Wednesday, November 14, 2007

News From Nowhere

Yes, Miss Gutem

Once again belaboring the obvious, a recent study finds that younger people who regularly play violent video games (is that "younger" redundant? I hope so...) themselves become more violent. Though the study is valuable for being broad and deep, what stands out in it is its observation that violent video games alter the players because the games use, well and thoroughly, the very principles that successful teachers use. Please draw the appropriate head-shaking conclusions about wasted talent and the almighty dollar. Thank you.

One Man, Four Votes

At CNN, Roland Martin pontificates on the presidential primaries, particularly on how they allow a few small states to control who will become president. More interesting than Martins's own comments are those posted in reply, in that many--most, I'd reckon without actually counting--pipe up in support of the system more or less as it is. Some even go out of their way to praise the Electoral College.

What, I keep wondering, is the confusing part about "one person, one vote"? Why do so many people find that principle obnoxious? A rhetorical question, I suppose: presumably because the number of persons who agree with them is smaller than the number of persons who disagree with them. A reckoning that one is in the minority is a powerful generator of rationalizations about how and why the majority ought not to rule, Thomas Jefferson's famed observation (to consider the will of the society enounced by the majority of a single vote as sacred as if unanimous is the first of all lessons in importance) notwithstanding.

From a very handy sortable state-data table over at Wikipedia, we can readily determine that, owing to the Electoral College scheme, the presidential vote of--to take the extreme--a citizen of Wyoming is worth more than four times the vote of a citizen of Texas (if you feel Texas shouldn't have any votes at all, OK--but the Wyomingite, or whatever such folk are called, still has nearly the same four-times-more important advantage over a Californian). If this bizarro situation weren't hard-wired into the Constitution, it wouldn't survive five minutes in any court in the land. Or, as some clever sort once put it, if an Electoral College is such a wonderful way of doing things, why is no other elective office in the known universe nowadays filled by such a scheme?

Meanwhile, back at the original issue, the primaries:

Iowa has less than one percent of the population of the United States; New Hampshire has less than one-half of one percent. It's going to take a whole lot of rationalization to explain why 1.41% of the American population gets to do most or all of the selecting of presidential candidates. Yes, it's not always so that those two alone settle the hash, but with every four-year cycle it becomes truer, as campaigns become ever less about what the candidates might do (or not do) as president and thus ever more about "metapolitics" than about politcs itself.

By "metapolitics", I mean a focus on the races rather than on who's running in them. Clinton and Obama and Edwards, in metapolitical terms, could as well be replaced by the sausages in the "sausage races" they hold between innings at Brewers baseball games: who they are is immaterial, all that counts being how, and how sucessfully or unsuccessfully, they are jockeying for position against one another. The primaries are become a race in which the chief dictum is don't stumble. It is virtually guaranteed, for example, that after the fraction of Iowa's 0.98% of America that actually participates in the Iowa Democratic caucus has had its say, either Obama or Edwards will be out of the race. Open your dictionary to "I" and look up "insanity".

A party presidential primary is an election: many run, one wins. Is anyone proposing that we hold the actual election for the presidency itself in the manner in which we conduct the primaries? This state voting now, that one then, and so on over weeks or months? Why, then, should the primaries be any different? On some set date, everyone in the nation who belongs to a party votes on that day in that party's primary. Period, the end.

Mind, there is a deal that can be said about the practices of voting itself. The modern move away from physical voting in a polling place is, I feel strongly, A Very Bad Thing. The lesser reasons are one, that it makes it ever more likely that total airheads who can barely spell the candidates' names will get a say in the outcome, and two, that many people's votes will be influenced in untoward ways by others in their household. But the chiefest objection is one not inherent in the scheme, as those first two are, but one readily cured: that voting can take place over a long stretch of time prior to the nominal "election day".

