Begging the Question

After listening to, and reading, a podcast and associated transcript turned blog entry by Stephen Fry, I realised that it is necessary for language to change, to adapt, even though I used to be a vociferous defender of prescriptive grammar.

I use a lot of Emoji in my instant messaging apps these days, and I see the Internet pushing and changing the use of language very quickly. In the last 22 years that I have been online, I have also changed the way I speak in real life.

Which raises the question: where and when is it necessary to draw the line between formal and informal speech?

I maintain that blog posts are formal speech, just like newspaper articles and business letters. A blog post is a way to convey an idea, and the fact that it is electronic as opposed to physical shouldn’t matter.

Language must change and adapt, but not at the cost of clarity. I attended philosophy classes during my brief stint at Rhodes University in 1996, and those six months impressed upon me the need for clarity of thought and expression. If we cannot even assign the same meanings to words and phrases, we cannot communicate clearly.

“Begging the question” is an explicit example of the need for this level of clarity. Notice how I “raised” the question instead?

To beg a question is to create circular reasoning, to say “this is awesome because reasons, but the reasons are awesome because of this”.

The entire point of the term is that the question remains unasked. The trouble is that many people are literally begging the question in their public speaking, including politicians. Logical fallacies are talking points, are sound bites, are what we hear on the news, and I feel like we’re regressing.

A longer example of begging the question, using Batman, because the LEGO Batman Movie just came out and I loved it:

“Here is one reason we cannot use: Batman is great and so his gadgetry must be pro. Of course, this would beg the question, since we are trying to figure out why Batman is so great. If you think about this argument, it would go like this: Batman is great because he has awesome gadgetry, and his awesome gadgetry is great because he’s Batman, and Batman is great. This argument travels in a circle. To avoid begging the question, we need to straighten that circle out. To do this, we need to justify the greatness of Batman independently of how we already feel about Batman.”
(Galen Foresman, “Why Batman Is Better Than Superman.” Batman and Philosophy: The Dark Knight of the Soul, ed. by Mark D. White and Robert Arp. Wiley, 2008)

Does this make your head spin? Good. Philosophy is intended to do exactly that. Logical fallacies appear everywhere, and even I am guilty of them, perhaps even on this very website.

Listen to your favourite politician or celebrity. Actually listen to them. Hear the words, phrases, and sentences (if they actually speak in complete sentences), and see if there’s a logical consistency to them.

Question everything they say. If you can, challenge their assumptions. Critically assess the statements they assume are concrete and unquestionable. Don’t let someone tell you how to think until you’ve processed it yourself.

If you want to raise a question, raise a question, don’t beg it.

However, as Stephen Fry once said, “so fucking what?” Eventually the meaning will change to present usage, and I’ll have to adapt.

We Didn’t Start 2016

(With apologies to Billy Joel.)

Carrie Fisher, Leonard Cohen, Arquette, Geordie Howe
George Michael, Nancy Reagan, Phife Dawg, Zydeco

Garry Shandling, Garry Marshall, Rob Ford, Ron Glass
David Bowie, John Glenn, Wilder, Castro

Prince Rogers Nelson, “Freaky” Leon Haywood
Zsa Zsa, Henderson, Ricky Harris, Harper Lee

David Smyrl, Caldwell, “Wizard of Woo” Worrell,
Green and White, Kimbo Slice, the great Muhammad Ali

We didn’t start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world’s been turning
We didn’t start the fire
No we didn’t light it
But we tried to fight it

Books To Read This Winter

Warren Ellis (the British author, not the Australian musician, though both have immaculate beards) asked his friends to recommend one book to read this winter.

I recommend subscribing to his Orbital Operations weekly newsletter.

I asked a bunch of friends for the name of one book they planned to read this winter. I am delighted to be able to share their suggestions with you.

Ingrid Burrington, author of NETWORKS OF NEW YORKThe Mushroom at the End of the World, Anna Tsing (UK) (US)

Lucy Swope, GHOST COP: Jerusalem, Alan Moore

Chris DuFour, White Canvas Group: Twin Peaks: A Secret History, Mark Frost

Steve Prue, photographer: Necrophilia Variations, Supervert

John Rogers, writer/producer: I Contain Multitudes, Ed Yong

Gideon Kiers, Sonic Acts: The Melancholy of Resistance, László Krasznahorkai

Elliot Blake, Amazon Studios: Before the Fall, Noah Hawley

Benjamin Percy, author: The Once and Future King, T.H. White

Damien Williams, writer and teacher: Magic In Islam, Michael Muhammad Knight

Klint Finley, writer and journalist: A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit

