Monday, August 11, 2014

Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs' journey from South African freedom fighter to Constitutional Court Justice

I arrived at Oakland's Grand Lake Theater on Sunday just in time to buy one of the few remaining tickets to East Bay filmmaker Abby Ginzberg's biographical documentary, Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs and the New South Africa. The film is currently on the festival circuit (it premiered in South Africa earlier this year), and played in Oakland on the last day of the Jewish Film Festival. The documentary's theatrical release is set for 18 September. Don't miss it.

From the synopsis on the film's web site:
SOFT VENGEANCE is a film about Albie Sachs, a lawyer, writer, art lover and freedom fighter, set against the dramatic events leading to the overthrow of the apartheid regime in South Africa. [...] As a young man, Albie defended those committed to ending apartheid in South Africa. For his actions as a lawyer, he was imprisoned in solitary confinement in Cape Town, tortured through sleep deprivation and forced into exile. In 1988 he was blown up by a car bomb set by the South African security forces in Maputo, Mozambique, which cost him his right arm and the sight of one eye, but miraculously he survived and after a long year of rehabilitation in England, he recovered.  Returning to South Africa following the release of Nelson Mandela, Albie helped write the new Constitution and was then appointed as one of the first 11 judges to the new Constitutional Court, which for the past 20 years has been insuring that the rights of all South Africans are afforded protection.
There's a great deal that matters in this documentary, but nothing in its 84 minute span is more profound than Sachs meditating on the pursuit of revenge in the aftermath of that car bombing that nearly took his life in Mozambique. Transcribed from the film's trailer (on Vimeo):
Lying in bed, recovering, I receive a note: "Don't worry comrade Albie, we will avenge you." Avenge me? Are we going to chop off the arms, are we going to blind people? Where is that going to get us? But if we get democracy in South Africa, and freedom, that will be my soft vengeance.
Battered, blinded in one eye, his mangled right arm amputated above the elbow, peppered in shrapnel wounds, Sachs marshals heart, mind, and steely will from his hospital bed to set aside reflexive rage that, under the circumstances, might easily have derailed a lesser man. His life, work, and words -- before and after the attempt on his life -- give witness to the truth that humankind is capable of choosing moral principle and compassion over reaction and revenge. And Sachs' lifelong, unyielding opposition to South Africa's now-vanquished Nationalists makes clear that his is a hero's choice. He speaks humbly, with a soft lilt. Don't be fooled.

I happened to read a profoundly moving new novel last week, a book written by Irish theater director -- and now debut novelist -- Darragh McKeon. All That Is Solid Melts into Air was given a well-deserved, admiring appraisal in this week's NY Times Book Review. Its story orbits the Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown of 1986, treating the catastrophic event and its savage consequences -- aggravated by the fecklessness of a politically and morally moribund U.S.S.R. -- through the eyes of protagonists whose humanity and courage defy the crushing stupidity and venality that passed for leadership in the Soviet bureaucracy.

It is a novel of intense and unredeemable loss. The author's devastating essay, The Empty City, included at the end of the U.S. edition, describes a wasteland of burned-into-the-genome deformation and disease that is and surrounds Chernobyl today, and will remain Chernobyl for centuries to come. In the novel [spoiler alert here], the best, steadiest, and most selfless character, a surgeon who spends himself utterly to save and comfort a deluge of victims of radiation poisoning, finally falls prey to Chernobyl's fallout.

I have to confess, this sort of end to the life of a good and selfless character, one who struggles against all odds to heal the world, strikes a fictional note that rings true to me. I tend to look askance at happy outcomes in literature.

But Albie Sachs is not a fictional character.

And he did not die.

In fact, I had the great honor of meeting Justice Sachs in April here in Berkeley: he had come to participate in a UC Berkeley symposium honoring Nelson Mandela, The Hard Work of Reconciliation, organized by Professor of Anthropology and intrepid social justice activist Nancy Scheper-Hughes. (See selfie posted at left, taken by my friend and anti-apartheid movement comrade Jonathan Winters ... it's blurry, yes, but serves its evidentiary purpose nonetheless.) Sachs has retired from South Africa's Constitutional Court, but his work is not done.

