 
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Differential and Difference

DIFFERENTIAL

The word differential was introduced to the world by one of the intellectual giants in human history, although he himself, ironically, was not much bigger than knee high to a grasshopper. He favored tall wigs, not just because he thought of himself (although not politically) as a big whig, but because he, like everyone else, wanted to measure up. But his brilliant neologism, differential, was conceived as a diminutive of the word difference in response to a functional need that never previously existed. Differential was related to difference but distinct from it, introduced in order to better communicate the ability of his revolutionary calculus (a system of mathematical examination of the instantaneous properties of mathematical equations, nearly co-discovered by Wilhelm Leibnitz) to determine the relationships between – and here it comes – infinitesimally small quantities along a nonlinear graphic curve.

A differential along any of three Cartesian coordinates in Euclidean space is a conceptual entity that – by its nature, and unchangeably – is too small to be measured by any scale, however well defined are its measurements. A differential is too finely divided for that. By its nature and definition and intent, differential defines the low end of a scale that reaches upwards toward infinity in bigness.
The introduction of this novel concept of the differential may be one of history's most well concealed puns. Newton, a Unitarian minister, believed that each of God’s creatures had some unique gift to bestow on humankind, whatever shortcomings that creature suffered. Ergo, being tiny himself, Newton may have had an inordinate fondness for probing smallness with the same obsession that he accepted a God so vast and ubiquitous that he was not only eternal but he was ubiquitous. Thinking this way, God was beyond twenty-first century electronic eavesdropping in that His knowledge (it was always a He in Newton’s time) defied the Einsteinian limit of the speed of light limiting the rate of information transfer.

Way ahead of his theoretical time, Newton would have been pleased by what Einstein called spooky action at a distance, stuff now well established experimentally, like quantum entanglement, through which a change in state of one particle induces an entangled partner particle across the universe to change its state at the same instant. Since particles are limited by the speed of light, such changes are not conventionally causal. They do not arise by transmitted information reaching out and touching another particle. In the laboratory, and reproducibly, an excitation of one particle creates an identical response in its quantum-entangled partner in an interval instantaneously. Faster than the speed of light could connect them.

Forget cause and effect. Think simultaneity. A change induced in one particle does not stimulate the other follow; their states are coupled forever instantly. Think of identical twins separated by half a world but united by telekinesis.
Maybe their neurons are quantum-entangled.

Less perplexing is that when Newton invented and articulated differential in use, he slammed the door forever on its confusion with the root word difference from which it was derived. Derivation is a process in differential calculus, so there is a neat unity and connectedness in linguistic process and intent. This is no less than seems appropriate to the kind of genius who comes around once every four hundred years or so.

Here is the consequence of this genius in usage: if a real quantity, however small, can be measured on a numerical scale or by an established method of physical probing rather than calculated by the operation of differentiation on another function, then such a well measured quantity is a difference. If it is too small to be directly measured, existing only as a statement of smallness below the capacity of instrumentation (instruments measure things; machines make things) and inconsequential to the marco world, then it is a differential. In definitions, as would have pleased E.B. White, every word counts. That part of the definition of the word differential than ends all bar room arguments is the requirement, per Newton, that is be infinitesimal, immeasurably small.

Somewhere along the bumpy road of distinction, poor old differential suffered the fate of so many other previously unconfusing and practically defined words: it got highjacked by a pattern of usage where the users were seeking intellectual inflation by using (not utilizing, please) words that made their pronouncements seem less vague or more authoritative. It has become a pattern of extending and decorating simpler, shorter words, then, like rococo architects, infecting them with ornaments until the collapse under the escalating burden of pretension. In its most popular parody, it might – except for the fleeting half-life of popular memory – be deemed Palinism, after Sarah Palin.

This validity of this view was conceded to me by Alfred Kahn, former Cornell economics professor and senior economics adviser to President Jimmy Carter, who admitted, “It helps in getting things done to be perceived as belonging. So in meetings large and small we get trapped playing mister nice guy to avoid an embarrassment to someone who misuses a word, so eventually everyone is misusing the word a word like ‘differential’ order to remain accepted. The first guy to score a point for semantics and insist on true meanings is henpecked to death by a flock of chickens too social to risk being ostracized by insisting on correct definitions.”
For sports commentators – except for Dick Button now and rarely in any case since Howard Cossell exemplars par excellence of comprehensible utterances – to argue heatedly over the differential (contradictorily and erroneously assigned numerical values) between two teams. This simply establishes that poorly informed beliefs and open microphones can form durable bonds.

