Tuesday, March 22, 2011

March 22

Cunning (or so they wish) marketers pretend to have created a community of people so taken with a breakfast cereal that they will band together. Are there among us Crunchy Nutters? I would not be surprised if there were or were not. There may be--I know that my father has enjoyed watching videos of a cartoon meerkat that sells insurance and people are on the whole softminded enough to join all sorts of gangs. But if there aren't, it would not matter much. The illusion is sufficient to make its own fact.

For my finals at university, I wrote a dissertation on advertising slogans. It was nuanced and brilliant, and quoted Marshall McLuhan. Sadly, its audacity was lost on the examiners, who I can only guess were hoping for something on syntax.

But syntax is the most utter bollocks. It's the practice in physics to claim that it does not describe the world, but considers a model that approximates the world. Sadly, this has led all those areas of enquiry that claim to be scientific to adopt the approach that their "models" need no ground in reality so long as they explain the facts. So the leading theories in grammar contend with each other in postulating outlandish methods of generating the sentences we utter.

The last straw for me in that nonsense was the suggestion that we form the structure of our utterances before applying a layer of meaning. This seems wrong to me for two reasons: first, that words are so clearly the servants of meaning--that we arrange them thus to have one meaning and thus to have another (so that dog bites man is entirely different from man bites dog, though each are syntactically equivalent and seem to say the same thing, simply exchanging agent with object--but we do not understand the same thing from them: it is in the normal course for a dog to bite, but it is a special thing for a man, so that the two words "bite" have different connotations).

Well, maybe that is how it happens: so many things work in ways you wouldn't credit. Like quantum physics. It's long been my conviction that quantum physics describes nothing at all, but is simply a model that works in mathematics, and is confirmed by figures, which satisfy the model--but do they answer to reality? I have often read that quantum physics has been confirmed by observation, and I understand the import of the double slit experiment and the like, but what I'm not clear on is whether something that a model predicts corresponding with reality necessarily confirms that the theory is describing the world or merely succeeding in giving results that fit it in a particular way.

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The meerkat is quite funny, by the way. I'm not disparaging the meerkat. But there is a website with meerkat-related stuff, and people like my dad are teased by promises of upcoming videos, which they can watch in advance of their being screened as ads. All this for a supposed slip of the tongue. My dad believes it confirms the often-heard saying that "the ads are better than the telly".

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I have been reading about Yemen, which will be in the news for the next while. I was much taken with Sana'a, its capital, which has a beautiful old city, full of houses all painted in the same fashion. It is of course now on my list, below Vegas and Vladivostok but ahead of Moldova. Yemen is unravelling, and Syria cannot be far behind. One can even dream of the day Arabia will no longer be Saudi.

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