January 23, 2009

Distinguishing real mistakes from non-mistakes

Many of those who frequent the discussion boards of the American Copy Editors Society work hard to disabuse colleagues about journalistic shibboleths, such as the one Bill Walsh calls "the un-splitting fetish."

This is the wrongheaded belief that leads many--including, it seems to me, a disproportionate number of journalists--to write awkward constructions like "we already have been there," where any normal person would write "we have already been there."

This superstition about not allowing the adverb (e.g. "already") to come between the two parts of a compound verb (e.g. "have been") has been thouroughly debunked by the best minds in the field, some of which are cited in Garner's Modern American Usage. For example: "Not only is there no objection to thus splitting a compound verb...but any other position for the adverb requires special justification" (H.W. Fowler, Modern English Usage).

Nevertheless, many people continue to un-split, which is why Chief Justice Roberts, attempting to copy edit on the fly, bungled the inaugural oath. Steven Pinker, chairman of the usage panel of The American Heritage Dictionary, adds his voice to those of the aforementioned minds, giving an insightful examination of why unsplitting is pointless. In doing so, he also gives us a magnificent headline:

Oaf of Office

So let's review: split verb phrases or, dare we say it, split infinitives—not mistakes. Attempting an impromptu rewrite of the most solemn oath of office in the land—big mistake.

January 21, 2009

Landfill fodder

The environmental champions at Greenpeace sent me a rather hefty envelope today. As is my custom, I opened it up, not because of interest in its contents, but because I am able to recycle white paper at work, so I extract such paper from junk mail.

That this procedure had to be performed on an item from an environmental group is odd enough. Odder still is that the contents included a large sticker (not recylable) a card stock response form (likewise) and a sheet of return address labels (also likewise).

Now, ordinarily I don't mind getting return address labels. They are, at least, useful. But the toner had rubbed off several of these in transit. Further, those that remained legible read "Mrs. Kristen," which is just wrong, as Miss Manners will tell you.

So the obligatory four-page screed goes in the recyle bin, along with the Business Reply Mail envelope. The rest goes in the trash.

It seems to me that heaping up landfills with cheap stickers is not the way to rescue the environment from rampant destruction.

January 17, 2009

Games people play

I spent day one of Otronicon working in the Wii Family Arena. It's a multifaceted job, consisting of telling kids not to run, answering questions, offering assistance, and calling tech support when the Wii Fit arbitrarily reboots itself.

Ostensibly, the job also includes crowd control, but a science center crowd practically controls itself.

In a seven-hour shift, I only twice had to caution a youngster that he or she had monopolized a console too long and needed to yield to the next in line. I never had to stop someone from trying to tamper with a console, although we did do a fair bit of tracking down Wiimotes that got moved from one station to another.

Only occasionally was it necessary to help a youngster with a game, because frequently, the person who had just finished playing remained to coach the newcomer. Just as well, since half the time I had no idea what they were talking about.

There is much good-natured rivalry between gamers--taunts about kicking body parts and so forth--but trash talk notwithstanding, my experience has been that most gamers are eager to encourage other gamers. They are even more eager to encourage nascent gamers.

Granted, the quality of person you encounter in a science museum is usually a notch or two--or more--above the hoi polloi. Still, the camaraderie with which they mutually encourage one another is a pleasant thing to see.

Even when I have no idea what they are talking about.

January 15, 2009

Taking video games seriously

I crashed the fighter plane again.

My flight record is pretty pathetic, but since I only climb into the cockpit once a year, I suppose that's to be expected.

The EF-111 Raven is a fighter jet for which the Orlando Science Center has a flight simulator--built into an airplane cockpit that was formerly used for military pilot training. The simulator is part of the center's permanent collection, but I make my yearly flight attempt during Otronicon, which is now in its fourth year.

Otronicon--the name is an amalgam of "Orlando," "electronics," and "convention"--showcases the interrelated realms of simulation and gaming, both of which are key components of Orlando's economy.

EA Tiburon is a local division of California-based Electronic Arts. The folks at EA Tiburon are responsible for EA's Superman video game and the wildly popular NFL Madden game under the EA Sports imprint.

