Category Archives: Wobosphere fun

Public Shaming in the Interest of Orthodoxy

In re: Time magazine’s poll of words which are, like, grody to the max

OK, let’s give Steinmetz a big heaping dollop of benefit-of-the-doubt. Suppose you really are just exasperated by celebrities being, you know, celebrities in interviews. Sure. Fine. Then shouldn’t you direct your ire to the media apparatus which persists in caring about what celebrities do and say, regardless of what they are actually good at? If “media trends” are your problem, why don’t you criticize, I dunno, the media?

“Words to ban” pieces, like their year-in-review cousins, are perfect candidates to be granfalloons of petty grievances. They are also ideal capsules of public shaming in the interests of orthodoxy.

Language is all bound up with emotion, sometimes trying to fill an emotional need with pure verbal art. Larry Gonick‘s example was promoting someone to “vice president”, instead of giving her a raise. “A switchboard operator no longer, you are now Vice President, Corporate Communication!” Here, the policing of vocabulary gives people who don’t have a lot of power themselves the ability to stomp on those with even less. Sometimes, word rage is a way of punching up: e.g., getting one back from the executive class by condemning manager-speak. People who insist “impact is not a verb” come across, to me anyway, like they’ve heard it too many times in vacuous babble from middle management (cf. “think outside the box!”). But a lot of word rage is punching down. When a usage is commonplace, people grow accustomed to it, and complaining about it becomes a niche pursuit of peeve-ologists. But when it’s an idiom spoken by Those Other People, it’s common enough to be noticed, but it doesn’t become familiar. It’s how Those Other People talk, and distaste for Those Other People gains a convenient and superficially polite outlet, in disparaging their vernacular.

Your Password

Your password must contain a pound of flesh. No blood, nor less nor more, but just a pound of flesh.

Your password must contain all passwords which do not contain themselves.

Your password must contain any letter of the alphabet save the second. NOT THE BEES! NOT THE BEES!

Your password must contain a reminder not to read the comments. Really. You’ll thank us.

Your password must have contained the potential within itself all along.

A Hypothesis on Interdisciplinary Perceptions

Postulate (Sturgeon’s Law): 90% of everything is crud.

Observation: Part of being educated in a field is learning how to filter out the crud produced in it—the work which is slapdash, too banal to spend brain-time on, fundamentally misguided, boring. This “learning how to filter” includes both recognizing bad work quickly when one sees it and taking advantage of existing social mechanisms for winnowing intellectual wheat from chaff.

Result: When Alice, trained in one field (say, physics) looks over into another (e.g., philosophy), she’s likely to hit crud. If this happens a few times over, Alice is apt to form a low opinion of the other field, a low opinion which is in a way justifiable but which in a deeper sense is misleading. This process repeats with Bob, Carol, etc.; by the time we get to Xenia, there is a notion afloat in one field that the other isn’t much good, leading to reciprocal enmity from the other.

Observation 2: If Amelie is formally trained in one field (say, pure mathematics) and accomplishes something legitimate in another (perhaps she pens an evocative new translation of the poems of Ryōkan), then the fact that she jumped discliplinary boundaries will be less remarked upon than if her effort failed. The departmental affiliation of a competent worker is easily forgotten, but that of a grandiose blowhard is easily remembered.

Overall result: In a subtle way, the world gets worse.

2:00 AM Vocabulary Thought

I find it interesting that Inception! has come to mean “nesting” or “recursion.” First, as was just demonstrated, we already had fine words for the concept. An attendee of SciFoo using the Googleplex wifi to locate themselves on Google Maps, after, say, Googling for the URL, is performing Googleception!, though it could just as well be Googlecursion. Second, more intriguingly, in the film, “inception” is the planting of an idea through manipulated dreaming, not the nesting of dreams within dreams. The film begins with nested dreams being used for extraction, and almost all the characters believe inception to be impossible. The nesting procedure is, in the fictional world, a means to either end. In one of the lovely puzzles of life, the movie established a use of a term at variance with itself.

It also established our low societal standards for “complex” cinema. A heist movie? About Assembling a New Team for the One Last Job Before Retirement? Really?


