Archive for July, 2008

Lies, Damned Lies, and Supreme Court Decisions

Posted in Politics and Society on July, 2008 by melendwyr

The Supreme Court recently did something right for a change, and negated the fines levied against CBS for the brief airing of Janet Jackson’s nipple, ruling that the FCC had arbitrarily and unexpectedly wielded its authority to regulate and punish ‘indecency’.

The real problem, of course, is that the FCC is considered to possess authority over a thing no one is willing to properly define. As the SC claimed in its 1978 decision regarding the airing of George Carlin’s infamous monologue, “indecency is largely a function of context – it cannot be adequately judged in the abstract”.

So we can’t define indecency, but we know it when we see it? Riiiight.

The truth of the matter is that the function that determines indecency in the Supreme Court’s eyes, the one they use to evaluate the properties of the message and its context, can be abstractly defined and abstractly implemented. If it exists, it is necessarily the case that it can be so defined.

The truth is that people don’t like to bring implicit reasoning into rational awareness even in the best of times, and especially not when they know their reasoning won’t survive the analysis.

As best as I can determine, the standard being applied is that: something is ‘indecent’ if it violates certain societal taboos in a way that weakens those strictures in the public mind. If an expletive slips out in what appears to be an accidental self-censorship failure, and the speaker is aghast, it will be considered offensive but not indecent. If it appears to be done intentionally, or without concern at violating the asserted norm, it’s indecent. If it’s repeated enough for people to become accustomed to it, to lose its ‘shock value’ and thus weaken the response to the taboo violation, it’s indecent. The key matter is the respect for the authority of society’s norms (or the lack thereof).

That isn’t a suitable matter for governmental regulation, especially not in a country in which freedom of expression is a guaranteed right. Which is probably why no one wants to acknowledge what the standard is.

By Any Other Name

Posted in Uncategorized on July, 2008 by melendwyr

One of the most important features of language is that there is always more than one way to talk about something.  Two very different descriptions can refer to precisely the same thing.

The way we determine whether two statements have the same subject is not to examine any property they have themselves, but by checking their implications.  If every implication of one is also implied by the other, and vice versa, we say they express the same thing.  If not, they are different.

Names, labels, descriptions – they are all the same in that what is important about them is what they refer to, not what they are.  This is key:  if we cannot say what implications a word or a phrase has, it has no meaning, and we cannot use it in a meaningful way.

As elementary as these points are, they are not widely appreciated, and rarely acknowledged.

Volunteer Tomato?

Posted in Gardening on July, 2008 by melendwyr

I grew two Matt’s Wild Cherry tomato plants in plastic milk jugs last year, and the results were interesting.  I think one came from a seed that was the product of an unplanned cross between the wild currant it was supposed to be and a more regular variety of tomato, because it produced fruits somewhere between a quarter and a golf ball in size.  Currant tomatoes are usually closer to a nickel.

Anyway, I saved some seeds from the fruits, although I didn’t bother putting them through the proper fermentation procedure, as I wasn’t sure I wanted to replant them and figured I could always acquire more from a reputable source – hopefully, not one that would permit unplanned crosses in the named varieties for sale.

I recently noticed what is definitely a tomato plant growing under a spruce several yards down the road.  From the looks of it, it wasn’t planted, which implies it was dropped off by a bird.  I’ve heard of currant tomatoes sometimes reseeding themselves even through hard winters, but it’s unusual for them to spread, especially given that their home climate is so warm.

The plant is blooming now.  I may try to acquire a few fruits once it’s finished setting – any tomato that can survive and spread itself through the winters we have here is well worth checking out.

Working on Style

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on July, 2008 by melendwyr

My writing style, particularly when I’m trying to convey an important idea, is unnecessarily complex and overwrought.

I’m working on it, though.

If you have any suggestions, please feel free to leave them in the comments.

Unconditional Love

Posted in Favorite Words with tags , , on July, 2008 by melendwyr

‘Unconditional love’ is a phrase rather than a single word, but as it’s a unified concept I think it’s fair game.

The idea is perennially lauded as a high virtue, particularly among those singing the praises of pets, parents, and deities. (Finding the hidden associations between those concepts is left as an exercise for the student.) Any difficulty or uncertainty is bandaged over with the assertion that the entity in question gives/receives unconditional love, and so all problems are obviated.

I don’t think many people actually consider the implications of releasing any state from conditionality, much less love itself. If it is unconditional, it can have no necessary requirements. No change in the subject of the state can affect the state – so it wouldn’t matter what the subject does or becomes, it would be loved just as unconditionally. People find that comforting, not considering that the subject could be unrecognizably altered, or even replaced, and be just as loved as before. They want to be able to make mistakes or act against the love, and receive it regardless, but they also want to be loved for who and what they are – and those desirable qualities are mutually incompatible. If you’re loved without conditions, you aren’t what’s loved. The subject is arbitrary, the emotional response indiscriminate; your absence is appreciated just as deeply as your presence, the passion directed blindly at whatever happens to be available.

Responses are valuable because they are specific. People care about their pets’ love precisely because their loyalty and affection are NOT unconditional; the same is true of friends, parents, and lovers. Their object cannot be arbitrarily changed or replaced and receive the same response. Our behavior towards them must fit within certain parameters to maintain the state. We don’t value what is free, what we can acquire without effort or cost. We want to be considered special and unique, not interchangeable, and that requires that we be valued for specific properties we possess.

To unconditionally love is to be indifferent towards what is loved. When people love without conditions, they do it out of a desire for the changes that loving brings about in them, not out of concern or compassion for what is loved. It is no more a virtue for them to do this than any other form of self-stimulation. Unconditional love is fine, but it shouldn’t be done in public.

Be suspicious of the people who present this concept as meritorious! You should no more take their kindly intentions for granted than you should a drug dealer offering a free sample of his wares.


Posted in Favorite Words on July, 2008 by melendwyr


Pedagogy refers to the theory and practice of teaching; specifically, the teaching of children.

It comes from the Greek word paidagogos, the slave whose task it was to ensure that slave children were instructed in the trades and skills their masters required.

If you’ve spent any time in the American educational system, you’ll recognize how little things have changed.

Questionable Precedent

Posted in Politics and Society on July, 2008 by melendwyr

I’ve never understood the intended purpose of basing legal decisions on past precedent. If a ruling can be based in solid reasoning, precedent isn’t needed to support it. If the ruling cannot be based in solid reasoning, it is undesirable for it to be supported. I’ve sometimes been told that the goal is to maintain fairness by ensuring consistency – but repeating unjust actions for consistency’s sake is madness. How is making a mistake twice better than making it once?