Monthly Archives: August 2011

A Cry in the Wilderness

Language is as dynamic as the culture of which it is a part. On the one hand, it is enriched by new words, phrases, and concepts associated with cultural activity as diverse as technology, literature, and notable events. On the other hand, language is subject to denigration at its grammatical level. A typical excuse to ignore any rule of grammar is that languages are filled with inconsistencies, so why bother being ‘correct.’ This raises the question: Is there really any need for grammar?

You bet there is. By that, I don’t mean unwavering dedication to inviolate grammatical rules. But, since language is our major tool for communicating concrete and abstract concepts, consistent standards of language should be maintained as much as possible, including irregular verbs and well-established idiomatic quirks. Italians live with the double negative, ‘I don’t know nothing.’ Their idiom is grammatically ‘correct’ for them. It is anathema for us. It also happens that the English ‘I don’t know anything’ is consistent with logic. Italians know that, but it is centuries too late for them to correct their ancient idiom. The same is true for our imbedded idioms, however irrational some of them seem out of context.

But denigration of language is another matter. Consider the following:

  •  He is so fun.

If that sentence hurts your ears, there’s good reason for the pain. Replace fun with house and we have, ‘It is so house.’ Fun is an abstract noun that is never preceded by a. We can speak of ‘a house,’ but not of ‘a fun.’ It is a word that requires modification, as in ‘We had fun.’ It is used as an adjective only at the colloquial level, as in ‘a fun movie.’ I am neither nitpicking nor am I alone in objecting to the recent popular ‘reclassification’ of that word.

  • What went down?

Why replace “What happened?” with an awkward colloquial expression.

  • She went missing last week.

Translation: She’s been missing for a week.

Went missing’(!). We go to lots of places- – -‘missing’ is not one of them. ‘She went missing’ is an expression widely used by newscasters reporting missing persons (a rather frequent news item). I’m afraid that this abomination has already infected the general populace and is here to stay.

  • He goes, ‘I have an issue.’

Translation: He said, ‘I have a problem.’

I remember when the verbs ‘to go’ and ‘to say’ had separate meanings. The same was true of the words issue and problem. These words were not interchangeable. Recently, the fine distinction between them has been severely blurred.

  • We’re back after a commercial.

Translation: We’ll be back after a commercial.

This last example is symptomatic of a significant denigration of English grammar. Old English didn’t have a future tense. The future tense was created by combining shall, will, and forms of do, have, and be. Auxiliary verbs are combined with main verbs to convey many shades of time. For example, will or shall combined with forms of other verbs provide us with time frames as precise as, ‘I will have had dinner before you arrive.’ (Putting aside the interesting but mainly archaic rules about whether will or shall is the proper word to use in different circumstances, will is by far the more commonly used.) Of course the contraction (we’ll) makes those subtleties totally irrelevant. In any case, I’m still waiting to hear someone say, ‘We’ll be back after a commercial.’

I suspect that ‘We’re back’ instead of ‘We’ll be back’ is intended to create an illusion of nonstop action, a concession to restless audiences. By this time, most listeners unquestioningly accept a corrupted tense when they hear phrases like, ‘The President is in London for two weeks’ when the reality is that the President is expected to be in London for two weeks beginning a day after the newscast.

Before television, changes in the spoken word were relatively gradual. Then, about fifteen years ago, I was shocked by an instant change. I was watching a weather report delivered by a new ‘weatherman.’ Forecasting the weather a week in advance, he said, “Tomorrow it’s raining. Thursday, it’s turning colder. The weekend is fair and cold.” Throughout his delivery, the future tense was not used once (a retrogression to the 10th century). This, on a news segment that forecasts weather! In the course of about ten minutes, I witnessed the disappearance of the future tense.

Within two weeks, all major newscasters and commentators followed the same pattern. Apparently, some consultant or other, or some broadcasting school or other, decided that the language needed a lift. Weather reports in particular suggested a redaction of the future tense. Whoever advised newscasters and commentators to inappropriately distort the future tense also advised (compelled?) them to deliberately stress words inappropriately. I couldn’t help but notice their discomfort as they struggled against the sense and rhythm of the language.

