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Faux Outrage

Literally the most important blog in the universe since 2010.

Category Archives: English!

The fact that we are allowing ourselves to manipulate the English language in order to engage in an incorruptible crusade against the barometer does not concern most people.  Although, truth be told, most things do not concern most people.  And if what follows seems unnecessarily overprotective of a piece of equipment more familiar to a 6th grade student taking a course in Earth Science than a college educated professional, it is because I believe it is our duty to advocate on behalf of those that cannot advocate on behalf of themselves.

Even if those things are barometers.

The issue with barometers — which is not about barometers so much as “barometers” — will probably remind you of the devolution of language I wrote about a year ago, otherwise known as literally the worst problem in the world.

And away we go!

——

A simple question: What is a barometer?

If you look in a dictionary (which you probably would not do for two related reasons: first, you probably do not own an actual dictionary; and second, we tend nowadays to look “at” dictionaries — on a computer screen — as opposed to “in” physical, paper-based dictionaries), you will find two basic definitions for barometer:

  1. A scientific tool that indicates change in atmospheric pressure
  2. A thing that indicates change in something

toothpastefordinner.com

In other words, there are two separate (but unequal!) ways to use the word.  Examples:

  1. Definition 1: A good barometer of weather will accurately measure air pressure.
  2. Definition 2 (example 1): A good barometer of weather are the clothes you see people wearing outside.
  3. Definition 1 & 2: This discussion of barometers is a barometer of whether you would describe me as insufferable.

This dual definition is completely unfair to the lowly barometer.  The fact that the word means both “a device that measures something very specific” and “a device that measures anything in particular” is an uncaring slap in the barometer’s faceplate.  In the same way that we primarily use the word “ton” to mean “a lot” and very rarely use it the way the word was originally intended (“a weight measure equal to 2000 pounds”), we are taking efficient, hyper-specific language and muddying the waters by using it in a way that unfortunately removes the specificity.

Besides, don’t we want to give special reverence to the device that allows weatherpersons throughout the land to forecast temperatures with pinpoint accuracy?

We do.

Thought Experiment Time!

Imagine that you had a friend named John Doe.  There should be no doubt that you would feel copious amounts of empathy for this person because their name refers to them, but also, in theory, anyone else.  And if you cared deeply for your friend John Doe — and if you had the power to make this kind of change — you would without question make sure that the name “John Doe” would no longer be used to describe any miscellaneous person.

It’s just not fair.

And just as the actual John Doe’s of the world should be allowed to live a life where their name refers only to the person who embodies it, so too should the barometer.  Though we may be inclined to ignore the device, especially in favor of its cousin the thermometer, we should carelessly not dilute the value of its name.

“Baro” and “meter” roughly translate from their Greek origin to mean “weight measure,” so the generic framing of the word does actually make linguistic sense; but it still seems fair that the air pressure device be given primary access to the only word that we have to describe it.  Or you can go on with your life, completely unsympathetic to the plight of the barometer.  I can’t make you do anything, so no pressure.

But if you do feel pressure — and I am sorry if that is the case — you can confirm your hypothesis with one of those trusty, underappreciated barometers.

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The phrase “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results” is often attributed to a guy named Albert Einstein.

We attribute these words to Einstein in part because the fundamental idea presented (“Experiment!”) certainly seems like something he would have subscribed to — if our celebrity-obsessed caricature of him is to be maintained — and also because we tend to stare extra hard at words when we know that they were uttered by a person that we generally respect (even if that particular person is at least partially responsible for 200,000 human casualties, give or take).

As it turns out, though Einstein said a lot of things, there is no record of him having made this particular quip about the relationship between insanity and repetitive thing-doing.  The reality is that the quote should be credited to Rita Mae Brown, a relatively and theoretically famous writer, but not the really famous writer of the Theory of Relativity.  That we attribute this quote over and over again to Einstein is, in my opinion, is equal parts insane and ironic.

Regardless of where the quote originated, and despite the fact that there is ample reason to discourage repetitive, unsuccessful thing-doage, I don’t think it quite captures precisely what it means to be/act “insane.”  Instead, I think we should start printing the following on posters, from sea to shining sea:

“Insanity is dealing with a problem effectively at first but then, for no discernible reason, ignoring the solution and replacing it with nothing.”

