HCaldwell:On . . .


What is there to say? I'm not very interesting. I'm not a good writer. I don't even dress well. If you insist on knowing something about me just wander through the archives. It's all there.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

On a plethora of prizes

I got an ad in the mail today for a prize sweepstakes. Usually, this kind of advertising doesn’t even make it to my eyeballs before it is deposited in the trashcan, but the word, plethora, caught my attention. I was surprised that they used the phrase, “a plethora of prizes”. Usually, advertisements are written for someone with an eighth grade education or less. Maybe, plethora has become an eighth grade vocabulary word. If so, then education has definitely improved in this country in recent years.

I started wondering if there was actually a legal definition for plethora. Must one provide proof that the number of prizes comprises a legal plethora? What percentage constitutes a partial plethora? Perhaps, the word “plethora” is like the word “genuine” and has no legal meaning.

The word, genuine, really has no meaning when used in advertising. Thus, we have “genuine faux pearls” and “genuine leatherette covers”. I don’t believe that advertisers need to meet any threshold in order to define something as “genuine”. It has become a non-word. I know that recently there has been some wrangling concerning the definition of the word, organic. I am not sure what was finally decided on, but we will probably have yet another meaningless word when things are finally settled. If we’re not careful, we’re going to run out of words that actually mean something.

If plethora has really gone the way of genuine, then I can genuinely promise a plethora of postings in the near future.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

On typos

”Aargh! I hate typos.”

I have this mental image of typos as tiny little gnomes who hide behind the other words just before your eye passes over them. Once you have looked past them, they jump out and reinsert themselves back into the text. They even fool spell checkers by using fiendishly clever disguises. Faster than you can “blink”, they hide as “blank”. A “meet” quickly spoils as “meat”. Much to your embarrassment and dismay, your “pubic” can become quite “public". They put on little gnomish moustaches and fake glasses to pretend to be other words. Thereby, escaping the notice of even the most vigilant of spell checking programs.

“Clever little devils!”

In some parts of the world, artisans put tiny flaws in their works to avoid offending the spirit world. In trying to make their works too perfect, they fear that they will incur bad luck as the penalty for their hubris.

I like it. This is my new excuse for all typos.
It isn’t sloth. It isn’t haste. It is just an overabundance of spiritual caution.

“I meant to to that.”

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

On expertise and nonsense

I enjoy following the discussion threads of “really smart people” who are experts in their fields when they argue over the complex and/or the minute aspects of their disciplines. Whether the topic is in art, law, theology, language, math, physical sciences or the social sciences, I like to try to follow along in the reading without moving my lips too often. I am, by temperament and circumstance, a generalist. Most of my personal and historical heroes have been generalists. I can’t say that I never use bits of specialized geek speak, but I, generally, try to avoid it. I have been known to take advantage of this tendency toward the glorification of unintelligible gibberish (On having to write a senior paper), but I am certainly not qualified to participate in the orgies of entwined syllables and symbols enjoyed by the uber-specialists.

Where have all the generalists gone?

Medical experts like to pepper their writing with short Latin descriptors and study citations. Legal experts prefer entire Latin phrases and abbreviations interspersed with italicized “name vs. name” citations of innumerable precedents. Engineers, mathematician, and physical scientists enjoy a liberal sprinkling of equations artfully bedecked with letters from the Greek alphabet. Heated discussions among social and language scientists seem to degenerate into a playground (locker room?) style of confrontation centering on who has the biggest statistical variance. Into the midst of this specialist enshrined briar patch of entangled verbosity the rabbit of “reality” is tossed.

I have heard that the reason that experts seem to like talking in their own arcane languages is that it gives them a “precision of meaning” that cannot be found in the language of everyday life. Ok, I can buy that. It does seem, however, that the overuse of specialized language and jargon makes it difficult to extract precise concepts that communicate and can be compared across disciplines. Like in those pictures of everyday objects viewed under powerful microscopes, real things become unrecognizable abstractions. Abstraction caused by microscopically precise language obscure meaningful comparisons. Something is lost.

Arthur C. Clarke had a famous quote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

I would like to propose a corollary to Mr. Clarke’s astute observation.

“Any discussion by sufficiently advanced experts is indistinguishable from utter nonsense.”

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

On a double triptych

I made a triptych that hangs on the living room wall. (If I get around to it, I may try to post a picture of it here.) It is a composite rendering of primitive plants on a black background that was inspired by a television show that I saw on prehistoric plants. Since I tend to be contrary, it is actually made up of six individual ceramic panels, rather than three panels. So, I guess that it really can’t be called a triptych.

Is it a di-triptych or a sextych?

