The Stupidest Fucking Sentence Ever

Usain BoltPerhaps the stupidest sentence in the English language is this:

I didn’t come here to lose!

The last time I heard it was when I was over at a friend’s house and we were watching one of those cooking shows. The sentence is stupid on so many levels. To begin with, are we to believe that some people do show up to competitions to lose? Is there a runner who wins the Boston Marathon and is pissed off? “Fuck, I came here to lose!”

The sentence doesn’t say much either. Okay, so he didn’t come here to lose. Did he come here to enjoy the weather? Did he come here because it was a free trip? Did he come here to embarrass himself? I’m sure everyone really wants to know. But we all figure what he means is that he came here to win. He just wants to say it in a clever way. So why not, “I didn’t not come here to not lose”? That one sounds good. Instead of one double negative, it has two. And as an added bonus, it is almost impossible to figure out what it means!

Geoffrey MutaiBut what makes the sentence so terrible is the testosterone fueled subtext that the speaker can simply will his victory. That’s just bullshit.

Consider Geoffrey Mutai, one of the best marathon racers in the world. He holds the title for the fastest unofficial marathon time, 2:03:02. That’s an average of 4:42 per mile. For 26 miles. He’s an amazing man. He is also quite small. He is 5’7″ and weighs 119 pounds. I’m sure he is not dumb enough to ever say (in whatever language), “I didn’t come here to lose!” But I’m equally sure he comes to every event intent on winning.

Now consider Usain Bolt, one of the best sprinters in the world. He holds the title for the fastest 100 m and 200 m (and the unofficial fastest 150 m). That 100 m race amounts to 25.7 mph. He’s an amazing man. He is also quite big. He is 6’5″ and weighs 207 pounds. In other words, he’s about twice the size of Geoffrey Mutai. And I am equally sure that he is not dumb enough to ever say (in whatever language), “I didn’t come here to lose!” But as with Mutai, I’m sure he comes to competitions to win.

So both men come to whatever competition they enter to win. Now if they competed in a marathon, Mutai would win. If they competed in a sprint, Bolt would win. No amount of will would change the results of either of these races.

It could be that a good mental attitude helps a little, but it is swamped by other factors like Usain Bolt’s enormous stride or Geoffrey Mutai’s low weight or a half percentage point change in humidity. It’s like with cancer: despite what people say, having a good mental attitude doesn’t have any effect on cancer outcomes.

So please, stop saying, “I didn’t come here to lose!” You aren’t going to will yourself to victory, and saying this just means that you’re a dick.

What Shall We Do with Our Old?

D W GriffithD W Griffith deservedly has a bad rap as a racist. But I don’t think he was a bad man. I can’t remember who right now, but there was some southern Republican Congressman who admitted that he grew up thinking slavery wasn’t bad and that the slaves were mostly fine with it. And just look at all the happy slaves in 1939’s blockbuster Gone with the Wind. So I think that we are being a bit harsh on Mr. Griffith.

But I fully admit, I want to find a way to wash away his racist beliefs and the story of Birth of a Nation. But I don’t want to wash away the film itself, because it is one of the greatest achievements in any art form ever. I’m not talking Mona Lisa great; I’m talking Chauvet Cave paintings great. Regardless, the man did have a heart.

Here is a short film, What Shall We Do with Our Old? Yes, it is melodrama. But it was also very true of life in 1911 when the film was made. And it was true in 1912 and 1913 and 1914 and well past 1940 when the first Social Security checks went out. This is the kind of film that should be made:

Today, conservatives want to take us back to those days. Of course, they won’t admit it. They just want to take benefits away from the “wrong kind” of people—the kind of people who “abuse” the system. But even if there are lowlifes who are scamming the system, you absolutely cannot stop them from getting benefits without stopping worthy people from getting benefits. As it is, the programs to help the poor are riddled with red tape while the programs to help the rich are given away with a smile and a handshake.

And who are these people who want grandma to starve to death while grandpa sits in jail for stealing some bread? These are people who have huge amounts of money. But they are committed to a weird idea of Darwin’s theory where only the big and the smart survive. But that doesn’t even happen among lizards, much less humans who have only thrived because of their social instincts. Humans have been taking care of the sick and weak for tens of thousands of years. What conservatives think is “natural” is anything but.

Pete Peterson and his ilk are not just determined to destroy the social safety net. They are determined to destroy human civilization. They’ve bought into the thinking of people like Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman. In the social “Darwinian” world they want, we don’t end up with Mad Max. We end up with Planet of the Apes.

As confused as D W Griffith was about the history of America, the Pete Petersons is far more so. And far more dangerous too.