Lockheed Martin has a simulation division here that produces simulators for military training. On display this year: three linked Blackhawk helicopter simulators flying in the same scenario, able to interact.

Full Sail University, the primary sponsor of Otronicon, offers degrees in, among other things, video game design.

Other local companies also have a tie to the simulation industry, including Florida Hospital. Medical simulation is a burgeoning field, especially as regards minimally invasive surgery. That's when the doctor operates by remote control through a tiny incision.

Last year, Dr. James "Butch" Rosser spoke at Otronicon about this subject. It became his specialty when he showed an exceptional aptitude for it, compared with his peers. The main difference between Rosser and the other medical students in his class was that he spent a lot of time playing video games, and had done since he was a child--back in the Pong and PacMan days.

Rosser now trains other surgeons, and has found that students who are avid gamers are consistently better at remote control surgery than those who are not.

The military has seen similar results with pilots. And in fact, the simulators used to train pilots are very like most video games, with a heads-up display that tells you the statistics you need to make decisions.

As Dr. Rosser has pointed out, gamers get used to looking at a heads-up display to tell them what they need to know, then using a controller of some kind to make a virtual device do what they need it to do. Once mastered, this skill is transferrable from a Wii character to a Halo master sergeant to a laparoscopic scalpel to a Blackhawk helicopter.

Gamers have developed this skill. And it is a skill--one that applies to piloting and surgery and, I believe, will apply to a great many more fields in the future.

It is not, however, a skill I have developed, as evidenced by the fact that I crashed the Blackhawk, too.

January 10, 2009

The change we really need ...

...is the change few are prepared to talk about. It's not "politically correct."

Thomas Merton wrote, "the salvation of society depends, in the long run, on the moral and spiritual health of individuals." He was writing in the context of spiritual maturity as related to sanctity. "You cannot save the world merely with a system. You cannot have peace without charity. You cannot have social order without saints, mystics, and prophets."

But our saints, mystics, and prophets are often silenced by a society that believes it is more important to protect people's feelings than to speak hard moral truths.

It's one thing to revile speech that is hateful, based on irrational fear and prejudice. It's another to forbid honest discussion of moral questions, such as why some religions condemn particular actions as sin.

If we cannot discuss such things openly as a society, how can we solve the problems that plague us?

For example: A recent study, referenced in this Wall Street Journal article, found that "the numbers of unfaithful wives under 30 increased by 20% and husbands by a whopping 45%." This despite the fact that "more than 90% of the population believes that cheating on one's spouse is always wrong."

The author's sources speculate on a variety of possible causes for this phenomenon, including the prevalence in our society of people with multiple sex partners prior to marriage -- a habit that some apparently are unable to break after marriage.

Few people outside the pulpit seem willing to go out on a politically incorrect limb and point out that our society not only permits this behavior, it encourages it. Surely none of us wish to be accused of pointing out planks in other peoples' eyes. But we do our society no favors by censoring or vilifying those saints and prophets who affirm the notion that unmarried people ought not to have sex.

Professor Daniel N. Robinson, of the philosophy faculty at Oxford University, said in a lecture about John Stuart Mill, that in our society "...the sensitivity to the needs, and indeed the temperament, of others is such that thought must be censored and speech must be transformed. If Mill isn't turning in his grave, he should have."

Robinson is quite right that the inhibition of free speech hampers liberty and prevents productive discourse. When 90 percent of people say adultery is wrong, while increasing numbers of people commit adultery, then we are becoming a nation of hypocrites, and we must speak up about it.

Infidelity is just one example of moral and spiritual disease. There are many others, including greed, corruption, bigotry, apathy, and certainly hypocrisy. But coercing people into silence lest their opinion hurt someone's feelings will only hamper our nation's healing and our spiritual growth as individuals.

We can only bring about the change our nation needs if we are free to openly discuss -- with respect and honesty -- the moral and spiritual health of the individuals it comprises.

January 5, 2009

We Three Kings of Orient are — not!

The “three kings” -- whose day, aka the Epiphany, is celebrated Jan. 6 –- get a lot of attention, considering that they actually get little ink in the gospels.