The mission, message, and example Albie Sachs gives us is not fictional at all. It's not a metaphor. It's not an allegory. Sachs' honest, human-scaled, and all too rare victory in the endless struggle for justice makes his story an inspiration and a tonic for all those who quail -- and who would not quail? -- at the risks to life, limb, livelihood, and relationships that commitment to winning justice entails.

At the end of his preface to the latest edition of The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter, Sachs wrote, in January of this year:
We have huge problems in South Africa, many inherited and many of our own making. The gap between rich and poor is completely untenable. Continuing struggles and new endeavors to create a better life for all take place. Yet they do so in a country where the principles of constitutional democracy have deep roots. This is the soft vengeance I dreamed of in my hospital bed after the bomb.

Seriously. You need to see this film.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
UC Berkeley's anti-apartheid movement: setting the record straight
Nelson Mandela and the death of UC Berkeley's Eshleman Hall
Fukushima Daiichi: a nuclear power disaster that keeps on giving
Nuclear meltdown abroad and at home
The radiation cloud is blowing in the wind

Monday, June 30, 2014

An endurance milestone

Buildings are popping up all over downtown Berkeley. The scorekeepers over at Berkeleyside headlined it in January: 'Explosive' downtown Berkeley housing boom underway.
More than 1,400 housing units are currently in development in downtown Berkeley, with demolition on one of the first in the pipeline scheduled to begin this week.
Fourteen hundred new housing units in downtown Berkeley alone? No wonder the SF Chronicle wrote this weekend about Oakland's promise as solution to Bay Area's housing crunch. (Berkeley begins at Oakland's northern border; Oakland is the East Bay's biggest city.)

All well and good. I'm three-thumbs up on urban infill, on building places for people to live close to public transit, shops, schools, and whatnot. Not driving? That's a good thing. Sprawl? Not so much.

But that's not what I'm here to report.

See, it's not just that I failed to read the Berkeleyside article in January. It's not even that I passed the corner of Shattuck Avenue and Dwight Way pretty much every day for all the months since, and several years beforehand -- the corner is on my bike, bus, and/or pedestrian route to work and/or the gym -- and I never registered that 2107 Dwight Way was slated for demolition. Clearly I'm not paying attention.

If I had been paying attention I might not have been so shocked to see a grapple excavator -- a yellow hunk of diesel-powered machinery with a long hydraulic arm, and a dragon's head on the business end of the arm to bite big chunks out of buildings -- chomping down 2107 Dwight when I went back to work last week, after a week out of town. The photo at the top of this post is what the lot (and the two adjacent to it) looked like by Sunday. That's the grapple excavator behind the piles of debris.

So, okay, whatever. The wheel turns, right? Buildings are razed, new buildings are built. That's what's happening at the corner of Dwight and Shattuck. If you like you can check out what the new building's going to look like on the city's website (PDF, it's a big one).

Change isn't what shocked me.

What shocked me is that I've been skulking around Berkeley long enough to remember when the torn-down building went up. When it was built. Under construction. Brand spanking new.

Yup. It's a milestone, ready or not.

I'm older than architecture now.

Mid-'80s, maybe? No, that's not my age; it's when the building torn down at 2107 Dwight just this past week was constructed.

I remember hating it instantly, especially that ridiculous yellow flourish-and-flagpole protrusion (you can see it in the photo). I mean, it was so self-consciously useless and ... stupid. Although some will say, the new building's drawings look even worse. So it goes.

Anyway, here I am, compelled to mark the milestone, humiliating as it may be.

Oh, and speaking of humiliation, here's another downtown change that happened over the past couple of weeks, just the next block north:

Close readers of these posts may remember Sex shop yields to electric scooters, from about 15 months ago. Short story, a longtime massage parlor went out of business, an enterprise that was staffed by women whose massage techniques were said to stretch well past the accepted borders of clinically therapeutic. Shortly thereafter, it looked like a scooter rental place was going into the space.