Back when "election day" was phrase with a meaning, the likelihood of some dramatic event or revelation coming literally the day before was tiny; and the electorate would be, rightly, suspicious of the timing, and thus the credibility, of any such revelation coming with no time for analysis or dispute. But with today's weeks-long period during which voting can take place, it is very possible for something important, something that might change many minds, to occur after some substantial number of votes have already been cast, yet well before "election day". This evil is easily cured by requiring that for any mail-in vote to count, it be postmarked on election day. That might strain the postal "service", but with years to plan for it, even that model of inefficiency ought to be able to handle the process (consider what happens every April 15th).

No Sense Please, We're Writers

Bob Melvin and Eric Wedge have been selected as, respectively, National League and American League Manager of the Year, thus demonstrating once again that the people who run and professionally comment on baseball have almost zero comprehension of how it works. I have nothing against Messrs. Melvin and Wedge individually, but I saw enough bad moves made by each in the postseason alone to suggest that neither is the best manager today in his league. (Though the quality of management overall is so low that perhaps each is.) The point, though, is that BBWAA (Baseball Writers' Association of America) members are almost to a one "old school", folk who still believe in such mystical arcana as "team chemistry" (add two grams of copper chloride and stir).

As a wise man long ago observed, a good manager cannot do much to help his team, though a bad one can do a lot to hurt it. The team that will win the most games is, barring freaks of chance (such as this year's Arizona team), the team that has the best-performing 25-man assemblage of players. Mind, even a BBWAA member might agree with that proposition: it is in understanding what "best-performing" consists in that they flunk out. If you don't know about modern analytic methods of performance evaluation, read something by Bill James, or the Baseball Prospectus, or even something by me.

America the Beautiful

Speaking, as we were, of metapolitics, for all the jingling and jangling the press puts out about the presidential race, the bare fact, as noted on 29 October by the clever boys and girls at Rasmussen Reports, is that 2008 comes down to a referendum on Hillary Clinton, no more and no less. That point emerges from the fact that in trial polls of various Democrats versus various Republicans, Clinton's numbers against the various Republicans are strikingly similar--even Ron Paul gets about the same results in a match-up. The conclusion is that the sampled voters are not "voting" (these are polls, after all) for the particular Republican, they're voting against Clinton. Since it is clear that--barring an unexpected political disaster of 9 or over on the Richter scale--Clinton will be the Democratic nominee, her electability comes down far more to her than to who runs against her. Well, not just her in particular: Clinton might attract support from 18% of Republican women. But, 20% of Democratic men are likely to vote for a Republican if Clinton is the nominee. Makes ya proud to be an Amurrican, don't it? Proud, an', an' a little bit humble.

Perhaps, Dr. Fermi, They Have Good Taste

So let's take a deep breath and return to the world of things that matter. The evidence continues to pour in that Earth-like planets are relatively common Out There.

The famous Drake equation ("an attempt to estimate the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy with which we might come in contact"), when first propounded, had some huge uncertainties in key elements, but the famously controversial ones were the fraction of all stars that have planets and the fraction of such planets that could, at least potentially, support life (which always means "life as we know it", carbon-based organic life--sometimes scientists are so unimaginative).

The case is not complete yet, but it surely looks as if those factors are no longer a significant constraint. In short, it seems probable almost to certainty that there is life Out There, and almost as certain, considering how unimaginably (in the literal sense) large Out There is, intelligent life. It is sad to think that if our present understandings of physics are correct, we are not likely ever to make face-to-whatever contact with such other beings, nor even to have much of a conversation (centuries between remarks makes for dull talks).

The Quickly and the Deadly

I find it interesting to observe the collision of two distinct and opposing trends in the English language. On the one hand, there has been--I believe--a steady and relentless move for a long time now toward considering ever more verbs in ever more uses as copulative. I suppose that remark requires a pedagogical digression.

