Miscellaneous musings from the perspective of a lefty (both senses) atheist with a warped sense of humor.

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Location: Madison, WI, United States

I am a geek, but I do have some redeeming social skills. I love other people's dogs, cats, and kids. Snow sucks, but I'm willing to put up with it just to live in Madison.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Fixing the Problems with Personal Pronouns

This essay is about 2 problems with personal pronouns in the English language:
  1. ambiguity in the 2nd person (shown below in red) and
  2. inadequacy in the 3rd person (shown below in green).

Available Letters

I’m going to suggest using 1-letter pronouns as partial fixes for these problems. Here’s what we have to choose from:

What letters are available? The vowels, of course! But 3 of them are already spoken for:
  • A, the indefinite article (usually uncapitalized),
  • I, the 1st-person singular pronoun (invariably capitalized), and
  • O, an interjection of surprise or astonishment (also invariably capitalized).
That leaves us with these, currently unclaimed:
  • E
  • U
I recognize that Y is a “sometimes” vowel, as in “candy” but not in in “yard”, but it’s not pronounced “wye” in either of those cases, so it would make for a poor pronoun. I think that, if anything, it’ll be used in the future as a substitute for “why”. I’ll ignore it and focus on the E and U.

Fixing the 2nd-Person Pronouns

One of them fairly screams “Use me!”. That would be U, which is an obvious substitute for the singular “you” and is already in wide use (tho in its lower-case form) in texting. As a replacement for the plural, I recommend “yall” (no apostrophe). This is already in verbal use in some parts of the shallow South (where it’s apostrophized to indicate that it’s a contraction of “you all”), and I choose to turn the other way when I hear that in the deep South “y’all” is the singular and “all y’all” is the plural.

What problem would this fix? Suppose you’re addressing your board of directors and the treasurer asks what you plan to do about the slowdown in revenue. Your response? “Well, I’d like to have a separate meeting with you about that.” To whom does the “you” refer, the treasurer (singular) or the entire board (plural)? If you had “U” and “yall” available, you wouldn’t have to explain yourself.

Of course, it would be an incomplete solution if I just stopped with the objective case, so here’s the complete set of replacements:

Fixing the 3rd-Person Pronouns

So now let’s look at what we can do with E.

And here I turn to the most persistent and irritating problem in English, the final vestige of gender in the language: the 3rd-person singular pronoun, which lacks a “human” option. I realize that this is about the 50th suggested fix for the problem, and none of the others have ever managed to catch on, but I figure it’s worth trying anyway.

There’s nothing wrong with “he”, “she”, and “it” if the gender of the referent is known, and in fact having the gender association helps keep things sorted out. “We invited Bill and Sue; she could go, but he couldn’t.”

But what happens if the person’s gender is uncertain? “They told me to contact Pat. Are you, um, her? him?”. (AFAICT, nobody has ever seriously proposed using “it” in this situation, since “it” is literally inhuman, tho on rare occasions it’s been used to refer to infants.) Or what happens if you aren’t even talking about a particular person but an indeterminate one in the abstract? “The last person to leave needs to turn off the lights; he/she should also push all the chairs back in.” OK, you can get away with “he/she” in writing, but who ever does that when speaking?

In fact, for the longest time the practice was to always assume the masculine “he” (or “his” or “him”) for people of indeterminate gender. Of course, this built all sorts of biases (some conscious, many unconscious) into the language, and we’ve been making a concerted effort to overcome them. That’s how we got “Ms.” instead of “Miss” and “Mrs.”, “firefighter” instead of “fireman”, “letter carrier” instead of “mailman”, “officer” instead of “policeman”, and Time’s “Person of the Year” instead of “Man of the Year”. This is a trend I heartily endorse.

However, here’s a trend I most decidedly do not endorse: the use of plural pronouns (“they”, “them”, “their”, “theirs”) as if they were singular. Pronouns are supposed to help you quickly understand whom you’re talking about. (Remember Bill and Sue, AKA he and she, from up above?) If “they” can be either singular or plural, the pronoun has failed to do its job. “Someone told Jan and Kim they could leave early.” In the standard meaning of “they” (plural), it’s clearly Jan and Kim who could leave early. But if “they” could also be singular, perhaps it was intended to refer to the unnamed “someone”. How can we tell? Either further explanation is required (where none was before) or people proceed as if they understood what was intended (when they may not have). In short, use of plurals as legitimate singulars just introduces ambiguity into the arena, creating a new problem without actually eradicating the old one, since the temptation to use “he”, “him”, and “his” will continue to exist. No thanks!