One Great Idea and Unimaginable Harm

John LennonI’m not a huge John Lennon fan. He wrote some great songs, though. “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” and “Across the Universe” come immediately to mind. Just the same, he demanded a great deal of charity from the listener. I know I am pretty much alone on this, but “Imagine” is a terrible song. I can’t think of a work of art that is so exclusive. John Lennon’s there to help us become enlightened, which is bad enough, but then, “Imagine no possessions; I wonder if you can?” Had he been a more serious songwriter (there is no doubt of his enormous talent), he would have written the song as a self-indictment. The people listening to that song could imagine no possessions a hell of lot better than that pretentious multimillionaire. (Yoko Ono’s net worth is a half billion dollars.)

Still, it is a profound sadness that he was murdered 33 years ago today at the age of 40. I think he had one more great creative period left (and no, Double Fantasy was not part of it). It’s interesting that Mark David Chapman appears to have been inspired by his conversion to Christianity to killed Lennon because of Lennon’s statement (15 years earlier!) that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. I don’t mean to suggest that Christianity is to blame for the actions of Chapman. But it is certainly true that most Christians blame Islam for violent acts by individuals of that faith. I know that Christians respond that Jesus taught peace. But he also taught violence (eg Matthew 10:34-35). These old holy books can justify pretty much anything you want to do.

Good God, what a day for birthdays!

Eli WhitneyOn this day way back in 65 BC, the great Roman poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus, known to us English speakers as simply Horace, was born. Most people know of him because of one line from one of his poems Odes Book III, Poem 2: Dulce Et Decorum Est. The line itself is, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” A straight translation is, “Sweet and decorous it is for the fatherland to die.” Now Horace is exhorting his fellow Romans to man up. You can read the whole poem in English at Poetry in Translation. Today, we know the line from Wilfred Owen’s poem of the same name where he quotes the line. This is how he ends his poem:

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori
.

I learned a great deal about Latin from reading Horace. All my life, I had heard that Latin was a perfect language. Yet here was this famous line that ends with an infinitive. It sounded vaguely like German to me. What I learned is that there is no such thing as a perfect language. And no language is superior to another. They all have their strengths and weaknesses. I run into grammatical problems all the time that simply can’t be solved simply in English, but that is built right into other languages. It is very much like programming languages. The best language depends upon what you want to say. And that can change clause by clause. But one cool thing about Latin: it really isn’t that hard. If I had a child, I would encourage him to study it.

The great French filmmaker Georges Melies was born in 1861. You probably know of him from the hit children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret and the film based upon it, Hugo. He was a professional magician who got into films very early. He is more or less the father of film special effects. But his films are generally quite charming. And they were certainly better than what was being done in America at that time. Of course, over time, his creativity was worn out. He came from the stage and his films continued to be constrained by that paradigm. But it is hard to say if that is the result of lack of ability or of the extreme demands placed on him by that great villain of early filmmaking, Thomas Edison. Regardless, it would take D W Griffith some years later to fully realize that stories on film could be told in an entirely new way. None of this takes anything away from Melies, of course. In the end, France treated Melies very much like the United States treated D W Griffith as well as Orson Welles. He was praised and honored. Young filmmakers consulted with him. But he was not able to make a single film the last 25 years of his life and much of that time he lived in poverty. Here is The Impossible Voyage from 1904:

Another Frenchman, mathematician Jacques Hadamard was born in 1865. I don’t begin to understand his work. But I like what he had to say about mathematics. You see, to me, mathematics is the most creative thing that a human being can do. I get a lot of pushback from people who just don’t get math. This is like people who can only draw stick figures claiming that the great Renaissance painters were not creative. This is how Wikipedia describes it:

In his book Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field, Hadamard uses introspection to describe mathematical thought processes. In sharp contrast to authors who identify language and cognition, he describes his own mathematical thinking as largely wordless, often accompanied by mental images that represent the entire solution to a problem. He surveyed 100 of the leading physicists of the day (approximately 1900), asking them how they did their work.

Hadamard described the experiences of the mathematicians/theoretical physicists Carl Friedrich Gauss, Hermann von Helmholtz, Henri Poincaré and others as viewing entire solutions with “sudden spontaneousness.”

Hadamard described the process as having four steps of the five-step Graham Wallas creative process model, with the first three also having been put forth by Helmholtz: Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, and Verification.

The great Irish flutist James Galway is 74 today. My opinion of him has really gone up over the years. I think when I was younger, I was put off by his flashiness. But the truth is that he does everything just perfect. There are flutists as good but no one is better. Here he is doing the Allegro from the fourth Bach Flute Sonata:

Other birthdays: the tragic Mary, Queen of Scots (1542); French composer Claude Balbastre (1724); Czech composer (and friend of Mozart) Frantisek Xaver Dusek (1731); French playwright Georges Feydeau (1862); sculptor Camille Claudel (1864); composer Jean Sibelius (1865); the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera (1886); cartoonist E C Segar (1894); Cuban painter Wifredo Lam (1902); poet Delmore Schwartz (1913); singer Sammy Davis Jr (1925); comedian Flip Wilson (1933); non-Chinese actor David Carradine (1936); singer Jim Morrison (1943); musician Gregg Allman (66); actor Kim Basinger (60); comedian Sam Kinison (1953); pernicious provocateur Ann Coulter (52); and Sinead O’Connor (47).