Sextych sounds weird. That can’t be right. It’s too hard to pronounce.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

On selective exposure

We resist exposing ourselves to opinions and viewpoints that disagree with our own opinions and viewpoints. I seem to recall discussing this tendency in a political science class. It is one of the reasons why it is so hard to actually change another’s opinion once that opinion has been set.

We tend to seek out and hang around with people who believe the way that we believe. We watch news programs that support our preset views on the issues of the day. We read articles, blogs, and books that reinforce our viewpoint. We avoid being exposed to the opposition.

I believe that it is referred to as “selective exposure”.

I do make a conscious effort to seek out a diversity of opinions in my reading, but I am certainly not immune to this selectivity. There are some stated opinions that just plain piss me off. I can’t help it. The usual problem is that the writing/commentary is filled with a plethora of “ad hominem” attacks. If it is done with wit and humor, I can see the point of it. It is there for entertainment, not education. It is irksome when it disguised as a serious discussion of issues. For some networks, blogs, and commentators: this is their only point. Unfortunately, we have given this style of faux debate several rather “cool” sounding names such as calling it “in your face” journalism. It is time to take away the cool factor and call it what it is: flinging poo.

If political and social spinners were introduced as “poo flingers” rather than “political activists”, perhaps, they could be shamed into cleaning up their act.

Of course, we all know what happens when you fling poo.

No one ever wants to shake your hand.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

On simple

I always cringe when I hear someone say, "Oh, it will be easy. It’s such a simple project."

That word, "simple" is a killer. It can be easy to execute a simple project, but it is more difficult to have it be perceived as a successful project. I have a theory about why this is the case. I could call it the "Splintered Focus is Kinder" theory. It is human nature to be more attuned to tiny flaws when we are asked to critique things that are easy to examine. The more complex the object of our attention, the less aware we are of the minuscule flaws.

Imagine that you are told, before entering a room, that you will have one hour to study the quality of the contents of the room. You enter the room and see one cardboard box. For the next hour, you study the cardboard box. You note each tiny dent, scrape, and irregularity in that box. When you leave the room after one hour, no matter how perfect the box may have been chances are that you will have an extensive list of flaws to present. Your impression of the quality of the box will be colored by the time and effort required to find the tiny flaws. You want to have some criticisms to show for your time.

Now imagine, that you enter a second room with the same set of instructions. This time you find one thousand boxes. You will look over the boxes and although you may notice some of the more obvious flaws, many others will escape your notice in the complex interaction of surfaces that are presented to you. When you leave the room, you may have some generalized misgivings and make note of some of the more glaring defects, but it is doubtful that your report will be replete with the individual deficiencies for every single box.

In the first room, one hundred percent of your focus was on that single box. In the second room is doubtful that any individual box received more than a tiny fraction of your time and attention. Even if we allowed you ten hours to critique the second room, it is still likely that your response would be based on a general impression of quality rather than a detailed inspection of each individual surface. It is possible to hide a lot of flaws and still have a very successful project when the final product is composed of a number of seemingly complex interactions. The overall impression of those who judge your work becomes much more important to their final judgment than their examination of each individual element.

Getting "simple" to be perceived, as being "right" is really quite complex. I would much rather be in charge of an obviously complex project. It is much simpler to do well.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

On the 1200th character

For those of you who have been following my "About me" profile experiment, the 1200th character turned out to be the letter, "j". Who'd have thought it? I was betting on it being a space.

I will leave it up for a day or so. Then I will, probably, delete most of it.
I am so easily amused.

On having no point to make

I do not follow or attempt to calculate my daily biorhythms. What good would it do me? However, I do know that I have a yearly cycle of ups and downs. I am now on the up slope. My year could be described as a sine wave that peaks in late spring and bottoms out in late fall. I cross over the X-axis in late summer and winter.

My dear wife seems to have a mirror image annual cycle of ups and downs. Perhaps that is why we have been together for such a long time. Over the course of a year, we tend to even each other out.

Is there a point to be made here? No, I don’t think so.
Speaking of having no point.

I recently read a number of blogs that all touted the “Seven Deadly Sins of Blogging”. I won’t mention all of them by name, but you can easily do a Google search and find a whole bunch of them. (Did you know that my Word spell check flags “Google” as being misspelled? Even though I have told it to “learn” the word, it still flags it!)

Generally speaking, this blog tends to be rife with these deadly sins. Except for the ones concerning spamming and adult material, I daily commit enough blogging “sins” to damn me to the blogger’s version of the lake of fire. An eternity of no readers, perhaps? An infinite number of spam comments? Severely dangling participles? Terminal writer’s block? Metaphorical flatulence?

