Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Two Year-Olds Droppin' F-Bombs in the Grocery Store

WARNING: Contains profanity. If you're sensitive to that kind of stuff, this post was written with you in mind. Hopefully you'll stomach it.

I was watching a livestream of someone playing Deus Ex on and he was just talking to himself, saying that he was "gonna kill some n****s." None of the characters in the context were black. This brings up a wonderful question - from a rational point of view, should this comment be offensive? And more generally, are there 'bad' words, and if so, why should they not be said?

But first a disclaimer - you can probably see where I'm going with this. Pragmatically, in the current social climate, if you don't want to be perceived as a racist, you should refrain from using racial slurs even in contexts where race isn't a factor. I don't think you should try to go around convincing people that it's okay for you to use racial slurs where it'll offend people. It most likely wouldn't work and you'd probably end up offending people by trying. This is purely a thought experiment in a strictly hypothetical bubble.

Now that that's out of the way, I don't see any reason at all for it to be the case that certain words should absolutely not be said (in the moral sense of 'should'). Before getting into why, I think a distinction should be made between a word - the vocalization and the graphical text - and its meaning - what goes on in the minds of the speakers, hearers, writers, and readers when a word is said, heard, written, or read.

The meaning depends entirely on context; that is what the minds involved believe about the word, what the words nearby it in writing or in speech, and the setting in which the word is written or said. Because the meaning depends on context, I don't believe that a one-to-one mapping of meanings to words is possible.

Therefore, while I can understand how some can believe that certain meanings morally shouldn't be communicated, I don't see how there can be a moral obligation not to say certain words. The usual complaint I hear from the politically correct crowd is that using certain words in a negative light is morally wrong since it attaches a negative connotation to the word's denotation, i.e. it attaches bad feelings to the word's dictionary definition (and by extension, the people that the dictionary definition represents). But if there is no one-to-one mapping of meanings to words, then there is no "right" definition of words. Denotation just doesn't exist.

I can understand the biblical injunction to not use Yahweh's name in vain. What I can't understand is when people interpret that to mean that you may not say the word "God" (hint: that's not his name, nor is that what the command is talking about) or that you may not say the words 'fuck' or 'shit' or 'damn'. Those words probably have completely different meanings when an adult uses them versus when a two-year old drops an f-bomb in the grocery store. Which is why it makes no sense to me to see someone chide a two year-old for dropping an f-bomb in the grocery store.

Repeated disclaimer: I'm not advocating going around talking about 'n****s' all the time. Oftentimes, when the word is used, it has a negative connotation about a certain group of people. And if you use it, there's a good chance that it'll be interpreted that way. Pragmatically, it doesn't make sense to use that word lightly. What I am saying is that there is no denotation of that word, and nobody needs to get uppity when the context makes it clear that it's not used in an insulting way.

You could even argue that when someone uses a word that usually has a negative connotation in a way that has no negative connotation, they're gradually breaking down the perception that the word has a negative denotation. They're rendering it innocuous. Some people might consider that a good thing.

So what do you think about this shit?

Monday, August 29, 2011

Language Rules

Grammar enthusiasts provide a great example for how to apply the understanding of the different kinds of 'should's. You probably have seen blog posts along the lines of "X common grammar mistakes" or "X writing mistakes to avoid," or ran into people that correct your grammar, spelling, punctuation, or word choice. In general, the majority of their advice can be abstracted into the principle: "You should follow such-and-such rules when communicating."

Awesome. That's a 'should' statement you should (if you share my goals, at least) love to pick apart. Most of the time, when I hear or read this kind of advice, reasons aren't given other than that the given rules are 'correct.' I think this makes it safe to assume that they believe that their reasons for compliance and encouraging others to comply with the given rules include some reference to an authority of sorts, some nebulous set of the rules of English.

Here would be the opportune time to point out that linguists can generally be divided into two camps, 'descriptivists' and 'prescriptivists.' For prescriptivists, the rules of English prescribe the way it should be used. A speaker should say, "Fred and I" when Fred and she are the subject of the sentence because there's a rule somewhere that demands it. For descriptivists, the rules of English describe the way it is used. For prescriptivists, the rule precedes usage. For descriptivists, usage precedes the rule.

Given my love for constructs and the decontruction thereof, you can probably guess which camp I fall into. (Or "guess into which camp I fall", since we're on the topic :] ) It makes so much more sense to me personally that the rules of English are defined by the usage of the speakers, since it's hard for me to understand what kind of authority could be 'out there' to create the moral obligation to speak English in the 'right' way. A sort of God of English, I suppose, to which anyone that has an accent is a pagan.

So if there's nothing about English that demands the speaker to use it in a certain way, perhaps there is a pragmatic reason that one 'should' follow such-and-such rules?