The day, however, belongs to the inventor Eli Whitney who was born on this day in 1765. Known for his invention of the cotton gin, he made all his money manufacturing guns for the United States government. There doesn’t seem to be any indication that he was an evil man, but he had a profoundly evil effect on the history of the United States. Slavery in the United States was not originally a racial institution. The problem from the standpoint of the slave-owners was that the black and white slaves had this nasty tendency to bind together and upset the “natural” order. At times, they were joined by the native tribes. So a kind of caste system was developed. The blacks were the slaves, the former white slaves just became the working poor, and the slave-owning aristocracy stayed the same. Divide and conquer. For the slave owners, this was not about racism; it was about money. But the poor whites had to be sold on the idea that the blacks ought to be slaves because they were inferior. Otherwise: there could be more binding together. Over time, I’m sure the slave-owners convinced themselves that the blacks were inferior. But it was always, always, always about money.

By the end of the 18th century, slavery was dying out in the south. Understand: it costs money to own a slave. You have to feed and cloth and house him. It only makes economic sense to keep a slave if he produces more than he costs. And at that time, all the south was producing was rice and tobacco which were not high margin crops. They were producing cotton too, but because of the seeds that had to be removed, it was labor intensive and thus not very profitable. Some slaveowners were giving away their slaves. Until the cotton gin was invented in 1793. In the 20 years after its invention, cotton production increased almost 100 fold.

This was not just a catastrophe for the slaves themselves. It was terrible for the southern economy. For the next 60 years, instead of industrializing and diversifying its economy, the south became dependent upon a single product. It was, in effect, a banana republic. Slavery was going to die regardless, because eventually cotton demand would go down and anyway, others, more inclined toward modern manufacturing processes would have out competed the south’s slave labor approach. Slavery is just bad economics. It is the most extreme example of income inequality. But Whitney—a northern industrialist—allowed the south to diminish its economy and destroy the lives of millions of black Americans both before and after the Civil War. It’s sad, because I’m sure Whitney meant well.

Happy birthday Eli Whitney, may God be as merciful as many claim!

Pronoun Trouble

Pronoun TroubleI haven’t written much about grammar recently and it has begun to bother me. A few of you will understand this: grammar is a great refuge for me. If politics or my personal life are getting to be too much, I can curl up with Fowler or a number of other great writing writers and escape it all. When I was younger, math would do that for me. But my brain has changed and now math is either trivial or exhausting. But I can lose hours diving into the intricacies of the gerund. Also, there are my continuing efforts to simplify the language and slowly reduce the number of things I have to worry about, like my campaigns to stop using the words annunciate and blonde.

Today, I have nothing so sexy as jettisoning old redundant words and French gender identifiers in English. I came upon a sentence this morning by the fine political writer Martin Longman over at Political Animal, In Colorado, Same As It Ever Was. But before I get to it, please remember I’m not attacking him. Blogging is a fast-paced business with little or no support staff and absolutely no copy editors. What’s more, I think Longman is a better writer than I am. Regardless, he wrote:

I mention this because Ken Buck is running for Senate again, this time against Mark Udall, and he is far ahead in the polls.

What he just mentioned was an article from three years ago by Steve Benen that discussed Buck’s extremist positions. So there really is no context for this sentence and it completely confused me. I didn’t know who was far ahead in the polls. My best guess was that it is Buck, but it wasn’t clear. Even worse, if we assume that Buck is ahead, we can only assume that he is far ahead of Udall. Knowing what I know of Colorado politics, that didn’t sound right. So I clicked over and got the information. Here is what Longman should have written:

I mention this because Ken Buck is running for Senate again, this time against Mark Udall, and Buck is far ahead of his primary opponents in the polls.

I understand why he didn’t write the sentence that way. This is an issue that I struggle with constantly—I think all careful writers do. You don’t want to write sentences like, “Cindy walked up to Andrea, and Andrea looked away, Andrea started to cry and Cindy said, ‘Buck up!'” That’s just awful and there are easy ways to fix it. But it is definitely better than, “Cindy walked up to Andrea, and she looked away, she started to cry and she said, ‘Buck up!'” (Obviously: “Cindy walked up to Andrea who looked away and started to cry. ‘Buck up!’ Cindy said. And then Andrea punched her in the mouth because anyone who ever says ‘buck up’ is an asshole.”)

As I wrote before, All Is Clarity. The first thing we must do as writers is be clear. There are other things we can do, but what I think most writers find is that if they are clear, their particular style will shine through. Now it may be a tired style that no one wants to read. But the constant struggle for clarity will help the style too. For one thing, clarity tends to eliminate cliches, which are the biggest barrier to a compelling style. And don’t think I’m speaking from on high. My work is riddled with cliches, like the way I started the sentence before last, “For one thing.” Yikes!

But pronouns are a big problem for us. We need to watch out for them. And it is always better for a sentence to be clumsy than unclear.