The Cloudy Medium

As I mentioned before, I am something of a linguistic anarchist. The English language does not have rules in the way that geometry or French does; there are only stylistic choices. Don’t misunderstand me, some choices make the speaker sound uneducated or even stupid. I positively bristle at people saying “Bill and I” when they mean “Bill and me”. But I suspect that the source of this problem is actually pedantic and ill-informed educators who brow-beat children for ever saying “Bill and me”, even when that is the more appropriate expression.

But English is not unique in this regard. Even languages that have strict rules are still subject to different interpretations because all language is equivocal. In The Federalist No. 37, James Madison wrote that “no language is so copious as to supply words and phrases for every complex idea, or so correct as not to include many equivocally denoting different ideas.” Even if English is more unique than other languages, questions of style are found in every one.

Did you notice my use of “more unique”? Did you scoff at my word choice? I picked that word because it is a pet of pedants. Time and again pedants point out that the word “unique” means “one of a kind”, so it cannot admit of degrees. Either something is unique or not; there is no more or less uniqueness. I contend, however, that the word unique is just as equivocal as any other word and that it may very well admit of degrees.

Take, for example, a six-pack of beer. For the sake of convenience, we will imagine 8 ounce cans of Coors Light. (Such a thing exists, I’m told.) There are no visible markings to tell one from the other. It would be absolutely reasonable to say that not one of these beers is unique. They are not one of a kind; each is just like the others. They are probably even just like thousands or tens of thousands or more. Each beer is not unique.

That is, until we look closer. In 8 ounces of water, there about 7.5×10^24 molecules. That number is mind-bendingly large. Of course, there is no mechanism capable of measuring water to the molecule, so any measure of 8 ounces is bound to vary in total molecules. The odds of any two of our hypothetical beers having exactly the same number of molecules is practically zero. Furthermore, beer is not pure water (mercifully.) Beer also contains alcohol, dissolved carbon-dioxide, yeast, unfermented sugars, minerals, and so forth. Each beer is certain to have slightly different amounts of each of these. Even if the difference is immeasurable with common tools, we know that such variation must exist. Oh, and the cans themselves are different. Sure, they all look the same, but there is no way that the aluminium is totally free from impurities. Each can surely has slight, even unobservable differences. When viewed this way, each beer is unique.

So each beer is not unique and each beer is unique. We haven’t violated the law of non-contradiction, the word unique is simply equivocal. The fact is that we do not always mean the same thing when we say that something is unique. As a result, we totally understand the idea that something can be more or less unique. If we swap one of our hypothetical Silver Bullets with a can of Miller Lite, it makes perfect sense to us to say that the Miller is very unique with respect to the others cans. We could also say that because most people couldn’t tell a Miller Lite from a Coors light if it were not for the branding, the Miller Lite is not unique among the 5 Coors Light cans. It’s all about perspective.

All that said, I don’t use the word unique with comparatives. I prefer the common understanding that the word does not admit of degrees. That doesn’t mean that the use of comparative uniqueness is wrong, only that I think that it sounds bad. It is a question of style, and saying “very unique” is the linguistic equivalent of wearing socks with sandals; one person may find it comfortable, but others may be justified in assuming that he is an idiot.

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Beer of the Week: Whitewater Wheat IPA – For a long time, I avoided beers in the Samuel Adams line. The Boston Beer Company makes so many different beers (over a hundred according to BeerAdvocate) that I’ve always thought they spread themselves a bit too thin. I like trying new things, but sometimes it is best to just focus on what you are good at. However, when I reviewed their flagship beer I was reminded of how they got so big in the first place, so I’ve decided to try some of Sam Adams’ more experimental stuff. This beer is a wheat IPA, a style that I’ve never been impressed with. It is cloudy and light with a foamy head, like a wheat beer ought to be, but has an aroma of piney hops. It is actually pretty refreshing despite being quite flavorful. The hops and traditional wheat beer spices leave a pleasant lingering tingle on the back of the tongue. This isn’t my new favorite, but it is promising enough that I’ll keep trying different Sam Adams beers.

Reading for the Week: The Federalist No. 37 (Excerpt) – Madison, recognizing that language is necessarily equivocal and imperfect, wrote that “When the Almighty himself condescends to address mankind in their own language, his meaning, luminous as it must be, is rendered dim and doubtful by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated.” Samuel Adams may have been an Antifederalist, but his cloudy beer nicely reflects that cloudy nature of human language.

Question for the week: Do you have an English language “rule” that you would like to defend? Or a common (mis)usage that you’d like to rail against? Feel free to comment.


I Cannot Join the Class Action Against Facebook AND be a Class Act

If you are on the Facebook (and I know that you are,) you most likely received an e-mail recently informing you that you are eligible to participate as a co-plaintiff in a class action suit against Facebook Inc. because they used your name or photo in a “Sponsored Post”. I am here to tell you why you ought not participate.

The details are pretty simple: the law suit alleges that Facebook unlawfully used a number of names and images in “Sponsored Posts”. Any Facebook user whose picture or name was used in such an ad is eligible to participate in the suit. The law suit will be settled. In fact, a judge has already denied a proposed settlement. According to NBC, the original proposed settlement was for $20 million. Sounds great, right? Well exactly $0 of that was going to go to the users whose names and images appeared in the ads. $10 million would have gone to the attorneys and the other $10 would have gone to not-for-profit organizations that teach people how to use social media safely. The judge in the case decided that the fact that the users get absolutely nothing was total BS, so they’ve been forced to rework the deal.