In a rage to win arguments as convincingly as competing teams win games, commentators have ignored the undebatable semantic fact that measured distinctions between anything, even sports scores and stats, must by the process of being measurable be differences.

In considering what team has the edge “on paper” (where real games are never played), the arguments had better discuss differences, because differentials – being immeasurably small – cannot affect outcomes. Nor does repeated misuse (not misutilization) however vocal and adamantly expressed, alter this situation.
The rebuttal by Dick Vitale will probably be, “I don’t care what it used to mean, baby, this is what it is in sports and who can say that twenty-first century sports is less important than seventeenth century calculus?” To which a long dead Isaac Newton might respond, “The word ‘differential’ was created to represent a mathematically important smallness that no one previously had recognized. Neologisms are often born of fashion and as quickly pass into disfavor. The need for a word as different and distinct as difference and differential means that foreverafter the words need be properly applied in their distinct senses unless the intention it to mistakenly suggest that they are identical in meaning and simply sound different (not differentially). In truth they are as irreconcilably distinct as God and Satan. Only a bedeviler of comprehension and meaning would attempt to confuse them.”

My vote is for Newton, and I’ll give you favorable odds (the likely difference in two irreconcilably different outcomes, as expressed by a ratio expressing the confidence of putative experts in Las Vegas) that if we could reconvene three hundred years from now, and if (and only if) we escape the ongoing collapse of distinct words into one steady, deafening, nonsensible sound, Isaac Newton will still be as broadly recognized and commonly misunderstood as Dick Vitale and his many miked friends will be a collective, long-forgotten puzzlement. And that’s the bald truth.  Read More 
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Dialect

DIALECT

Dialect is a pattern of language usage that departs from what might otherwise be called standard usage in terms not only of the pronunciation of words, and even phonemes, but in such recognizable matters as lengths of sentences, cadences, syncopes and expressions, an example of which might be “don’t make no nevermind.” This translates to “it makes no difference; it’s unimportant.“ This meaning is far from clear from direct translation of the expression.

One of the characteristics of dialect is that a traveled student of language can often discern from vestigial inflections and casual lapses (when, say, the speaker is relaxed by confidence or liquor) not only where the speaker grew up but places he or she lived, languages he or she learned, and whether those languages were learned during a period in linguistic innocence (ending at about ten years of age) or afterwards, when the student acquiring a new language has literally to think in their native language and conjure the structure necessary for rendering the thought in the second language.

Dialect makes it hard remain disguised among residents of an area. Certainly it is enough for a large number of interacting persons to recognize that they’ve never seen or heard of Fred Schmidt before, even though Fred says he’s lived her his whole life taking care of his crippled mother Norma while living on hush money sent weekly from his father, a rich banker in Chicago. Truth be known, to lifelong locals Fred “just don’t sound right.” His vocal expression lacks all the symptoms diagnostic of the syndrome “being from here,” which is also like “being one of us.”

Dialects can be born of a locality, and are more characteristic of narrow areas than of larger ones. To a Maine Yankee, who is probably a gringo’s gringo, anyone with a southern accent is “South in the Mouth,” or the kind of fellow who runs around barefoot, has a permanent case of hookworm, lingering pellagra, an unclosed soft spot on his skull, a slackness of his jaws, plays perfect banjo, but has a dull cast about his narrowed eyes and narry says a word. But to a southerner, there’s a world of difference between a Georgia dialect, an Alabama dialect, and a West Texas dialect. And, since you Yankees have been paying no attention whatever since 1865, a New Orleans dialect, which sounds like nothing “South in the Mouth at all.” Then again, in fairness, most natives of Oxford, Mississippi would not “hear” the difference between an “Off Islander” in Maine and someone living on one of Maine’s many scattered off shore islands.  Read More 
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Expanding Awareness of Others

DEXTEROUS

In current usage, the word dexterous intends to communicate a sense of deftness of hand, coordination of fine motors skills, a knack for moving objects around in space without smashing them (or yourself) up. Strictly applied, this word’s origin excludes more than twelve percent of the population, in particular all of those who happen to be left handed. Since dexterous derives from the Latin dexter, for right handed, no left handed person can be dexterous.

