Uncommon Sense

November 30, 2020

Fascinated by Trivia

Filed under: Culture,language,writing — Steve Ruis @ 9:59 am
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Americans and the British are often described as being two countries separated by a common language. As an editor, I find myself editing works written by British people, among others, and there are definitely subtle differences between American usage and British usage. You are probably aware of things like spelling differences, e.g. honor and honour, color and colour, etc. and both region’s slangs are vastly different, but other things are more subtle.

For example, in punctuation Americans use double quotation marks, “ ”, first and then if something quoted is nested inside of that quote we set that off with single quotes, ‘ ’. The British do that in reverse order.

What stimulated this post was I was reading a piece in the New Yorker than began “On November 22, 1820, the New York Evening Post ran a perfunctory book ad that was none too particular in its typesetting:

WILEY & HALSTED, No. 3 Wall street, have just received SYMZONIA,
or a voyage to the internal world, by capt. Adam Seaborn. Price $1.

This advert was printed in 1820 in America and includes the British practice of treating collective nouns as being plural rather than singular. So, in the U.S. we might say “the team was devastated by the loss” whereas the Brits would say “the team were devastated by the loss.” In British English the word team infers multiple team members so is treated as referring to a plural thing, whereas in the U.S. the “team” is one thing and so is treated as a singular thing. In this case the publisher is clearly at least two people and is treated as a plural, with “have just received” rather than a singular, with “has just received.” (E pluribus unum?)

The quotation indicates that the American practice was either the same as the British practice at that time or at least was not fully transformed into the American practice with some doing it one way and others doing it the other.

You, of course, are wondering why anyone would care, but apparently a great many do. As a college professor, even teaching a subject like chemistry, I took seriously my responsibility to teach my students how to write. (Every chance I got to talk to an employer of students such as mine I asked them “What could we be doing better on behalf of our students?” and to a person, they responded with “Technically they are fine, but if you could teach them to write better, that would be very helpful.” It was almost as if employers of STEM students got together in their secret base to create this talking point.)

So, as a teacher of college freshmen, I gave up T-F, multiple choice, and fill-in-the-blank test questions and asked but two kinds of questions: one which required a calculated answer (with the reasoning displayed clearly or explained) and one that required a short, that is paragraph length, essay answer, e.g. an explanation, or a description, etc. By the end of the semester my goal was a 50-50 distribution of these two types of questions.

And do not think I was not envious of those biology teachers who ran their mark-sense (Scantron) answer sheets through our mechanical reader and had their midterm exam scored in under ten minutes. (I gave my tests on Fridays so I would have the hours needed to read and score them and be able to return them at the next class meeting.)

I was in the unenviable position of having to explain to my students why being clear in one’s writing was very valuable. I told them that if they said in a job interview “I be excited about working here.” that they would not get a job offer. People, including employers, do not think logically; they usually respond to their gut feelings about people and people who speak or write and make gaffes are generally considered to be “not up to par” and are passed over.

I am musing on “why I give a shit” about obscure grammar points. Partly I had to know better than my students what was and wasn’t acceptable in written language and partly I was curious. I became known as something of a grammar grouch, a despicable sort of human being who is constantly correcting people. (Yes, I am recovering; thank you for caring.)

I also know that all of these rules are entirely arbitrary. Yes, they have been established to promote clear communication, and this can be critically important when laws and contracts are drafted, but I know of no laws regarding the topic per se. We just go along to get along.

As an editor, my main goal is to preserve the voice of the author. If I have met them and spoken to them (this is becoming increasingly rare), I want to hear their voice in my head as I read their piece, because that is what will happen when people who know the author read that piece. If you do not understand this, consider the college freshman who writes a short essay that reads as if written by a college freshman but then abruptly transitions into formal encyclopedia English or even British encyclopedia English. Gosh, do you think they did a little copy and paste plagiarism? It is not that hard to tell the voice shift in reading such things, so readers who know the author can tell if I rewrite a part of their piece in my own voice . . . instead of the author’s.