So I’m proposing to put E to work, as follows:


Notice a couple of patterns here. The singular subjective pronouns would all be capitalized single letters: I, U, and E. The new “human” pronouns all begin with an “e” for consistency. Everything’s short, as pronouns should be. And the only place where any of them are already in use are for the very purposes I propose for them here.

These look like winners to me. But then, so do the metric system and my aversion to switching back and forth with daylight saving time. Still, somebody has to go first, so why not me?

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Saturday, August 18, 2018

The Demise of Richard Russell

This is a personal anecdote, not one of my customary hortatory essays, so if you’re easily bored with inconsequential trivia, please feel free to skip it.

My full name is Richard Steven Russell. I was named for my two grandfathers, who fortunately didn’t have names like Ebenezer or Adolf. If you go on the spiffy website Name Voyager and look up “Richard”, you’ll see that it peaked in popularity the year I was born (1944) but has been in steady decline ever since, producing a popularity graph that looks a lot like Mont Blanc. So you’d think that the chances that I’d be confused with some other Richard Russell would be in decline as well. Um, not as much as you might think.

When I was just a lad of 8, back in 1952, I naively wrote an admiring letter to Senator Richard B. Russell of Georgia, wishing him well in his campaign for the Democratic nomination for the presidency. In response, I got a nice personalized letter, typed (I’m sure) by some campaign staffer but evidently signed by the senator himself. I’m sure I’ve still got it somewhere in my archives.

Years later, with a history major under my belt and a lot more worldly experience in my head, I became painfully aware that the senator had been a racist, sexist, jingoistic bully. But, as a long-serving Dixiecrat whose seniority enabled him to spend 16 years as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he was in a position to shower billions of dollars in federal military contracts on his home state, and he did so without hesitation or apology. To this day, if you visit the Georgia state capitol, you’ll find 2 nice little life-sized busts of Nobel Peace Prize winners Martin Luther King Jr. and Jimmy Carter tucked unobtrusively into 2 of the building’s 4 exterior concave corners, but the front esplanade facing the main approach from one of Atlanta’s many Peachtree Streets features a triple-life-sized full-body statue of Richard Russell, with his generous hand extended toward (some of) the people of Georgia. Priorities, I guess.

After I graduated from college and moved to Madison to take a job with the state Department of Public Instruction, I of course made sure that my name and number were listed in the phone book. (Remember those?) Shortly thereafter I started getting calls and letters from local businesses that I’d never heard of, demanding that I pay up. I was kind of nonplussed by this, since I’d hardly been in town long enuf to have run up any debts, even if I’d been inclined to do so, which I wasn’t. Finally a letter from a collection agency threatening legal action for my delinquency got me to take it seriously. Evidently some other person named Richard Russell had been a deadbeat who’d run up tabs all over the city before skipping town, and I was the only one in the phone book by that name, so they all figured it must’ve been me. I eventually set them all straight, and they went away.

Well, these were not the kind of people I wanted to be confused with, so I took to always using my middle initial, “S.”, when giving my full name for any kind of record. (In recent years, I’ve joked that I always use it so that other people won’t get confused with me!)

About the same time, I also started to use a joke name for any formal financial dealings I had, such as my spare-time database work or renting out rooms in my home. I called my business operation “Nocturnal Aviation Associates”. It was never incorporated, of course, and the plural “associates” was part of the joke, since it was only ever just me. But it was fun to know that some small fraction of the people who encountered it would think “hmm, just another fly-by-night operation” and get a small bang out of it.

Some time after that, when various on-line services and associations would ask what company I represented, that’s what I’d put in. Then they wanted to know what my title was, so I went for the pun again and started entering “head pilot”. Aside from the meaning that’s obvious for an aviation firm, there’s also “I’m the guy who runs my own brain”. A little harmless fun with wordplay, and a matter of no consequence for decades.

