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Where some ideas are stranger than others...

FOUND SUBJECTS at the Moonspeaker

An Important Rhetorical Summary (2018-10-23)

Photograph by José Luiz Bernades Ribeiro of bust of Cicero at Palazzo Nuovo, Musei Capitolini in Rome. Photograph by José Luiz Bernades Ribeiro of bust of Cicero at Palazzo Nuovo, Musei Capitolini in Rome.
Photograph of bust of Cicero at Palazzo Nuovo, Musei Capitolini in Rome, courtesy of wikimedia commons. José Luiz Bernades Ribeiro, september 2016



Language Prescription Foibles (2018-10-16)

Sample chart illustrating regular astigamtism. Sample chart illustrating regular astigamtism.
Sample chart illustrating regular astigamtism. august 2018

There is nothing new about attempts to control what people say and how they say it. We can find implied instances in the context of the earliest deciphered writing, where a script designed for one language is being used to write another. The direct examples I know of all come from the romans, whose prescriptive grammarians fought a futile rearguard action against the romance languages with of course no idea that was what they were ultimately doing. It would not surprise me to learn that some of the early sanskrit grammarians were engaged in similar work. I appreciate the temptation to inveigh against change in pronunciation and grammar changes in light of the strange career of the word "concerning." For whatever reason, the newer uses of this word grate on my inner and outer ears, though not in a way that leads me to think my compatriots who use it in its new adjectival form are doing "wrong." Fortunately I have learned the lesson of the futility of language prescription.

A particularly wonderful example of unremitting resistance to language prescription comes from the fraught category of pronouns, specifically "gendered" pronouns. I use scare quotes here not to imply sarcasm, but to highlight that actually, more languages don't allow speakers to leave sex unmarked than do. In the case of english and a number of related and cousin languages, in light of queer theory and other controversies, there has been a great deal of sturm and drang on the topic of pronouns of late, including a whole new round of verbal sparring over the use of "they" as an indefinite singular form. It amazes me how much this usage continues to infuriate a particular tiny number of commentariat members who get a remarkable amount of press. However, the controversy does not date from queer theorists rushing to renovate the pronoun systems of indo-european languages spoken mostly in europe and its former colonies. Far from it. It dates right back to the good old 19th century, that period of obsessive cataloguing and attempting to exert and rationalize coercive control by colonizing elites, among other things. And this is not news. Feminist linguists have been documenting this from at least the early to mid 1970s. One of the best summaries of the infamous career of "they" comes from Dale Spender in her 1980 book Man-Made Language. She writes:

Before the zealous practices of the 19th century prescriptive grammarians the common usage was to use they for sex-indeterminable references. It is still common usage, even though "grammatically incorrect"... Then – and now – when the sex of a person is unknown, speakers may use they rather than the supposedly correct he in their reference....

As Anne Bodine has noted, using they as a singular is still alive and well, "despite almost two centuries of ingenious attempts to analyze and regulate it out of existence" on the ostensible grounds that it is incorrect. And what agencies the dominant group has been able to mobilize to this task! Bodine goes on to say that the survival of they as a singular "is all the more remarkable considering the weight of virtually the entire educational and publishing establishment has been behind the attempt to eradicate it." one is led to ask who is resisting this correctness?*

Well, practically speaking, apparently everybody is resisting the many ingenious efforts to force people out of using they as a singular, sex-indefinite pronoun. It seems english speakers at least are quite determined not to mark sex where they deem it irrelevant or unknowable, even under the most extraordinary social pressures. For a recent usage of they in this manner, see the example in the fine article on The Legendary Language of the Appalachian "Holler" by Chi Luu at the JStor Daily. There is a gentle lesson here, I think. (Top)

* For those who would like to see Anne Bodine's 1975 article for themselves, the full reference is "Androcentrism in prescriptive grammar: Singular they, sex indefinite he and he or she," Language in Society, 4(2): 129-156. Dale Spender's book Man-Made Language, published by Routledge and Kegan Paul of london is a regular inhabitant of both public and university libraries. Spender writes in a clear style that avoids jargon and is often riotously funny.

BBEdit and Website Managing (2018-10-09)

The 25th anniversary bbedit logo from barebones software's website. The 25th anniversary bbedit logo from barebones software's website.
The 25th anniversary bbedit logo from barebones software's website. barebones software, august 2018

Several earlier thoughtpieces have dealt with web browsers, especially the ongoing trainwreck that is firefox – currently following the neoliberal playbook to purge the built in rss-reading capabilities better known as live bookmarks – and seamonkey, with a dash of waterfox thrown in. These are all built on the same codebase, and for better or worse constitute the least bad options for web browsing security and privacy in my considered and researched view. Not that writing and maintaining web browsing software is easy, to be sure, especially now that only the doughty crew working on seamonkey still sees a role for the browser in building the web in the first place. For all its faults, the late netscape browser's composer with its descendant still kicking within seamonkey's regular production code, did serve as a non-trivial tool in learning how to write and design web pages. "View page source" is helpful, although in the code family the three browsers here are from, the absurd default is not to wrap long lines of code.