Contraception? Evil. Kids getting their hands on Daddy’s guns and blowing holes in each other? The price of Freedom. U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

“the proudest products of our little world”

Ah, the “who speaks for Earth?” parlour game. It’s up there with “which historical figure would you like to have for dinner” and “if you could be a fictional character for a day” for entertaining displays of merrily frivolous erudition. Who—drawing, if we like, from all human history—should be our representatives to an alien civilization? What, in our fantasy, would the aliens appreciate, and who embodies those qualities? Danny Inouye? Lyudmila Pavlichenko? Honinbo Sansa? Sappho? Eratosthenes? Josephine Baker? Emmy Noether? Malcolm X? Alan Turing? Ahmes? Yoko Kanno? Srinivasa Ramanujan?

And what do our choices say about ourselves, about the way we codify canons and build cultural capital?

Per this entertaining development, I’m reminded of something the science writer Timothy Ferris once wrote:

Imagine that we here on Earth have made contact with an interstellar network and have downloaded thousands of simulations from its memory banks. All over the planet people are putting on VR helmets and immersing themselves in the art, culture, and science of alien worlds. We in turn have uplinked whole libraries’ worth of Bach, Beethoven, Shakespeare, Lao Tzu, Homer, Van Gogh and Rembrandt, Newton and Einstein, Darwin and Watson and Crick, the proudest products of our little world. Yet we appreciate that our wisdom and science are limited, our art to some degree provincial. There may be an audience somewhere among the stars for Virgil and Dante and Kubrick and Kurosawa, just as there may be some humans who genuinely enjoy the poetry of the crystalline inhabitants of Ursa Major AC+ 79 3888, but it is apt to be a limited audience. Our movies and plays are not likely to find a wide popular following in the Milky Way galaxy—any more than many humans settling down on the sofa after dinner are likely to watch an infrasonic opera that lasts ten years, the cast of which are alien invertebrates who dine on live spiders.

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Useful Quotation

From Alex Gabriel:

Chromosomes, as Anne Fausto-Sterling details in Sexing the Body, can’t be relied on as indicators of the other traits here — sets exist beyond XX and XY, as do humans in whom both are found and outwardly ‘female-bodied’ people with the latter. Anatomy comes in endless combinations, such that estimates of ‘ambiguous’ sets’ commonness vary wildly, with some as high as one in twenty-five (John Money, cited in Fausto-Sterling’s work). Bodies with the ‘wrong’ features — height, hair, breast tissue, Adam’s apples — are common. Everyone preadolescent, postmenopausal or otherwise infertile is sexless judging by sperm and ova. Hormones, like most of these attributes, can be altered at will.

When not all these tests are passed, which overrule which? Milinovich describes people with ‘female’ anatomy and XY chromosomes as male, for example — suggesting, confusingly, that she doesn’t think maleness requires physical traits. What reason is there to choose genes rather than body parts when diagnosing sex, and not vice versa? In practice, things tend to go the other way: medics who judge a foetus’s sex via ultrasound, for instance, do so only by identifying outer sex organs, and I know nothing about my chromosomes, interior sex organs, hormones or fertility. The fact (or assumption) I have a penis is seen as enough, most of the time, to classify my sex as male, but why should it outweigh these unknown factors?

It’s common enough for adult cisgender men — deemed male at birth, with bodies read straightforwardly that way — not to grow facial hair. I know two or three who don’t; so probably do you. This isn’t seen to affect their physical sex. Why then, barring blunt intuition, should the absence of a penis? We can argue facial hair is only a secondary sex characteristic, and penises a primary one, but this relies itself on defining sex by reproductive role: the logic is circular. From that standpoint, moreover, why not make testes the sole determinant, so people possessing them and a vulva were ‘males’? Testes have, after all, the more distinct and self-contained function of sperm production. A penis, being a shell for the urethra, is just another pipe among the plumbing — we’ve no grounds except cultural ones to treat it differently from a vas deferens. So why is it more necessary for ‘maleness’?

Milinovich calls sex a static, stubborn fact, then moves inconsistently between ideas (see above) about what it is. If she herself can’t pick a definition, what does this suggest?