This seems much more likely, and my personal thought is that the acid test of the practicality of any instance of language usage is whether or not the speaker was understood. I think the common goal behind the 'should' statements of any language rules is "If you want to be understood, ". Once you don't care to be understood, all the rules of English go out the window. Unless you're worried about the God of English smiting you with an Oxford English Dictionary.

Another reason that I commonly hear brought up as for why one should speak in accordance with such-and-such rules is that of professionalism; English speakers that don't speak/write in a certain way, especially in an Internet setting, are deemed unprofessional (and usually, therefore, untrustworthy, which is more important in terms of being understood). I don't like this. I think the perception that a certain way of speaking a language is 'professional' in contrast to other ways of speaking a language is one of the main ways of propagating racism. The way that someone speaks or follows/fails to follow certain language rules has no bearing on her intelligence or ability to perform professionally. Just my two cents.

So, who wants to be a linguistic prescriptivist?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

You 'Should' Read this Post

Speaking of constructs... the word 'should' is an interesting one, man. Compare the following two sentences:

"You should eat fruits and vegetables."

"You should give fruits and vegetables to those who don't have food."

You can probably quibble over what I'm about to say, but most people would agree that the word 'should' takes on different meanings in the different sentences. In the first, it designates a recommendation of practicality; it states that if your goal is to be healthy, then eating fruits and vegetables is a good way to achieve it. In the second, it designates a recommendation of morality; it states that for whatever reasons some things are right and others are wrong, giving fruits and veggies to the less fortunate is one of the right ones.

I won't try to delve into the second kind of 'should' or answer why some things are right and some things wrong, since I couldn't give you an answer, but the first kind of 'should' is interesting enough anyway. There's room to argue about the first kind of 'should' statements when everyone involved understands the goals in mind, but there's less room to argue about the second kind unless everyone involved already agrees upon criteria for why things are right or wrong.

Kant calls the first kind of 'should' statements "hypothetical imperatives." Notice how the first sentence presumes a hypothetical condition - "IF you want to be healthy, then you should eat fruits and vegetables." If you don't care about being healthy, or if you'd rather have no vitamins or fiber, then the 'should' in the first sentence carries no weight. There's no reason to listen to it. This kind of 'should' statements are inextricably tied to goals; you can't say that someone 'should' do something in the first sense without presuming a goal.

Best practices are 'should' statements that are generally agreed upon as being the most pragmatic way of achieving specific goals. If you want to cold-call people and sell something, it is generally agreed upon that you should not begin the conversation with a question that can be answered with a 'no,' since that ends the conversation. That's an example of a best practice. But if your goal is not to make sales with your cold-calls, then the advice becomes irrelevant.

You can ignore best practices when the people recommending them don't understand your goals. Be a rebel all you want. But to ignore them when your goals are obvious and people have been there before is not only foolish, but probably arrogant as well. Hacking life is all about articulating your goals and finding the most pragmatic way to achieving them.

So, 'should' you have read this post?

Friday, August 26, 2011


I've been needing to rant about constructs for so long, man. The first important rule about constructs is that the proper punctuation used in any declarative or imperative sentence containing the words 'construct' or 'constructs'  used as nouns is ", man.", man. This (descriptive, not prescriptive) rule is due mainly to the fact that the majority of conversations involving 'constructs' as a noun are contemporaneous with the speakers' being under the influence of marijuana, man. When in Rome.

So what's a construct? Basically, it's any interpretation that you or society places on matter, space, time, or a combination thereof. Words are great examples of constructs, man. In terms of matter, space, and time, the most you can say about language is that we're manipulating air with our tongue, mouth, and vocal cords. The semantic content, however, is set by society and by the individual, and therefore is the source of many equivocations and misunderstandings. Constructs tend to do that, man. When you take this stance, it would seem that the "truth" behind the meaning of words, and therefore sentences, is dependent on the speaker and her context.

It gets more awesome. Once you see language in this light, you can start looking for all sorts of things that society defines and upon which it deems itself authoritative. What is "Love"? Besides being "baby don't hurt me," it's another construct; something that you listen to people talk about and of which you create a piecemeal definition in your own mind, man. Same thing goes for 'male' and 'female;' as far as how each gender is supposed to act in society, these rules only exist in the collective societal mind and your own.

The reason that this realization is so awesome is that you can defy constructs, man. When you realize that their authority is not grounded in what exists outside our minds but rather what exists within our minds, you can change your mind. You can listen to people talk about 'love' and say, "Don't tell me what love is; I'll tell you what love is!" You can say, "Don't tell me what a Man is and does; I'll tell you what a Man is and does!" It creates a view of truth that's as rich and diverse as culture as long as you're talking about our interpretations and understanding of the matter, space, and time around us. When you're talking about whether or not this is here or that is there, there's no room for disagreement. But when you're talking about what blue is or what beauty is, the conversation is open, dynamic, alive, and interesting. You're absolutely free to set your own definitions and impose your own interpretations on what exists, and that's the first step to articulating and achieving your goals. That's why constructs are important to understand, man.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

English and Philosophy Majors - Jobs Everywhere!