Fast forward to about 2010, when I was doing some volunteer database development for the UW School of Veterinary Medicine and I needed to find the contact info for a vet who lived in Virginia. My regular sources of such info turned up nothing, so I took a deep breath and signed up for LinkedIn, figuring I wouldn’t have to use it ever again after this one occasion. And of course I identified myself as the head pilot for Nocturnal Aviation Associates. (Literary fans: This is known as foreshadowing.) I did indeed find the info for the person I was looking for and happily went off to deploy it, forgetting that I was still signed up with LinkedIn.

Well, everybody else apparently ignored it as well, since I’d only get 1 or 2 desultory notices a year from them, which I ignored. That was until this week, when I got an e-mail from LinkedIn informing me that there’d been 27 separate hits on my account in the preceding week. To quote the appropriate pilot-speak, “whiskey tango foxtrot?”.

So here’s what must be going on. On 2018 August 10, a baggage handler for Horizon Air’s operation at SeaTac International Airport stole one of his employer’s Bombardier Q400 commercial turboprops and proceeded to do an hour’s worth of aerobatics in it before crashing it into the barely populated Ketron Island at the south end of Puget Sound. His name was initially reported in the media as “Richard Russell”. There was no middle initial, but subsequent coverage supplied it as “B.”, a little-noticed factoid appreciated by hardly anybody but me.

So, say you’re an analyst for the FBI, CIA, TSA, NSA, XYZ, PDQ, or some other federal TLA, and you’re looking for clues that this guy might’ve been a deep mole from al-Qaeda. Or maybe did he leave a manifesto of some kind? Or was this some kind of joy-riding dare from one of his on-line Chuck Yeager–wannabe buddies? You hit the web. And what do you turn up? Some guy named Richard Russell with a fantasy life as the head pilot of a make-believe outfit called Nocturnal Aviation Associates. Oh boy!

So, to all you searchers out there: No, it’s not me. He’s dead; I’m still alive. Besides, I don’t like terrorism or terrorists. I deplore so-called practical jokes that harm people or property. I have a good sense of humor, but this wasn’t at all funny. Sad, really. The world needs all the Richard Russells it can get.

PS: Abigail fretted that my name might now turn up on the federal no-fly list as a suspicious person, and this might screw up our upcoming vacation to Niagara Falls. I assured her not to worry, since the only no-fly list that “Richard Russell” now appears on is God’s.

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Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Mike McCabe, Democrat (?) for Governor

Mike McCabe, Democrat (?) for Governor

Suppose you’re a Democrat wrestling with which of eight candidates you’d like to support for governor, and you’re looking into this McCabe guy. “Why him?”, you might be wondering. “He spent his early career as a legislative aide to Republicans, has never been a dues-paying member of the Democratic Party, and refuses to take a loyalty oath to support the party’s eventual nominee.”

All true, and exactly why he deserves your support. Ask yourself this: “Do you consider yourself a citizen first or a Democrat first?”

Primary elections are dividers, not uniters. They drive the Democrats toward the bluest, most liberal contenders and the Republicans toward the reddest, most conservative ones. Whichever candidates emerge from this process will have the undying devotion of a fourth of the electorate, the unremitting hatred of another quarter, and massive indifference from the half that’s in the moderate middle. No wonder modern American politics leaves us so fractured and divided.

Mike McCabe is a realist. He knows that third-party candidacies are not only futile, they serve to further fractionate us. That’s why he’s running in one of the major parties, but not as a blind loyalist of it. It’s also why he’ll have broad appeal come the general election, and why he’d govern as a cost-conscious, trans-partisan uniter.

Mike’s #1 issue is getting big money out of politics, whether it’s liberal dollars from George Soros or conservative megabucks from the Koch Brothers. His appeal is to those of us in blue jeans.

In this, he’d follow in a noble Wisconsin tradition. Pat Lucey, a highly successful realtor with a healthy respect for the profit motive, ran and governed as a humane Democrat who promoted governmental efficiency. Lee Sherman Dreyfus, a college chancellor from the liberal world of academia, ran as a Republican and surrounded himself with top-quality advisors who weren’t partisan activists. Wisconsin’s longest-serving governor was Tommy Thompson, a self-described “hick from Elroy” who was able to work with urban Democrats on welfare reform, increased school funding, negotiated firmly but fairly with the state employees’ union, and brooked no nonsense from the extremist factions in his own Republican Party.