UPDATE 2018-08-13 - I did track down how to change the default behaviour on the wrapping of long lines of code in "View Page Source" mode. It was in the mozilla help fora, and apparently the present default was not introduced to firefox until version 41 or so. Strange stuff. In any case, for those who haven't bumped into this yet, the setting to look up under about:config is "view_source.wrap_long_lines" and the setting beside it can be clicked to alter it from "false" to "true."

There are lots of options other than web browser composers for writing web pages, from such massive heavy hitters as the latest successor to adobe golive to the online databases full of point and click elements and an attempted "wysiwig" interface like wordpress installations. The determined and tightly budgeted can get along in a basic text editor if they can persuade it out of rich text mode. At one point microsoft's operating system came with the only plain text editor left standing after the demise of apple's simpletext, that could be used for web page editing. That program was notepad, which like simpletext has no code colouring, spell checking or anything else. Unfortunately, the latest versions of notepad have a terrible bug which does alarming things to web pages set to utf-8, which after being opened in notepad become a mess with all optional white space lost in other programs. In one of my other jobs notepad was the webpage editor I had to use, and this bug has bumped me to editplus on the workstation for that job. Editplus is okay. But it reminded me all over again how unique and wonderful BBEdit is.

It is hard to believe that BBEdit has been around for twenty-five years, even though I have been using variants of it and BBEdit proper to build and maintain the Moonspeaker since 2004, which means going on fourteen years now. BBEdit's parent company barebones software provides a free version that still provides a spectacular number of useful features with no time limits or nagging messages to ask if you wouldn't like to maybe, kind of buy the full featured version. For my part, when my site finally grew complex enough to administer to warrant an upgrade, I took the plunge and bought a full license, and can say honestly that the returns have been justified. Barebones software's tagline for BBEdit is "it doesn't suck" and that has to be some of the best understated advertising out there. Of course, emacs and vim partisans will flatly disagree with all of my praise here, and I respect their preference for their editors. As for me, I will stick to BBEdit so long as my editing platform remains a MacOS.

In terms of web editing then, BBEdit can do all the things you would expect. Templates, projects, code syntax colouring, autoindenting, and built in ability to work with versioning software like git and subversion if you have them installed. There's a bog-standard ftp client built in, spellchecking, clipping facilities, and support for almost every computer language you can think of and ready means to add support for more. For me though, what really won me over for good was grep. Infuriating as learning to code regular expressions can be, once the arcane but stable syntax is sorted out, a whole range of basic updates suddenly take mere minutes that if done by hand would take days and probably be full of mistakes. From there I found my way to BBEdit's includes, which take care of a whole other aspect of updates and changes that can even be done via perl or python scripting. After a couple of hours of development time, I had shifted a whole pile of editing tasks to scripts and could focus on writing rather than coding when working on the site. It includes an excellent html page previewer (just previews, the links don't work) or you can switch to preview in your chosen web browser with an alternate keystroke. Meanwhile BBEdit's project structure allows me to take full advantage of more serious coding needs and writing that needs to be done in markdown. About the only coding/writing I don't do in BBEdit is LaTeX coding, mainly because TeXShop is better for that purpose because it smoothly integrates editing, previewing, and generation of final electronic proofs.

All of those useful tools (among many others) in a program that runs fast and light, and in my experience over the years has crashed only a handful of times. BBEdit has robust recovery and autosave facilities, so a crash is no more than a minor inconvenience now should it happen, since a minimal amount of work is lost. Would that the last word processing program standing that I use was as sturdy. Oh and I should add that in this day and age of web pages overwhelmed with scripts that if not allowed to run won't let you read the text, BBEdit is my go to program for when I dip into the page source with my web browser, grab the text, and then dump it into a plain default html templated page. From there a quick key command allows me to read the text in BBEdit's preview mode. This should never be necessary of course, but in the current state of the web is an important fallback option. And of course, I should add that this description of the wonders of BBEdit reflects version 11.6.8, not 12.1.5. It looks like the latest version still does not include built in ftp site mirroring, which is the only web administration task that BBEdit can't take over directly, which is interesting, and perhaps a respectful nod to another longtime macosx software independent vendor still in play today, fetch softworks. Their product, fetch, does one thing and does it outstandingly well, and is also firmly worth its price. (Top)