For about five years I cringed as I heard,

  • It is cloudy in New York or It is cloudy in New York or It is cloudy over New York.
  • The temperatures have been rising.
  • We do have rain falling. (note the redundancy as well)


A cop has been shot in Manhattan. Police say they have no suspects. There is a press conference tomorrow morning at 9:00 A.M. Tuesday there is a meeting between the mayor and his staff that focuses on the rise of crime in the city. The mayor is not available for comment. I even remember, Good evening. I am John Smith.

I think of those years as the spoken word’s Reign of Terror. Prepositions and parts of verbs instantly became the uncontested operative words in virtually every sentence. Of course we are all familiar with the genuine need to stress words when appropriate, but stressing them for their own sake was nothing more than an anomalous affectation created by a charlatan. Strictly for ‘innovation,’ prepositions and parts of the verbs to be, to have, and to do were invariably stressed! A trace of that nightmare survives. But I advise you not to listen for it. Once you are aware of it, it drives you crazy. At the peak of the Reign of Terror, my friends good-naturedly cursed me for having drawn their attention to that ill-conceived affectation. I wondered what that charlatan’s whim would have on children and immigrants who were learning English at that time.

Compare the inappropriate stressing of prepositions to Abraham Lincoln’s brilliant use of them when he said,

of the people, by the people, and for the people…

Language is elastic, vibrant, and boundless. Grammar is not its soul but it serves as its skeleton. It’s foolish to play competitive ‘gothcha!’ grammar games with each other or impair our communication skills with an overbearing attention to grammar. I think it’s okay to text-message, u r luv…c u 2nite. But I also think that we owe it to ourselves and future generations to resist domestic and foreign assaults on our spectacular language.

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Only Human

When I hear the expression, “I’m only human,” I think, “Compared to what?” Of course the expression is an idiom and I don’t take issue with it in the context of everyday conversation. But I do object to the prevailing superstition that the only difference between humans and other animals is a matter of degree, not kind. My objection is not based on a snobbish notion that we are ‘superior’ to animals. Superiority is not an issue. Few are we who don’t have a sense of equality with animals when we hug them or just admire them for a variety of reasons, including the constancy of unconditional love. They are not ‘only animals’ anymore than we are ‘only human.’

But there is a distinction between animals and humans that escapes scientists as well as an overwhelming majority of ‘ordinary’ people. That distinction is realized in both science and art.


Darwin (and Lamarck before him) revealed the evolution of life. The Scopes trial was necessary and inevitable. Necessary, because education requires freedom; inevitable, because evolution was a concept waiting to be discovered with or without a trial. But the trial is not over. The ‘missing link’ appears to be more than just a matter of bones and opposing thumbs.

Scientists of different stripes, ranging from neurologists to cosmologists, posit a surfeit of theories related to the origin of life. Neurologists probe complex combinations of primordial nerve cell activity, especially in the brain; cosmologists talk of ‘habitable zones’ that allow atoms to link and form complex molecules that result in living matter. Absurd and brilliant theories cohabit academia.

The study of humans as animals is legitimate of course. But there is an enormous disconnect between authentic scientists who probe biological facts and others whose agenda is to diminish the human psyche. The former enjoy nurturing whatever intelligence they can glean from animals they often come to love; the latter are fixed on the premise that there is no fundamental difference between the psyche of animals and humans even though there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Ironically, science itself provides us with major evidence that animals and humans are different in kind. Animals survive by instinct alone. Humans survive by a hint of instinct, but our major tool for survival is rationality. Animals are not speculative nor do they deal with complex abstractions. Humans constantly deal with them. Some individuals surprise the rest of us with fire or a wheel or E=MC2.

