05 February 2015

Link Sausages With Missing Bits

... and somewhat influenced by muscle relaxants.

  • A fascinating essay on science as an outpost of English has some interesting lacunae and interesting implications. The first, and perhaps most obvious, lacuna is its definition of "English." Unlike classical Greek and medieval/renaissance Arabic and Latin, written English is still a rather strongly dialect-influenced language; an article in The New England Journal of Medicine reads discernably differently from an article on the same subject in The Lancet, let alone one appearing in a Springer Verlag journal. The second is that it does not delve into the not-used-for-primary-publication second languages; chemistry, and in particular synthetic organic chemistry, still requires a basic reading knowledge of German, and photochemistry still requires some ability to decode Russian — if only to ensure that one's "new" research agenda isn't replicating something from a few decades ago.

    The most interesting implication, though, is for the influence of scientific language on nonscientific discourse, such as the influence of "English as the language of science" on the policy debates on global warming… and the recognition that the English being used by scientists is not the English being used in policy debates. It's arguably more distinct than mere "dialect," because the shared abstract vocabulary and abstract grammar do not reflect themselves in shared concrete syntax and semantics. More than anything else, this helps explain why Americans don't read as much foreign-language literature (even in translation) as they should. (The lack of availability is just a… bonus.)

  • America may well be Fregian in its predilictions ("the number of a class is the class of all classes similar to the given class" — another example of difficult translation into English from a native speaker of another language) when it comes to the illusory ease of class mobility. In some ways, the article seriously understates the matter because it's only going to get worse as the two great melting-pots of midcentury class contact (the military and the Peace Corps) continue to decline in numbers.
  • About 45 years too late, a few prominent voices in H'wood are objecting to being objectified on the red carpet. I always hoped that someone, when asked "Who are you wearing?" would respond "Well, the shoes came from a cow named Daisy, the gown is woven of a cotton-polyester blend created by Günther from seeds harvested by Miguel and oil refined by Habib, and the conflict-diamond necklace was picked by at least five lovely young women from Namibia whose names I never bothered to learn before they worked themselves to death." Or, perhaps, "I rented this thing from some damned tuxedo shop on Wilshire — talk about me and not my clothes." What I find most interesting, though, is the improper transferrence to blaming it on H'wood: Most of the particular ills described in this article in the NYT are reflected and driven primarily by fashion, not by film. Care to take a guess which coastal US city is the center of the US fashion industry, and especially what passes for journalism concerning that industry (hint: which paper published the article)?
  • An anthropologist wonders about the absence of female characters in fantasy fiction. Her case study is certainly valid, but I think it neglects a greater mythological connection: The myth that "only men are heavily involved in war," which is particularly relevant to epic fantasy due to the Homeric bias and the specter of total war from the Second Thirty Years' War that invests so much of commercial fantasy. There are a few exceptions, such as a brilliant mind in Portland (whose Earthsea books are exceptional because they are not built around a race/dynasty war) and a few others who have not written in the series paradigm, but they are notable as exceptions that demonstrate the rule more than they test ("prove") it.