He’s No Lie

Sometime around twenty years ago when I was in my early twenties, I read a book called “Truth: A History and a Guide for the Perplexed” by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. I can’t seem to put my hands on it now, but I remember the preface opened with a bit about Santa Claus. The author was wondering how parents can justify teaching their children to believe in Santa Claus even though they know that Santa isn’t literally true, he doesn’t exist in the same way that trees and rocks and dogs exist. I don’t remember if he used the words lie or lying, but the implication was certainly that parents, in telling their children about Santa, are lying to their children. That’s a common enough idea, but I think it is ultimately incorrect. Santa may not be literally true, but that doesn’t mean that parents who teach their children about Santa are lying.

Before really getting into it, I should state for the record that I have no moral objections to lying. I’m philosophically committed to the idea that lies are only good or bad in context and I believe that most lies are morally neutral. I don’t have the time or space to explain that reasoning here (maybe in another post sometime), but I want it to be clear that I’m not choosing this position to make myself feel better about lying to my child. I lie to my child all the time without qualms. All the time is a bit of an exaggeration, I’m actually a lousy liar, but I do lie to her and still sleep soundly at night. I’m only interested in this topic because I think calling Santa a lie is a mischaracterization which can hurt our ability to distinguish between truth and lies down the road.

Clearly, not every untruth is a lie. It would be absurd to call someone a liar if that person has simply made a mistake. It would be equally absurd to call someone a liar for being ignorant. A lie must be a specific kind of untruth. I had a professor at college who defined a lie as an intentional falsehood meant to cause somebody harm. While that would mean Santa isn’t a lie, I think it goes a little too far. Not all lies are harmful, nor are they all meant to do harm. I think a better definition of a lie is a falsehood intended to deceive. 

With that definition, intention is key. Of course, that can be maddening because intention is notoriously hard to determine in many instances. But, I think we are relatively safe saying that a parent’s intention in telling kids about Santa is not to deceive. It is to pass on the spirit of Christmas or to bring joy or to make the holidays magical. Parents aren’t thinking, “Let’s trick those kids.” They are most likely thinking that Santa is a kid friendly way to express the meaning of the holiday. In essence, Santa Claus is a myth that we tell children.

Santa is certainly not the only myth we tell our children. They are everywhere from our religions and superstitions to our sports and societal norms. It would be weird to think that we are lying every time we pass on one of these myths. Would you call someone a liar for telling another person to knock wood or for telling a kid that she should wear a rally cap after the seventh inning if her team’s down? Would you call someone a liar for celebrating the 4th of July or Bastille Day? Rally caps and national holidays aren’t true in any strict sense of the term and most people know that. But they aren’t lies either. They are myths. They are stories we tell each other to bind communities or give our lives meaning. 

Most people would rather not be liars. And most people would like to strengthen the bonds of family and community. Santa Claus is a way to strengthen families and communities without lying. He’s the perfect way to celebrate the holiday season.

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Words Matter

I care about language. But, when it comes to language, I am very much a descriptivist rather than a prescriptivist. Basically that means that I don’t really care about how people should use language, I care about how people  do use language. If you want to use “literally” figuratively, go for it. I’m cool with double negatives and I enjoy split infinitives. I’m even fine with people using the word “dank” to talk about memes that aren’t damp, musty or cold. However, there are some areas where my free for all attitude doesn’t work.

In addition to being a descriptivist, I am a pragmatist who believes in linguistic functionalism. So, it is important to me that language works. That it communicates the things that it is trying to communicate. When it comes to communication with family and close friends, literally (and I’m using “literally” literally) anything goes. But, the wider the message is supposed to spread, the more careful and particular the speaker needs to be.

It’s open for debate where the lines fall, but I think most people will intuitively get that the language used during recess can be a lot more relaxed than the language used during class. If a person is writing in their journal, it can be completely casual, but if that same person is writing about research that they plan to publish, it ought to be pretty formal. Two areas where people consistently use language poorly, where they fail to successfully get across their meaning, are in the press and in political discussions.