Science is an exclusively human attribute. It is not subjected to the limitations of evolution, i.e., the static status of individual animals from generation to generation is constant over millions of years until the species is extinct. A defined species has one shot in evolution’s splendid parade. A lizard’s psyche is no different from that of its primordial ancestors however many adaptations the species has undergone. The difference between other animals and humans is our unique genius for creativity. No aspect of that genius is more evident than it is in art.


While all sorts of experiments are conducted to demonstrate that the difference between other animals and humans is no more than a matter of the degree to which self-awareness and intelligence is part of our respective species, the essential difference between us is a matter of kind. Degrees of intelligence and experiential activity can be measured and codified. Apparently, primates and seals (like humans) have characteristics beyond sheer instinct. However, these characteristics do not include art. Evidently, some cave dwellers were artists. There is no evidence of art created by seals or chimpanzees, notwithstanding primate paintings hanging in questionable art exhibits.

Unlike theoretical science and intuitive religion, art is unequivocally real. Here. Now. Accessible. Although art is sometimes regarded as a phenomenon of enhanced instinct, it is a distinctly and exclusively human attribute. Yet, there are many individuals at all levels of intelligence who are not receptive to art in any form. For them, art is as unknowable as theoretical science or religious entities. As a result of this vacuum in the psyche of many scientists, they are limited to collecting and probing only data that is applicable to biological and purely instinctive characteristics shared by all animals to some degree or another. The essential distinction in kind between humans and other animals is entirely missed or simply ignored as irrelevant.

Those of us who are comfortable with the distinction between other animals and ourselves, are accused of being naively anthropocentric. But, exactly what is it that they believe is more than ‘only human’- – -gods, aliens, machines?

While questions about the origin and destiny of life drag on, answers to the meaning of life are most likely to be found in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Michelangelo’s Pietà, the Parthenon, Tschaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Ballet (choreography by Petipa), Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, Verdi’s Otello, Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Shakespeare’s wisdom, and a host of other equally exquisite bursts of human expression.

Yes, the idiom ‘only human’ is meant to be an explanation for a specific fault, lack, or error. But it also implies that being human is less than what we should be. I, for one, am comfortable with being ‘only’ human.          

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The Little Guy

Once again the airways are filled with the sights and sounds of a threadbare scenario: COP KILLS MAN, CIVILIAN RIOTS ERUPT. Riots have had a continuous run on the world stage for centuries. Their causes have almost always centered on race, severe economic imbalance, or physical oppression. Often, all three causes are combined. There are anomalies, e.g., riots in celebration of sports events. These are often discussed in terms of social unrest manifesting itself in the guise of overwhelming joviality.

Whatever its cause, a riot is condoned or condemned according to the perception one has about its cause. Riots in slave or otherwise repressed societies have erupted thousands of times. Certainly, freedom from oppression is a good cause to riot, whatever the oppressor’s perspective may be. But, whatever form it takes, looting is no argument against perceived or real societal injustices except when riots are sparked by literal hunger imposed on the rioters- – -and even then, looting (if any) should be restricted to food sources, escape vehicles, and so forth, preferably without unnecessary violence or damage wherever possible.

Hunger is certainly not the cause of riots in the United Kingdom. People don’t eat TVs, appliances, or clothing. Whatever claims looters or their apologists make as the cause of looting, the fundamental cause for it is greed. The recent looting in the United Kingdom is an insult to the man who was killed by the policeman, especially if his death was unnecessary. I find it impossible to sympathize with a rioter who is protesting with a looted TV under his arm.

I saw a disturbing TV image in which two rioters ran toward another rioter who had fallen to the ground as a result of an injury. At first, I thought they ran to help him. Instead, they pried the fallen looter’s bounty from his firm grip, and ran off with it. I have no doubt that all three men involved would claim that they were out on the street to protest excessive police force. Some go further when they claim that little guys are forced to act maliciously because capitalists oppress them.

True, manufacturers and middlemen may have originally overpriced a looted item, but I fail to see an honest connection between protests and looting. I also question the rapid transition from moral outrage to looting. Gang members and students will tell you that they are motivated to riot by the injustices of the prevailing society. Of course policemen and capitalists are at the top of their hit list. But their true motives are blatantly obvious to anyone who observes the savagery with which they break into storefronts.