When editing British manuscripts for our magazine, I use American punctuation for our largely American audience but retain British spellings (colour, honour, etc.) to preserve the author’s voice. For the one book I edited for a British author, I preserved both the British spellings, but also the British punctuation (which was quite a test).

Yes, I know I am weird, kinda proud of it. Just wanted to share a little of the consequences of being weird . . . like me.

Addendum Oh, and the book, Symzonia, is considered by some to be the first American foray into science fiction.

Ah, Religion

Filed under: Culture,Politics,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 8:08 am
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According to The Guardian Iran has bestowed martyr status on the nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh at a full state funeral in Tehran. Clearly the gentleman was assassinated for political reasons; by whom isn’t clear. (Remember when we did not condone assassinations? Now our hands are so dirty, we cannot condemn those done by anyone else.)

So, now we have reached the position that a designer and builder of nuclear weapons of mass destruction has “died for his faith.” I guess Allah wants us all to possess nukes.

I will go to the Church of the Heavenly Mushroom Cloud and pray.

November 27, 2020


Filed under: Culture,Politics — Steve Ruis @ 9:34 am
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Last night I watched the NOVA episode “Saving Notre Dame.” This was a progress report on the efforts so far to restore the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris that had a devastating fire in 2019.

The effort, time, and money being spent were all stupendous. For example, did you know that there were people whose job description was “Glass Conservation Scientists?” There were those involved as well as a great many other scientific specialties I knew nothing about. This particular specialist determined, through experimentation, how many wipes with a cotton ball were needed to remove the toxic lead dust, from the burning of the lead roofing materials and were deposited on tens of thousands of square feet of stained glass windows. Apparently inquiring minds wanted to know. Their argument is too few wipes left behind a toxic residue, too many wipes wasted time, money, and effort.

There were also wood conservation specialists. The roof of the building was supported by an intricate wood structure, most of which burned and tumbled down. Luckily they had a recent set of architectural drawings of the roof’s support structure . . . and a digit laser scan made very recently to inform them how to reconstruct that framework. That did not stop them from collecting all of the charred wooden remains (made extremely difficult by the possibility of the edifice collapsing when collecting them), cataloging them, and using whatever information that effort could supply.

This was fascinating work, but. . . .

This is just a building. Millions of work hours, millions of francs/euros, and sizeable portions of professional lives will be spent in this effort. But, this is just a building.

What if we were to take climate change as seriously? What if we were to take childhood hunger so seriously? What if we expended such efforts to solve real problems?

Just as Americans respond to disasters most generously, but won’t spend a dime to prevent such problems, we seem incapable of marshalling such efforts without something disastrous to act as a focus.

It is sad.

Instead of doing things that need doing, we are consumed by doing things that make people even more ridiculously rich than they were before. Apparently Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon.com, has added $70,000,000,000 to his already “richest man in the world” level of wealth, just since the pandemic began. Is that really a goal we want to support, when there are many more worthy goals clearly visible?

I repeat a simple fact, if you were to spend money every working day for a year, to spend a billion dollars you would have to spend $532,000 per hour of each of those working days. A billion dollars is a ridiculous amount of money. And instead of addressing real, existential problems of humanity, we are making billionaires instead.

The problem of capitalism is that there are no controls upon greed.

November 25, 2020

Remember Public Servants?

Filed under: Culture,Politics — Steve Ruis @ 11:57 am
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Even the Bible has nuggets of wisdom that are applicable today. (You write long enough. . . .)

Consider this:

“You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. . . . (Mark 10:42-43)

Now, if only our Christian leaders believed in the truth in scripture. They apparently do not because more and more every president we elect, all professing Christians, the more king-like they behave, the less like a public servant.

Not a Fan of Civilization?

Filed under: Culture,History — Steve Ruis @ 11:53 am
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I am currently working my way through Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress by Christopher Ryan and I find the going slow . . . not because it is difficult but because it is impactful and I have to digest it a few pages at a time. I will be providing a full read review but I thought I might tantalize you with a few excerpts (italics all mine).