Well, it turned out that the scooter shop never opened for business. The scooters just sat there in the window collecting dust. Then one day they were gone, and the place was empty.

Now? The windows are covered with butcher paper to a height of six or so feet above sidewalk level, and the place has a new sign.

"Love," it's (going to be) called. A hair and nail salon.


What's that about? A nod to the storefront's checkered past? Or a new cover for old business?

I guess we'll find out soon enough ... if the place starts accepting flower deliveries (see my post of last March) there'll probably be police raids in the shop's future.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Eshelman Hall demolition: all but history
Sex shop yields to electric scooters
The desire to destroy is also a creative desire

Monday, May 19, 2014

Berkeley blooming on graduation weekend

This weekend the campus was teeming with gowned, graduating students in their tasseled caps, and a seemingly endless procession of families taking full advantage of the photo ops by The Campanille, Sather Gate, and Sproul Hall.

Both the weather and Berkeley's front-yard gardeners cooperated ... the town was abloom on Commencement Day 2014:

Nice. And a great excuse to take my new point-and-shoot out for a test-drive.

Congratulations to the class of 2014....

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Graduations at UC Berkeley, Class of 2012
Advice to a new student at Cal
Flowery front yards in Berkeley

Monday, April 14, 2014

Pushing the envelope: love story, with transman

Sunshine Mugrabi's memoir, When my Boyfriend was a Girl, is a love story. In many respects it's a conventional love story: two people meet, there's chemistry, each has reservations about wading in too deep or too fast. One gets over those reservations before the other, arguments ensue, tension escalates ... and maybe they make it, maybe they don't.

But this memoir has a twist. And that the title gives away the nature of that twist doesn't diminish the freshness, honesty, surprise, or emotional resonance of its story. Not a whit. Because the two things that matter most about When my Boyfriend was a Girl are:
  1. it's a conventional love story about people who most readers won't easily imagine in a conventional relationship: a bisexual woman, and an FTM transsexual; and,
  2. it richly illustrates why those categories -- bisexual woman, FTM transsexual -- are not the defining elements in a human love story.
The memoir, published just last month, is well written and tightly paced. As dramatic narrative, it zigged and zagged -- between obstacles Sunshine and Leor encountered and the ways they found to surmount them -- a little too predictably for my taste; but as I read I weighed the book's narrative structure against the truth that zigzag is how relationships unfold in the real world. More importantly, that very same dramatic 'ordinariness' goes to the heart of the book's core message: a relationship with a transsexual is, well, a relationship.

Consider how the author treats physical love. Here's a beautifully lyrical passage, one of my favorite in the memoir:
When I crawl back in beside him he is lying on his side, his breathing now heavier, coming out thick like a train engine. With my arm across his waist his warm hand takes hold of mine. I inch closer, pressing my body against his naked back. Dreams invade my brain, of dresses and high heels. I yawn and press myself closer to him. The curve of his waist is reassuring to me, a shape I've come to know and love. All we have is now, I tell myself. The darkness coils around us and I fall fast asleep.
Full disclosure: Sunshine is an old friend. We've known each other since the late 1980s, when we lived together for a couple of years in a communal house in Berkeley. More to the point of this post, Sunshine and I were both a part of the Oakland/Berkeley chapter of a 90s-era activist group called Queer Nation -- we called ourselves Queer Nation - East Bay. Queer Nation chapters sprang up all around the country around that time, modeled on the original founded in New York in response to violence -- physical and rhetorical -- against gay men and lesbians.

Queer Nation was all about pushing the envelope. Our core M.O. was to pick a public space that wasn't known for being friendly to displays of same-sex affection, show up without prior notice, and flamboyantly make out. Public transit stations, pubs, malls, bowling alleys... Sometimes we made a point of picking places where someone or a couple had been hassled or assaulted for Living While Queer.

