There’s only one space after a period.

I think Farhad Manjoo is right about a number of things in this essay, one of them being how strongly and perversely people who insist on placing two spaces after a period before beginning the next sentence continue to cling to this misconception. The need to do so is a rule from the age of typewriters – a rule from the old age of typewriters, as Manjoo points out: typewriters have been working with proportional type from the 70s on, and it is, of course, the existence of proportional type that not only obviates the necessity to use additional white space to indicate the division between sentences, but also means that the old typewriter rule is now plainly wrong. Your wordprocessing client, whichever one you use, and your fonts – except possibly Courier, but why would you be using Courier – are all designed to produce text that is most legible and most pleasing to the eye when there is only one space between a period and the sentence that follows. That is, the rule is only one space after a period.

Am I back? God, I hope so.


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The animated history of the English language in (slightly more than) 10 minutes

Find all 10 videos right here.

The first one as a taste:


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Rather than obsess on some apparent contradictions here about modesty, viewing the female body, and how competitive weightlifting is judged, I think this story should best be viewed as demonstrating the at-times remarkable elasticity of secular spaces when inclusiveness is an active virtue.

Even so, given that cultural forces governing the female body – gendered bodies in general – are almost always in conflict somewhere, I would be curious to know what conceptions of modesty would permit this accommodation from the point of view of the weightlifter – even though this is a weightlifting not a bodybuilding competition, it is still the contours of her body that are being observed and evaluated to guarantee appropriate technique even if the actual flesh is covered in tight, elastic clothing. And further, what potential conflicts within the bodybuilder’s immediate cultural milieu and not just between international sporting bodies and requirements of modesty might be involved here. That is, whose definition of modesty and its limits are being legitimized here? I suspect it’s not one that the athlete’s male religious leaders will endorse, but I could be wrong about that.

This is also an opportunity to reflect that despite the framework provided by Islam for the development of various modesty requirements, the nature and extent of those requirements, and the degree and intensity of their acceptance and enforcement has a localized cultural and community basis rather than a broad religious basis. 

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Mosaic law and American courts

The notion that the 10 Commandments are the font or foundation of our contemporary legal code is largely Christianist wishful thinking. And the movement to monument-ize the twin tablets representing Moses’s transmission of the commandments comes off pretty much as cultural bullying carried out by a rather slim segment of fundamentalist Christians. This article, though written in a rather stilted fashion, elucidates much of the cultural strife that underwrites the movement as a competition between iconic texts, the Constitution for the secularists and the Decalogue for fundamentalists. Two things to note – one, the use of the Commandments as icon is relatively recent, and two, their actual content or their place within Christian theology or practice matters less to the movement than their symbolic force. I think that may explain the rather dismaying silence and even complicity of other Christian groups.

And does anyone ever pause to think about why there’s only ever faint Jewish support for these monuments despite the ostensibly shared religious culture? Although I’m not aware of any official statements from Jewish groups, anti-defamation groups tend to regard these movements in a negative light as potentially disturbing to a carefully policed secular public sphere and therefore as actually threatening.

So whenever one of the more backward states, this time Louisiana, decides to decorate the area about their courthouses with large-scale granite religious kitsch, it’s somewhat distressing if not entirely surprising. The recent efforts to place representations of the commandments in and about courts is interesting, though, for their approach. Rather than simply identify the movement with the importance of Christianity in American society, supporters tend to make a historic-cultural argument that in our largely Christian civilization the commandments have had a profound influence on the creation and support of our legal codes, and therefore the representations of the Commandments have historical, not religious, value when placed in a court. The argument based on the importance of Christianity itself to American institutions and society runs, of course, counter to constitutional prohibitions on the establishment of religion. Some applications of First Amendment law can seem a bit torturous or unclear, but not in this case – the violation is quite apparent. Hence the need for the dodge.

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Embassytown, part 2 and City of Glass: Natural languages

I finished Embassytown a little while ago, and although I don’t think I found the second half quite as enjoyable as the setup, it was still well worth the read, as a science fiction novel and as an experimentation in the literary representation of theories of language. Spoilers are certain to follow, so if you’re reading this and don’t want to disturb Mieville’s careful compartmentalization of information necessary to key plot points, then maybe try to skim to the second half where I talk about other things.