* * *

Historically, in settlements where the surrounding environment offered opportunity for subsistence living, people had to be coerced into joining civilization. Scott describes the brutal subjugation as “anything but a benign, voluntary journey toward civilization.” In fact, large portions of these early civilizations were not participants; they were property, “taken en masse as prizes of war and driven back to the core or purchased, retail, as it were, from slaving expeditions selling the state what it most needed.” What these early states “most needed” was cheap human labor to keep the wheels of civilization turning: workers to plant and harvest crops, armies to conquer and hold new land, slaves to dig canals and cut roads. This insatiable hunger for human labor also helps explain why most major religions so insistently and violently oppose nonreproductive sexual behavior—a major source of human suffering in civilized societies.

* * *

Seen as a way of compelling rapid population growth in order to fuel the growth of civilized populations, this otherwise bizarre prohibition of nonreproductive sex begins to make sense. Humans are in effect being bred as a source of cheap, disposable labor, like horses, oxen, or camels. Forcing the reluctant to join expanding empires wasn’t restricted to biblical or classical times. In The Invention of Capitalism, economic historian Michael Perelman explains how the economic noose was tightened around the necks of anyone who tried to opt out of the civilizational enterprise in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. “Rather than contending that market forces should determine the fate of these small-scale producers, classical political economy called for state interventions of one sort or another to hobble these people’s ability to produce for their own needs.” It wasn’t enough merely to be civilized yourself; everyone else had to be civilized, too.

* * *

This state of affairs could not be permitted. Men had to be made poor enough that they’d be forced to join the desperate throngs in the mines, armies, and factories. A London police magistrate named Patrick Colquhoun articulated the widespread view that poverty was integral to the health of civilization: “Poverty… is a most necessary and indispensable ingredient in society, without which nations and communities could not exist in a state of civilization. It is the lot of man. It is the source of wealth, since without poverty, there could be no labour; there could be no riches, no refinement, no comfort, and no benefit to those who may be possessed of wealth.”

* * *

And make no mistake, people are still being dragged into the market economy. Multinational corporations routinely expropriate land in poor countries (or “buy” it from corrupt politicians), force the local populations off the land (so they cannot grow or hunt their own food), and offer the “luckiest” among them jobs cutting down the forest, mining minerals, or harvesting fruit in exchange for slave wages often paid in company currency that can only be used to buy unhealthful, industrially produced food at inflated prices at a company-owned store. These victims of market incursion are then often celebrated as having been saved from “abject poverty.” With their gardens, animals, fishing, and hunting, they had been living on less than a dollar per day. Now, as slave laborers, they’re participating in the economy. This, we’re told, is progress.

* * *

From foragers being forced off land they’ve lived on for centuries because they cannot produce deeds of ownership, to eighteenth-century Scottish Highlanders who preferred to tend their sheep, to today’s college graduates saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in debt before they’ve landed their first job, nonparticipation in the market economy has consistently and effectively been eliminated as a viable option. To those who suggest we should “Love it or leave it,” I’d suggest that neither option is—or has ever been—a realistic possibility. It’s as if people are being forced into casinos at gunpoint, where they lose everything, generation after generation, and then they’re told they’ve got a gambling problem.

PS All of these came from just a three page segment!

November 20, 2020

The Grassy Knoll

Filed under: History,Politics — Steve Ruis @ 9:44 am
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As I have mentioned, I am old. I am so old I was in high school when President Kennedy was shot. Being of a curious sort, I have read magazine articles, books, etc. and watched numerous documentaries on the topic as it sounded as if there were more than met the eye. Having said that I also felt that we had learned as much as there was to learn about this matter, so case closed.

Boy, was I wrong.

The documentary “The Grassy Knoll” published in 2020 is available on Amazon Prime streaming service. It is long and it drags in the middle third, but if you have to skip something, skip that middle third, do not skip the beginning and end.