The various “sin sets” differ as to the exact sins that comprise the dreaded seven, but generally they all agree that a blog should have a consistent theme. A “good” blog should deal with timely subject matter. A “good” blog should adopt a definite viewpoint. A “good” blog carefully follows the rules of grammar and punctuation. A “good” blog uses pictures to illustrate the points being made.

There is no theme to be found here. I avoid talking about important issues. There is no viewpoint to be found here. I may contradict myself several times before I even reach the end any given sentence (do not)! Paragraph structure is actually less important to me than how the words end up “looking” on the page. Grammar takes a backseat to how the words sound when I say them aloud. Pictures are too much trouble.

“I’m a bad man.”

This blog is doomed.

None of the articles mention the eighth deadly sin.
Writing stupid articles about the seven deadly sins of blogging.
I guess that my blog will have more than a bit of company in the fiery afterblog.

Monday, January 09, 2006

On stupid solutions

Have you ever encountered a problem that just did not lend itself to any practical solution? No matter how you looked at it, the only real answers that you could come up with were just plain stupid. I am slowly, but surely coming around to the realization that stupid has a place in the order of things. That doesn't mean that I will vote for it in next election, however.

"Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former." - Albert Einstein

Saturday, January 07, 2006

On being misconstrued

There are a group of words that seem to be tainted when one tries to use them in everyday conversation. I knew a gentleman who became quite offended when I noted that he had an “unfortunate predilection” following his comments about his dieting woes. I believe that he thought that I was accusing him of being a pervert. When, in fact, I was only commenting on his consist choice of cream filled pastries during the morning coffee breaks. Words like prediliction are often misconstrued.

Even the word, misconstrued, seems to be in this camp. Rather than simply being another way of describing a misunderstanding, it sounds more like a painful medical procedure that is being performed on one’s nether regions without benefit of anesthesia. News release: “After being misconstrued for nearly eight hours, he is in stable condition. His doctors are confident that he will suffer only minor scarring as a result of the operation.”

I am not sure how I would label this group of words. Perhaps, I could classify them as “words that undeservedly hint of unpleasantness”. (Unpleasantness is another one of those words like dreadful. You need to say these words with an upper crust accent while slightly pursing your lips.) The problem seems to be that most of these words sound like words that have negative definitions. They sound like “bad” words, so they must be “bad” words.

Mellifluous is a word that seems to be affected by it’s “mel” prefix. It sounds like and is misspelled to resemble many of the words in the dreaded “mal” family. Words like malefic, maladroit, malfeasance, malingerer, malign, malaise, malicious, and (for some of you) males all have horrible connotations. Poor, sweet mellifluous is found guilty by association with these brutish brothers.

Speaking of unwarranted guilt by word association, until very recent times, one had to be found guilty in a court of law in order to be labeled as a perpetrator. Now, however, one only needs to be accused of a crime and walked in front of a camera in order to be stained with this verbal taint. Hence, we now have the "perp walk" of the recently accused, but not convicted persons. This would be an instance of a "bad" word being used to unfairly label someone who had not yet been found to be "bad". They are only guilty of sounding "bad" on the evening news.

In the future, I am going to try to be more careful when I use this class of words. I wouldn’t want to be accused of being perpetually malapert.

Friday, January 06, 2006

On Norway

I would like to spend about a month touring Norway.

You might think that this wish comes from some longstanding interest in the history and culture of Norway. Actually, the opposite is true. I have never met anyone from Norway. I have never read a book or seen a documentary about Norway. I know almost nothing about Norway. What I do know about Norway could be summed in about three sentences.

1. Norway is a country in northern Europe.
2. People who live in the country of Norway are called Norwegians.
3. Norway has fiords. (I have never seen a fiord.)

That’s about it.

This almost complete lack of knowledge is the main reason that I want to visit Norway. I am old enough to have heard something about just about every other place on the planet. Some of what I know may be untrue, but I would still be saddled with my preconceptions if I ever visited any of these places. Norway is a blank slate for me. I could visit and meet the people. I could experience an entire country and culture that is presently a total and complete mystery to me. I could actually write about something in this blog that had an immediate impact on me without it being colored by any earlier life experiences or hearsay.

Who knows, I could fall in love with the beauty that is Norway. Or, I might just find out that Norway is simply the Wisconsin of Europe: cold, bland, snowy, populated by people who talk funny and have an unhealthy preoccupation with cheese.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

On fantasy novels

The local library has run out of new Science Fiction books that I want to read. So, I picked up a couple from the shelves in the Fantasy genre. I don’t usually read Fantasy novels. I prefer the more “hard science” types of Science Fictions novels for my periodic fiction fix.

