Friday, April 16, 2004

A Child's Garden of Versus

A week or two ago, Doug was contemplating the fun he and his cousin could have if they could get together and do a two-player round of one of his videogames. He said:

(1) My Ice could verse his Flame.

Oho! I thought. A previously undetected misanalysis has now revealed itself!

The first I encountered the word versus was when the movie Kramer vs. Kramer came out. I was in 5th grade, so I could read the word on the movie posters at the same time as I was hearing it, and I never had a chance to interpret it as a 3rd person present tense of some unfamiliar verb. But Doug, who has spent a good it of time playing games on his Nintendo 64, has heard versus on numerous occasions. In particular, there's one game called "Super Smash Brothers," with all the characters from all the Nintendo games engaged in a big tournament, and at the beginning of every round, the announcer will say, "Mario versus Pikachu!" or "Link versus Jiggly Puff!" or something similar. If I were 5 years old, and heard the formula "X versus Y," without seeing it written down (or knowing how to read it if I did see it), what would the more rational conclusion be? That there is some weird preposition that I've never heard anywhere else, used only when two people are fighting, or that there is a verb, verse, which means "to fight"? Option B, of course! And all this time, when Doug and I talked about Mario vs. Pikachu, little did I know that I was saying Mario versus Pikachu while he was saying Mario verses Pikachu. Only now has our difference in understanding come to light. Who knows how many other differences like these are camouflaged, just waiting for the right kind of sentence or context to reveal them?

As with Doug's use of like (in a previous post), I expect we'll see more and more use of verse as a verb meaning "to fight" as Doug's generation grows up.

UPDATE: My prediction seems to be on the mark, at least judging by something Glen passed along to me:

[One of Glen's colleagues] says that the use of verse as a verb meaning "compete against" seems pretty common among young people. She said her son, who is about 9, uses it sometimes, and she's heard his friends use it, too. She said her son now understands the correct (or original) meaning of versus ... but that doesn't stop him from employing the new usage from time
to time.


Thursday, April 15, 2004

Electoral Collage

Showtime is going ahead with its plan to air "The American Candidate," a reality show in which contestants vie to become the people's candidate to run for president. The contestants will be eliminated from the show Survivor-style. But I can already see one little bitty problem. According to the website, you can enter the contest if you're 18 years or older. Oops. According to the Constitution of the United States, you must be at least 35 to be eligible for the presidency. A quick search reveals at least 25 people under 35 who have entered the contest. (To be fair, those who are 34 might be 35 by inauguration day, and the website only implies that we're talking about the 2004 election.)


Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Pleasure and Pain

A nutrition brochure I was reading said something along these lines:

(1) To lower your risk of cancer, enjoy 3 to 5 servings of fruit per day.

So if you've just been choking down your daily servings of fruit for the health benefit, this message seems to say, too bad for you. It's not enough just to eat the fruit--you have to enjoy it, too.

Of course, the writers were really just using enjoy as a synonym for eat, and trying to put a positive spin on it. Actually, it's used as a more general synonym for have, as seen in this example:

(2) American citizens enjoy the right to vote.

The main thought is just that American citizens HAVE the right to vote, and by the way, they in general like having it. This synonym usage goes away, though, when we start talking about individual people, as in:

(3) Glen enjoys the right to vote.

This sentence means that by golly, Glen takes pleasure in exercising that right!

I've identified one other verb that's used this way, and it's a near-opposite of enjoy: suffer from. It is used as a synonym for have in the following sentence, with a negative spin on the having:

(4) 50 million Americans suffer from hemorrhoids.

This could just mean that 50 million Americans HAVE hemorrhoids. (In fact, I'm almost certain it does mean this.) But on the other hand, the speaker could conceivably mean that of all the 60 million or so Americans who have hemorrhoids, 50 million of them actually suffer from them. The other 10 million who are indifferent or who kinda like them are not being discussed. Interestingly, this synonym usage doesn't go away when we're talking about specific individuals. In (5), suffers from still just seems to mean has:

(5) Kim suffers from hemorrhoids.

I wonder what happens if I replace suffer from in (4) with enjoy ?

(6) 50 million Americans enjoy hemorrhoids.

Now we get the ordinary, non-specialized meaning of enjoy. The sentence tells us nothing at all about how many Americans actually HAVE hemorrhoids; it just says that 50 million Americans derive pleasure from hemorrhoids, perhaps by having them, or maybe by looking at them, collecting them, or something else.

These examples remind me of a similar situation with adjectives, in sentences like this:

(7) Our friendly employees will be happy to assist you.

