Saturday, May 13, 2017

Why Can't We Agree?


A couple of days ago, I was reading a BBC news story when I came across the following passage:
And what's happened since the election?

The investigation remains closed but the debate about Mr Comey's actions rage on.

The anger felt by Clinton supporters were compounded when it emerged that the FBI had been looking into any links between the Trump campaign and Russia, but Mr Comey chose not to go public with it.

In May, he gave evidence to a Senate Judiciary Committee and defended himself.

He said that it was a "painful" dilemma when he decided to make his October pronouncement, but if he had not come forward about the new Clinton emails, he would have been guilty of concealment.

Mr Comey said he felt "nauseous" at the thought he might have had an impact.
I felt a little "nauseous" myself. Can you guess why? (If you're an English major, I'm sure you can. If not, I'll give you a hint: it has nothing to do with politics.)

I immediately fired off an e-mail to "the Beeb," the gist of which was:
I spotted a couple of glaring grammatical errors in your article. I have been hearing such errors more and more frequently on TV and radio, but to see two of them in writing (and from the BBC!) makes me despair for the future of the English language. You should be better than this.
Okay, that was pretty harsh, but BBC newswriters really should be better, as should anyone who writes for a living. Subject-verb agreement is pretty basic grammar—although I can see where a layperson might get lost when there are prepositional phrases involved. In such cases, it can help to diagram the sentence. For example, here's a diagram I found of the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence:



Don't worry. We're not going to do that, because I hate diagramming sentences. All you really need to do to ensure subject-verb agreement is to ask yourself three questions:
  1. What is the verb in the sentence?,
  2. What is the subject of that verb?, and
  3. Do they agree?
Let's take a look at the first sentence in the passage:
The investigation remains closed but the debate about Mr Comey's actions rage on.
This is a compound sentence, with two clauses separated by the conjunction "but." Actually, it's a run-on sentence; there should be a comma before the "but," but I won't quibble about that now. See what I did there? In pointing out the missing comma, I gave you an example of a correctly punctuated compound sentence. Impressed? (Never mind; don't answer that.)

In the second clause of this compound sentence, the verb is obviously "rage." Now, we ask ourselves, what is the subject of that verb? What is it that is raging? Is it "Mr Comey's actions?" Well, let's try it:
Mr Comey's actions rage on.
Please! The only way that sentence could possibly make sense is if it were part of the dialogue from some far-fetched science fiction film:
First Scientist: "Mr. Comey's actions have taken on a life of their own! They are destroying the city!"

Second Scientist: "They cannot be stopped! Mr. Comey's actions rage on!"
Okay, maybe not so far-fetched, and I should seriously think about developing it into a screenplay, but the fact is, "Mr Comey's actions" is not the subject of the verb "rage," it is the object of the preposition "about." The phrase "about Mr Comey's actions" modifies the noun "debate." If we remove the phrase, we are left with the simple sentence:
The debate rage on.
Does that sound right to you? Of course not! That's because "debate" is a singular subject, and "rage" is a plural verb. They do not agree. Here's the corrected sentence (just for fun, we'll put that missing comma in—and what the heck, because we are a bit OCD, a period after "Mr" as well):
The investigation remains closed, but the debate about Mr. Comey's actions rages on.
Much better! See if you can find the second subject-verb error in the passage. If you didn't notice it before, it should be much easier now. After you've done this sort of analysis a few times, you should be able to spot such errors immediately. If only politics were that simple.

Oh, and by the way, Mr. Comey, the word is nauseated.

(Note: Before publishing this post, I took another look at the story and found that both errors had been fixed. Bravo, BBC!)

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Science Matters


“The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it.”
—Neil deGrasse Tyson


Without science I would literally not be here. I know the word “literally” is often misused by people who actually mean “figuratively,” but in this case I literally mean literally. When I was born I had a severe allergy to milk and had to be given soy formula. Without it, I doubt I would have survived. At this point, I would like to have given a shout-out to the scientist(s) who invented soy formula. Unfortunately, I could not discover their name(s). The only information I could find was a paragraph on the National Institutes of Health website, which states: “In the 1920s, scientists also began developing nonmilk-based formulas for infants allergic to cow's milk. The first nonmilk formula was based on soy flour and became available to the public in 1929.” Whoever those scientists were, I thank them.

Science has saved me in other ways, too: from the decongestants, antihistamines, and antibiotics that got me through countless respiratory infections as a child, to the three-point safety belt and curtain airbag that protected me in an automobile accident last year. Let’s face it, without science most of us would not be here. Those few of us with the fortitude to survive would still be living in caves, chewing on bloody hunks of raw meat. Because the first scientist had to have been the person who discovered fire. I can just imagine the scientific paper he/she might have written in support of his/her theory. Of course, it would not have been an actual paper, as paper had not been invented yet. It would likely have been pictures drawn on a cave wall, the translation of which would be something like:

Fire
by Ogg
University of Cave

Abstract
Fire burn. Make meat tasty.

After peer review, fire would have been patented and marketed to the general public, and that early scientist would have no doubt gone on to invent other important things, like the wheel and beer.

My point is, science matters, and I'm sure that most of you reading this agree. But, as difficult as this may be for us to comprehend, there are quite a lot of people in America—supposedly one of the most advanced countries in the world—who reject science. They are the people who steadfastly refuse to believe the scientific evidence that vaccinations are a good thing, or that continuing to burn fossil fuels will give future generations the choice of living in an arid wasteland or under water.