Fantasy novels have a couple of characteristics that I just don’t find very appealing.

First of all, they seem to take place in some ubiquitous medieval setting. Even if the planet is supposed to be in some distant universe, it still bears a striking resemblance to thirteenth century England. They live in keeps. They wear tunics. They carry swords. Someone will be called “Lord” or “Lady”. They eat a lot of fire-roasted fowl. All the worlds of fantasy are remarkably similar.

Secondly, they all seem to end with the exact same “magic showdown”. The good vs. evil showdown usually takes place at some elevated location such as a stone tower or rocky hillside. It is set against the backdrop of a “real” world battle that involves horses, arrows, gnomes, catapults, and elves. (The elves always have silver or blue hair. The male elves seem to be somewhat effeminate.) This epic battle is fought at the end of the main character’s arduous quest to find his/her magical heritage and/or legendary powers. In the finest “deus ex machina” tradition, the outcome of this supernatural fight instantly resolves all the outstanding character and storyline conflicts in one massive orgy of bright light, mystical blue fire and smoking brimstone. Good, of course, always wins. Evil is instantly banished to some distant “dark” place or cooked to an unrecognizable smoldering cinder.

Lastly, I just can’t keep track of all the names. The characters, of which there are many, and the places, of which there are even more, all have multi-syllabic monikers that I can’t even pronounce in my head. After reading through about three pages, I have to go back several pages in order to figure out if the characters trekking through the endless tracts of forest are discussing a mystical city, a serving wench, or a troll king. After several minutes of searching, I discover that “Phlemhardington” is actually the name of the High Lord Frem Dunsillantonicuis’s beloved horse. Oddly, the main character always seems to have been singularly blessed with a single syllable name in this unfortunately polysyllabic world.

Fantasy novels will never be high on my list of reading material. However, I may try to write one someday. It will be set in the medieval neighborhoods of Cleveland, Ohio. The conflict will involve a set of mysteriously misaligned headlights and perhaps, a sinister grease fire. There will only be one character named, Bob. He will have to walk about three blocks and face many hardships and dangers in order to find his lost truck. His truck will be named, Unostoitcliclkcosinessty. It will be a silver 1970 Plymouth Arrow pick-up with a pink velour interior. Magically, it still runs, uses no oil, and only has a tiny bit of body rust.

Still working on the title.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

On belated wishes

Since my New Year’s resolution was to stop procrastinating, I want to take this opportunity to wish all my regular readers (both of you) a Happy New Years.

My wishes for you in the coming year…

May your polite chuckles be taken as sincere even when the joke is stupid and you don’t get the punch line.

May your windshield washer bottle never run dry.

May your red crayon never break.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

On Vlogs

I have made a preliminary attempt to appreciate the world of Vlogs (video blogs) and podcasts. I have given up. First of all, I am not sure how it is supposed to be pronounced. Is it "Vee log" or "Vuh log"? The latter sound suspiciously like the first name of the original Count Dracula. I think his name was pronounced, vuhlad, as in Vlad, the Impaler (Vuhlog, the E-Mailer?). So, I think that it is probably, “Vee log”. Although, it is "Buh log", not "Bee log".

It is significant that sighted people, myself included, say that we are going to go "see a movie". I don't think that I have ever heard anyone say, "Oh, I think I will listen to Desperate Housewives, tonight". The visual elements will almost always take precedence. So, I think that in the long run, video logs will become more common than the now more numerous, sound only, podcasts.

It is worth noting, however, that videophones and even web cam chatting have not really caught on with the online community. Some experts’ say that it is a bandwidth problem, I disagree. I think that generally some things are just better left unseen. As I noted earlier, we experience things with our sight taking ascendancy, even though the aural elements are equally important to the total experience. A vlogger could be saying the world's most important words, but if he is doing so with snot hanging out of his nose, I will not remember a single word that he has said. Here, on the other hand, I can write this entire blog posting while wearing only this rubber bathmat with little, blue fish imprinted on it. I have completed this ensemble by putting a yellow plastic colander on my head. You would never know it by the words that I written here. It is not something that you would ever really want to see. In this written blog, my wardrobe and deportment should have no effect on your perception of what I am trying to say to you.

Above and beyond the fact that some things are best left to the imagination, the main reason that I am not going to become a vlog aficionado is simply time management. By the time I can plod through the introductory comments of most vlogs (or podcasts), I could have skimmed through half a dozen written blogs postings.

I don’t have the time for vlogs and podcasts.

I still have to wash and press my bathmat for an early meeting in the morning.