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Friday, November 23, 2007 -- 8:52 pm

One of the reasons I stopped reading science fiction over 15 years ago was, in addition to being dissatisfied with the poor psychology and characterization, and the obvious intellectual sloppiness of most of its practitioners, was that there was a certain tendency among writers to simply make up certain so-called scientific facts to support a plot point, that turned out upon later reflection not to be true at all. This is related to a certain tendency among the more pompous fiction writers to have a certain character simply propound assertions about life, or human nature, or politics, whose provenance we are left to question. An example of this was in Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, which I read decades ago, in which somebody commented as if it were a fact that full planes typically didn't crash, because a large fraction of the passengers on such a flight ended up canceling or postponing or calling in sick or generally coming up with an excuse not to get on the plane. This was supposedly evidence of ESP, as far as the story went. But having dismissed the comment as nonsense years ago, it still crosses my mind whenever I'm aboard a mostly empty flight. And I suppose it's worth remembering on such occasions that Clarke himself refused to fly at all.

This reminds me, though, of an aspect of human nature I've often found intriguing -- the mere assertion of a fact seems to have a certain persuasive and rhetorical force, quite apart from the plausibility of its content. I suppose this is how advertising, jinxes, and ghost stories acquire much of their force. But there's also a more important political angle, which we'll be seeing more and more as we move to an age of Perpetual Election Compaigns (parallel, perhaps, to the Communist world's notion of Perpetual Revolution). This is the brand of politicking which says that "X really means Y". The topic of discussion could be climate change, or a rival candidate's stand on the issues, or the latest controversial movie to make prudes shudder. (A parallel phenomenon exists, of course, in introspection: but there we have inherited a host of terms from Freud for the applicable mechanisms, ranging from repression to rationalization to denial and so on. In introspection, of course, attaching such explanatory labels to our own psychological experiences really means very little unless we're sticklers for tieing these assertions to testable hypotheses and objective signs. Note to self: the Buddhist philosophical tradition, which of course is heavily preoccupied with the process of introspection, reportedly has a rather sophisticated approach to epistemology. Yet another thing to investigate.) There's rarely a good way to refute such a statement, because most of the time things mean only precisely as much as we perceive them to mean, and our perceptions are heavily (and indelibly) influenced by what we're told to look for. Coopting the meaning of an event, or a statement, is, these days, one of the most sophisticated of political maneuvers. But I suppose politics is called "the art of the possible" precisely because saying is often enough to make it so.

Friday, November 23, 2007 -- 8:40 pm

I've always been irked and somewhat bothered by the use of the word "corn" to describe old world foodstuffs, especially food in the ancient world, for a couple reasons: one, corn as I know it, i.e., maize, is definitely native to the Americas, and so would have been unavailable to Europeans, Africans, and Asians prior to 1492; and two, in my very limited experience, natives of Europe have been somewhat resistant to the notion of corn as anything but animal feed. So it was with both relief and irritation that I recently learned that "corn" is used in England to refer to wheat and in Scotland and Ireland to refer to oats. In other words, the staple crop of the region under discussion. Can't say that I'm terribly impressed by this usage, or with the failure of LaRousse Gastronomique to explain it properly despite all its downright silly efforts to explain other dialectical differences in parentheses.