Ironically, many of these same people believe, unquestioningly and without a shred of evidence, all manner of pseudoscience, from colon cleansing to conversion therapy. There are even an alarming number of Americans who reject evolution in favor of a theory that states, despite all geologic and paleontologic evidence to the contrary, that the Earth was created less than 10,000 years ago, and that human beings rode around on dinosaurs. (Admit it, you are thinking how cool would that be? and humming the theme from The Flintstones.)

I blame the Internet. There have always been crackpots, but most of us knew they were crackpots and ignored them. Now, thanks to the Internet, crackpots have a platform for their theories and a way to network with other crackpots. Pretty soon, you have a consensus of crackpots. Then other people—people who are not necessarily crackpots but who are unable to discern between science and pseudoscience—start to take notice. These undiscerning people think, "By golly, if that many people agree about this, there must be something to it!"

None of this matters to the rest of us until, thanks to special interest groups, gerrymandering, and undiscerning voters, we end up with undiscerning elected officials who make undiscerning decisions that affect us all.

In 1970, Richard M. Nixon, a very bad president (I used to think the worst I would see in my lifetime), did a very good thing: he established the Environmental Protection Agency. In a message to Congress he stated: "The Congress, the Administration and the public all share a profound commitment to the rescue of our natural environment, and the preservation of the Earth as a place both habitable by and hospitable to man." Unfortunately, our undiscerning current administration and congress do not share that "profound commitment." Both the EPA and the NIH (whose web page I referenced in the first paragraph) are slated for massive cuts in the president's proposed budget.

Of course, a budget cut will make no difference to the EPA if the agency is terminated, as a house bill introduced in February proposes to do.

I'm sure the president's new EPA administrator would have no problem with that. While Attorney General of Oklahoma, he filed fourteen lawsuits against the EPA to block the enforcement of clean air, clean water and climate regulations. Unlike the president, he has not gone so far as to claim global warming is a hoax. He has, however, stated that "there's tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact" of human activity on climate change. In fact, there is virtually no disagreement. There is a 97% consensus among climate scientists that human activity—specifically the release of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels—is a major contributor to global warming.

In a 1983 Playboy interview, appalled by a secretary of the interior whose idea of conservation was to "mine more, drill more, cut more timber," photographer and environmentalist Ansel Adams said, "It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment."

The time has come when those who care about the environment must fight again. That is why today, on Earth Day 2017, Loretta and I will be joining the March for Science.


Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Golden Apples of the Sun


For some time now, I have been patiently waiting for The Golden Apples of the Sun to be released on Kindle. It contains some of my favorite Ray Bradbury short stories, including "The Fog Horn" and "A Sound of Thunder." I have the paperback, of course, but I find reading books on Kindle to be so much easier. As I get older I especially appreciate the ability to enlarge the print. (I took a glance at my 1970 Bantam paperback before writing this. It's hard to believe my eyes were ever good enough to read such tiny print. And without glasses!)

Last week I discovered that The Golden Apples of the Sun is available for Kindle now, and probably has been for years. The reason I couldn't find it was that the publisher had changed the title to A Sound of Thunder.

I won't dispute the fact that "A Sound of Thunder" is a better story than "The Golden Apples of the Sun," the story from which the book takes its title. The former is about time travel and dinosaurs; the latter is about a rocket trip to the surface of the sun. Time travel? Yes! Dinosaurs? Absolutely! The surface of the sun? Are you kidding me?! (Well, there is that old joke about going at night.) "A Sound of Thunder" is generally considered to be one of Ray Bradbury's finest stories, but I'm pretty sure that's not why the publisher changed the title.

In 2005, a film version of "A Sound of Thunder," was released. The late Roger Ebert said of it: "[T]here is something almost endearing about the clunky special effects and clumsy construction.... The movie is made with a gee-whiz spirit, and although I cannot endorse it I can appreciate it." (Sounds like a perfect movie for the new Mystery Science 3000 crew, doesn't it?)

The publisher obviously changed the title of the book to the title of the movie in order to boost sales. In the corporate world, this is what's known as "synergy."

I was outraged by this callous act of corporate greed. Well, maybe not exactly outraged, but at least mildly vexed. I'm sure Ray Bradbury would have been more than mildly vexed. He did not choose his title randomly; he chose it because he was a poet. He loved poetry, wrote poetry, and breathed poetry into his prose. Consider this passage from "The Fog Horn," first story in The Golden Apples of the Sun and basis for the 1953 sci-fi film, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms:
I'll make a voice like all of time and all of the fog that ever was; I'll make a voice that is like an empty bed beside you all night long, and like an empty house when you open the door, and like trees in autumn with no leaves. A sound like the birds flying south, crying, and a sound like November wind and the sea on the hard, cold shore. I'll make a sound that's so alone that no one can miss it, that whoever hears it will weep in their souls, and hearths will seem warmer, and being inside will seem better to all who hear it in the distant towns. I'll make me a sound and an apparatus and they'll call it a Fog Horn and whoever hears it will know the sadness of eternity and the briefness of life.

He also borrowed some of his story titles, including "The Golden Apples of the Sun," from poetry—a different sort of synergy, motivated by artistic choice rather than profit. Decades after I became a Ray Bradbury fan, I became a William Butler Yeats fan, and I discovered the poem that was the source of Bradbury's title:
The Song of Wandering Aengus
W. B. Yeats

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Lovely, isn't it? Especially those last few lines. Bradbury put them at the beginning of the book, just beneath the dedication to his beloved Aunt Neva—a lover of books who introduced him to some of his greatest influences: L. Frank Baum, Edgar Allan Poe, and, I'd be willing to bet, William Butler Yeats.
...And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Happy National Poetry Month!

1970 Bantam Paperback Cover