I learned so many things from this documentary. First, the sources aren’t just some muckraking book writers. The people featured were ex-FBI agents, ex-CIA assets, and ex-legal staff who actually played a role in the investigation. These are not some quick “make a buck” types. They showed primary documents and got people to speak who had remained silent for decades.

I will give you one tease. Have you ever felt that Lee Oswald was set up as a fall guy? Outwardly it looks so, but looks can be deceiving. One of the things this group dredged up is the original examination of the gun found in the school book depository. When the officials in Washington, D.C. opened their investigation, they requested all of the physical evidence be sent to them from Dallas. With the gun came a report. The report clearly stated that there were no fingerprints found on the gun, on the gun’s telescopic sight, on the magazine in the gun or on any of the remaining bullets in the magazine. Clearly they were thorough. The physical evidence was examined and sent back to Dallas in 24 hours. When the Warren Commission made its report the FBI’s report showed the gun had Oswald’s fingerprints upon it. Interesting point of fact, by the time the gun got back to Dallas, Oswald was dead, never having been charged officially as the assassin. Either you have to believe in miracles or . . . well, two FBI agents got a private interview with Oswald’s corpse in the Coroner’s Office, which apparently was the case.

If you are still interested in getting closer to “what really happened” this documentary will get you closer, much closer. (Hint: they actually interviewed the guy who made the kill shot.)

Addendum Before accusations of “conspiracy theory” get flung around. A follow-up investigation by the federal government concluded that there were more shots than the Warren Report claimed and they came from different directions, so there had to have been at least two perpetrators. Two perpetrators in an assassination is the definition of a conspiracy. That a conspiracy was involved in Kennedy’s assassination is the official position of the federal government.

Really? Trump Really “Connected” with Rural Folks?

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Race — Steve Ruis @ 9:36 am
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The Guardian and a whole slew of other news agencies are expressing increasing confusion about how President Trump performed so much better than expected on election day.

Here is an excerpt from one article: “But on election day, rural Iowa turned out in force for Trump. He not only beat Joe Biden decisively in a state that opinion polls consistently predicted would be close, but the president significantly increased his vote in counties that put Barack Obama into the White House and which then flipped to Trump.”

Oh, the title of that article? It was “‘He made a connection’: how did Trump manage to boost his support among rural Americans?”

He made a connection? Really?

Iowa turned out for Barack Obama . . . twice. Do you consider Iowa a state free of racial prejudice? What got them to vote for a black man for the first time in any presidential election?

I will repeat. This quite racist country voted for a black man for president, twice, because they were fed up with the status quo. People in rural communities are seeing their way of life being plowed under, to use a farming metaphor.

But Barack Obama was a disappointment. He ran a campaign based upon “hope” and “change” and what did we get? More of the same. The bankers, the Wall Street types, the corporate fat cats, and the rich were still in charge.

Well, if electing a black man didn’t send the message they wanted, they need a bigger message, so . . . Trump!

Is there any mystery that an icon of the old status quo, Joe Biden, lost big in a rural state?


They voted against the old status quo represented by the corporate Democrats and there was no hiding the fact that Joe Biden is a corporate democrat, and the rich will be continued to be served . . . before everyone else.

November 19, 2020

Kinda Sorta Worth Watching

Like many of you, during the pandemic I have watched more movies and documentaries than I ever have before . . . at least the first five minutes of that many, any way. I ran across a documentary on the Amazon Prime streaming service, if you have that, which may be worth your time to view. It is called “Christian Dilemmas” and subtitled “The Secret History of the Bible.” I tend to hate anything with the word “Secret” in the title because they never talk about secrets so much as ignorance. Just because a great many people are ignorant of a topic, doesn’t mean that there is some nefarious force keeping it secret.

In any case, the presentation of this documentary can be off-putting. Often the screen is showing cheesy religious movies made in the silent movie era, or even cheesier animations, and there were heading mis-spellings: the god Horus was spelled Horace, Resurrection was spelled with a missing “r,” and so on. (Once an editor, always an editor.) And they also seemed to confuse apostles with disciples. But if you can get past these there are some interesting tidbits.