Here's Sunshine -- neé Dewitt -- from a cover article about Queer Nation - East Bay published in the weekly East Bay Express on 15 Feb 1991. (The article, Loud and Queer by Linnea Due, is a great read, but too far back to be available in the paper's on-line archive.)
Sunshine Dewitt, her easy-to-read expressions radiating both her humor and her passionate commitment, describes the action at Raleigh's, a bar and café on Telegraph Avenue. "Raleigh's has these big picture windows facing the street, so that action was really successful just on the level of visibility. We were forcing people who claimed to be tolerant -- whatever that means -- to really see us. People are so clever at avoiding gay people in action, and this was one time we were in their faces, they had to see us, and it just upset people so much. It really did start a controversy. There was that article in the Daily Cal afterward, ranting that we were trying to imitate straight people by kissing in public. As we walked in there, I watched a straight couple kissing, and I thought, well, obviously kissing is allowed in here. It was just so powerful to see two men kissing after seeing the same boring image of a man and a woman, a man and a woman..."
The group of QNEB activists being interviewed (in my living room) goes on to explain how most of us took exception to UC Berkeley's student newspaper, the Daily Cal, characterizing our activity as imitating straight people. Then the article's author quoted yours truly:
Queer Nation goes out into places that are predominantly straight, where gay people don't normally congregate as queer people, but it's not so we can be like straight people. If we can pass as straight people, we can go anywhere. Everybody's known that as long as queer people have existed, you can go anywhere as long as you don't show who you are. The point of Queer Nation is to make it possible for us to go places and be ourselves ...
And a few paragraphs later, Sunshine again:
"We will never assimilate," Sunshine says. "That's the thing for me. We're not going to look the way straight people want us to look; we're not going to act they way they want us to act."
We were a couple of decades younger then, and more prone to making absolutist pronouncements than we might be today. And while it's true there are plenty of people and governments still arduously channeling the spirits of Anita Bryant and Jesse Helms, nowadays queer people and culture are a lot more visible in movies, television, music, and books ... and most of us feel safer -- if not necessarily safe -- when being ourselves in many major urban environments and in some smaller cities and towns in the U.S. In places where, in the 1990s, we couldn't comfortably or safely hold hands on the sidewalk or make out in a college bar, we can now choose to get married.

When my Boyfriend was a Girl acknowledges the conflicted feelings that many queer activists who came up and out in the '70s, '80s, and '90s hold about 'mainstream' goals like winning the right to marry or serve openly in the military. When Sunshine first broached the topic of marrying Leor (and Leor first shied away from marriage), that goal was still aspirational in the U.S for same-sex couples (which isn't a category Sunshine and Leor fit, by the way).

Here, from the memoir's seventh chapter:
In these dark days before gay marriage is legal in any state of the U.S., I know I have a bit of a tough case to make to Leor, who will no doubt play the solidarity with our gay and lesbian allies card. So I begin to amass a large and growing arsenal of good reasons why we should consider getting married. [...] Yet, I know in my heart that Leor and I would be breaking some major, unwritten rule if we were to take advantage of the fact that we could pass ourselves off as a straight couple in the eyes of the law.
Sunshine's focus on The Marriage Question was -- for me, during the hours I was immersed in reading When my Boyfriend was a Girl -- the least compelling aspect of her memoir. But unlike a large number of LBGTQ people, marriage was never important to me. My partner and I had been together for a month shy of fifteen years when the Supreme Court ruled last June for same-sex marriage in a pair of major victories for the gay-rights movement, as Adam Liptak of the NY Times put it. I'm not saying I was indifferent to the ruling -- far from it. I was and remain glad that same-sex couples who do wish to are now (and finally) able to marry. For myself, however, I never longed for a government-issued certificate to ratify my commitments.

For Sunshine and Leor, the question of marriage was a lot more complicated than it could ever be for two male or two female partners. Here, from near the end of the book:
"Leor, I don't know if I can go on," I say. "It's just too hard to be in this limbo. Everyone we know is tying the knot. Straight, gay, whatever else. If you don't want that..."