The movement in the plot revolves, as could be expected from the setup, about the descent of Mieville’s aliens, the Arikei, from Language into language – that is, from Mieville’s version of a natural, Adamic language in which signs and referents have an untroubled and concrete link and into our everyday communication with its abstract nouns, heavily figurative modes of communication, and ambiguity. And that descent gets characterized as the transition from simile, a characterization of similarity between two unlike things, to metaphor, an assertion of identity between them. That the transition gets expressed as a shift in these uses of figurative language was hardly surprising given the status of the novel’s main character as a Simile, and given the fascination of so many theories of language with metaphor as language’s central problem, generator of new meanings, and source of its literary or creative dimension. At one point in her life the novel’s protagonist was commissioned to act out a cryptic playlet so that her existence could guarantee that of a new word used for the basis of comparison, thus expanding the vocabulary of Language while retaining its insistence on concrete one-to-one reference. From there, the Arikei, for their survival in the novel, must learn to assert their fundamental identity with the human girl and thereby learn to lie, as they are not human, for the sake of larger metaphorical truths, that both are sentient races, etc.

I was a little surprised, though, that the transition was from simile to metaphor, primarily because we tend to regard the two figures as close to interchangeable – most taxonomies of figurative language class simile as a poorer subset of the larger field of metaphor. Metaphors and metonymy would be a more common juxtaposition over the past century, due to the influence of the same structural linguistics that provides Mieville with the physical laws, and their lapses, of his fictional universe. I think I was hoping to see some of that because Mieville’s representation in the text of the novel of the double-tongued speech of the Arikei has the utterance of one mouth placed beneath a horizontal bar with the utterance of the other on top, and that reminded me so much of Roman Jakobson’s representation of the interaction between two symbolic systems that so much informs the literary-theoretical understanding of metonymy and metaphor.

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Wildflower report: May

On the bulletin board above my desk, I pin up lines from favorite poems as reminders. One card has these lines from Gary Snyder’s “For the Children”:

Stay together
learn the flowers
go light

Snyder here is imagining life as a difficult hike up and down hills (“the steep climb / of everything”), and the advice is meant to carry the next generation through to until they, we, reach that easy pasture “in the next century / or the one beyond that” – or, in other words, always and always ahead of us. It’s a lovely metaphor, life as a somewhat dangerous hike through the wild: a reminder not to let those in your group, howsoever you determine that group, get separated and lost, nor to go off on your own without their support; to be observant and respectful of your immediate environment, even to the smallest and least consequential element; to be alert to beauty; to not overburden yourself, as it is the journey that is the thing, not whatever you drag along with you. And I’ve always treated it as a metaphor, and not as literal. I do not, honestly, know the flowers.

And now the flowers are everywhere. Last month I decided that I would familiarize myself with the flowers, and to do that I would document them by photographing them. The process of documenting them has become rigorous and even obsessive, as I’m determined to record every kind of flower I can find in the fields. Eventually I imagine I’ll want to identify them, but that’s slow and tentative work, and flowers last only so long. For now, it’s enough for me that I’ve documented them.

So I started even before the trees fully unfurled their leaves, when days were still a little cool and damp, mostly, and that is when wildflowers were suddenly blossoming everywhere. The fields and woods are hardly fixed, even within each season, and even within each month, so every day must present an entirely new mixture of buds and blossoms. There are many I missed before I started, and there are many that have blossomed and disappeared in the ensuing intervals between walks. Some plants seem to blossom all summer, and some only for a few days.

So a part of my unfolding obsession is to document them as a progression – month by month for now, with the recognition that this will be a project that takes up a couple years, because not only did I entirely miss some of my favorites, like the blossoms of the locust, which I caught just putting out its leaves only a few weeks ago, and a towering purple flower that resembles wild phlox, but I’m also not entirely successful in capturing the images. My equipment, a digital point-and-shoot equipped with a macro lens, has its limitations, but even more limited are my capabilities as a photographer. A number of times I’ve been unable to get a decent picture and have been unable to find the flower again.


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Headscarves and soccer

An interesting controversy. And a ridiculous decision on the part of FIFA, the international governing body of professional soccer – well, football as they call it. Basically, just before the Iranian women’s team was set to play an Olympic qualifying match against Jordan last week, they were disqualified for wearing uniforms that might cause the players injuries – that is, for wearing an athletic version of headscarves. The international uproar isn’t helping the already scandal-plagued organization.