But our surly ones won't, I always want to add. If they were describing the employees with a relative clause, they could avoid the ambiguity by using commas, like this:

(8) Our employees, who are friendly, will be happy to assist you.

In (8), the friendliness is definitely a "by the way" piece of information, packaged in a non-essential relative clause. If the smart-ass interpretation of (7) were to be phrased with a relative clause, it would be one not set off by commas, like this:

(9) Our employees who are friendly will be happy to assist you.

But enjoy and suffer from are different from these adjectives or relative clauses. "By the way" information carried by adjectives or non-essential relative clauses can be deleted from the sentence without changing the main idea; thus, you could say Our employees will be happy to assist you, leaving out the friendly, but still getting the main message across. But in enjoy and suffer, it's built right into the verb itself, and can't be removed without wrecking the sentence.

UPDATE: Mark Liberman has written more about enjoy and suffer from at Language Log, and his posting reminded Q. Pheevr of a quotation from Pippi Longstocking that shows Astrid Lindgren suffered from the same kind of literal-minded streak that I do.


Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Popperian Astrology

Here is a great story about science versus mythology (link courtesy of Crooked Timber). Here’s the short version (or as close I can come to short): Astrologer Thomas Seers claimed that astrology could be taught in a science class. Skeptic Robert Grumbine asked him to provide an example of a testable hypothesis from astrology that could be used in class. Seers responded with this: “On 10/20/99 from 2 AM to 8 AM EDT, mix a bowl of jello and you will find it won't gel. My basic students have this as a homework assignment to learn of a void-of-course Moon period.” (Note: I have corrected the spelling errors.) Apparently the void-of-course Moon period is a time of bad luck when stuff tends to go wrong; the failure of jello to gel would be an example. Here was Grumbine’s response:

Experimental Results:
10/20/99 at 2:30 AM EDT my wife mixed a batch of consumer-grade jello according to directions. She split the jello to two containers, one about 1.5 cups, and one about 4, and put into the fridge. When I checked at 6:50 AM EDT, both had firmly jelled.

10/21/99 at 3:45 AM EDT my wife again mixed a batch of consumer-grade jello and split in to two containers as before. At 8:00 AM EDT, both had jelled, though the large was somewhat un-firm.

We followed Mr. Seers procedure both at a time he predicted that the jello would fail to jell, and on a 'control' day. On neither day was there any difficulty apparent in the jelling procedure. His prediction is falsified.
Read the whole thing, because there’s much scientific mirth to follow – such as Grumbine’s hypotheses about why Seers’s jello failed to gel. But it was Seers’s attempt to squirm out that I found especially amusing: He “disqualified Grumbine's results because he mixed his box of jell-o in two bowls. That was ‘breaking up the substance’.”

Now that’s funny, because it seems to me Seers had a killer excuse readily available. The void-of-Moon period is supposed to bring about bad luck and stuff going wrong. When you want your jello to gel, it shouldn’t -- but if you’re doing an experiment to show that it won’t gel, it should gel after all! Thus, Seers could claim that Grumbine’s experiment was an example of things going wrong, confirming the astrological hypothesis. This is a problem that could be solved with better institutional design. Two researchers, one astrologer and one skeptic, should run a double-blind experiment, wherein the actual jello makers don’t know what the experiment is supposed to show.


Monday, April 12, 2004

Drug War Follies

Eugene points to a news story about a man who complained to the police about a woman who stole his drugs:

[Police officer Philip] Anelli said the man told him that he and a woman were riding around when he decided to pay for two rocks of crack cocaine. The man planned to smoke one of the rocks and give the other to the woman in exchange for sexual favors. The plan was apparently moving along fine, until the woman smoked both rocks and then ran off without giving up any favors.
After being told that he, too, would likely be in legal trouble if his story were confirmed, the man “weighed his options, then told authorities that he felt like he and the woman could work out the problem on their own, without help from police.”

A pretty funny story, but there’s a serious point here. The illegality of drugs and prostitution means the justice system cannot help people enforce their contracts and property rights in those markets. And that’s exactly why black markets are typically characterized by violence. If a drug dealer wants people who transact with him to know he won’t put up with being defrauded, he has to hire thugs to punish those who defraud him. If a prostitute wants to be sure she’ll get paid for her services, she hires a pimp to pressure the recalcitrant johns. People with a comparative advantage in violence naturally get pulled into these professions, with predictably brutal results. In the story above, I have to wonder… what methods might this fellow have had in mind to “work out the problem on their own”?