Nor can they be ambidextrous, which would mean, literally, having a right hand at the end of both arms and being able to juggle as well as an anatomically normal person. Better for the intended meaning is ambichiral, which means that each hand is as agile as the other at writing, throwing, juggling and all those things like dancing the hand jive, an ambichiral dance.

As for left handers, if deft with moving objects they are sinistral, from the Latin word for left, which also spins off into sinister, or evil. People who are sinistral are not necessarily sinister, but the expression “right hand man” come from the position of trust of a person seated at a table directly to the right of the king, or pope, or emperor, because from that position, an easy and powerful twist could put a knife quite literally right through the heart of the monarch. If seated directly to the left of the ruler, a right handed person would need first to show his weapon, then lean away from the target and lash back, requiring three motions and employing less force in the intended lethal strike.

Of course for a left handed person seated to the left, it would be as easy to strike powerfully at a leader as for a right-handed person seated to the right. Perhaps if the second most trusted man in the kingdom is left handed, he needs to sit two seats to the left, with one seat left vacant, hovered over by somePretorian guard ready to interdict.

The seating arrangement to the left is also the origin of the expression back-handed complement, since a right hander seated to the left has difficulty assuming normal and relaxed posture when leaning in toward, or speaking to, the king, who is always aware of the back-handedness of the second banana’s posture.

The numerical superiority of right handers has led to a world so completely designed for leading with the right hand that everything from drinking fountains to golf clubs were originally for right handers only. The proliferation of these disadvantages results in accident rates that leave left handers two years younger than their right handed counterparts at time of death. Its unfair to add the disadvantage of careless usage to that pattern. If we're not using "nigger" for PC reasons, we should watch our word regarding other prejudices.  Read More 
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Democracy

DEMOCRACY

The discussion of this word in contemporary America is scarcely possible without a clot of ubermachismo listeners responding with a tear in their eye, a lump in their pants, and the conviction that they will kill you before admitting any detonation, connotation, or annotation that departs from their beliefs, by God, Country, and Mom’s apple pie.

The truth of democracy is a simple one, government by elected officials with specific powers who win their positions in a fairly conducted election in which all eligible voters are permitted unobstructed access to vote, in which no eligible voter is forced to vote, where every person eligible to cast a vote according to rules of age, residency and freedom from felonious conviction has a right to one and via only one ballot, in which the ballots are all cast according to strict pre-election rules on the eligibility of candidates and in which the total is reached by tally of ballots alone, without discrimination as regards the demographic status of the voter, through a process where both the electioneering and voting are conducted in a system of competition where rules of electoral conduct are observed and not subverted by any party.

In this regard, if everything goes right, the majority rules, in as far as electing a person whom they believe, often by identifying with a personality rather than that person’s ability to rule. In America, the word democracy connotes a democracy with an American policy lever attached. This is why in August, 1953, the Central Intelligence Agency launched Operation Ajax, cleansing Iran of the democratically elected Premier Mohammed Mossedegh, and installing, sans election, the Shah Reza Pahlavi. He ruled with a Hitlerian barbarity until ousted by a theologically inspired revolution in 1979.

Washington was expecting the common Iranian to be more grateful for protecting them from the godless commies to the North. Such protection was unnecessary. Ten years later the commies got both god and democracy, plus ersatz capitalism to boot. This is as good as it gets. Now, as Bob Dylan prophesied, the Russians, too, have God on their side. So finally they have made the right choice by God, Country, Apple pie and the traditional wild punch-up at the local tavern to follow the balloting.
It would be more honest to blame ourselves for democracy than to thank God.

Nowhere in the Ten Commandments does it say Thou Shalt Not Fail to Vote. In a system where, as Lord Acton predicted, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and in which few watch either the watchers or the balloting process, corruption seems inevitable. In the richest countries, the outcome of democratic balloting is strongly influenced by campaign financing, which is intended to be conducted under the governance of rules and reporting that are often subverted or ignored. The Supreme Court can be credited for abetting these practices. And for dilating the separation between the rich and the poor.