Gang rioters are comfortable with a world of crime and violence, however temporary and local. They love the sound of shattering glass and the rage of destructive fire. Student rioters reflect attitudes promulgated by most academic professors. The unusual compatibility between gangs and college students indicates that the riots are motivated by unsound societal attitudes, including greed.

Riots are a phenomenon within which students and gangs can come together. Both believe they are protesting police brutality. Both believe that the little guy acts maliciously because he is forced to do so by capitalist oppressors. Both vandalize with the security of relatively risk-free crime. Both identify with the little guy. Both fail to see the enormous fallacy of their social and moral attitudes. The material gains of unscrupulous corporate peddlers and those of looters vary in size, but the motive for looting at the little guy level is identical to that of the corporate thieves they despise: greed.

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Hollywood’s Seven Deadly Sins (in alphabetical order)


Scientists tell us that a huge asteroid is approaching the earth. Life on earth is threatened by extinction. We are shown charts of the death rock’s trajectory. Ominous music underscores our first glimpse of the intruder. Then, we cut to it somewhere in space. Now up close, we see it. Unfortunately, we also hear it roaring in an ambiance where sound is not possible. 


We hear the clamor of the waterfall, the commotion of birds on the wing, the rush of wind through violently trembling grass and leaves. But, alas, we don’t hear a word of dialogue spoken by the actors.


The knight approaches the queen. He bows with one arm crossing his waist, the other, his back. This, despite the fact that no self-respecting royal court would countenance so awkward a gesture.


Everyone in this movie is Russian. Why are all the actors speaking with a Russian accent?


The hero must render three guards unconscious so that he may achieve his goals. Somehow, he manages to do so with knockout punches that last exactly as long as the script requires. 


The antagonists are finally face to face. Their dialogue is filled with hatred and venom. They hurl the vilest of insults against each other. They threaten to fight one another to the death. Why are they whispering?


Can people really faint backwards? 

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Strange Bedfellows

[Please note: On June 5, 2011, I posted a blog titled Et tu, Brian.  For brevity, I restricted that piece to only one of two equally important issues.  If you were interested in that post, you might want to read this one as a ‘companion piece’ to it.]

With no mathematical ability beyond that of a very bright six-year-old, I have contemplated a few details of three related cosmological concepts at their elementary level. It is my understanding that:

a) Alleged strings are so tiny that their size is comparable to that of an average tree within an atom as large as the universe.  One string model indicates that there could be 10500 possible universes, each of them governed by its own physical laws.  String theory is purported to straddle reality from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic realms of the universe.

b) A ‘Brane’ (membrane) is supposed to be a three-dimensional object ‘caught’ in a higher-dimensional space.  Our universe is a 3-brane object (space-time).  A significant outgrowth of string theory posits that a collision between two branes created our universe.  This theory considerably rattles the now time-honored theory of the Big Bang and a solitary universe.   

c) The universe we perceive may be a hologram of a ‘higher’ reality.

I thoroughly enjoy cosmology and deeply admire the work of cosmologists.  I also regret not knowing how to speak ‘Mathematica,’ my term for their second language.  By all accounts, that language does not translate into traditional languages spoken throughout the world.  Acknowledging my linguistic limitation and fully respecting the complexities of theoretical cosmology, I still have reservations about the direction that cosmology in general has taken in the last three decades.  Consider the following:

a) Adamant string theorists continue to dominate educative positions during their  university tenures and keep out young cosmologists who don’t go along with string theory.  Hindering budding careers is especially unfortunate because almost all scientists are at their best when they are young.  Understandably, the older generation of theoretical cosmologists is still trying to connect the metaphorical elephant’s trunk to her tail.  I’m not suggesting that the pursuit of Superstring theory should be summarily abandoned, but a host of dimensional descriptions associated with string concepts smack of faith, not science.

b) There is no way to verify the existence of branes, let alone the theory that our universe was created by the collision of two branes, if indeed other universes do exist.

c) A Holographic Universe is more than vaguely reminiscent of Plato’s cave!  I interpret that theory to mean that our perception of reality is similar to that of watching a 3-D film, instead of shadows.  But the crucial difference between the movie (or a holographic projection) and real life is that we are imbedded in the alleged cosmological ‘film’ as well as being its observers, and that in place of 3-D glasses we wear brilliant mathematical equations to filter our intuitive perceptions from the holographic principle.  (I’ve loosely merged 3-D movies and holographic images only to facilitate my argument.)