One discussion I found interesting was a discussion of what “the Kingdom” meant to Jesus and his crew. It is very clear what “the kingdom” meant to Jews of that period (and earlier). It referred to a resurrected kingdom of Israel, a theocracy of the highest order with Yahweh at the peak of the org chart. This kingdom would be re-established if only the Israelites, Jews, Hebrews, etc. would just follow Yahweh’s orders. (Repent!). The new, improved Israel would be out from under Rome’s heel, and in fact would dominate the region. (Each of Jesus’s disciples was promised a country to rule over as a king.) It was substantially later that “the Kingdom” was elevated to a reward in Heaven and as some mystical, magical heavenly construct on Earth by those shaping and reshaping the new religion.

Another tidbit I found interesting, partly because of another book I have read that Ill be reporting upon later, involved the Eucharist. This Last Supper ritual was performed at a Passover supper but had nothing whatsoever to do with Passover. In it, Jesus, a practicing Jew, offers wine to his acolytes, who are also practicing Jews, and tells them to drink the wine as it symbolizes his blood. Any self-respecting Jew at this point would barf up his dinner in revulsion. He would rather eat roast baby than drink blood. Jewish dietary laws are very, very clear and very, very strict about not eating or drinking any animal blood and certainly not human blood.

So what is this ritual about then? It has nothing to do with Passover, so what? It is a common trope in mystery religions, which had identical rituals involving eating gods as part of their repertoire of empowerments. In fact, Christianity, under the influence of the Romans, incorporated many, many elements of the other religions (aka pagan religions) then prevalent in the empire. The empire wanted a single state religion that would function across the breadth of the empire, reinforcing Roman state power. And the Romans were quite accomplished at folding other religions into theirs. (The Mother of God, the saints, the angels, etc. are nothing if not demigods, some of which left over from Hebrew polytheism.)

As a consequence, all of the hard work the Jews had made to eliminate sun worship and Great Mother-type worship (Sophia, Isis, Asherah, etc.) was made null and void as Christianity put them back in.

A smaller point is that both Jewish and Christian scriptures do not speak against suicide, but apparently it was a problem. The documentary claimed that the downtrodden amongst the Christians were committing suicide at a great rate. They had been told that Heaven was such a great place and their life was intolerable, so. . . . Around 400 CE Augustine declared that suicide was “mortal sin” which will keep you out of heaven. Since there was no scriptural support for this position, just possibly suicide was a problem as indicated. Interestingly, suicide is considered illegal in most US states, assuming Biblical support for that position, an assumption which has no basis in fact. And, even though suicide was declared anathema, it was not so by that era’s “suicide by cop,” martyrdom. Martyrs were lauded to the skies. So, you can’t off yourself, but if you can get someone else to do it for you, that was just peachy.

Other tidbits were that abortion was acceptable, under conditions, in the Catholic Church until 1917 and Catholic priests were allowed to marry until 1139 CE. There is little to no support for celibacy in scripture. (Being pro-celibacy yet anti-birth control and abortion seems to require a great deal of cognitive dissonance control, but then they are experts at this from long practice.)

They pointed out that the gospel depictions of Jesus on the cross all have Jesus saying something different, something that turns out to be a quotation from Psalms or another place in the OT, which kind of undermines the argument that the gospels are based upon eyewitness testimony. If they were, why did the eyewitnesses hear something different in each case and why were those utterances borrowings from the OT? Almost sounds like they were made up, no?

And the capper for me was Moses, coming down from the mountain, with the stone tablets, only to find his people worshiping idols. In his rage, Moses breaks the tablets and orders his soldiers to kill 3000 of their brethren. I guess he had to break the tablets first because one of those commandments, engraved by his god mind you, was “Thou shalt not commit murder.” I can completely understand Yahweh’s attitude toward the Hebrews.

