Thursday, May 28, 2009

Rules for Writers

Seen this before, especially in high school English classes where I was accused of breaking all of these and worse. Point I want to make is this: language, as a communication medium, is functionally defined. That is, the way people speak to each other defines what is "correct". If I attempt to convey some meaning and you receive that meaning, we have used language correctly regardless of adherence to any arbitrary rules of grammar or conventional definitions.

Why do we have grammar then? They provide basic structural guidelines and ease confusion, much as traffic signs help us drive safely on the freeways. Unlike traffic laws, however, language is a fluid, continually evolving thing. A language is either alive, and therefore changing, or static and dead.

Where do these rules come from then? Many are hold-overs from some imagined "Golden Age" of civilization. Many are based on the rules for proper ancient Latin and Greek, because grammar always translates so well. They were created by scholars and academicians. "Gee," they thought, "wouldn't it be great if we were all as smart, educated, and proper as those ancient philosophers? To achieve this, we should force everyone to speak the way they did." The result is many of these "rules" sound foolish; some are still good ideas, others are completely outdated, and none are permanent, universal, unchangeable law.

Get the connection to religion?


1. Verbs has to agree with their subjects.
2. Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.
3. And don't start a sentence with a conjunction.
4. It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.
5. Avoid cliches like the plague. (They're old hat.)
6. Also, always avoid annoying alliteration.
7. Be more or less specific.
8. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are (usually) unnecessary.
9. Also too, never, ever use repetitive redundancies.
10. No sentence fragments.
11. Contractions aren't necessary and shouldn't be used.
12. Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.
13. Do not be redundant; do not use more words than necessary; it's highly superfluous.
14. One should NEVER generalize.
15. Comparisons are as bad as cliches.
16. Don't use no double negatives.
17. Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.
18. One-word sentences? Eliminate.
19. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.
20. The passive voice is to be ignored.
21. Eliminate commas, that are, not necessary. Parenthetical words however should be enclosed in commas.
22. Never use a big word when a diminutive one would suffice.
23. DO NOT use exclamation points and all caps to emphasize!!!
24. Use words correctly, irregardless of how others use them.
25. Understatement is always the absolute best way to put forth earth shaking ideas.
26. Use the apostrophe in it's proper place and omit it when its not needed.
27. Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "I hate quotations. Tell me what you know."
28. If you've heard it once, you've heard it a thousand times: Resist hyperbole; not one writer in a million can use it correctly.
29. Puns are for children, not groan readers.
30. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.
31. Even IF a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.
32. Who needs rhetorical questions?
33. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.
34. The passive voice should never be used.
36. Do not put statements in the negative form.
37. Verbs have to agree with their subjects.
38. A writer must not shift your point of view.
39. Place pronouns as close as possible, especially in long sentences of 10 or more words, to their antecedents.
40. Writing carefully, dangling participles must be avoided.
41. If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
42. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors.
43. Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
44. Everyone should be careful to use a singular pronoun with singular nouns in their writing.
45. Always pick on the correct idiom.
46. The adverb always follows the verb.
47. Be careful to use the rite homonym. And Finally...
47. Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Church goin' leads to torture

This is sad: Survey: The More Often You Go to Church, The More Likely You Are to Support Torture

I mean really sad. Unfortunately, though, not surprising. A couple of reasons:

This is not true of all strongly religious people, but those that are driven to attend church by their deep religious conviction tend to be more willing to submit unthinkingly to authority. It's right because our pastor/priest/rabbi/imam told us it is. I'm not sure we should do it, but my leader told me we should, so we will. I always thought torture was a sin, but our fearless and wonderful leader says it's essential, so we need to do it.

This level of religious conviction is also strongly correlated to the belief that sin -> punishment -> redemption. It is right, therefore, that "bad people" be punished for their crimes in this world as G-d will punish them in the next. Because "they deserve it".

Frequent church going produces a strong us/them mentality. There are strong divisions between individual congregations within the same faith, let alone between denominations, religions, cultures, etc. Philip Zimbardo found that this us/them mentality is an important first step in dehumanizing others; this, in turn, allows the development of mindsets where torture, killing, and oppression are possible and, in fact, required.

Most obviously, of course, is that history shows many, many, many terrible things were done by religious people in the name of their religion, or inspired by religious ideals.

There is nothing sicker, in my mind, than this basic, fundamental perversion of religion. It takes an institution supposedly created to foster love, compassion, and holiness and turns it to murderous and degrading purpose. If you are the leader of a church and your congregation supports torture, you have failed in your job. Start over with them, at the beginning of the book, and read carefully this time through.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

On Holograms

"So, you might say that each piece of a hologram stores information about the whole image, but from its own viewing angle. No two pieces will give you a view that is exactly the same."
-Holographic Studio's FAQ

So here's what I'm thinking. Can a piece of Torah be taken out of context, and still be properly understood? If so, how far and how much of the "context" can be removed while retaining meaning? To illustrate this, consider the binding of Issac. If cut small enough the story is:

"Abraham, sacrifice your son to me and I shall bless you."
"Ok; I'll do it!"

But this is not the correct message of the story. Broadening our viewpoint, we see the "conclusion", with Abraham finding the ram to sacrifice in Issac's place. The meaning of the story is changed, is outright reversed in fact. But is that the end of the story?

Widen our view still farther; Abraham spares Issac, but Issac promptly leaves home and never sees his mother alive again. This represents a further changing of the story. It now can be seen as a parable about a father's overzealous religious devotion fracturing his family, chasing his son away and possibly hastening his wife's death. Is this the entire story?

Pulling our lens back further, we see earlier events as well. Abraham previously argued with HaShem to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. So now we see someone with the chutzpah to argue for the life of strangers, but not to argue for his own son. How does that change our story?

Then of course there are the ripples of these events. The death of Lot's wife and the incest of his daughters follow from this moment, and that leads in turn to the birth of Jesus.

My point is this: does a single verse of Torah retain its meaning independent of the rest, or can it only be seen as a part of the whole? The discussion of holograms cited above continues by comparing "breaking" a hologram into pieces to viewing a room through slits in a curtain. Each view of the room potentially shows you the whole room, but only from a certain point of view; one slit shows a painting, but another shows just the frame.

When we consider the laws about widows and orphans, we only see "the frame" of Kashrut. They occupy the same "room", but few views allow us to see both fully.

So, fine. That's well and good. If you can't go inside the room to see the whole thing at once, then multiple viewpoints are good. They help you understand the whole in a sort of intellectual triangulation.

But too small a viewpoint is no good. Imagine viewing the same room through just a pinhole; you might only see a single chair, not nearly enough information to make deductions about the room's inhabitants. Multiple pinholes might show a chair, a table, and a lamp; more information, true, and it might tell us about the occupant's design sensibilities, but we still know almost nothing about the room as a whole.

This is what happens when people use a single line of Torah, a single pinpoint view, to make decisions. Does "no homosexuality" override the general context of "be kind to people"? Does our dominion over nature override the general context of Tikkun Olam?