As I’ve written about before, I’m not a big fan of the press. Not because I think the press is the enemy, but because I think the press, as a whole, is incredibly bad at their job. Part of their badness comes from the way they use language. Every single day, they announce shocking bombshells and report on catastrophic events. Every storm is a major weather event. It’s hyperbole run amok. By constantly trying to make every story more exciting than the last, it causes them to all run together. It makes it impossible to tell what is actually a big deal and means that the press is failing to communicate effectively.

In political discussions, hyperbole is certainly an issue, but I don’t think it’s the most pressing issue. I think the bigger issue is a kind of carelessness with the words we use. For example, I’ve recently seen the word genocide used to describe the European colonization of the Americas, the Holocaust, and the problem of black incarceration. The problem is that those are three very different things. They are all bad things, but they are bad in different ways and for different reasons. Instead of using “genocide” to mean “genocide,” two of the three seemed to be using the word “genocide” to mean “a very bad thing.”

Using the word genocide this way can only have a few effects. It can make the listeners doubtful as to whether the speaker understands the words they are speaking. It can make the listeners believe that three very different things are in fact the same. Or it can make the listeners think they are being lied to. All three are failures of communication.

It is often hard to find the right words to describe things. And it is often easy to use a kind of shorthand when communicating. That’s especially true with the internet being what it is and so much communication happening in group. But if we want to communicate effectively, we need to be careful in what we say. We need to call things what they actually are. Anything else is confusing and makes communication harder for everyone.


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The Many and the Few

The Many and the Few is a Woody Guthrie song that tells the Chanukkah story. It has been covered by The Klezmatics. It is also a great reminder of how different a song can be when it’s done by different artists.

The arrangements are different, but seemingly not that different. Woody Guthrie performs the song with a solo vocal and acoustic guitar accompaniment. The Klezmatics perform it as a duet, one male vocal and one female, with harmonium accompaniment. The Klezmatics’ version is completely recognizable as the same song, but at the same time feels completely new. 

I suppose some of that just comes down to the fact that Woody Guthrie, as much as I like him, wasn’t gifted with a great voice. The Klezmatics have prettier voices, but they are also more in tune, more subtle and more flexible. When Woody Guthrie sings it, it feels very sing-song-y. He really hits the rhymes. The Klezmatics feel very natural. 

The fact that the Klezmatics have two vocalists makes quite a difference. The song is a series of verses, each verse from the point of view of a different character. All of Woody Guthrie’s characters sound the same. By alternating verses, the Klezmatics add variety and really sell the differences between the characters. The only time they sing in harmony is the final verse. It lifts that verse and emphasizes the Chanukkah miracle.

The only other difference is the accompaniment. Both are sparse. Woody Guthrie’s is a repetitive picked guitar. It would fit with pretty much any Woody Guthrie song. The Klezmatics have a harmonium playing long chords with very little rhythmic variation. Woody Guthrie’s accompaniment propels the song. The song floats on the Klezmatics’ accompaniment. Woody Guthrie’s sounds like a classic folk song while the Klezmatics’ sounds like religious music.

I like both versions, but every time I listen to either one, I’m just struck by how different they are. Musical arrangements don’t get the credit they deserve. People always praise the songwriters. It’s time we give equal praise to the arrangers. They can take something old and make it brand new. This is the perfect song to start that appreciation with.

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An Interesting Thought

I had an interesting thought, or at least a thought that I found interesting. I realized that virtually everyone has said the phrase, “a partridge in a pear tree,” more times than they’ve said, “two turtle doves.” And they’ve said, “two turtle doves,” more than they’ve said, “three French hens.” And they’ve said, “three French hens,” more than they’ve said, “four calling birds.” And they’ve said, “four calling birds,” more than they’ve said, “five gold rings.” And they’ve said, “five gold rings,” more than they’ve said, “six geese a laying.” And they’ve said, “six geese a laying,” more than they’ve said, “seven swans a swimming.” And they’ve said, “seven swans a swimming,” more than they’ve said, “eight maids a milking.” And they’ve said, “eight maids a milking,” more than they’ve said, “nine ladies dancing.” And they’ve said, “nine ladies dancing,” more than they’ve said, “ten lords a leaping.” And they’ve said, “ten lords a leaping,” more than they’ve said, “eleven pipers piping.” And they’ve said, “eleven pipers piping,” more than they’ve said, “twelve drummers drumming.”