The Map Is Not the Territory (2018-10-02)

Excerpt from the main map from the Turtle Island Map Project on the Moonspeaker. Excerpt from the main map from the Turtle Island Map Project on the Moonspeaker.
Excerpt from the main map from the Turtle Island Map Project on the Moonspeaker. C. Osborne, august 2018

If there is one thing that we can count on, it is finding more and more maps. Maps of all kinds, "just in time maps" via "you do the work, we'll take the money" crowdsourced apps used in web browsers all over the world, those amazing hangers' on, paper road maps available in myriad grocery stores and gas stations. The young an adventurous may even find their way to maps not just in their school textbooks, whether electronic or paper, but also in the fading genre of atlases, books of maps and/or charts named for the ancient greek mythical figure who once commonly featured on their covers. That is a lot of maps. But, as Mark Monmonier wrote in his still relevant and brilliant How to Lie With Maps, maps are not neutral depictions or simple reproductions. They are designed to tell stories, and by nature people who make maps must decide what to include and what to leave out, how to label and how much, all to facilitate telling the intended story. A major tool in colonisation and rationalizing that genocidal practice was and is mapping. Alas, like all forms of storytelling, mapping can be abused to support doing terrible things. We can tell ourselves the most appalling stories, and the most wondrous ones.

We all make maps, even if we don't produce two-dimensional representations of them. The sense of how to get from home to the various places we need to go, especially the ones we go to on a fairly regular basis, is in fact an internalized map with our home placed in the centre and the routes to our most commonly visited places expanding out from it. This can be surprisingly close to what we actually draw if asked to do so, with adjustments to reflect key landmarks such as major streets and interesting buildings if we live in cities, or water bodies, mountains, and so on if we don't. This may seem obvious, but on an anecdotal basis at least, I can say that this is not an intuitive connection.

One of my earliest experiences with mapping in the sense of making a map, was being given an assignment in elementary school. The instructions were to draw a map of the city and colour it in. I suspect that the directions did say to make sure there was a legend and a north arrow, though that detail is long gone from my memory. For the purposes of this assignment, each of us were given what at least to me at the time, was the largest sheet of paper I had ever seen, tabloid sized, 14 inches by 17 inches, rather shorter and a little narrower than an ISO B3 sheet. We were supposed to fill that with our maps. It was a veritable sea of paper. Still, the assignment didn't seem too complicated. We weren't supposed to make up a city necessarily, we were supposed to try to represent the city as we knew it. You already know where this is going. I flunked that assignment pretty much. The teacher was thoroughly annoyed. He felt that I had ignored the instruction, and he demanded to know where the freeways were, and the roads, the real roads, and the major buildings like city hall. He complained that he didn't recognize the city I drew. As an adult I know that this was entirely to be expected. As a child, I remember being completely confused. If he didn't recognize the city I drew, I didn't recognize the city he described.

My city was far greener than his description that emphasized concrete, buildings, and various types of roads and bridges. There was basically one kind of black road, that could be a bit narrower at times, but was otherwise uniform. Much of the road surface I saw was newly done in those years because my family was living in a very new suburb. Lacking regular access to a car and money for the bus, we walked everywhere. So my map showed lots of patches of woods and intriguing shortcuts that pedestrians walking long distances learn, especially for self-defence from traffic and hot summer weather. I noted places where we could pick and eat the blackberries and where we couldn't because there was too much road traffic – we were always hungry, this mattered – and the street that one year was filled with streams of migrating and hungry tent caterpillars. I do mean filled. Those critters know not to head into wheeled traffic, but as for sidewalks and other paths, they'll take their chances. Both of these cities were present then, and at least to some degree are now. But not being poor and therefore remanded to the travel opportunities afforded by his two feet, this teacher couldn't believe that greener city existed, or at least, that it was important enough to map.

I have thought about this often, looking at maps that attempt to show Indigenous territories. Two-dimensional, snapshot type maps are profoundly bad at depicting them, and not just because the Earth is three-dimensional. Mainstream thought encourages the conflation of map with territory, of an extremely limited story as a fixed definition, hedged in by borders that in the physical world are complete absurdities. I have had the blessed experience of showing a young friend who was a little younger than I was at the time of that mapping assignment, the one metre wide line designating the official border between the settler states of canada and the united states. She looked at me skeptically. "That," she said witheringly, "is the border?" I assured her it was, and we actually weren't allowed to cross it yet as we hadn't cleared customs. She put her hands on her hips. "That's ridiculous." As indeed it was, and is. (Top)

Copyright © C. Osborne 2018
Last Modified: Monday, July 24, 2017 0:00:55