In other words, everything we need to know about insanity can be understood by addressing the rise and fall of the standard, no-frills bicycle bell.  And though this tiny bell has never been a reason to commit an otherwise healthy person to a padded room, our complacency about (at best) or disdain for (at worst) this metallic marvel is nothing short of cuckoo.

The percentage of bikes that sport a bell, so far as I can tell, has taken a nosedive.  And though we still are very much living in the same world and surrounded by the same circumstances that necessitated the invention of the bicycle bell, we seem to have chosen to remove the bell from our bikes and replace it with…nothing.

Instead, bikers are “forced” to hearken back to the olden days and insist on warning pedestrians by yelling any number of versions of the technically accurate though actually most dangerous phrase in the universe“On your left!  Your left!”

This string of words produces, a vast majority of the time, precisely the opposite reaction than the speaker hopes.  When a thinking person hears, from behind, someone anxiously shriek, “Your left!”, the natural, understandable and immediate reaction is to move quickly to the left (directly into the bike’s warpath).  A far more effective technique would be to take this standard warning call and replace it with literally any other loud noise, which would prompt a pedestrian to triangulate the location/distance of the bike and move their body appropriately.

Literally any other loud noise.

You know, like a bell.

Ideally, when a new technology results in unintended negative consequences, the solution cycle (!) looks like this:

  1. Useful Technology invented 🙂
  2. Useful Technology causes unintended badness 😦
  3. Implement Other Thing to limit unintended badness 😐
  4. Final Solution = Useful Technology + Other Thing 😀

If we know steps (3) and (4), we should never ignore them nor pretend as though they do not exist.  As Albert Einstein — whose name gives instant credibility to this phrase — once maybe said, “Insanity is dealing with a problem effectively at first but then, for no discernible reason, ignoring the solution and replacing it with nothing.”

In a sane universe, here is how we would deal with the unintended negative consequences of bicycle traffic causing confusion when riders approach and overtake pedestrians:

  1. The bicycle is invented!
  2. The bicycle causes confusion for pedestrians!
  3. Ringing a bicycle bell alerts pedestrians of bike location.
  4. Final solution = Bicycle + bell

Unfortunately, this is not the world we currently live in.

Yet I still have hope that (one day!) we will re-learn to embrace the fantastic power of the simple bike bell.

Would I lie to you?

When I said that I would be guest-posting on Lessons From Teachers and Twits today, did you think I that was pulling your chain?  Did you assume that I was pulling a fast one — asking you to pull my finger, as it were, but never pulling the trigger?  Is that what you thought?  Don’t pull my leg.

We all know that I could never pull that off.

So it must be true.  It has to be true!

I am blogging over at Renee’s place!

Here’s a little taste of my piece, Substitute Preacher

Nobody asked for my opinion, but I eventually decided
that she deserved some time off.
Ms. Jacobson was pregnant after all, and pregnant women
should not be required to teach fifth period English.  
In fact, I came to realize, pregnant women should not be
required to teach any period of English.  Or anything
else for that matter.  For a brief time, pregnant women
should be entirely devoid of periods.  They should also
say goodbye to: colons, ampersands, & Oxford commas.  
They should take a semester off -- or a trimester, at
the very least.

Don’t stop there.  Make like this is a library book (remember those?) and check it out!

And don’t forget to comment on the post!  I’ll be moderating and discussing the post in the comments section all day, so drop in and say something why don’t ya?

See you there!

(Have you gotten the hint yet?)

As someone who has only recently begun to acknowledge that on the Venn Diagram of Life, I am officially outside the oblong spheroid that reads “The Next Generation.”  One of the few benefits of this unfortunate realization is that it is finally acceptable — and encouraged! — that I begin sentences with the phrase, “In my day…”

Kids these days — with their texting machines, Jersey Shores, and Justin Beibers — can you believe them?  No, you can’t!  You can’t believe them at all.  Someone has to set this babyfaced group of ungrateful whippersnappers straight.  And that someone is me, at least for right now, until I get distracted by some YouTube video of two otters holding hands or something.

I guess I’m not that far removed from these 21st century digital kids, you know.

 

A lot has changed in Internetland since the reality of online chat first slapped me across the face in the mid 1990’s — mostly for the better.  The population of Internet users has grown — quite literally — exponentially.  The number of legitimate resources, for reference and entertainment, is essentially — though not literally — infinite.  We are no longer at the mercy of our analogue phone lines.  These are all enormous steps in a positive direction.

Almost everything about the Internet that could have been improved has been improved.

That said…

In my day, we had more than just ‘BRB’!

