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Category: Culture

The best that has been thought and written and why these ideals are difficult to meet.

December 26, 2008 | 7 Comments

Civil rights group files suit against TBS network to stop showing A Christmas Story

Controversial civil rights group ISEF yesterday filed suit in federal court against Turner Broadcasting and its cable affiliate TBS to cease airing the movie A Christmas Story. For several years, TBS has showed the popular movie non-stop over a twenty-four hour period on Christmas day.

“It is shocking in this day and age, given all we know about the horrors of gun ownership, that TBS can irresponsibly inundate the public with these images,” said ISEF spokesperson Martin Baumlot. “This appalling movie is a fetishization of weaponry and an attempt to instill in children the false idea that guns can be used for other things besides murder.”

According to court documents, ISEF claims that the movie A Christmas Story is “nothing but one child’s irrational obsession with a gun. In the movie, he even imagines himself using the gun to kill several people. There is a disturbing image of bodies stacked like cordwood that is chilling in its graphic intensity.”

Well known film expert Dr H. Harrister from the Institute for the Very Clever, said that “While the ISEF’s claim has some basis—the film’s protagonist Ralphie does dispatch several bad guys—that scene is nothing more than humorous dramatization of youthful fantasy.” The scene is one in which noted criminal “Black Bart” attempts an invasion of Ralphie’s home.

When asked about ISEF’s assertion that the film “goes beyond the obsessive mania for gun possession, and enters the realm of sick perversion as we actually see Ralphie go to bed with the weapon, lovingly caressing it as he drifts off the sleep, fantasizing once more about the brutal murder of our winged friends, the duck”, Dr Harrister was unable to provide a response as he choked on his hot dog.

Dr Harrister did later provide email commentary. “The people at ISEF have clearly lost their minds.”

A spokesman for TBS refused comment while this matter is being litigated.

The group It’s Somebody Else’s Fault was founded in 1984 by a group of Upper West Side Manhattan residents intent on proving that anything bad that happens is somebody else’s fault.

December 25, 2008 | 9 Comments

Merry Federally Recognized Holiday of December 25th That Shall Remain Nameless!

I remember when I was a kid living on the outskirts of Detroit, in Taylor in the early 1970s, in early December, aching for snow so badly that it hurt. My dad was fixing up the basement—the first of a lifetime of projects—and there was a dispute about which album to play on the phonograph.

My sister and I wanted Alvin and the Chipmunks, my ma and dad wanted Bing Crosby. I wanted to hear David Seville yell at Alvin in the 12 Days of Christmas. My ma wanted Mele Kalikimaka. I’m now grateful that they won the debate, but I wasn’t then.

But, it did start to snow. I was out before the first flakes hit the ground, ready to build a snowman. We only got a dusting, and so the snowman was half grass. I can still see the streaks of bare patches in the lawn where I rolled out the body.

A week before the Big Day, my grandma brought me to the Eagles, where I wasn’t supposed to know grandpa was dressed as Santa Claus. Even though I could see his familiar glasses, I was left with doubt: it could have been the real old man. After all, he did give me a glorious plastic mesh stocking full of suck candies, the kind that used to hang in the aisles of drug stores.

Some hokey movie was playing on TV, and I laid under the tree, watching the lights sparkle off the ornaments; it was endlessly fascinating. The next day my Aunt Ona came over for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and we had pepperoni pizza, a tradition I still keep. Later that night I could see searchlights out my bedroom window. It was probably for some car dealership, but I was convinced it was to guide Santa. It was oddly spooky.

My dad got me a giant, six-foot Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton made of styrofoam that you had to put together. My sister got some sort of pink thing. We went to my both sets of grandparents afterwards, saw everybody is our enormous family. But it was at my grandma Johnston’s—she had glass doorknobs!—that I got to sneak some beer.

Greatest Christmas Ever.

Merry day everybody.

December 23, 2008 | 23 Comments

“I was all, like—awugh.”

I heard that conversation yesterday at a restaurant where I was having lunch. Two women sat together at a table talking on their cell phones. Presumably, they were talking not to each other but to people not at their table—though I wouldn’t like to bet on it.

The “awugh” (if I have spelled it correctly) was accompanied by a sort of dismissive gesture of the woman’s fork-holding hand and a shrugging forward as she leaned in to her salad to wait for the reply.

Now, we have all heard variants of this dialog. More examples: “And she goes, ‘No way’.”; “So I was all like, ‘You can’t do that’, and she goes, ‘I can do what I want’, and I was like, ‘Whatever.'”; etc.

I am not going to complain about the replacement of the perfectly good word said with all like and goes. Language, after all, evolves, and if the current trends in spoken English merely indicated swapping out one word for another, well, worse things have happened.

But it is not just a change in words that is occurring. For the women on the cell phone was not just relating what was said or what took place, she was acting it out. The person who said “So I was all like, ‘You can’t do that'” was not giving a description of past events, she was giving a performance of them.

Mimicry, once probably the dominant form of communication (it still is among bees), which had largely disappeared for about a century or so, has returned. There are, in linguistic circles, almost certainly precise terms and definitions for this form of information transfer, so I will readily admit that mimicry is not the best word, but it does capture a certain flavor of modern spoken language.

People are acting out past events instead of using words to describe them. For example, our cell-phone woman could have said, “I was exasperated by her pointless suggestion.” Our “going” friend might have said, “I tried to explain to her that her behavior was bordering on wholly self centered, but there was no convincing her.”