In systems open to free expression and valuing the truth, outrageous lies as spoken and repeated with the greatest of apparent conviction, because what is valued is not honesty or openness, but winning and power. In human minds that are more suspicious than analytical, suspicions will often sway those who are disinclined from rational balance and who are swayed by prejudices, fears and – yes – even hates. The devil believed to be known is preferred to an opponent whose evil may remain artfully concealed.

In countries were balloting is democratic by format but where balloting is instantly examined, where discovery of opposition is punished by discrimination, ostracization, or death, and in which voter conduct is either artificially elevated by boosterism or repressed by threat of rumor, the outcome will be influenced by the forces at work, just as the outcome is influenced by money and perception in countries where money and perception can be brokered toward an outcome favored by an affluent faction determined to alter public perception. Realities to the contrary may be unimportant in determining the outcome. Ideas that are perceived as being real are real in their consequences.

Democracy does not guarantee the emergence of any traditional system of justice, law, culture, or language. Democracy, if rigorously pursued as a concept, simply ensures that the preferences of the majority of voters will be incorporated in the governmental system that follows. If Israel is, as advertised by its spokespeople, the only true democracy in the Middle East, population demographics guarantee three things. First, since the birthrate of Arabic Israelis exceeds that of Jewish Israelis, an elected government will some day exist that is unsympathetic to a powerful prejudice within Israel, that it is a theocracy existing for the preservation and protection of the Jews.

If such a view continued after the Arabic Israelis achieved democratic majority, this view would be a minority one, and would stand in the way of progress on matters of settlement and human rights in the West Bank.

Second, if an Arabic Israeli majority triumphs at the polls, then the nature of the law, the country’s treatment of Arabs and its foreign policy with respect to surrounding Islamic nations is bound to be affected. If democracy operates, it operates in a system where its turning wheels can eliminate democracy, if desired. If democracy is arguably the preferred system over all systems, it will re-emerge on its own merits.

This actually happened in Germany after World War I, where under the terms of the armistice Germany would be forced to incorporate a democratic form of government in which its leaders and officials were elected, a system in which an elected legislature would be needed to decide matters, a system in which German was forbidden from having an army.

The German people didn’t like the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which encumbered them with heavy reparations that became harder to bear as the Great Depression followed the American stock market crash of October 24, 1929. This made them joyous to embrace the familiar pattern of one strongman leading them, even though the one man was only an illiterate fulminating former corporal who dreamed of exterminating every Jew on Earth and defied every other nation on Earth with the 1930's equivalent of “bring it on.”

They did, all of those countries, and there were not enough Reichsmarks, propagandists or soldiers or tanks to defeat them all. The military ambitions to extend German’s world dominance by unjustified aggression failed. Hitler’s agents repressed then destroyed dissent, declaring all other views than the Führer’s to be unpatriotic, expelling many physicists who led the United States to develop the word’s first nuclear weapon, and the second, and third.

After the Second World War Germany was broken up into free and Soviet zones. The free zone was democratic and, despite being ruled by former Nazis, became one of the most peaceful and fair-minded nations on Earth, a complete vole-face.
With respect to Nazi Germany, it did better with respect to the appearance of democracy during World War II than did the United States as regards some of their citizens whom they squirrel away, without due process, in harsh, minimalist American concentration camps in western states.

Antidemocratic would be the least severe description that for what happened; the rights guaranteed to an entire subculture were violated without even lip service to due process. But as regards the Japs, who were Japs long before the Vietnamese were called gooks, the worst was yet to come.

The de facto situation in democratic American, land of the free and home of the brave, is that race hatred against the Japanese was used to punish these innocents for a dastardy attack on Pearl Harbor that was carefully orchestrated (by freezing Japanese assets in America and embargoing Japan from United States aviation fuel and iron ore), an attack known to be in planning by Code Purple (the code already broken, as the British had broken the German Enigma Code prior to the raid on Coventry)

When the Japanese fleet sailed east to strike Pearl Harbor, the purpose of the attack was to leave the Japanese Empire unthreatened when it occupied Dutch East Asia for its oil supply. Radar images of the incoming Japanese zeros was ordered ignored. FDR needed to create the image of treacherous oriental fiends and innocent occidental victims to catalyze a sea change in the isolationist mood of 1941 America. Had Japan been a democratic nation, it would not have conferred any exemption from reprisal.