Jim Rossignol, videogame producer: Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane

Sean Bonner, Safecast: Everything Belongs To The Future, Laurie Penny

Kyoto Kitamura, vocalist and composer: Showa 1926-1939, Shigeru Mizuki

Justin Pickard, anthropologist: Iraq + 100, ed. Hassan Blasim

Robin Sloan, author & media inventor: Hild, Nicola Griffith

Anab Jain, Superflux: Being Mortal, Atul Gawande

Nalden, co-founder WeTransfer: Postcapitalism, Paul Mason

Chris DiBona, open source director at Google: Luftwaffe Over America, Manfred Griehl

Richard Kadrey, author: Gourmet Ghosts – Los Angeles, James T. Bartlett

Kio Stark, author of WHEN STRANGERS MEET: The Mushroom At The End Of The World, Anna Tsing

Ganzeer, artist and writer: Pictures At 11, Norman Spinrad

Johannes Kleske, Third Wave Berlin: Four Futures, Peter Frase

Arikia Millikan, writer/editor: Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell

Georgina Voss, writer/researcher: The Democratic Surround, Fred Turner

Douglas Rushkoff, theorist & writer: The End of Time, Julian Barbour

Julian Simpson, writer/director: The Nightmare Stacks, Charles Stross

Dan Novy, MIT, Magic Leap, VFX artist: Jerusalem, Alan Moore

Patrick Pittman,writer/editor: This is the Place to Be, Lara Pawson

Kiyash Monsef, writer/director: Universal Harvester, John Darnielle

Jay Springett, artist/theorist: Ifá: A Forest of Mystery, Nicholaj De Mattos Frisvold

Paul Graham Raven,writer: Words Are My Matter, Ursula le Guin

Samuel de Goede, writer: Wild Irises

Deb Chachra, professor: Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Cthulucene, Donna Haraway

Adam Rothstein, archivist, writer & artist: Great Tales of Jewish Fantasy and the Occult, edited and translated by Joachim Neugreoschel

Mikey Pryvt, writer: Star Ark, Rachel Armstrong

Louisa Heinrich, strategist: Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon

E Paul Zehr, professor and author: The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn, Boris & Arkady Strugatsky

Corey White, author: Everything Belongs to the Future, Laurie Penny

Klint Finley, writer: A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit

Wayne Chambliss, strategist: Notes on the Underground, Rosalind Williams

Am I going to read all of the books on this list? Probably not. However, I’m sure you’ll find something to keep you warm.

On Critical Thought

“A persistent effort to examine any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the evidence that supports or refutes it and the further conclusions to which it tends.”

— E. M. Glaser (1941). An Experiment in the Development of Critical Thinking.

Kanye West and the Glastonbury Incident

This was written by author Warren Ellis, from his latest newsletter. Worth a read.

The most fascinating thing about Kanye’s set at Glastonbury was the lighting rig. I’m not being snarky. It was a giant plate of lights that lowered down on the stage like a blazing lid. And, with the absence of any other set dressing, and Kanye alone on the floor, it turned A Big Thing into something weirdly intimate. And then the lighting swirled, so that Kanye came in and out of view. If you were any more than fifty yards back, he would have been alternately revealed and hidden, sometimes picked out as a single silhouette. A welter of statements and responses to his status, the festival, the hating and the anticipation. He and his lighting and design crew are clever, clever buggers. The early imagery was pure confrontational rock heroics. We had great fun watching the bass drop so hard that one of the BBC cameras started vibrating. I actually felt bad for him when his right ear monitor clearly went out and he started slapping at it.

Pure rock heroics is, of course, a thing that goes in and out of fashion. Statement performances like that can seem culturally tone-deaf, in a space where Taylor Swift spends her days providing hugs for her audience and others have to profess daily that they’re “learning” from theirs. This is a time where much of the artistic community has to be seen to be in active, engaged conversation with their audiences. Supermystification gives way to radical demystification, and social media has massively extended the demystification period (add the usual exceptions to the rule yourself).

Demystification is also performative. In art, truth is illusion. Don’t trust any of us, not for a second.

Fifteen years …

[Originally written in 2010. I’ve been sitting on this post for over five years. I’m not sure why.]

This is a long post. I’m pre-empting your tl;dr comments by making this note here. I may migrate it to my website under “articles” later.