I’ve heard apologists for the holographic model explain that the closer we look at a hologram, the more illusive it becomes.  I assume that this natural characteristic of holograms implies that the enigma of quantum mechanics is rooted in our ‘copy’ of whatever ‘higher’ reality exists.  I might be wrong about that interpretation, but I know that holographic illusiveness automatically serves as a perfect shield against the theory’s detractors.

These three related theories- – -among others- – -contain major characteristics of mysticism even though their apologists don’t necessarily think of them as mystic.  I suppose that the use of complex mathematics to support theoretical concepts overrides any realization of similarities between current and ancient cosmology which was principally and intentionally mystic.  Mysticism is appropriately and intrinsically at the base of all religions.  Science is based on observation and experimentation of the knowable. Faith and science need not be incompatible for an individual, but the trend towards formally blending mysticism and science is not a good idea- – –at least, not to me.

Questioning the validity of my views about current theoretical cosmology, I checked the opinions of Feynman and Glashow about string theory.  I was relieved to find that they also have reservations about it. Of course they take exceptions to string theory at a professional level; my reservations are based at a personal level only.  I am in no sense a competitor in the search for TOE, the ‘theory of everything.’  I keep searches like that on the back burner.  Mundane chores keep me too busy to attain omniscience any time soon.

But philosophically, as I read about current cosmology, I observe the imprimatur of faith: the unobservable, the inaccessible, the unknowable.  We are told that there is a level of physics that can be expressed only in mathematical terms.  I’m sure that’s true, but I’m not convinced that what cosmologists communicate to each other is necessarily true.  I don’t need mathematics to tell me that cosmologists are often at profound odds with each other.  On the other hand, well-written descriptions and fine diagrams clarify the essence of unambiguous theories for us without the use of mathematics.  Perfect examples of this are the interaction between matter and space; the existence of dark matter and energy; the evolution of the universe, and so on.

After centuries of hard-fought wars to separate science and faith, there is a trend towards the unification of the two. The trend is growing.  It is chic.  It is also disingenuous. My skeptical eyebrow is raised when I note continued opposition to the blending of Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism and Christian Science (!) with science, but- – -in stark contrast- – -a wholehearted embrace for the union of science and Eastern religions.  There are many individuals, including cosmologists, who unquestioningly have a double standard about which faiths blend or do not blend with science!

Some individuals literally associate Big Bangs and Crunches with Vishnu, the Preserver, and Shiva, the Destroyer.  Even more popular is the notion that an infinite number of universes entails the existence of our ‘other selves’ along with duplicates of all Brahma’s creatures.  This is reminiscent of a scenario that asserts that if an immortal monkey dances on the keys of a typewriter forever, he is bound to write Les Misérables, word for word, including punctuation marks of course.  I might add to that, why not an infinite number of every novel ever written including one of the monkey’s own.  Would random dancing really do that?  Maybe.  But my bet is on Victor Hugo.

Invoking the unimaginable concept of infinity is an all-purpose tool for making just about any theory plausible.  There are too many ‘infinities’ in cosmology.  I still find it difficult to accept terms like ‘infinite density and zero volume.’  An ‘out-of-time-and-space deity’ is more plausible than infinite anything, except the purely abstract concept of numbers.  Apparently, cosmologists are not as skillful with English as they are with mathematica.

If ‘infinite density and zero volume’ means a ‘point’ (as they call it) where physics ‘breaks down,’ then why not invent a single word for that- – -but not an equation, please.

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