The Japs, as American many veterans of the Second World War still call them, weren’t like us. Germans were more like us. Germans stood between Europe and Josef Stalin’s communist menace. Americans of German descent, even first generation German Americans, were not locked up in concentration camps. They were democratically enlisted to serve their country, and did so well. As did black Americans, as did the Windtalking Amerindian Marines, as did Italians and Hispanics, none of them, either according to Father Coglan or the KKK exactly the heart and soul of white America.

These were Japs. So upset was an American veteran of World War II, former bomber pilot and US President, at meeting with the Japanese premier more than forty years after the end of hostilities that he vomited all over Japan’s premier. At a public occasion. But then some race that makes you that sick would be easy enough to relegate to subhumanity, to slate for extermination, even for the few, proud U.S. Marines, as the did on Peile Liu, to divest the corpses of Japanese soldiers of their dental gold just as German SS were harvesting gold fillings from exterminated Jews.

Certainly the Japanese did themselves no service with the Batan Death March, but the Germans also machine-gunned captured US soldiers after the Normandy invasion. And yet, there was no possibility that we would use a nuclear weapon on Germany. Not only was it unthinkable to unleash such a horror on another occidental people, but even had the A-bomb been ready (it wasn’t tested in the Trinity test until July, 1945 and Hitler had committed suicide at the end of April, 1945) it would have created an unacceptable fallout, literally and figuratively, where American forces were still rousting the German scientists who had made the V-I, the V-II and, too late for any effect, the first jet-powered fighter.

These POW scientists were people whom we could make Americans, however many Jews they had worked to death. They simply weren’t subhuman. They didn’t deserve to be incinerated twice. An invasion of Germany to liberate it was worth every soldier slaughtered on Omaha Beach at Normandy. Japan wasn’t worth a single more American fatality. Every syllable previously inked is inextricably linked to the American notion of democracy.

A prime weapon to advance democracy over communism during the Cold War against the Soviets was the bomb. Whatever it was the Ruskies could hurl our way could be survived by “duck and cover.” But woe unto Slavs whom the Führer had pegged subhumans. A la Herman Kahn, if merit doesn’t work to establish democracy, then we should use the bomb. This is the way, according to Curtis LeMay, who itched to use a massive nuclear bombing to defeat democracy’s only remaining ideological enemy.

Why waste all the uncertainties of the ballot box and freedom of choice when you can simply blow your enemy away with an apocalyptic weapon? Without questions or ballots or any pretenses of free speech, this ends all honest discussion concerning the putative merits of various systems, tears away the green curtain and cuts to the chase of might making right. Read More 
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Tribal Noise? Definitely

DEFINITELY

Here’s yet another perfectly serviceable word that has, by common usage, descended into a meaning and subtext unsupported etymologically or logically. Consider an example. Four people, separated into two groups of two, sit in coffee shops of antipodal (it’s a perfectly good word, so far uneroded by overuse; look it up, or see antipodal, previously) political alignment. In the separated groups, two of the speakers reach opposite conclusions, but in both cases their partners respond with the word, “Definitely.”

They apply the word in the sense now intended, which is “I agree emphatically.” But if the separate conversations have reached opposite conclusions and the speakers are seeking a valid, unassailable position, their opposing conclusions cannot be validly received with the word “definitely.”

To be definite, a composition, material, or even argument, needs to provide a defining situation, usually after long and sometimes sharp exchanges, and must define something according to broadly agreed-upon standards that often demand precise measurements by fundamentally different methods. More is required than just agreement among a certain set of minds that regard themselves as in. Prior to his exposure as a fraud and criminal, all of Bernie Madoff’s investors agreed that he was “definitely” the go-to guy for their money, the kind of guy whose shrewdness was a slam dunk, the kind of guy who definitely knew where the secret mother lode of profit lay.

Among individuals who behave and believe by simple wish-fulfillment that what they desire becomes true, “definitely” and “I agree” become a strange perceptual fusion equivalent to “no sane person could disagree because I could never handle the resulting uncertainty.” Bringing us back, along a long and tortured path, to the inextricable inevitability of the fabric of the physical universe with uncertainty, the awareness that even the revolutionary Einsteinian universe (a mere century) old is now a minority player in the cosmos as a whole, and that the only certainty that we definitely know is that the more we discover, the less comfortable is eventual truth with the present use of “definitely.” QED. But not entirely definitely. Read More 
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Decimation in December

DECIMATE

Here’s yet another perfectly misused word, often intended to communicate the sense better represented by words like annihilate or obliterate. Actually the origin and definition of the decimate beg for more careful deployment. Here’s where the word decimate comes from and what it means.