An English clause comprises a subject and a predicate, that "predicate" being something "predicated"--that is, stated or affirmed--about the subject. A clause's predicate can be as little as a bare verb ("John ran", "Mary sang"), but whatever else is added, includes at least a verb. We often find it useful to modulate the general sense of the verb to greater exactness; to do that, we use words or phrases or whole other clauses as what is called an "adverb", a form of modifier that, in English, often ends in -ly. Thus "John ran slowly", "Mary sang loudly".

(It is part of the nightmare of English usage that some adjectives--those words that modulate the qualities of a noun--do end in -ly: friendly and lovely, for example, are adjectives, not adverbs; meanwhile, not all adverbs end in -ly.)

There exists, however, a class of verbs that do not predicate anything about the clause's subject, but merely act as a sort of link between that subject and some quality, which is to say some adjective: John is tall. Such verbs are called copulative (or, sometimes, "linking") verbs. They are, in effect, an equals sign: John = tall. The paramount verb, "to be", is always copulative (except, arguably, in the Biblical assertion by God I am). But quite a few other verbs, especially those associated with the general concept of seeming or appearance, are treated as copulative: It loomed large in his legend.

The verbs other than be that are treated as copulative are still assertions of equality, but they shade or modulate the precise nature of that equality. In The well ran dry, the basic assertion is still well = dry, but now we also know the manner in which it became dry. With it = large, as in the prior example, the equality has a nature, looming instead of simply being.

As you will have noticed, the manifestation of a copulative verb, as oppsed to the ordinary assertive sort, is that it involves an adjective rather than an adverb: He ran quickly, but The well ran dry; we would never say He ran quick or The well ran drily.

The trend works like this: once upon a time, one would have written The division now operates independently of its parent company; today, one often finds such a thought expressed as The division now operates independent of its parent company, so much so that the older form seems vaguely strange. The crux is that we are ever more often considering the quality at issue to inhere in the entity--the subject of the clause--rather than in the verb that describes that subject. The independence is today seen as a quality of the division, not of how it operates.

The symptom of the trend is therefore the ever more frequent use of adjectival forms where once an adverb would have come. That, in my opinion, is A Good Thing. Beginning writers are often advised to "firm up" their work by striking out as many adjectives as possible; but adjectives are positively muscular compared to the mushiness of adverbs. Does one do what comes naturally or what comes natural? Or, more germane here, which form sounds crisper to the inner ear? At important occasions, do we stand silently or stand silent? Either form will pass muster, but ears not wholly of tin will have a clear preference.

The other trend--and, I think, a much more recent starter--is toward the brute-force substitution of adverbs where adjectives used inevitably to go. This trend leads to nightmarishly ghastly language, always ugly and sometimes flat-out silly. I can only suspect that this trend is akin to the notion of never using one word where three will do: that is, of trying to make essentially vapid utterances sound important by puffing them up with as many syllables as the imagination can muster.

Perhaps the chief offender is more importantly. The adverb importantly, used sanely, has few calls on its services: The messenger strode importantly up to the ambassador. When one says The error put an extra runner on, but, more important, it allowed Casey to come to the plate, everyone understands that that is an ellipsis of "what is more important"; when one uses "more importantly" in that utterance, The error put an extra runner on, but, more importantly, it allowed Casey to come to the plate, what are we to make of it? That Casey's at-bat is more importantly than the extra runner?

So the windbags, while their tribe seems ever to increase in number, are running directly counter to an older trend toward succinctness. Which will triumph? For once, even the boys down at the Dew Drop Inn, who are natively quick to use adjectives for adverbs, often in error, are on the side of the angels. Against that native trend to brevity are sent such soldiers as icily light and crystally clear. I suppose (borrowing from Wilson Follett, whose 11-page essay on "Vexatious Adverbs" in his Modern American Usage is a treat and a half) that when we hear razorly sharp we'll know the war is going badly.

1 comment:

W. R. Wilkerson III said...

I completely agree with you. This is the subject of my latest book "One Person, One Vote" due out in March of '08. The premise is simple - we all vote on the issues to get them resolved.