And we liked it that way!

Really, we did.  It was a lot better.

Paul Simon is pretty adamant that there are 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover, but there are also a number of ways to leave your computer in the midst of an online chatting session.  “BRB” is just the tip of the not-here iceberg, yet it has become the default, the gold standard for every situation, regardless of circumstance.

It didn’t used to be this way.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Just slip out the back, Jack.

Here’s how we used to do it, in the Good Ol’ Days, back when New York Times editors insisted on modifying the word “Internet” with “a series of interconnected computers.”

BRB / “be right back”

BRB actually means something very specific!  It means “be right back.”  Period.  If you are not going to “be right back,” then you should not use BRB.  If you’re going to the bathroom, you will BRB (unless, well, you know).  If you’re getting coffee from the break room, BRB is appropriate. But if you are heading out to lunch, find a different string of letters.

My general rule of thumb is this: Use BRB if the task you are about to engage in is in the same building as the one you are currently inhabiting and will definitely be completed in 5 minutes or less.

Otherwise, here is a list of useful acronyms to choose from.

AFK / “away from keyboard”

Nowadays, when we say BRB, what we usually mean is AFK.  You use AFK when you intend — intentionally or otherwise — to be as vague as possible regarding the amount of time you will be unavailable.  This acronym is used for several reasons, but most often because the speaker (typer?) is unsure of the amount of time that s/he will be absent, or the conversation is over and the amount of time is irrelevant to the other party in the conversation.

If you are about to go help a cat out of a tree, you are AFK.  If you are a cat who is about to go up into a tree, you are also AFK.

BBIAB / “be back in a bit”

BBIAB, for my money (approx. $0), is the most underutilized going-away acronym.  Those of us who used this string of characters back in the day should strongly consider resurrecting it on a permanent basis.  When you type BBIAB, you are communicating to the listening (reading?) party that the amount of time between now, the leaving time, and once again being available to chat is going to be long, but possibly not so long that the current conversation should be considered “over.”

When the party you are communicating with claims BBIAB, feel free to temporarily remove yourself from the conversation.  Get up.  Have a glass of water.  Crank out a few more pages of that memoir you’ve been working on.  They’ll be back, but not soon enough that you should feel compelled to be an active member of the conversation.

BBL / “be back later”

BBL is as close as you can get to saying goodbye without typing T-T-Y-L.  The only thing that separates “be back later” from “talk to you later” is that the former suggests that the conversation currently taking place is not yet complete.  In other words, whereas TTYL means We’re done with this, BBL roughly translates to We’re done with this for now.

Epilogue

Unfortunately (Fortunately?), this whole discussion about which chatting acronyms are superior to or compatible with BRB will soon be moot.  Some would fairly argue that it already is moot.  The notion that you would feel compelled to communicate the idea that you are not available to be contacted via some form of digital chat already seems a bit antiquated.

We are slowly, for better or for worse, living our lives based on an overwhelming sense of omniavailability. We are available, always, and thus never feel as though we are “leaving” our conversations, even for a moment.

How can we BRB or even BBIAB if we are never really AFK?

Catholic Church-goers are often reminded of the Seven Deadly Sins, while parishioners of the Church of Baseball wax poetic about written (and especially unwritten) rules.  Even our neighborhood pools come equipped with strong suggestions about our equestrian tendencies (no horseplay!) and mental instabilities (jump off the deep end!).

We are surrounded by rules.

There is no escape.

And yet, the realization that there are too many dos, don’ts, oughts, shalls, and shan’ts has not prevented me from coming up with my own list of life recommendations.  I hesitate to bring up this list, except it has come to my attention that I have broken — in half — one of my most fundamental rules.

You see, in my most recent blog post, I committed — in bold typeface no less! — a mortal sin.  And though it was a sin so small that no one but me would ever notice or care, it was large enough in my own mind that I feel compelled to apologize right away.

The rule…

Never argue something is “overrated”

I’ve had this rule for a number of years, yet still decided to state firmly and without irony, “Apples are overrated.”

I’m sorry.  I won’t do it again.

Why?

Well, what do we mean when we say something is overrated?

The word itself roughly means “to appraise too highly,” which does not seem too controversial.  Fair enough.  But more often than not, when we say something is “overrated,” we are not using the word in the objective, literal sense — where a too-high tangible amount is ascribed to the object in question — but as a way to dismissively cast judgment without room for negotiation.