When Roman legions were dispatched to occupy and govern foreign provinces, maintaining discipline in the army’s ranks was essential. If discipline began to slip, the centurion was authorized to decimate his own troops. This meant (quite literally, since the word derived from the Latin prefix deci-, or one tenth) that one in every ten soldiers was put to the sword, a reminder to the survivors that it was better to remain well behaved and take your chances on the battlefield with an enemy than to resist a command and be slain random. It was the randomness of the process of execution that fired obedience to battlefield commands. Decimation was not performed on the ten percent of troops most guilty of mutiny or cowardice. It was a fully democratic process where all legionaries were equally eligible to be put to the sword, or – more accurately – the gladius.

It doesn’t take an Einstein to figure out why, at ten percent, decimate might work (through fear) to discipline the surviving troops, whereas at ninety percent it would just foment insurrection. Nor would a ninety percent “decimation” improve the odds of victory over an approaching adversary. Entering the fray with nine out of every ten former legionnaires dead would leave the remaining army at (1/10) of its former strength, so weak that capable adversaries like Hannibal or King Pyrrhus could have overrun them and fought on.

As often, the blame for spreading misuse broadly and quickly can in this case be traced to the lips of the media. The reversed sense of the word decimate is one of their darlings, a perennial finalist in the Miss Used ugly pageant. The common misuse of decimate in a figurative sense is additionally damaged by realizing that no one decimates from without; decimation is, by its nature, a disciplinary measure applied from within. Standing in ranks awaiting discipline, a Roman legionnaire facing proper Latin decimation has the odds of survival in his favor, nine to one for. If facing the modern misuse, his odds would be nine to one against.

A tribute to tribal noise, decimate is almost quantitatively paired withe certain agents like tornadoes. You will make good money by betting that a talking head will report, “Today in Arkansas, a tornado decimated the small town of..” Tribal noise thrives on the repetition not only of a limited number of words, but by pairing those limited words in stock phrases. Since news is a commodity seeking a market, invoking primal fears preempts content; the intent is to terrify and sustain interest, not to inform and provide perspective.

Finally, the argument for correct usage is best made mathematically, especially since the original word had an unmistakable mathematical equivalent. If presented with (1/10) = (9/10), you would immediately see the error. And if presented with (1/10) is not equal to (9/10), you would immediately agree. With decimate the idea of word inflation, equally applicable in the word “awesome,” is quantitatively established.  Read More 
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Crimes Against Humanity

CRIMES (against humanity)

Now here’s a lexicographic hot potato if ever there was one. Like the green revolution and sustainability, it has managed to gather caché in nearly nation in the world, depending on whether it was victimizing or victimized. While victimizing, crimes against humanity are glossed over as patriotic, heroic actions, or inevitable mistakes in the fog of war. But when victimized, a nation pays eternal homage to the words of George Santayana at the entrance to Auschwitz, “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.”

Crimes against humanity break down along both cultural and national lines, the outcome, as often, depending on the country. At Nuremberg the Allied Forces, sans the Soviet Union, tried certain high ranking Nazis as war criminals and left some of them swinging lifeless at the end of a rope. Had there been videophones among the executioners, their podcasts would have gone viral on You Tube.

The Soviets, who made no distinctions between German combatants and Nazi Party members, wreaked a terrible revenge on all German POWs, exiling them to Siberia. Incongruously, the triumphant United States conducted no war trials against the Japanese, despite the mass murder of the Batan Death March, the torture and execution of America POWs in camps, and the genocidal extermination of Nationalist Chinese in Nanking.

Either someone did not think of the Japanese as human, or the U.S. acted to deflect the accusation of its own crimes against humanity after the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in which more civilians than military were killed.

Inside nations, some still cling to playing God, despite God’s Biblical warning in the Book of Romans: “Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord; I shall repay.” In all industrialized countries other than the United States in the so-called free world, capital punishment is regarded as the state lowering itself to the offense that the convict has committed.

