Dictionary Sagacious But Not Bonhomous

Child ReadingI have a good vocabulary, but I am constantly looking up words. For one thing, even when you know words, the definitions are usually fuzzy. People often ask me what a particular words means, and I start babbling. If I don’t know what it means, it is fine. “I don’t know” is one of my all time favorite sentences. But when I do know, oh boy: watch out! And the more basic the word, the harder it is to define. For example: if you try to define “creation” you will almost certainly use the word “create” in the first sentence. “It means something that you create. I mean…”

But if you are the writer of a dictionary, you may very easily define the word: something that is created. This is a very annoying aspect of dictionaries that most of us found exasperating when we were young. It has even created (Ha!) a kind of folklore where the entry on “creation” sends you to the entry on “create.” And there you find, “Create: the process of creation.” I do not know of this ever actually occurring. The writers of dictionaries may be annoying, but they aren’t sadistic.

When I was a kid, I always wondered why dictionaries didn’t just insert the definition of “create” into the definition of “creation.” Suppose that create is defined as “bring into existence.” Rather than define “creation” as “something that has been created,” define it as “something that has been brought into existence.” I think there are two reasons that this is not done. One is that dictionaries are already long enough. It isn’t that big a deal to make the reader look at another entry, which after all, is probably on the same page.

The second reason is more important: words often have a number of different definitions. Which one ought to be chosen? Well, in the case of “create,” all of them. Thus, it is better to send the reader to the entry on “create” and leave it there.

As you can see from this, I’m sympathetic to the creators of dictionaries. But online, the first excuse for this kind of “research project” definition doesn’t make sense. We are not constrained by book size. But the second reason remains — at least with regard to many words like “create.” But it isn’t always true, and it tends not to be true for the more obscure words that people are likely to look up. Take for example, my run in with Google earlier today.

I entered “sagacity define” into Google. And it dutifully spit back: “the quality of being sagacious.” This greatly annoyed me. You see, I already knew pretty much what both “sagacity” and “sagacious” meant. And I knew they didn’t have lots of different meanings like “create” and “creation.” For the record “sagacious” means “of keen and farsighted penetration and judgment.” So Google could have provided a better definition of “sagacity.” Perhaps: “having keen and farsighted penetration and judgment”?

If you go to Merriam-Webster, on the other hand, you get the definition, “the quality of being sagacious.” Yes, I know; it is the same. Well, almost. Because at least it makes that would “sagacious” a link to their definition of sagacious. And that is really what you would think is the least they could do. But as we know from Google, at the very least, they could do even less.

Amazon-Hachette Is Not About the Little Guy

Paul KrugmanPaul Krugman wrote an interesting column today, Amazon’s Monopsony Is Not OK. I don’t disagree with his overall conclusion: Amazon has way too much power. But when it comes to the specific issue of eBook prices, the situation is far from clear. Yes, Amazon is abusing its power. But the publishers are also abusing the public and their writers.

When CDs replaced albums, the music industry used the change to make a whole lot more money. At that time, vinyl records cost more to make and distribute than CDs. But vinyl records had cost about $10 at that time and the industry charged $15 or more for CDs. Whatever the market will bear, right? CDs were the new whizbang technology and even though the sound quality was worse than vinyl, CDs never wore out — at least in theory. So even though on the supply side, there was no reason for the record companies to make this extra money, consumers were getting something they thought was better.

Pretty much the same thing has happened with eBooks. When they first came out, publishers wanted to sell them for $15 a piece. But it turns out that publishers would be making the same amount for a $10 eBook as they made for a $26 physical book. So why exactly should the publishers get a huge boost in profits for doing less? Note also that publishers generally give a smaller royalty to writers. This is because the publisher get a higher percentage of the retail price. So the publishers think the new technology should enrich them, but not their writers. Nice!

But this all might be okay if consumers were getting something more from eBooks than they get from printed books. As a user of both, I think they pretty much are. For research purposes, eBooks are better. But for simple reading, it is at best a wash. I still prefer to read printed books. But I’ll admit that I am (1) more tactile than most people and (2) old. But there are ways that printed books are better. To start, I can sell them. They can theoretically last for thousands of years. And perhaps most important: I don’t need a device to read them. With records, one needed a record player already, so needing to own a CD player wasn’t a big deal. Someone entering the market had to buy a device just like always. That isn’t true of books.

Which brings us back to Amazon. It really is a problem. Right now, Amazon is behaving itself reasonably well. And its pricing policies really have done a favor for readers. But the whole dispute between Amazon and publishers just highlights the fact that capitalism only works well when real limits are placed on it. For over two decades, neither of the two major American political parties is at all interested policing the excesses of capitalism. And that, to me, is the bigger problem.