We need another governor like this today. Fortunately, one’s available. His name is Mike McCabe.

= = = = = =
The question will arise, and arise in your day, ... which shall rule — wealth or men? Which shall lead — money or intellect? Who shall fill public stations — educated and patriotic free men, or the feudal serfs of corporate capital?

— Edward Ryan, Chief Justice, Wisconsin Supreme Court, addressing the UW graduating class of 1873

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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

UW-Madison Day at the State Capitol

Do you support higher education in general, the University of Wisconsin System more particularly, and especially its flagship institution, UW-Madison? Then you might well want to express that attitude to your state senator and assembly representative. The Wisconsin Alumni Association is sponsoring UW-Madison Day at the State Capitol on Wed. April 11 from noon to 5:30 PM. You can register for the event by clicking here.

As that web page notes, "We’ll give you everything you need to be an effective advocate. Never spoken to your legislator? Don’t worry: you’ll always be with other alumni, and those who would like to brush up on their communication skills can attend our session on the basics of speaking with legislators.” That training session will occur at 11 AM at the Park Hotel, 22 S. Carroll St., right across from the Capitol.

"Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe."
— Herbert George Wells (1866-1946), British science-fiction writer

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Saturday, February 10, 2018

Whatcha Got for Snacks?

Friday, February 09, 2018

Oprah or Donald?

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Saturday, January 13, 2018

When It Changed

When It Changed
By Richard S. Russell

Written on the occasion of the Statue of Liberty’s 100th birthday

"Europe was created by history. America was created by philosophy."
—Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013), prime minister of the United Kingdom

A Village in Eastern Europe, 1886

You are 9 years old. Your life awaits you.

It has been a day much like every other day in your village. Papa and Stefan have been in the hills, working the farm that has been in the family for generations. Every year it is harder to bring in a full harvest, because the land is slowly playing out. Stefan, even tho he is the eldest, has been a bit sickly ever since he had a fever when he was just about your own age, and he sometimes grumbles that he wishes he had a mule to help with the work. But Papa says to be glad enuf that we have the cow that shares our house; many others in the village wish they were as lucky.

Dora is 15, and she is tending the house, as she has ever since Mama died giving birth to little Samuel. Shy Marie follows her everywhere, doing as she is told, for soon Dora will marry, and Marie must take over the house.

Just now Petros and Samuel are fidgeting over the family's tattered bukvar, which they must study for an hour each day, because the family has always taken great pride that all its boys know how to read and write.

But wait! Who's that coming up the road? It’s Teodor! Teodor, the family's 2nd son, who went off 2 years ago to join the king's army. There is much hugging and backslapping, and Petros is sent running to the fields to fetch the men.

After supper, everyone goes outside, for it's a fine summer evening, and visitors — let alone marriageable young men — are rare in the village. Everyone wants to hear all about life in the capital, but Teodor has seen little enuf of that from the barracks. Anyway, he wants to talk about something else. He waves a newspaper. "Listen to this." he says. "It's about America. You know, the land where streets are paved ..."

"With gold!" shouts Toyva.

"No, foolish one," laughs Teodor, "with real brick." There are murmurs among the small audience at this extravagance. If all the bricks in the village had been used to pave the street, there would be none left for the houses.

"This paper tells of a statue in America." says Teodor.

"Fauff!" snorts old Vanya. "What do we care about some American general or king?"

"Ah, but this is not a statue of any man, uncle. No, nor of some musty old Greek god, either. It's a statue to an idea. They call it the Statue of Liberty. And listen, there is a poem written about it. It's by Emma Lazarus."

And some were thinking "Emma. A woman's name. In America women can read and write — even poetry."

And some were thinking "Lazarus. The man raised from the dead, given a new life, a 2nd chance."

And some were thinking "Emma Lazarus. A Jewish name. In our country Jews live in ghettos and are reviled and persecuted. Whenever times are bad, there's a pogrom, and the king's men say everything will get better."

But you are 9 years old and know little of such things. You are listening to the poem. It is translated from the English, of course, and the translation isn't very good. But you listen, and you remember, as Teodor reads it:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door."

You are 9 years old. Your life awaits you.

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