Try watching this documentary and see if you are as desperate as I was in finding some amusement.

Addendum I got a real education trying to find this movie the next day. I searched the entire site for the keyword “Bible.” I found what I was looking for, by holy moly, what else is available on that site is, well … disturbing. Many of the “documentaries” are of the Ancient Aliens type (It’s all true!) There is four parter on how the Great Flood actually happened. Numerous docs on all of the evidence for their god’s existence. But the shocking part is the vast number of animated cartoon Bible-based movies. Can you spell in-doc-tri-na-tion, boys and girls. <shudder>

Think About It

Filed under: Culture,Politics — Steve Ruis @ 8:41 am
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As reported on the Nautilus website Aleksandra Cichocka, a political psychologist at the University of Kent, wrote recently in Nature. “Conspiracy beliefs have also been linked to feelings of powerlessness, anxiety, isolation and alienation. Those who feel that they are insignificant cogs in the political machinery tend to assume that there are nefarious influences at play.”

Gosh, do you see conspiracy beliefs around? If not, you haven’t had your eyes open. So, since these stem from the sources indicated, doesn’t that indicate that we are actually suffering from significant feelings of “powerlessness, anxiety, isolation and alienation?”

The grinding of the middle class and the poor under the heels of both parties at the behest of the plutocrats of this country as produced a high degree of such feelings, and they aren’t just resident in “those others” over there, they are in all of us.

If something isn’t done to improve the lot of the poor and the middle classes, and soon, expect our governmental institutions to continue to crumble at a rapid clip. The American experiment in self-government will be over. Long live the clueless.

November 17, 2020

Making a Living as a Writer

Filed under: Business,writing — Steve Ruis @ 10:38 am
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Recently I extolled the writing wisdom provided by both C.S. Friedman and Mercedes Lackey on the Q&A website Quora. As an example of this, here is Ms. Lackey’s take on “making a living as a writer” (the question was actually different but it equates to this):

First: Never, never, never, never, never pay anyone anything to publish your book. People who ask you for money to publish your book are frauds and scammers.

Second: You are more likely to be struck by lightning than to be able to make a living at writing, especially from the very beginning.

When you start, you will suck. No one has ever been a good writer without writing about a million words of crap first. You have to learn how to write well by writing a lot and studying writing. This will take years.

Of all of the members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, only about 10% make a living from writing. Only about half of the ones making a living from writing are making a living from writing fiction exclusively.

“You are more likely to be struck by lightning than to be able to make a living at writing.”

Get a day job that doesn’t suck; there is nothing harder to do than to sit down to write after a day so exhausting that your brain has turned off. This is the job you are going to be having for a while, so make sure it’s something that doesn’t make you want to open a vein rather than go to work.

If you are really serious about wanting to make a living from writing, decide, right now, what the minimum amount you can live on is, because that is probably what you’ll be doing for years and years. Learn how to make and stick to a strict budget.

If you are really serious about wanting to make a living from writing, you will be sacrificing your social life. You will not be able to play games, hang with friends, go out for drinks, go to the movies, watch the Big Game, or watch television, much less binge. You will be writing every hour before or after work (some people write better when they first get up, some write better after work) and every weekend, or whatever free days you have. There is an entire 10 year swath of popular culture I know nothing about, because that is what I was doing.

You will be ready to quit that day-job and try full-time writing when you have five published books or screenplays that someone else paid you for, each one has paid better than the last, you have contracts in hand for three more books or screenplays, and you have a year and a half of expenses in the bank. Why the bank account? Because shit goes wrong, and without that cushion you could wind up unable to keep the lights on.

You might decide that you can’t do all of that. That’s fine. Remember what I just said, only ten percent of most writers write full time for a living. There’s no shame in being part of the ninety percent.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s Charlie Stross, saying basically the same thing.

Common Misconceptions About Publishing

And someone else, talking about how she can write only because she has other people supporting her:

A dirty secret: you can only be a writer if you can afford it

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