I had a lightbulb moment earlier today, reminding me that I’ve been “on the Internet” for fifteen years, as of May 2010. This commentary is very subjective, so don’t expect a technical article or timeline. What I want to talk about is how the Internet has changed my life, in every way possible. And how a part of my life long forgotten, never went away at all.
Continue reading Fifteen years …

Warren Ellis, on writing

From his latest Orbital Operations newsletter:

All of which is to say: so much of this absurd job is feeding the compost bin. I have spoken in the past to so many writers, not even limited to beginning writers, who focus on prodigious word counts and/or deep narrow research wells. Or just reading the medium they’re working in to the exclusion of all others. Read everything. Read the news, every day, twice. Read books, fiction and non-fiction, modern and old, and outside your specific interests and loves. Read plays. Most of us don’t live near theatres that do more than summer stock and panto, but there are a lot of plays out there that reward reading. Read long articles and essays. Learn something new every day. It all goes into the compost bin. You’ll thank yourself for it, down the road.

Fantastic advice.

“I Have No Idea What I Am Doing”

I posted this quote on Twitter earlier today, in capital letters, because it’s true.

This past week, M and I made a big decision. We’re all about big decisions in this family. We got married when it was still a new thing for gay people in South Africa. We’ve bought houses and cars, gone on major trips, and moved halfway across the planet together, to a place where everything is just slightly different.

I said that he was my best friend, in my previous post, and it’s entirely true.

Big decisions are easy.

Little decisions are hard.

Tidy my desk. Scan these invoices. Unpack the dishwasher. Shovel the driveway. Make the bed. Brush my teeth. Shave. Make tea. Feed the dog. Eat breakfast.

Those decisions are really hard for me. I don’t know why. I use Due for these things. For work, I’m trying to get into OmniFocus.

Today I realised that I’d stifled my inside voice. I have a burning desire to do stuff: read a book I got last year in December, write some C# code, architect a large distributed system, prepare that SQL Server talk for the user group next year, work on the myriad books and stories I’ve abandoned.

I should feed the monster. I really should carve out some time, and do things that are not read-the-RSS-feeds-and-the-social-media-and-the-email auto-pilot activities I usually spend my time doing.

Time management. It sounds hard. I explained to my better half that if you trick me by saying “please do X” instead of “you need to do X”, my brain says “Sure!”.

Maybe I can trick my brain back into a rigorous schedule that I know I would thrive on. One hour of writing, one hour of reading, one to two hours of writing code, one hour for email. One hour for news and RSS feeds, and the rest would be a break between each activity. That would be a good day.

I try to schedule meetings with customers on specific days of the week, because they are such a productivity killer, so that means a good three days a week of being productive outside of what I normally do in the evenings. That is usually when I do my SQL consulting work, as it’s outside of business hours.

This could work. I need to trick my brain so that the small decisions are as simple as the big decisions I’m really good at.

On birthdays and getting older

Today is M’s birthday. Before the end of the year, it’ll be mine.

We’re getting older. But are we getting old?

Adulthood is an invention by children to explain why adults are grumpy all the time.

I feel older. Time is moving faster because as a percentage of my lifespan so far, a day is only 0.0074%. A year is a fraction over 2.5% of my life.

In the earliest days of my career in IT, at the second company I ever worked for, I sat in on a design meeting between my employer and another company. We were discussing system integration between their product and something we would build.

The details aren’t important, but it gave me insight, at the young age of 20-mumble, that adulthood isn’t a real concept. The “discussion” between both parties was nothing more than a “discussion” I would have had on the playground at school only a few years prior. Each side wanted to get their own way.

This was eye-opening. Adults were just “big kids with more money”, I quipped at the time. Mumble-years later, this is a very cynical and obviously wrong assessment. Adults are just big kids. Some do all the work. Some shirk all responsibility. Some have money, and some have crippling debt. Some have children, and some have children but treat them like siblings. Et cetera, et cetera.

So what separates us from childhood? Well, that’s a philosophical question we could spend weeks puzzling on.

But if you were to ask me (and I’m glad someone did, thank you), I think it’s our experiences. We learn from seeing and doing things.

Much of what happens in our lives, after a certain age, is on auto-pilot. Often I’ll catch myself daydreaming while driving a car. My following distance is good, my feet are working the brake and accelerator pedal, I’m watching my blindspots, but I’m not concentrating on driving.

While this is fairly unremarkable (we don’t concentrate on walking), it’s remarkable for me, because until about ten years ago, I had a sign on my dashboard that said “STAY ALERT”, because I had to concentrate.