They appear only in Matthew 2: “...in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.’”

That’s from the Revised Standard Version. Where it has “wise men,” The Revised English Bible has “astrologers” and the New International Version has “magi,” an Anglicization of the original Greek µáyoi.

Herod, not knowing what they were talking about, called in the Rabbis, who quoted Micah 5, which says the Messiah would come from Bethlehem. So the magi went to Bethlehem and visited the “child” and his mother in their “house.”

No stable and manger here. The visit of the magi may have taken place when Jesus was several months or even years old.

We twelve magi of Babylon are...

The text does not specify how many magi were present. The oral and artistic tradition of the early Western church says three, presumably because there were three gifts. (Gold, symbolizing kingship; frankincense for divinity; and myrrh for healing — or death, foreshadowing the cross.) But in the Armenian and Syrian Christian traditions, there are said to have been 12 magi.

They came to be called “kings” because medieval European art depicts them wearing crowns. In earlier art from the eastern end of the Mediterranean, they are shown in turbans or fezzes, which is more accurate.

Adoration of the Magi by Hieronymus Bosch

In about the sixth century, they got names (Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar), but there is no historical or Biblical support for them. Nor is there any evidence to support the claim by the otherwise venerable Venerable Bede that each of the magi came from a different continent: Asia, Africa and Europe. But that’s why you see nativity sets in which one magus is white, one is oriental, and one is black.

Poppycock. They were Persian.

Following yonder horoscope

“Magi” is a specific term for a caste of Zoroastrian priests, and Zoroastrianism was centered in Persia, specifically the city of Babylon (on the Euphrates River in what is now Iraq). Matthew says they came from the East. Babylon is east of Bethlehem.

Astrology has a central role in Zoroastrianism, and these magi, or astrologers, studied the skies and interpreted what they saw there.

The coming of a “King of Kings” -- a savior born of a virgin -- was predicted not only by Hebrew prophets, but also by Zoraster. The Bible says the magi saw “his star in the East” and “followed” it to Bethlehem. But if they had literally traveled in the direction of the star, they’d have gone eastward from Babylon and wound up in Kandahar.

So the “star” was more likely a horoscope -- an interpretation of astronomical events. They “followed” it in the sense that the stars showed a king was born in Judea, so they went to Judea.

Astronomer Michael Molnar makes a convincing case that the astronomical event in question was the lunar occultation of Jupiter in the constellation of Aries, which occurred about April 17, 6 B.C.E.*. Jupiter indicates kingship, and Aries represents Israel.

Thanks to their very accurate star charts, the magi could actually have predicted this event, giving them plenty of time to prepare to “traverse afar; field and fountain, moor and mountain...” which is, I suppose, more poetical than “cross the Syrian Desert.”

* — Scholars now use B.C.E., “Before the Common Era,” and C.E., “Common Era,” where we used to use B.C. and A.D. That’s because the calendar is messed up. Blame Dionysius Exiguus.

January 1, 2009

Enormous error

Ryan Seacrest just committed a very common error. In attempting to describe the hugeness of Times Square's New Year celebration, he called it an "enormity."

As Inigo Montoya said to Vizzini, "I do not think it means what you think it means."

e·nor·mi·ty n
1. extreme evil or moral offensiveness
2. a very evil or morally offensive deed

Encarta® World English Dictionary © 1999 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved. Developed for Microsoft by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

Now some dictionaries, such as the notoriously descriptivist Merriam-Webster, allow for "enormity" when what is meant is "enormousness." But, as Garner notes in Modern American Usage, "The historical diferentiation between these two words should not be muddled."

And why not, you ask? If people know that Ryan Seacrest just means that the celebration is really big, isn't that good enough?

Perhaps. But the careless use of "enormity" can introduce an appearance of bias where none was meant. For example, Garner cites a 1994 newspaper story titled "Big win" that includes this sentence: "Chances are it doesn't come close to describing the enormity of the Republican victory Tuesday."

Is the writer just trying to say it was a really, really big win? Or is he a Democrat?