I find it interesting because I feel comfortable making that claim without doing any actual research. If there is someone out there who has said, “twelve drummers drumming,” more than they’ve said, “a partridge in a pear tree,” I want to meet them. There must be some kind of crazy story behind it. 

Another reason I find it interesting is because it’s something so many people have in common. It makes me feel like there is more that connects us than separates us. It fits nicely with the Christmas spirit.

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Haiku

What to write about

My idea jar is empty

I’m left with nothing

***

Alone with my thoughts

In this case means all alone

The thoughts won’t join me

***

I have a blank screen

That wants to be filled with words

But words will not come

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Time and Place

In the wake of George H.W. Bush’s death there has been a lot of nice things said about him. That’s to be expected. It’s what people do when a person dies. What has been less expected, although not totally unexpected, is the reaction of many people on the political left. They have been posting a bunch of stuff about what a thoroughly despicable person Bush was. They have been accusing him of everything from decimating an entire generation of gay men to war crimes. I’m not here to defend the legacy of Mr. Bush. I want to point out that the lefties making the accusations seem petty and at least a little bit stupid.

There are only two realistic reasons for people to be posting these things. The first, and less likely, is that people think they can convince others of their views. They can’t. At least not like this. If anything this tactic will further entrench Bush’s supporters in their own views. And even if minds could be changed about Bush, there’s almost no point to it. He’s not in office or running for office, nor will he be. His legacy is in the hands of the historians now. We should all hope they treat him fairly and accurately, not with an agenda.

The second reason, and the more likely reason, is virtue signaling. The people hurling accusations at Bush are just trying to show the world how superior they are to all the plebs saying nice things about Bush. There are two problems with virtue signaling. One, it is incredibly annoying. And two, it just strengthens whatever moral/political bubble these people already live in. It shuts down dialogue and helps prevent everyone from moving forward.

When a person dies, if you feel sad, it is both OK and normal to express that sadness and celebrate the person you miss. If you don’t feel sad, that’s also OK, but leave it at that. If you try to show others that they shouldn’t be sad or act like not feeling sad makes you better than others, you’re just making the world a little worse.

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DC’s Legends of Tomorrow

Like everyone, I’ve consumed a lot of comic book properties throughout my life. I’ve usually enjoyed them, from Super Friends when I was little right up to the latest Marvel movie. I’m not picky, I enjoy DC and Marvel pretty much equally. And I’m just realizing that if I had to pick a favorite comic book adaptation, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow takes the prize easily.

The show is just great. Well, like a lot of shows, it had a very uneven first season. It took a good amount of time to find its footing, but once found, it has been as close to TV perfection as a show can get. For those who don’t know, Legends is, at it’s heart, a time travel show. It’s about a group of misfits who live on a time ship and fix problems with history. It leans into the absurdity of its premise and has a real sense of humor. But it can also be really heartfelt and affecting.

I don’t really have a lot to else to say except you should be watching this show. It’s the only show on TV that’s willing to be completely bonkers week in and week out. I can’t get enough of it.

 

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Rap and Hip-Hop

I have a general belief that Americans make better music than other people, and that black Americans specifically make the best music. If one were to ask me what kind of music I like to listen to, the easiest answer is what Nicholas Payton refers to as Black American Music or #BAM. I love blues, jazz, gospel, funk, soul, R&B, and rock & roll from way back when it was still black music. However, I have one gigantic exception. I don’t listen to Rap and Hip-hop.

I wouldn’t say I dislike rap. It’s fairer to say that I’m indifferent to it. It somehow exists without making an impression on me. This bothers me. I feel like I should like rap and hip-hop, or at the very least appreciate them. I’m the perfect age for it. Rapper’s Delight was getting airplay just as I was beginning to discover music. I grew up with all the classic rappers. But I barely remember any of it.