Ironically, in America the Beautiful, state sanctioned killing or a murderer is regarded as a form of deterrent (studies show it is not). In God-loving U.S.A., modern humans still howl for vengeance as loudly as their primate ancestors.

The United States Supreme Court once ruled that execution was “cruel and unusual punishment.” Not only that, but prosecutions seeking the death penalty are, according to journalist Stanley Cohen, more expensive to the state than a plea bargain leading to life imprisonment without parole.

Beyond that, as Project Innocence has shown repeatedly by using DNA evidence, persons originally convicted beyond a reasonable doubt were in fact not guilty. Ergo, the system pretending healthy skepticism has reached its verdict by some other process, probably fear, repulsion, outrage and suspicion. Bringing us to another line from the Bible, this one from the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not kill.” Not “Thou shalt not kill unless the son of a bitch is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” or even if he (or sometimes she) confesses.

Unless society sets the example by avoiding lethal violence, it, too becomes a mass murderer, committing crimes against humanity as coolly, regularly, and unapologetically as the Nazis did against the Jews. But then, as Condoleeza Rice said of the secret prisons and torture at Abu Ghraib, “I was all legal.” This was the same defense offered by attorneys for the Nazi defendants at Nuremberg. Maybe tort is a cognate of torture.  Read More 
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Neologisms

COPACETIC

In 1960, with the blessing of Websters’ Third International Dictionary, words like copacetic, which originally meant excellent, or fine, gained full linguistic legitimacy. Prior to 1960, dictionaries prefaced the definition of copacetic by “slang” or “substandard.”

The older dictionaries were not being judgmental, as some believe. They simply understood that word usage in spoken language continues to be a socioeconomic distinction. Well spoken people who chose their words carefully, and, like Einstein, think slowly, are generally better educated, more capable and, more likely to rise in influence than those who are content to succumb to the temptations of changing usage in order to be more broadly embraced socially.

A few steps up the socioeconomic ladder would leave copacetic in the dust by deploying “superb,” which is broadly understood, whereas “ineffable,” while a perfectly good word, risks losing many listeners in the thicket of their own limitations. Read More 
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Control

CONTROL

At some stage of immaturity, within each of us lies a rage to control, to impose a set of requests, commands, engineering devices, prayers, oaths, expletives, hostile takeovers, insurance policies, inducements, contracts or investments, each made with the intention of determining the outcome of a situation in a away where the roles of chance and random events in altering that desired outcome are reduced to zero, and nothing – not God Him (or Her) self – can thwart that outcome.

In this respect, the concept of control runs as deep as the seeming need for religion, because it dresses hope up in the trappings of inevitability and provides a belief system where the putative controller has stepped behind the green curtain with the little man pulling the levers and is, as once famously declared by Alexander Haig (when he was not), in charge.

The situation in reality, as opposed to perception, is more like the ending of Animal House, where Kevin Bacon (as Chip Dill, all gussied up in his symbolically controlling ROTC uniform) races through the rioting crowd with his hands raised, screaming in panic “Remain calm! All is well!”

Control of this kind is impossible. It is made impossible by the same physical laws that prevent the creation of a perpetual motion machine. Every process in nature and industry, including human thought, is influenced by an inefficiency that prohibits creating a perfectly predicted and desired state in nature unless the process converging on the result sought is continually adjusted. Even then, the end point is less often the one sought than it is the best one possible under rapidly changing circumstances. As previously mentioned, absolute zero on the Kelvin scale of temperature will never been produced in the laboratory.

It is forbidden by the Laws of Thermodynamics. Heat leaks, no matter how much money and energy are spent in a attempt to eliminate these losses as an experimental variable. Thermodynamics prohibits you from buying a mint-perfect car and sealing it away in a cold vacuum, hoping that any future day you can intervene, crank over the engine, warm it up and drive away.

Here’s why. Despite the metals in the pistons and cylinders of an automobile engine being as identical as commercial manufacture allows, the atoms in the pistons contact those in the adjoining cylinders. At this interface, the metal atoms of the piston are inclined by entropy to be as random as possible. In obedience to the law, they seek a physical pathway (a mechanism) to do this. Simultaneously the chemically and physically identical solid state metal atoms of cylinder are inclined by entropy to be as far away from their identical lattice partners as they can. Ditto the chemically and physically identical metal atoms in the original engine block.