The fact that Amazon is abusing a huge publishing conglomerate like Hachette isn’t really on my radar of Really Important Things. But this whole issue has gotten a lot of play exactly because Hachette is a big company with lots of power. I was appalled recently when the company went whining onto The Colbert Report. And then, instead of being honest, they were allowed to present it as a great threat to writers as if publishing companies themselves hadn’t long been the greatest threat to writers.

A much more important issue is that Amazon pays its employees really badly. They pay their associates really badly. They totally ripoff sellers. But these are not likely to get the high profile treatment in The New York Times because, you know, they’re the little people. Of course, Krugman’s focus is on the ultimate effects on the little people. But that isn’t why anyone is paying attention to the Amazon-Hachette battle.

Flag Decals, Yellow Ribbons, and Pink Bracelets

Pink RibbonI’ve loved John Prine’s first album since I was a kid. One of the (many) standout songs on the album is, “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore.” It’s an anti-war song for the Vietnam era. The line following the refrain is, “They’re already overcrowded from your dirty little war.” But I don’t have much a visceral connection to the Vietnam War. So what has always spoken to me is the use of signifiers to represent which “side” you are on in complicated issues that really do not lend themselves to simple binary positions.

The best example of this is the yellow ribbon. These usually go along with the jingoistic slogan, “Support the troops!” I’ve given this a lot of thought and the reasoning behind this slogan goes something as follows, “The troops have to do whatever the government tells them. Therefore, supporting the troops means supporting whatever the government tells them to do. Therefore, support the war you commie bastards!” The yellow ribbon, just like the flag decal before it, is meant to shutdown debate.

The other side of it is that the yellow ribbons allow people to feel good about “supporting the troops” in a theoretical sense but to not do so in a practical sense. We have a long history of lavishing money on defense contractors while low-level military personnel live in near poverty. We go into war with high tech, whizbang devices (that made some rich guy even more rich) but without basic body and transport armor because, “As you know, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” And, of course, after the wars, the military personnel are largely forgotten. The conservatives who were so keen on “supporting the troops” tend to forget about the former troops and their needs.

This issue of the meaninglessness of such signifiers is discuss today by Danielle Kurtzleben at Vox, Pink Breast Cancer Awareness Ribbons Sell Because They Don’t Really Say Anything. It discussed how the pink ribbons mean something different to everyone. But as I have already indicated, they don’t actually say anything about the person or entity sporting one:

“Ribbon-wearing requires very little commitment to a cause. Indeed, wearing a ribbon does not mean that one is an active or staunch supporter of a given charity,” writes Sarah EH Moore in her 2009 book Ribbon Culture. And though she’s talking about [the] person wearing a ribbon, her comment can easily transfer to a yogurt or a football league — the pink ribboned advertisement can often signify very little in the way of how much money that company is giving to fighting cancer, as “pinkwashing” opponents often warn. There are several instances of companies saying they will give “a portion” of a product’s proceeds to cancer research, without specifying exactly what the amount will be.

The article goes on to discuss how most businesses just see the pink ribbon as good PR. It’s just fondness by association. But this is nothing new. I’m more bothered with it on a personal level. What exactly would it say if I wore a pink ribbon? That I’m against breast cancer? That seems like a non-statement, like, “I’m against things that are bad!” Or perhaps it says that I’m in favor of finding a cure? Ditto. Or maybe it says that we should put more resources toward finding a cure for breast cancer? Well, there I have to break ranks. Sure, I’m for more research. But in our current “pay as you go” environment where we absolutely positively cannot raise taxes (and people are constrained in their giving), more money for breast cancer research is less money for something else. It would depend upon what that something else was.

Of course, pink ribbons don’t express jingoism. But otherwise, they are the same as the yellow ribbons. They either say something so vague that they are meaningless. Or they say something contentious, so they divide us. Kurtzleben briefly discussed this issue in her article. Recently, Susan G Komen has twice gotten into trouble by being something other than the anemic, “We’re taking a bold stand to be against breast cancer!” The first was the Planned Parenthood fiasco and then the pink fracking drill-bits.

I would never give Komen a cent, because their real intentions are too clear. No one is too dirty for them to partner with. If a rich neo-Nazi wanted to give them billions for the cause, they would take it. All that matters is that they get the cash for their one cause. Of course, it doesn’t even take billions (it probably would for a neo-Nazi); Baker Hughes only had to donate $100,000 to equate fracking with breast cancer awareness. What’s more, the Planned Parenthood case showed that Komen doesn’t even care about women generally. So unless you believe that nothing matters as much as breast cancer, I can’t see why you would support Komen.

That gets to the very heart of the flag decals, yellow ribbons, and pink bracelets: they don’t actually mean anything to the people sporting them. But they mean a great deal to the people pushing them. And what they mean is at best complicated and at worst downright evil.