I will explain — using a hypothetical!

The Hypothetical: Let’s say you are at a party.  And let’s say that at this party, there is music.  And let’s say that at this party where there is music, a particular song begins to reverberate through the available speakers.  And let’s say that song is “We Didn’t Start The Fire” by Billy Joel.

Your friend (you have a friend in this hypothetical!) turns to you and says,

“You know what, Billy Joel is overrated!”

Why This Is Problematic: In order for something to be “overrated,” going back to the dictionary definition, two things need to be true:

  1. the subject must be appraised; and
  2. the appraisal must be higher than the subject’s real value

Unfortunately, there is no scale that measures the social value of Billy Joel, at least not any particular measurement that you and your friend have agreed upon.  In other words, your friend is saying,

“I think Billy Joel deserves less praise than my perception of the amount of praise bestowed upon him by society.”

In the end, “Billy Joel is overrated” falls under a category that I like to call (starting…now) a silver bullet non-argument because it is based wholly on a comparison between two unknowable variables:

  1. an internal unknowable perception (how your friend believes Billy Joel is valued by society); and
  2. an external unknowable fact (how Billy Joel is actually valued by society).

And as a result, despite the fact that both elements of the “argument” are unknowable, the listener/arguee has no grounds for counter-argument because each of the elements is completely contained within the mind of the speaker/arguer.

The inherent flaws of the claim being made are only exposed when the listener begins to deconstruct either element.  No mater how the listener responds, the arguer has an escape hatch.

Counter-Argument #1
Argument element deconstructed: Internal Unknowable Fact
Counter: “Perhaps you think Billy Joel is more heralded than he is.”
Escape hatch:  “Still, he’s more heralded than I believe he deserves.  Therefore, he is overrated.”

Counter-Argument #2
Argument element deconstucted: External Unknowable Fact
Counter:  “Perhaps Billy Joel is not actually well-liked.”
Escape hatch: “Still, I believe he is liked too much.  Therefore, he is overrated.”

Counter-Argument #3
Argument element deconstructed: Internal/External
Counter: “Perhaps you should check out this website, Faux Outrage, where the credibility of the word ‘overrated’ is put into question.”
Escape hatch: “That website seems to be written by a crazy person.”

Anyway, as it turns out, this argument is actually moot.

Everybody knows that Billy Joel rocks exactly as hard as he is given credit.

I used to spend a lot of time watching cartoons.*  A lot of time.  I remember shows about dogs looking for ghosts, dogs living with cats, and cats livid with skunks.  And though they were all wonderful in their own special way, one common thread, like a rural drying line in summertime, supported them all.

Cereal commercials.

More specifically, sugar cereal commercials.  Delicious, delicious sugar cereal commercials.

Given my propensity for cartoon-watching, it’s no surprise that I would eventually be inspired to write about these high fructose advertisements.  What is a surprise, however, is that it took me about 20 years of gawking (no, not glawking!) at the Trix Rabbit, Anthony “Tony” The Tiger and Toucan Samuel peddling their wares to notice the faux outrage de jure.

See if you can spot it in this illustrative example:

(Top-Secret Hint: check out the title of this post.)

The offending imagery/phraseology comes about 24-25 seconds into the clip.  Here, we see a snapshot of our now-discontinued hero, Cröonchy Stars, alongside several other breakfast items, as well a snapshot into the mindset of the Ad Wizards who came up with this one.

Part of this nutritious breakfast

Question: What does “Part of this nutritious breakfast” mean?

It seems like the narrator is telling us is that the contents of the big, burnt orange box of glowing cardboard is an essential element for healthy living, but that’s not actually the literal claim being made.

The sentence’s operative words: Part of this.  

The “this” is what’s depicted in the photo above.

So far as I can tell, what is actually being implied here is that Cröonchy Stars, the milk-stained product being pushed into the eyeballs of youngsters (who are now oldsters) throughout the nation, is not by itself nutritious.  The real takeaway is that Cröonchy Stars is part of this, a nutritious meal, and only if the rest of the “meal” consists of non-processed food items that are, you know, “actually nutritious.”

(Note: I am assuming that the contents of the class and what’s being poured into the bowl is not soy milk.)

Sadly, being part of a healthy breakfast that otherwise consists of a glass of orange juice, milk, an apple and banana (look behind the milk jug!), and whole grain toast is like being the player who never gets off the bench for the winning team of the World Series.  You still get a championship ring and are not perjuring yourself when you say, under oath, that you are a champion, but that has more to do with logistics and technicalities than it does with your individual contribution to the team.