The dynamic result is rather like a slow motion film of a subway car stopped at a station in a city populated by billions and billions of twins. At the interface, where the subway car packed to capacity with clones opens, the riders struggle to leave the cars while the clones on the platform jostle to board. When the doors close, there are as many total people, with both car and platform packed, but if the clones could somehow be labeled, so that one could shout out in this Brave New World that, “I am not just another clone. I am John Doe!” then we would see that John Doe has left the train before, like Elvis, leaving the building.

The evidence for the two way rush of atoms is provided by metallurgists who slip noncorroding pistons tightly into cylinders, They they observe the interface. At the micrographic level, it begins to exhibit tiny sawtooth intrusions form opposite direction. As long as these are relatively small, there is nothing that a little motor oil and a good spin down the interstate won’t fix. But over longer time, the identity of the pistons and cylinders as separate, distinct structures dissolves. This is inevitable.

By entropy the atoms are inclined to move as far apart from one another as they can, to the limits established by available energy and physical state. And while is seems comprehensible to accept that a tiny, chemically unreactive atom of helium can simply diffuse back and forth through a latex barrier between two chambers of helium, it somehow seems intuitively unattractive to believe that an automobile engine that has been forged into different working parts would fuse solid if unused.

Use, maintain, or lose is woven into the texture of existence. We lack the power to stop the operation of physical laws that work both at the level of the Higgs Boson or across the span of the known universe.

With this realization, it’s necessary to give up the ideal of control and accept that all we can do is influence the outcome by the choices we make, as people, as nations and as a world. NASA has confirmed that an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl will make two passes between the moon and our planet in the next thirty-five years. While the first encounter is predicted to be a miss, if one its first pass, the asteroid passes through a narrow keyhole eighty kilometers wide, it will certainly strike our planet on its return. The impact would inject enough debris into the stratosphere to darken and cool the Earth for as long as ten years. The result would be severe enough to cause global chaos, destroying any illusion of human control, if anyone survives. True, in the case of an object spotted far enough away, a mission can be created to divert the approaching object ever so slightly, but enough to cause a miss.

This would require international cooperation. Even if one nation, say the United States, attempts to pre-emptively control the mission, a rogue country could perhaps destroy the savior ship with a particle beam, or China could say, “No, this is our mission,” and intercept the ascending spaceship with a killer satellite.

More likely that this fiscally demanding last-scene Three Stooges exit would be another program stretched out by irrational delays, like the thirteen month waiting list for an abortion in Romania.

Approaching doomsday, the diplomats would meet to split hairs over words while grinding out an agreement that would still be in plenary session when the object struck. Chip Dill, played by Kevin Bacon in Animal House, has by then grown up and become an Ambassador. Well-groomed, clever and consumingly arrogant, he will actually believe, despite the scientists’ eleventh hour plea for some nation – perhaps Kazakhstan under Borat – to do something, that all is well, and that we should remain calm.

Ambassador Dill’s last conviction will be that the projected damage is the result of the hysterical liberal press, and that it was, is, and ever will be, as God Blesses America, in control.

For Americans, who are most urgent about the idea of control, either in personal or international matters, there is a poignant irony in the fact that America houses, not at Los Alamos or Oak Ridge, but in Colorado, the dreaded doomsday machine of Dr. Stangelove, or, for the more humourous, the Q-Bomb of The Mouse that Roared: the Yellowstone Caldera.

Encircled by the caldera’s walls is the eponymous park, sitting atop a volcanic hotspot long overdue to erupt. The last time the human species saw anything like a hotspot eruption was about 78,000 years ago in Indonesia, a blast so catastrophic to a species that had only then existed for about 60,000 years that the number of reproductively active females surviving may not have exceeded one hundred (1000).

And, so, if you persist in believing in control, forget about how you can prevent block-diffusion of your car’s piston and start working on the problem, “How do we keep Yellowstone from punctuating our Earthly sentence?” Sounds like a job for geothermal to me.

All that is certain is that this is not a problem that can be controlled by wind power. Through all of human history, hot air has never helped solve a problem that neither all the talkers nor all the fighters in the world can control. Read More 
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