"We can't be what marriage is about," he says, cutting me off. "Can't you see that?"

A single tear slips down his cheek. The sight makes my heart lurch inside me [...]

Later, much later, I will recognize how difficult it was for him to say these words to me. To say out loud that he can't live up to the fantasy I have built of what and who I want him to be. That he fears the pressure on him to be the husband I expect. That as a differently gendered person, he would never be the man I thought I wanted.
If I were to wish for one thing more from this memoir, it would be just that: more. Especially, I'd wish for more of Leor's experience as his relationship with Sunshine evolves.

After finishing the the last page of her postscript, I gave a lot of thought to the author's decision to focus so tightly on the question whether she (bisexual woman) would marry her beloved (FTM transexual). Leaving my own ideas about marriage aside, I realized that this authorial decision makes shrewd emotional and rhetorical sense.

Here's the thing: for the overwhelming majority of people of all sexes and sexualities, marriage is a familiar and significant aspect of life and culture. Most people grow up expecting or hoping to marry, and (according to U.S. census data) most people do so. And, hey, I cry at weddings myself! Making a lifelong pledge is a big, deep deal ... even if married partners' promises don't always last as intended, when a couple makes them they are sincere and moving expressions of love, loyalty, and commitment to honor and care for another person.

Tying the freighted question of making and celebrating commitment to another human being to the trajectory of Sunshine and Leor's relationship makes their love accessible. That accessibility extends even to readers who have never knowingly met a transexual, and imagine that loving such a person is radically different from love as they conceive and experience it.

To paraphrase a famous literary lesbianWhen my Boyfriend was a Girl makes crystal clear that however unique the particulars of a relationship, a marriage is a marriage is a marriage.

And in making that case, Sunshine Mugrabi is still pushing the envelope.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Radical conservatism vs the radical left
Robert Redford, the Weather Underground, and why we read books
Five ways to look at a high school bully
Making a world where queer kids thrive

Friday, April 4, 2014

The fossil fuel industry and the free sump that is our atmosphere: Zing!

Sometimes a letter-to-the-editor hits its target, right smack in the bull's-eye. Not that Ray Welch is your average letter-to-the-editor writer: a quick look around the intertubes reveals that he's an energy consultant, a member of activist organization Sustainable San Rafael, a novelist, and a blogger (see

This morning, his letter to the editor of the SF Chronicle was outstanding. The most notable excerpt:
Without a carbon tax, no fossil fuel company can alter its carbon-based business model. That would violate their fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders, which virtually mandates them to take advantage of the free sump otherwise known as the atmosphere. A carbon tax flips their fiduciary responsibility right-side up: They would be obliged to phase out rather than increase their fossil portfolio.
This: the free sump otherwise known as the atmosphere.


Paying what things cost is one of my own core political themes, and Welch sums it up with admirable concision.

What do you call industry's habit of 'externalizing' effects of their activity in order to take profit that humanity and our biosphere as a whole, now and in the future, subsidizes at great peril? Sleight of hand is too polite. Illegal dumping isn't sufficiently grave.

Whatever you call it, it's killing us. Thanks for the letter, Ray....

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Weather? Climate? Change?
Paying what things cost
The radiation cloud is blowing in the wind

Thanks to Gary Miller and the EPA for the image of an illegal dumping site off the New Jersey Turnpike, circa 1973, via Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Stepping back in time: resubscribing to a paper & ink newspaper

I subscribed to the SF Chronicle for years, maybe fifteen years at my current address alone. It's not the NY Times, but it's a paper that carries local Bay Area news and -- unlike the NYT -- you can read it over breakfast and stand a chance of making it to work on time. Compared to the SF Chron of my childhood, the paper is slimmed down so far you can practically read it over orange juice.

Anyway, price spikes, spotty delivery service, and a confluence of personal circumstances that left my partner and me ready to take a break from longstanding news-over-breakfast habits, led to cancellation of our subscription in late 2012. We ignored a number of 'please come back' offers since.