Obama Was Always a Milquetoast

Thomas FrankEven if I didn’t agree with him almost all the time, I would read Thomas Frank because he is a great writer. But the truth is that I very rarely disagree with him. We are both liberal populists who think that there is a very big problem with the Democratic Party: it has turned conservative on the issues that most matter to people — economic issues. And that means we both get attacks — from fellow Democrats — who think that we just don’t get it. They think that if the DLC hadn’t taken over the Democratic Party we wouldn’t have had a Democratic president since Carter. They are wrong, of course. Political science tells us they are wrong, but they are as resistant to evidence as conservatives are. That may be because they too are conservatives and want to hide under a cover of being slightly reasonable about abortion and same sex marriage.

But yesterday, Thomas Frank wrote an article that bothered me, Paul Krugman’s Sloppy, Wet Kiss. It is a response to Krugman’s Rolling Stone article, In Defense of Obama. I had read it when it first came out and my reaction to it was more or less the same as Frank’s: Krugman is putting the too positive a face the Obama presidency. And Frank did it using an important idea from economics: opportunity cost.

Let me put the Obama years into context like this: What the times called for was a second New Deal, for a wholesale makeover of the economic system. What Obama chose to deliver instead was a second round of ’90s-style bipartisanship. As I have written before, the president looked out over a nation laid low by epic white-collar misbehavior and decided that what we needed was for politicians in Washington to get along with one another…

So the crisis went to waste and our smart young president let an era of possibility slip through his fingers. The cost of missing this opportunity is impossible to measure.

I am completely with Frank on this. And I’m with him when he criticizes the fecklessness of the Obama administration in believing that the Republicans would want to work with him. Where I disagree with Frank is in thinking that Obama “seemed like exactly the right man for the job.” No! He never seemed like the right man for the job. During the 2008 primary, I wondered if Clinton mightn’t be the better president. For one thing, she had something to prove: that she wasn’t her husband. And she might be strong in standing up to the Republicans. There was never any doubt that Obama was a milquetoast politician and that once in power, he was going to yield to the same old power elite as ever.

Obama NopeIt seems kind of obvious now. Only Nixon could go to China because he was such a rabid anti-communist. Only Clinton could destroy welfare because he was labeled a liberal (and even a socialist). And only rich boy FDR could really take on the power elite. The last person for the job was a black man so nonthreatening that the Harvard Law Review allowed him to be president of it.

None of this is to say that Obama is bad. I admire him. I think he has been about as good a president as we are ever likely to have. I can say that because I am a pessimist. But no one who tells you he is going to bring “change” is actually going to bring change. People who bring change tell you what they are going to do. And that’s why any liberal bringing actual change would be cut to pieces. Our “liberal” media would never allow it. We’ve seen conservatives bringing change and they’ve delivered. Oh, how they’ve delivered! And we never learn. But all you have to do in this country is shout “Socialism!” and everyone cowers under our bridges that are falling down because of lack of infrastructure spending.

So I understand why Obama is the president he is. What I don’t understand is why someone as smart and insightful as Thomas Frank would ever have been fooled. Obama is an establishment man through and through. And he always was. He never meant “change” to be anything that would threaten (Even just a little!) the power elite.

See also: Obama’s Hope Is There’ll Be No Change

Education Reform and John Dewey

John DeweyI feel I let my readers down this last weekend with the minor publishing schedule. But I do have an excuse. It isn’t just that I was reading my friend Kristen’s novel. It was also that it is about a once promising artist whose life is crumbling to bits — very much by her own doing. And that reminds me very much of myself as I sit here writing this with my bank account recently liquidated by the State of California. But I am determined to be on my regular schedule today. Or at least, I am determined to get five articles out today — I’m not sure exactly when they will come. Onward!

Today is a great day for birthdays. In particular, there are two 17th century painters who I absolutely love: Aelbert Cuyp and Nicolas de Largilliere. There are also two actors I love: Bela Lugosi and Margaret Dumont. There are also French film director Jean-Pierre Melville and stride pianist Jelly Roll Morton. But I just couldn’t go with them. Not with my ever increasing interest in the American educational system and all the education “reform” fakers.

On this day in 1859, the great John Dewey was born. He was an education reformer — a real one, not just one who wanted to diminish teachers and create good little workers for the factories of the rich. In fact, he believed in liberal education. This is something that has largely been abandoned in the modern debate about education. Now it is all about how we can create more STEM graduates, as if all we need is better technology and the rest of our culture can just rot.

I’m reminded of a quote by Jonathan Kozol:

The best reason to give a child a good school… is so that child will have a happy childhood, and not so that it will help IBM in competing with Sony… There is something ethically embarrassing about resting a national agenda on the basis of sheer greed.

Dewey would very much agree with that sentiment.

One thing that Dewey did not do is invent the Dewey Decimal system. That was done by Melvil Dewey, who lived at the same time and place as John Dewey. But Melvil was a librarian. They are not related in any direct way, so far as I know. I admire both men.

Here is a short video discussion about John Dewey and his work. It also discusses his beliefs about diversity in education:

Happy birthday John Dewey!