I think the case is worth noting because headscarf bans in general get promoted as potentially liberating for the women that they affect, but the liberation of those women is never what actually prompts the bans or serves as their goal, and in fact the bans generally serve to perpetuate or further restrictions on the freedom of those women. I think that’s quite clear in the FIFA case.

Rather than ban the headscarves, it’s more productive, I would think, for those that believe the scarves to be an expression of the oppression of women to advocate instead for the use of headscarves so that women who feel compelled to cover their hair in public can participate as much as possible in public life, and thereby see and experience how other women and other cultures negotiate the demands of modesty and public display. Otherwise, as we see from the FIFA example, they quite literally cannot participate, and therefore forfeit any advancement they may have potentially made on behalf of their gender.

In any case, Fast Company’s Co.Design blog reports on an elegant solution – and what I believe should be the desirable outcome in the situation: a sleekier, even more athletic hijab being offered by ResportOn, a company established by designer Elham Seyed Javad to respond to this very need.

The sports hijab was apparently initially inspired by a taekwondo ban on female Muslims wearing a headscarf beneath a regulation helmet. These are the advancements which serve global civil liberties in the 21st century. If FIFA is able to find this acceptable – and that’s by no means given since the reasons for banning the hijab initially aren’t fully clear and likely more about cultural bigotry or the desire to make women’s soccer more like beach volleyball – but if they do, soccer and sport in general advances, religious liberties advance, personal freedom advances, so does women’s liberation, and finally so does secularism. Hurray! If not, well, we’re in this for the long haul.

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I’m currently 75 pages into China Mieville’s new novel Embassytown. And what can I say to recommend it most highly? That it’s a brilliantly imagined science fiction novel about language and philosophies of language. Yes. That’s right. A must read.

First there’s the bilingual pun that sets up the universe in which the novel takes place. Out of the English words to immerse and immersion he uses to describe the descent into what other sci-fi works call subspace or hyperspace, Mieville retrieves the German word immer, or always, to name what’s being descended into. He then contrasts immer with our mundane Newtonian universe by naming that reality with immer‘s antonym, manchmal, or sometimes. From that admirable play on words, Mieville goes on to describe the relationship between immer and manchmal as being analogous to Saussure’s distinction in structural linguistics between langue, a language as a social system of rules and lexicons, and parole, an individual speech act whose assembly occurs via that system. Our reality, the comparison suggests, is a particular utterance of a generative meta-universe that exists outside and sustains our dimensions of space and time.

He had me at langue.

Then after introducing the secondary main character as a linguist and a scholar, he goes on to introduce us to the basic conceit of the novel. The alien race the novel is primarily (at least at this point) concerned with, the Ariekei, have a unique language with two salient characteristics. The first is that it is a double-tongued language: the Ariekei have two mouths and each mouth utters a stream of phonemes in tandem with the other, neither of which is intelligible without the other. One stream is a called Cut and the other Turn by the human linguists who’ve deciphered the language’s mechanisms, though I’m at a loss to find if Mieville is alluding to anything in particular with that suggestive link between terms (cut to me suggests manufacture, and turn, of course, figurative language, or trope). Mieville carries this particular aspect of the conceit into the structure of the novel, as the first half of is seemingly written in two alternating timelines, one in anticipation of the arrival of a new ambassador pair trained in the Ariekei language (one speaking Cut, the other Turn), the other after that arrival.

The second characteristic of the language is that it impossibly conforms to Romantic notions of a natural or original language. The language is not symbolic: words are not abstracted referents that refer to absent phenomenon, what we generally understand as a language; instead each word is the thing in itself. As such, the Ariekei have no written language nor can they understand artificially generated speech acts: they only find language intelligible in the immediate context of the utterer (and only if the utterance is double-tongued). Mieville’s main philosophical touchstone here seems to be Walter Benjamin, who provides the novel’s epigraph. Curiously, Mieville has the Ariekei able to understand recorded speech as being that uttered by a concrete intelligence, but how they’re able to distinguish recorded from manufactured speech isn’t (yet) made clear. The conceit of an original or concrete language gets expressed structurally as the novel’s main character, an immerser – someone who is able to sail ships through the immer – who during her childhood was called upon by the Ariekei to perform in a ritualized pantomime, called a Simile, that provided the Ariekei with a new word. Or rather, the immerser more or less is called upon to be a word in their language, a language which the human characters in the novel refer to simply asĀ  Language.