Then, earlier this month, the Chron sent an offer we couldn't refuse: seven-days-a-week delivery for a year for $99. Okay, not a year; fifty weeks. But still. We bit. Yesterday our delivery started.

First impressions: compared to the unbelievably slow-loading web site at, my ink and paper news is fantastically easy to skim! That's what I like most about news printed on paper, even compared to the fast, fat-pipe network connection I enjoy at work. Negligible 'load time'; for a fast reader and news-skimmer, the difference is huge.

I also took note of stories I would likely have missed over the last couple of days if I hadn't read the news in paper form -- things that wouldn't necessarily make the SFGate home page, assuming I had the patience to wait out the load time -- and I probably wouldn't have found by intertube-accident. Here are a few:
Will it be worth the $99 to get the SF Chronicle in print for the better part of a year? At that price, it'll pretty much be worth it if all I do with the delivered papers is train a puppy. (Note to landlord: not getting a puppy, stand down please.)

Will it be worth paying full price? ($99, said the mailer, is 84% off 'regular' price -- my calculator tells me that makes 'regular' price more than $600/year.) Nope. I kinda doubt I'll ever pay more than $50/month for the SF Chron.

But we'll cross that bridge when we get there in about a year.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:

Thanks to Another Believer by way of Wikimedia Commons for the image of the SF Chronicle's building at 5th and Mission Streets in San Francisco.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Embiggen and other go-figure puzzles in English

Click to embiggen
You see it all the time: a smallish image posted on a web page, and an instruction telling visitors how to view it at higher-resolution. Maybe: "Click to enlarge." Or: "Click for a larger image."

Ho hum.

But Tom Tomorrow (a.k.a. Dan Perkins) doesn't leave memos-to-readers that are as pedestrian as those. Nope. Not only is Tom Tomorrow's This Modern World consistently in my top tier of Best Progressive Political Comic Strips, but when his material appears on Daily Kos (which is where I look for his work nowadays), a visitor is instructed that to see a larger image of the comic, s/he should:
Click to embiggen.
This warms my heart.

I've met plenty of neologisms I loathe: to Facebook or to friend, for example. Or to calendar, as in "Let's calendar a meeting with the marketing people. Dick, can you PowerPoint the product positives by next week?"

OTOH, there are as many others that I've adopted whole hog, like zillions of other English speakers: to Google, for one. Or internet, for that matter. Or grok, my personal favorite among neologisms of the '60s (though "Bogart" was pretty good too, as in Don't Bogart that joint, my friend).

But embiggen? There's something about embiggen that feels so right I want to grin every time I see the word in action.

You may already be familiar with the origin of "embiggen" ... but I wasn't until I decided recently to suss out where Tom Tomorrow found it. There's nothing secret about the word: it came from The Simpsons. Not originally, exactly, but epidemiologically speaking. Sort of.

Here's how the word's origin is described on Wikipedia, in an entry about the episode of The Simpsons in which "embiggen" occurs:
"Lisa the Iconoclast" is the sixteenth episode of The Simpsons' seventh season. [...]

The episode features two neologisms: embiggen and cromulent. [...] The Springfield town motto is "A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man." Schoolteacher Edna Krabappel comments that she never heard the word embiggens until she moved to Springfield. Miss Hoover, another teacher, replies, "I don't know why; it’s a perfectly cromulent word." [...]

Embiggen—in the context it is used in the episode—is a verb that was coined by Dan Greaney in 1996. The verb previously occurred in an 1884 edition of the British journal Notes and Queries: A Medium of Intercommunication for Literary Men, General Readers, Etc. by C. A. Ward, in the sentence "but the people magnified them, to make great or embiggen, if we may invent an English parallel as ugly. After all, use is nearly everything." The literal meaning of embiggen is to make something larger. The word has made its way to common use [...]
Here's the relevant excerpt from the show itself:

So I was thinking about how much I lurve the word "embiggen" on my way to work the other day, and when I got there I found the usual daily e-mail from the Chronicle of Higher Education (I work for a university). In that e-missive I found a link to an article by a linguistics professor at the University of Edinburgh, Geoffrey Pullum. The article is titled Coming and Going and it appeared in the CHE on 19 Feb 2014. It's about how English doesn't behave. And how there's not a ding-dang thing to be done about it.