In the new proposed settlement, users can get up to $10 each. The final amount has to do with how many people join the class action. If only a few people join, each could get the whole $10. But each person who joins makes each piece of the pie that much smaller. In all probability, enough people will join that the payouts will become so small that the cost of sending out that many checks will become prohibitive. In that (almost certain) event, all the money will revert to the aforementioned not-for-profits. Still, Kwame Opum at Digital Trends says that “you should definitely sign up.” And at first, I agreed with him; it is hard to argue with free money. However, halfway through filling out my own claim form, I decided that I morally could not participate.

The claim form includes a list of declarations that I would have to make to the Court under penalty of perjury:

1. I understand that a story about some action I took on Facebook (such as liking a page, checking
in at a location, or sharing a link), along with my name and/or profile picture, may have been
displayed in a Sponsored Story shown to my Facebook Friends who were authorized by me to
see that action.

Fine. I get that much. I am not at all sure that my name or picture actually was included in a “Sponsored Story”, but I do understand that it may have happened, and that is enough.

2. I was not aware that Facebook could be paid a fee for displaying actions such as these, along with
my name and/or profile picture, to my Facebook Friends.

Again, fine. I was not aware. It seems likely that it is mentioned somewhere in the terms of service, but I didn’t read them. And I suspect that if it were in the terms of service, there wouldn’t be a law suit.

3. If my name and/or profile picture was displayed in a Sponsored Story, I believe I was injured by
that display.

Uh oh. I can imagine scenarios in which such a display could have injured me. Perhaps Nike was on the verge of giving me a huge advertising contract but they decided not to since I had publicly “liked” Puma. Maybe Paul McCartney would have invited me to come jam with him, but he saw that I “liked” meat. So I do believe that I could have been injured by a “Sponsored Story” but that is not what the declaration states. It states that “I believe I was injured by that display.” And that is simply not true. I have no reason to think that I was injured by this practice by Facebook. Even if I think this practice is sneaky, underhanded or even downright wrong, I don’t believe that I was injured by it.

The two remaining declarations are even more noncontinuous than the first two:

4. I am submitting only one Claim Form, regardless of how many Facebook accounts I have.
5. I understand that I am releasing all claims that I have against Facebook and all other
“Released Parties” as set forth in Section 5 of the Settlement Agreement (available at
http://www.fraleyfacebooksettlement.com/court).

So only item three presents a problem. Unfortunately, that problem is insurmountable. I am not willing to perjure myself for a chance at $10. I doubt I’d even perjure myself for a sure $10.

In the end, Facebook will still cough up the same amount whether I join or not; the attorneys will still get their $10 million; and the not-for-profits will almost certainly get theirs. The only difference that would come from sending in my own claim form is that I would know that I made a false statement to the Court. I would never be caught. I would not be tried or convicted of perjury. The only negative consequence would be my own sure knowledge that my word isn’t worth even ten measly dollars.

Beer of the Week: Hofbräu Münchner Weisse – Speaking of legal integrity, Hofbräu has an interesting story. The so called “German Purity Law” (the mythos of which I have previously debunked) prevented most brewers from making wheat beers, but Hofbräu obtained an exemption. This gave them a 200 year jump on the competition and they seem to have made good use of  their head-start. This cloudy wheat beer hits the nose with notes of banana and a hint of clove. The body is superbly smooth and refreshing. Overall, it is simply a wonderful beer.

Reading of the Week:  Of Truth by Francis Bacon – It was inevitable that some author should finally make a second appearance in a Reading of the Week. Bacon receives the honor (such as it is) because his essay Of Truth expresses so beautifully why I refuse to put in a claim in the Facebook settlement: “It will be acknowledged, even by those that practise it not, that clear, and round dealing, is the honor of man’s nature… There is no vice, that doth so cover a man with shame, as to be found false and perfidious.”

Question of the week: I did not write this to be preachy. I know that I am by no means perfect. One of my imperfections is that I do lie on occasion. Is there any lie that does not “cover a man with shame”?


A Wilde Night

“The highest, as the lowest, form of criticism,” claimed Oscar Wilde in his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, “is a form of autobiography.”  When a critic lauds a performance or pans a painting, we learn more about the critic than the object of his scrutiny.  In it’s own way, criticism is an art.  “The critic is he who can translate into an other manner or a new material his impression of  beautiful things.”

And so I begin my career as a beer critic.  Or philosophy commentator.  Or autobiographer.  At any rate, this blog is my art.  I mean it to be neither practical nor useful.  As Wilde wrote, “all art is quite useless.”

Dorian Gray and Oettinger HefeweissbierBeer of the week:  Oettinger Hefeweissbeir – The Oettinger Brewing Company produces some very cheep beers.  Even after the outrageous taxes on imported beer, Oettinger is only slightly more expensive than most domestics.  And don’t let the price fool you, their beers are pretty good.  This unfiltered wheat beer is a rich gold color (cloudy of course) and pours with a very thick head.  It is perhaps too sweet.  Wheat beers tend to be sweet anyway, but this beer is especially so.  Overall however, very pleasing.  Especially with pizza.

Reading for the week:  Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde – In just about one page of text, Wilde makes some pretty big claims about the nature of art and beauty as well as the job and goals of artists and critics.

Question for the week:  If “art is quite useless,” does that mean that it has no power to elevate (or degrade) the mind and soul?  If it does not hold such power, how came certain critics to be “corrupt” or “cultivated” (since both of these words imply a change?)