I can’t seem to figure out why it does so little for me. I can’t even tell the difference between the good and the bad. It doesn’t matter if it’s Snoop or Jay-Z or Tupac or one of the characters in a cartoon my daughter is watching. It all sounds the same to me. The only time a song catches my ear is when the song samples a song that I like. And even then, I just wish I could be listening to the original song.

It would be easy to say that rap just isn’t made for me, a white guy who grew up in a suburb of Hartford. But I have trouble accepting that. I’m white and non-Christian, but I love Mahalia Jackson. Her music clearly wasn’t made for me. I just can’t shake the feeling that my indifference comes from some kind of deficiency in me. I just don’t know how to fill in whatever’s missing.

I generally take some pride in being musically adventurous. I’ll give anything a chance. And while I don’t like everything, I can almost always tell if it was well done or not. I just can’t get there with rap and hip-hop. I find it embarrassing. If anyone thinks they can help, please let me know what I should listen to. I’d love to break through this weird barrier that I have.

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Is It Racist? – Chicken

What if I told you there were two foods you could choose from? One is flavorful, juicy, full of umami and relatively inexpensive. The other is similar, but less flavorful, less juicy, has less umami and is relatively more expensive. It seems like an easy choice, the first one is the one to choose. I’m talking about dark meat versus white meat chicken. The first one is the dark meat and the second is the white. So, why is it that in real life, when given this choice, people seem to choose white meat?

There are several possible ways to answer this question. Maybe the basic rules of economics break down when it comes to chicken. Somehow people wind up finding the cheaper, more attractive option less desirable than the more expensive, less attractive option. Maybe there’s a global conspiracy led by Big Chicken to manipulate our tastes. By convincing us that we enjoy something that we normally wouldn’t, it gives them control over us and helps them take over the world. Or maybe, just maybe, people are racist and prefer white meat over dark meat because they believe that white is inherently better than non-white.

With these possibilities, how are we to decide the real reason? Ockham’s Razor is often helpful. It basically says that when you have competing theories, you should go with the simplest option. How does Ockham’s Razor slice these theories? Well, the idea that chicken defeats basic economics would take mountains of scholarly research to prove. Global conspiracies are complicated by definition. But racism is straightforward. We see racism in the world all around us every day. People really do far more absurd things than eat white meat chicken because of racism.

So, there’s the answer. Racism. People choose white meat chicken over dark because people are racist. It’s a sad state of affairs, but we can fight it. Next time you’re in the grocery store, take a stand and buy some thighs. Your taste buds will thank you and you will be helping to make the world a better place.

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What I’m Really Hoping for from Smash Ultimate

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is less than a week away. A few copies have been leaked, and Twitter has been littered with players sharing combos, insights and predictions about the competitive aspect of the game. I’ve been playing Smash competitively since 2004, so I’m extremely interested in getting as much information as I can. But as December 7th approaches, I find that what I want the most from this game is the opportunity to play a game with my friends.

I miss spending hours with my friends playing games together. We played thousands of matches of Street Fighter 4 during its run. Only one of us was truly a native Street Fighter player, but SF4 had enough appeal to pull us all in to learn the game together, and even drew in some of our friends who had never played fighting games seriously before. We learned what all the fighting games term mean- hit confirm, kara grab, okizeme, reversal. We studied frame data together. I still remember that Ryu’s sweep is -6 on block, meaning that it’s punishable by Chun Li’s sweep. We never won any tournaments. We didn’t travel to majors or get sponsored. We’d go to our local, do okay, and then go out to eat afterwards. It was how we hung out.

That’s been lost since Street Fighter 5 was released. Let’s call it what it is: Street Fighter 5 is a bad game. I’m not trying to be pollyannish about 4. It definitely had its problems with set play, vortex and the Revenge Gauge. But SF4 was a masterpiece compared to SF5. And it shows in the fact that almost none of my friends play 5.

What I really want from Ultimate, more than combos and a balanced cast and great music, is a common game to play with my friends again. I love Dragon Ball FighterZ, but it’s way less fun to play with random people online than with the people I know. I’ve already taken the day off from work on December 7th to play with my friends all day, so that’s a great sign. I hope it holds us together as the years go forward.

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