What connection Language will have to the state of immer I’m dying to find out. One of Mieville’s strong suits is the ability to sustain the mystery of crucial details about the composition of the worlds and universes he creates until those details can appear as a narrative crux. One of his other strong suits is the reason that anyone remotely interested in language or in science fiction should check the book out, and that is his ability to produce narratives that are dazzling in their density of detail and creative imagination while working through some risky speculations. Anyone who’s read The City & The City knows he can pull it off.

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I gotta say, I agree with this call.

Now I can’t really claim any expertise in the appropriate application of the Constitution’s establishment clause, but as a supporterĀ  and critic of secularism, I do have my sympathies for certain directions in its application. And so I find the court right in its determination here.

The case concerns efforts by the Department of Veterans Affairs to control the content of a prayer given at a Memorial Day event at Houston National Cemetery. Reverend Scott Rainey has twice given a prayer at the event sponsored by the National Cemetery Council for Greater Houston, but this year the VA requested to see the prayer Rainey was giving in advance of the ceremony. The director of the cemetery objected to the prayer, which included the Lord’s Prayer and ended by giving thanks to Jesus Christ, on the grounds that it was “specific to one belief.” Upon being asked to keep his prayer “general” and “nondenominational,” Rainey filed suit. A judge has granted Rainey a temporary restraining order that prevents the VA from interfering with Rainey’s prayer on Monday, effectively deciding the case in Rainey’s favor.

The grounds for the VA’s objections are fairly clear – a) while the ceremony is being sponsored by a private trade organization, the Houston National Cemetery is a public space, and a federal one no less, and therefore resolutely secular, and b) while the prayer and the ceremony are clearly intended to honor all the dead, not all soldiers are Christian, and the families and intimates of those non-Christian dead would rightfully feel those they hold in remembrance somewhat excluded from the full honor the ceremony confers. Rainey’s objection is likewise clear: for him the notion that his prayer would not end in an evocation of thanks to Jesus is somewhat inconceivable. It’s the mention of Jesus, one might say, in Rainey’s case that makes it a prayer.

Secularism or freedoms need not be a zero-sum game. Freedoms for and from religion when expressed need not mean that someone else has less of it him or herself. But in this case there does seem to be a conflict between the rights of those who honor and remember the non-Christian soldiers buried at Houston and Rainey’s right to express himself according to the dictates of his conscience. I think Rainey’s rights trump here because of a limited success, we might say, of secularism. Honoring the dead has few secular analogues; cross-culturally the behavior is fundamentally religious. Religion and its expressions are inherently sectarian. To a certain extent it’s pleasing to believe that there are certain basic spiritual beliefs and practices that we all share and that could form a basis for a “general” and “nondenominational” service, but common grounds only exist where previous accommodations to the religions of other cultures with which one comes into account have been made – and of course to religions that bear strong family resemblances. Protestant Christianity finds that it can tolerate accommodations to Catholic and to Jewish faiths at increasing degrees of attenuation. Muslim, sure. Hindu faith? Buddhist? Animist? Atheist? Here our notions of religious practice begin to break down as we attempt to conceive how those accommodations might take place. Philosophically it is possible to connect Hindu and Christian godheads in terms of a variety of shared characteristics, but approaches to prayer, honoring the dead, etc., don’t have close analogs.* And with Buddhism we continue further out.

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I find this sort of thing enormously encouraging.

The resilience in forcing the subject of an incremental progressive change and the adept use of social media in ensuring that the message is clearly and consistently in view throughout the media coverage are both laudable.

Manal al-Sherif has been arrested, released, and then re-arrested for attempting to drive as a woman in Saudi Arabia. Her driving and the resulting arrest come in the context of a very successful Facebook page and accompanying video on YouTube (image above) making the case for allowing women the right to drive and asking women to make the attempt jointly on June 17th. The Facebook page has not only encouraged supporters but also a large, vociferous backlash against the effort, making al-Sherif’s efforts double courageous.

Interesting enough from an American perspective, there are no actual laws against women driving in Saudi Arabia. Instead the act is forbidden by religious fatwa that is nonetheless enforced by the civil authorities. Al-Sherif has apparently been sentenced to five days in jail on multiple charges.

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