Not all of what we do is automatic, however. If we work in a challenging job, we usually do have to concentrate. My brain is always thinking about work stuff: Did I design that database table correctly? Could I use another index on that column? Is the stored procedure efficient?

And meeting people who share the same interests as me is mentally fulfilling. Whether it be games night with Tanya and Mervin, or listening to people speak at SQL Server conferences, I enjoy engaging with people.

Does this make us adults? Are we more sophisticated because we can discuss medical and technical and operational and business topics? How is this any different to the latest Star Wars teaser? What makes, for example, a play or musical any more culturally significant than a film that everyone likes?

Again, that’s a philosophical question I’ll leave as an exercise for the reader. But I find the act of engaging with like-minded people, people who challenge my perceptions, people who introduce me to new experiences, more fulfilling than whatever it is we’re doing.

After Sunday’s game of Settlers of Catan, did I enjoy the game more than the experience of the game? Did I enjoy today’s lunch more than spending time with my spouse?

I’ve now seen countless films, television shows, concerts, plays, musicals and other events, and truthfully, I’ve forgotten many of them offhand. But if you mention the name of an event, I’ll remember with whom I shared that experience, and I’ll probably recall my emotional state in greater detail.

Adulthood, for me, is about having experiences, but even more than that, it’s about having experiences with other people who share the same enjoyment of those experiences. Being able to share my life with other people makes me happy.

Find someone who makes you happy, and share your experiences with them. It doesn’t have to be the same person for all your experiences, though. That’s unfair on both of you.

Scott Adams puts it this way:

The other approach to life is the “no expectations” method I am trying to cultivate. This is more of a system than a goal. The idea is that you arrange your life so you meet lots of people and you put no expectations on any of them. If I meet someone with a 4.5 tennis level and lots of free time, perhaps I have a new tennis partner. If we click on some other level, that’s great too. No expectations.

Without realising it, I have a similar system. I have some friends (and I class them as friends, not acquaintances) with whom I share only one or two interests. I have some friends with whom I share many interests. I have one particular friend with whom I sleep every night, shift-work notwithstanding, and we even got married a few years back.

Adulthood is having a friend to play pool with, and another friend you can knock around on the sports-ball field.

Adulthood is being able to share.

“The art isn’t the artist” – Neil Gaiman

This is reposted without permission from Neil Gaiman’s Journal, from an entry titled “in the wee small hours of the morning” (7 June 2006):

Hi Neil,
I’ve been a fan of your work for awhile now and I just came across your site. I’ve had this nagging question, about authors, stuck in my brain for awhile now and I thought you might have an answer or opinion.
If you really enjoy an author’s stories and then you find out the author (not you) is a jerk or believes in some fairly wretched things would you keep reading this author’s works?
I suppose it’s similar to the whole crazy celebrity dilema. Do I really want to go see a movie that looks good even though that guy is in it?

If I were only allowed to read or enjoy art or listen to music made by people whose opinions and beliefs were the same as mine, I think the world would be a pretty dismal sort of a place. I love the work of many creators who self-avowedly believe or believed things that I consider to be “fairly wretched”, not to mention wrong-headed, lunatic, irresponsible or simply wrong. Worse yet: there are artists, actors, songwriters, authors, whose work I love, like or admire and who, biographers or historians tell us, actually did things that were utterly reprehensible. And worse even than that, there are all those things by Anonymous, who could have been or thought or done, well, anything, and we’ll never know…

Ezra Pound was a fascist, an antisemite on a level that makes the Aryan Nation seem wishy washy, a traitor (or at best, a collaborator), and I’m very glad I got to read his poetry, and appreciate it and learn from it. I could list dozens more without breaking a sweat. Most, probably all, human beings get to do awful things and believe things that other human beings think they should be burned for believing, and they get to do and believe wonderful things too, and artists, writers, musicians, creators, actors, are nothing if not human beings.

The art isn’t the artist, the poem isn’t the poet; trust the tale, not the teller.

(The sad flip-side is I’ve met people — writers and artists — over the years who I liked immediately, with whom I found myself agreeing on everything to do with art and aesthetics so closely that we might have shared the same head, people whose world-views were pretty much mine, whom I’d talk with far into the night and whom I parted from excited that I’d met them, looking forward to nothing more than reading their writing or looking at their art… and then I would find what they had done, and, at least as far as my taste was concerned, the books would be uninteresting, the drawings ugly or clumsy. And in an odd way, that hurts more than liking the work of someone who behaved badly, or thought in a way that I consider offensive or wrong.)