ALERT!  PREPARE FOR PERFECT ANALOGY!

In that sense, Cröonchy Stars and cereals like it have a lot in common with Alex Ochoa of the 2002 Anaheim Angels.  If you replaced the Cröonchy Stars (sorry, I really, really like typing “Cröonchy Stars”) in that picture with, I don’t know, say, NOTHING, you would still have a nutritious breakfast.  The same holds true for replacing Alex Ochoa in the 2002 World Series with nothing, assuming you could get “nothing” to fly out to left in his only at-bat with his team down 16-4 in the 9th inning.

(Presumably, this is the first and last time Alex Ochoa will ever be compared to a breakfast cereal [though probably not the first time he was compared to something overhyped].)

It is either ironic or fitting that The Swedish Chef, one of Jim Henson’s genius Muppets creations, who communicates via mostly-incomprehensible pseudo-Swedish babble, is the star of this particular commercial.  As it turns out, it’s entirely possible that the chef’s Nordic gibberish and bloviations are less confusing than the plain English claims made by the narrator.

That said, this marketing-speak slight-of-hand is actually quite remarkable.  The child gets his/her positive message (Muppets!  Fun!) and the parent gets theirs (Healthy!) when in fact neither is true.  Post Foods somehow managed to market food as entertainment and processed sugar as fruits, juice and grains!

Brilliant!

Now, I know that criticizing commercials aimed at children might be considered low-hanging fruit of social commentary, but hey, at least fruit, low-hanging or otherwise, is a nutritious way to being your day.

* I still do, but that’s besides the point.

There are two types of things in the universe:

  1. Things that are milk
  2. Things that are not milk

For example, let’s say I have an item and I show this item to you and say, “Excuse me, attractive person, is this item milk?”  You might attractively reply, “Yes, I know what that thing is and that thing is milk!”  Or you might tell me, “No, I am sorry to handsomely report that is not milk.”

This is easy, right?

Right.

But also, as it turns out, wrong.  Very, very wrong.

It has recently come to my attention that we are apparently living in a society where items that clearly belong in category (2) (“Things that are not milk”) are being placed firmly and without question into category (1) (“Things that are milk”).

This is a problem.

How big of a problem will depend on your feelings about being completely and utterly doomed.

None of us would be surprised to learn that Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “milk” as:

a fluid secreted by the mammary glands of females for the nourishment of their young

Noncontroversial, yes?  (Except when done in public.)

That is without a doubt what milk is.

Secreted fluid.  Mammary glands.  Female.  Nourishment.

Got it.

But life would be too simple if we lived in a society where “milk” simply meant “milk.”   Far too simple.  Instead, we have created a universe where liquid made from almonds, soy, and rice are all classified as “milk.”

Almond milk?  Soy milk?  Rice milk?

You can find these products in the dairy section of your favorite grocery store right next to the milk, they are packaged as though they are milk, and it will even say “MILK” right there on the container!

But besides being advertised as milk, what do these liquids actually have in common with, you know, milk?

Secreted fluids?

No

From mammary glands?

Uhhhhh…

From a female?

Weird

Nourishing?

Debatable

Milk has evolved from “an actual thing” to a generic term for a cartoned or boxed (or bagged — I didn’t forget aboot you, Canadians!) white-ish liquid that you can pour over cereal without immediately throwing up.  This is how we know, for example, that orange juice is not milk.  Not yet anyway.

Basically, because marketers figured out that it’s possible to sell “milk replacement products” to consumers by storing them alongside actual milk in containers resembling milk containers, we have thoughtlessly relented and have begun calling a substance made by finely grinding almonds together with water“milk.”

It is not milk.

It is not even close to milk.

As a result of our shenanigans, Merriam-Webster now also defines “milk” like this:

a liquid resembling milk in appearance

Look what we hath wrought!

“Milk” now means “milk” and also “something that is by definition not milk.”  How many words do we need that are defined as themselves and also their opposite?

(Correct answer: zero.)

As a society, are we happy about this?  Our inability to declare loudly and confidently what constitutes “milk” — at the behest of our marketing and sales overlords — has led to a chain reaction culminating in our dictionaries codifying forever our disturbing passivity.

The word “milk” has been split in two and that is sad.

Or am I the only one crying over split milk? *

Spilt Milk Comic

* That totally happened

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