So you're majoring in English or Philosophy and the joke's that you're screwed right out of college, right? Wrong!

Well, maybe; it depends on how hard you work at it.

But here's why you shouldn't be screwed - the ability to articulate and persuade is a marketable skill. I know what you're thinking, and yes, other people have difficulty turning the stuff that goes on in their heads into a clear and directed sequence of coherent thoughts. You may not, having spent four years doing that a few times a week (I know you skipped class, don't lie to me), but others do. Trust me.

So okay, now you're sold that articulation is valuable because it's more scarce than you previously thought. Now how do you turn that into a job? Well, here are a few things you can do that require articulation.

You can write the stuff that goes on websites. Or ads. Email marketing campaigns. Company blogs. There's a ton of stuff that people will pay you to write because jarbled writing doesn't sell. It's too complicated and directionless and therefore it's too scary. Have you ever read a bad sales pitch? No, you haven't, because you didn't read past the first line. Otherwise it would have been a good sales pitch. Engineers and the like will need you to write their sales copy because you can phrase things simply and in a line of thinking that's easily followed. You know words and language, my friend, and you can easily take a customer's language and phrase a value proposition in such a way that they can relate to it and therefore not resist it. And that's good for everyone.

People need to be persuaded of all kinds of things in business. The best advice I've ever heard about copywriting is that the entire purpose of the headline is to persuade the reader to read the first sentence. And the entire purpose of the first sentence is to persuade the reader to read the second sentence. And so on until the final sentence, the call to action, whose entire purpose is to persuade the reader to do something. Click a link, something like that. Buy my stuff. I dunno. The point is, my fellow English/Philosophy major, that you're surprisingly good at that and other people are surprisingly bad at it.

Now, your challenge is to persuade your potential employer of what I just persuaded you of (see what I did there?), but if you can't, then you probably shouldn't be hired in the first place. If you can, then it's obvious that you'll be able to do the job.

Keep in mind that people knew how to buy and sell stuff long before Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations. People knew that apples fell to the ground long before Isaac Newton articulated all that good stuff. Articulation is valuable.

Monday, August 22, 2011

What do Startup and Mining have in Common?

Not much, but mining does provide a very apt analogy for startup (given what little I know about mining).

You got a site, there's something in it, and you want to get it out. So you set up some sort of machine, system, process, whatever, to get the value out. On a high level, that's easy peasy.

Startup's a little similar. It involves markets, products, and value. All you have to do is select a fertile market, build the right product for it, and start cranking out the value. It's like finding the right site, building the right apparatus to extract the mineral, and cranking it out. It's a little more complicated than that, but that's the general idea.

There's a couple of ways to go about it though. You could start in a very site-centric way, i.e. figure out a high yield site and spend a lot of time tailoring your apparatus to the site to extract the most possible. You could also start in a very apparatus-centric way, i.e. build the apparatus that fits your passions and insider knowledge best and then hunt down the site that it's most suitable for. Either way, you'll have to make some minor adjustments when you start putting the site and apparatus together (my customers don't want a hundred features? Bah, they just don't know they want them yet. Better add a few more).

The first method has the benefit of letting you be in control of how much you could stand to gain. It probably makes more financial sense. The second, however, has the advantage of definitely involving your passion. There's a substantially smaller chance that you'll quit if you absolutely love the apparatus you've built. It's difficult to call one of them right and one of them wrong, and it's only slightly less so to say which is more pragmatic. I happen to be lucky enough to enjoy the form of startup instead of any particular matter thereof.

Which one suits you best?

Friday, August 19, 2011

P2L, noob.

For those of you not steeped in gaming culture, we have a friendly taunt - "L2P" - which means, "learn to play." You're tellin' the dude that he's got a lot of learning to catch up on. And while learning how to play stuff is definitely a worthwhile goal, I think the taunt's backwards. You need to play to learn.

Life's a game. Our generation was raised on gaming and we're pretty lucky for that. Most games have objectives (not all, lest Wittgenstein roll over in his grave) and we've spent thousands of hours practicing how to perceive objectives, brainstorm ways to achieve them, and execute on our plans. That's practice that you can put to use.

Once you view life as a game, everything that has been attained becomes attainable. There are rules to the game, and similarly there are rules to life. You learn the rules, you define your goals, you brainstorm approaches, and you execute.

But, like all games, some people are better at achieving their goals than others, and it's not because they were staring at the manual longer. It's because they got out there and played the game, lost a bajillion times, and kept getting back up. They view everything as play, and they play to learn. That's why they're good at what they do.

Reading is great, because the people that are good at things will tell you the lessons they learned the hard way. However, procedural knowledge is not the same as declarative knowledge; knowing-that is not knowing-how. Get out there and play to learn.