True, those examples are somewhat stilted, but they illustrate the point. It’s not that the word exasperated was unknown to cell-phone woman, but it somehow was unavailable to her when she was speaking; she could not or chose not to make use of it. And it is likely to be the case that replacements for exasperated, like galled or piqued and so forth, were unknown to her.

That is, I would bet that cell-phone women’s vocabulary was smaller than a woman’s of similar education and situation but who was more than thirty years older. Even if her vocabulary wasn’t smaller, having a large vocabulary does not imply the ability to employ the words in it. Expecting cell-phone women to put together a comprehensible sentence where she was forbidden to gesture or to use non-dictionary words, would be like expecting me to go into an art supply store and reproduce a Caravaggio. Everything I need to do it would be there, but I have no idea how to even get started.

The culprit or cause? My guess is the decline in reading books. Books give you both the vocabulary and lessons in the use of that vocabulary. The farther removed writing is from books—say in magazines, text messages, or blogs, where people nowadays do the vast bulk of their reading—the less artful or complex the writing is likely to be, and the smaller the vocabulary and the less interesting the spoken language will be from people who do not read books. There are always exceptions, of course, but on average I believe the claim holds.

Words are not going to disappear, but it will be interesting to see how far the trend towards acting and away from description spoken language becomes.


Caveats: I am sure that linguists, philologists, and sociologists have studied this phenomenon in depth, but I am unaware of their work. If somebody has references, please let me know.

December 20, 2008 | 18 Comments

Unnecessary hypervigilance in parks: no unaccompanied adults!

No adults without children!

I think that sign came from England. Here in the States, we have the similar sign but in picture form—a lone adult with a circle around him and a slash through his chest, or something similar. It’s meaning is clear. Do not enter this park unless you have a child with you!

Are the authorities who placed these signs worried that adults cannot properly operate playground equipment without the expert help of a pre-teen? Sort of like how many parents rely on their kids to reboot their computers for them?

No, obviously not. The signs are put there because of the sincere belief that any unaccompanied adult who is in the area of children might be a child molester.

Yes! A child molester!

And—here’s where I throw in the twist—the authorities are right! They have made a statement that is logically true. Unaccompanied adults might be child molesters!

They also might be aliens from Mars disguised as humans. They might be anything, they even might not be child molesters.

The only reason to ban unaccompanied adults is if you have estimated the probability that these folks are evil is high. Is it? Are the authorities banning the right people?

For years, I have figured that most child abuse occurs at the hands of people known to the children. That is, parents, babysitters, aunts and uncles, trusted family friends and so forth. Just the sort of people who will legitimately accompany the children to the playgrounds. But I was too lazy to look up the statistics, nor did I know where to start. Thankfully, Mary Jackson over at did it for me.

Jackson found the government report Child Maltreatment, which investigates the matter in all its depressing detail. Chapter 5 contains the statistics, summed up in this picture:
Breakdown of who maltreats kids

Much as I hate pie charts, we can at least read this one. It says what we might have figured: Parents account for 80% of abuse cases. Other trusted adults make up another 13% or so. The key number is that only 4% of cases are “Other”, those unaccompanied adults lurking in parks. Incidentally, “57.8 percent of the perpetrators were women”, which probably is not the ratio you expected.

If you want to be sarcastic (and I do), you can say the authorities have done the exact opposite of what they should do if their sole interest was in protecting the kids. Since, the vast majority of kids who will be abused will be so abused by the very people bringing them into the park, the authorities should not allow any person known to the child to enter the playground, and they instead should grab strangers off the street to make sure they don’t break their neck on the monkey bars (if they still have those dangerous, life-threatening devices, and if they are still called by that vaguely politically incorrect name).

Of course, protecting kids was not the sole interest the authorities had in mind when they created their rule. Mollifying paranoid parents also figured highly. The fact that some people just like to be around kids—even stating that sounds creepy to our modern ears—is nothing next to the fear of the worst that can happen.

Don’t get me wrong. My idea of appropriate punishment for people who do abuse kids runs along medieval lines; at the very least in my scheme, convicted molesters would never again see the light of day.

But wrong or misapplied protection rules give a false sense of security. You figure to yourself, ‘Well, I’ve banned this or that. Now I don’t have to worry.” If you’re banning the wrong thing, then you are doing double the harm. You’re missing the real threat and letting your guard down at the same time. For example, to get through the gate of airport security requires at least two people checking to see if you have a ticket in your name. This is silly because any hijacker need merely buy a ticket—just as those on 9/11 did. Checking a ticket buys you nothing but false security (and it unnecessarily increases costs and creates delays).

It’s the case, here, too. If a stranger is intent on, say, abducting a child, a sign banning him from doing so is not going to stop him. But since that sign is there, the adults watching the kids might be a little less careful since they have figured no evil person will bypass the sacrosanct placard. The only thing the warning will do is stop kindly old ladies from sitting peacefully, enjoying the sounds of kids at play.

Caveats: in the government report, they do not break down the relationship of the child by type of abuse. The largest form of abuse (61%) is neglect; just under 8% is sexual abuse. In 2005, there were about 67,000 cases of sexual abuse. According to the US Census, about 80.4 million people are 19 or younger; 60.2 million 14 or younger. This makes the rate of sexual abuse around 8 kids under 20 in every 10,000; or about 0.08%: or about 1 kids under 15 in every 1,000, which is 0.1%,. Thankfully, a very small number. If the relationship breakdowns in Chapter 5 also hold for sexual abuse, then sexual abuse by strangers occurred at a rate around 3 kids under 20 out of every 100,000, or 0.003%: or 4 kids under 15 out of every 100,000, or 0.0004%. In other words, the signs and laws banning unaccompanied adults at best are doing very, very little.