The article started me considering the probability that, for people who speak English as a second or third or fourth language, words like "embiggen" must be crazymaking. Not even a teensy-weensy bit heartwarming.

Excerpting from Pullum's piece:
I heard a Brazilian iron-ore magnate speaking on a BBC news program about how he had become so rich, and he said that at one point "the price of iron ore came from $10 a ton to $180 a ton." I realized that there was a subtle mistake in English usage here: Even if the price is still $180 now, we do not say that the price came from $10 to $180; we say the price went from $10 to $180. But why?

Come is standardly used for motion (including metaphorical motion) toward the notional location providing the utterer’s reference point: We talk about going away but coming back. It would be quite reasonable to imagine talking about a price starting at some remote point in past time and climbing up the metaphorical price curve, while proceeding along the time axis, toward its present point on the graph. Visualizing ourselves as located at the current price point, we could see the price as climbing up toward where we are now.

But we don’t. In fact we never seem to do anything like that. It is the future that comes; the past goes away.
The future comes and the past goes away? That's not what Creedence Clearwater Revival sang.

But more to the question of price movements, does the matter of iron ore prices going from $10 to $180/ton make more sense to me than coming from $10 to $180/ton because, having had my consciousness shaped in the United States, I understand that the coming and going of prices has nothing to do with my own superfluous presence at the location of a price point, but with movement that occurs from the price's own point of view. Here in 'Merica, corporations are people. Why shouldn't prices themselves have consciousness, and even agency? Perhaps even souls, by gum!


The word "embiggen" seems so cozy to me, so on the mark, so that's not a word, but boy is it cute! because ...
  • Embiggen is a little bit "enlarge" and a little bit "enlighten."
  • It's a monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon word bracketed by a Latinate prefix and an Old English suffix; so it's kind of awkward, but in a funkalicious way.
  • It's a word that you can easily imagine being spoken by a wide-eyed, ebullient four year old who just watched a blimp inflate.

And so on.

In an early post to One Finger Typing, I paraphrased my ninth-grade English teacher, Miss Barbara Ballou, who scolded the whelps in her charge if we dared claim a stylistic right to break the rules of grammar in essays on Billy Shakespeare, say, or Nate Hawthorne: You have no right to break the rules until you know what they are and how to apply them, she informed us.

I admired Miss Ballou a great deal. She was one of the best teachers I ever had, and I've had some doozies. But here's what Geoffrey Pullum has to say about rules, logic, common sense, and speaking English:
The important lesson, to me, is that it isn't logic or common sense that prevents us from saying that [the iron-ore price came from $10 to $180]. It just isn't how we use the language, that’s all.

Don’t ask me why. I genuinely don't know. What I do know is that English lexical semantics (and, I assume, the lexical semantics of any other language) is extraordinarily complex. It continues to astonish me that I learned the meanings of the words I know. Even simple words like come and go. 

[T]here is no guarantee that English will or ever could be logical. English is the way it is: Its rules, some of them quite strict, evolved the way they did over the past millennium without being under any constraint of a directly logical nature.

The user of the language is constrained only by the hundreds of millions of their fellow speakers, who unwittingly negotiate every day about how to set the conventions of usage that define them too as English speakers. Railing against the decision of a few tens of millions of our fellow speakers who have adopted or abandoned some expression is, to put it in terms of the old joke, like trying to teach a pig to sing: It not only wastes your time, it also annoys the pig.
Professor Pullum has a cromulent point.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Google Translate, AI, and Searle's Chinese Room
Linguistics, semantics, pragmatics: words, meaning, and wacky translations
Are computer languages really languages?
Raising a glass to Miss Ballou

Thanks to for the word cloud of Lewis Carroll's "Jaberwocky," from Through the Looking-glass.