Just a Theory

By David E. Wheeler

Posts about Culture

They Is Smart

Self-professed language nerd Amy Devitt says They is Smart:

Mixing singular and plural is pretty common in most people’s speech and even writing:

“The analysis of all the results from five experiments support that claim.”

And one common expression mixing singular and plural even sounds a lot like “They is” (and is often pronounced that way):

“There’s two kinds of people in this world.”
“There’s lots of reasons we shouldn’t go to that party.”

So maybe it won’t sound so weird after all:

“Sam volunteers at the homeless shelter. They’s someone I really admire.”

Some varieties of English already match plural “they” with a singular verb:

“they wasn’t satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself” (Kanye West line in New Slaves)
“They is treatin’ us good.” (Dave Chappelle Terrorists on the Plane routine)
“They wasn’t ready.” ​(Bri BGC17 commenting on Oxygen Bad Girls Club experience)

So why not singular “they” with a singular verb?

“They wasn’t going to the party alone.”

Using singular verbs when we’re using “they” to refer to one person might not be so weird after all.

We have the same issue in some ways with singular “you.” Standard English varieties tend to use a plural verb even with singular “you.” So “you are a fine person,” not “you is a fine person.”

Except lots of varieties and lots of speakers do use “you is.”

I’ve been thinking about this piece a lot since I read it a couple weeks ago. It wasn’t that long ago that I surrendered to using “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun; today I’m embarrassed that my grammarian elitism kept me from denying it for so long. No more of that! If anyone asks me to use singular verbs with singular “they”, I’ll happily do it — and correct my habitual mouth when it fails me. For they who wants to be referred to using singular verbs, I will use singular verbs.

Intellectually, I find this whole idea fascinating, mostly because it never occurred to me, feels unnatural in my stupid mouth, but seems so obvious given the examples. Some dialects have used this form since forever; the internal logic is perfect, and only cultural elitism and inertia have repressed it. They wasn’t satisfied indeed.

But logic is a flexible thing, given varying semantics. In an addendum to the piece, Amy writes:

Edited: Chatting with my linguist friends Anne, Peter, and Jim gave me a new way to talk about this topic. The form of the verb “are” (“They are”) might be plural, but in the context of a singular “they” the verb would have singular meaning, too. We do that with “you.” You are a good friend, Sue. The “are” is singular just as the “you” is. So if we do start using “they” as the sole singular pronoun, we wouldn’t have to change the form of the verb to make it singular. It would already be heard as singular.

We are creative and flexible in using language. What a wonderful thing!

So just as “they” can be used as a singular pronoun, plural conjugations become singular when used with singular “they” if we just say they are. Everybody’s right! So make a habit of using the most appropriate forms for your audience.

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David Simon, pitch-perfect as usual, on his friend Tony:

Go, move, see, feel, eat – grow. The Church of Bourdain was founded not merely on the ever-more-vulnerable national credo that all Americans are created equal, but on the much more ambitious insistence that this declaration might be applied wherever you wandered and with whomsoever you cooked or shared a meal. He remains, for many of us, the American that we wish ourselves to be in the world’s sight. To have him widely displayed as our countryman, open to and caring about the rest of the world, and being so amid our current political degradation — this was ever more important and heroic. To lose him now, amid so many fear-mongering, xenophobic tantrums by those engaged in our misrule, is hideous and grievous.

But make no mistake: It wasn’t love of food that led Bourdain to the embrace of a shared human experience, of a world merely hiding its great commonalities behind vast and obvious culinary variations. It was the other way around. Tony was intensely political, a man always aware of those at the margins, or those who seem never to be reached by wealth or status or recognition.

Don’t miss the Kissinger story.


Terrific talk by Sacha Judd:

Trust and psychological safety are core elements of high performing teams.

Trust is the willingness of a party to be vulnerable someone else. Trust implies that you respect your teammates abilities and you respect their intentions. Psychological safety builds on trust and is more about how you feel about the team dynamics. What are the risks of blame if you try something and fail.

Trust is about individuals and psychological safety is about the team. And when we build teams that have that trust, where people feel like they can be their whole selves, and they feel safe enough to raise their hand, to offer contradicting opinions, to think differently and work differently and contribute in their own way. That’s when we get a high-performing team.

(Via Adrian Howard)

Racial Identity Is Not a Zero Sum Game

Sarah E. Gaither, writing for Vox:

I can’t speak for all biracial people. And I’m not saying that Meghan Markle and Barack Obama and other celebrities should be removed from the black community and added to the biracial community; racial identity is not and should not be a zero-sum game. It is clear that everyone needs positive representation, especially racial and ethnic minorities and women. But the either/or system that so much of our society uses simply doesn’t work when a biracially identified person is involved.

I struggle to cancel out my stupid meat brain’s automatic categorization of people based on superficialities. People are a lot happier when they’re free to assert their identities for themselves — or choose not to at all — than when others impose at-best misguided perceptions on others.

Misguided Delusion

A simple post. “Something to make you think,” Dustin Curtis wrote. I followed the link and have hardly stopped thinking about it since.

“Something to make you think.“

Sam Harris wants to help non-religious people understand how it feels to be a believer confronted with scientific rationality. Toward that end, he offers the fireplace delusion. The idea is simple:

On a cold night, most people consider a well-tended fire to be one of the more wholesome pleasures that humanity has produced. A fire, burning safely within the confines of a fireplace or a woodstove, is a visible and tangible source of comfort to us.

That love is misguided, however. The scientific evidence is compelling:

The unhappy truth about burning wood has been scientifically established to a moral certainty: That nice, cozy fire in your fireplace is bad for you. It is bad for your children. It is bad for your neighbors and their children.

So far so good. People like to romanticize fires, yet research shows it to be anything but wholesome. It’s incontrovertible, and Harris presents the argument well. I’ve never felt that fires were particularly healthy, so it was no challenge to convince me.

Yet it seems that my reaction may be unique, to judge by the reactions of the people with whom Harris has discussed the issue:

I have discovered that when I make this case, even to highly intelligent and health-conscious men and women, a psychological truth quickly becomes as visible as a pair of clenched fists: They do not want to believe any of it. Most people I meet want to live in a world in which wood smoke is harmless. Indeed, they seem committed to living in such a world, regardless of the facts.

My reaction to such a commitment: Those people are being completely irrational. Why would anyone argue with such compelling evidence, unless they are so wed to their belief that it deafens them to the truth. They plug their ears and over and over shout “I can’t hear you!” These are Harris’s friends:

Of course, if you are anything like my friends, you will refuse to believe this. And that should give you some sense of what we are up against whenever we confront religion.

Now, I am not a religious person, and like Harris strongly advocate for the use of scientific reasoning and rational thought in social, political, and economic discourse. I have no bona-fides to offer, but personally find the entire idea of religion to be nonsensical.

But even I think that this analogy — admittedly imperfect, Harris says — to be entirely disingenuous.

The problem is not that religious people are irrational in their beliefs, but my reading of The Fireplace Delusion makes exactly that point: Religious people continue to believe in the face of rational refutation simply because they want to believe. But that’s a dishonest reading of faith.

Faith has nothing whatsoever to do with rationality.

Nothing. Nada. Faith is not an irrational resistance to rational reasoning and facts, because it is not subject to rational reasoning and facts. It’s something different, an entirely other animal. Not irrational, but a-rational.

A better analogy than the fireplace delusion might be something derived from it. I offer, instead, love.

Love is not rational. It cannot be refuted by rationality and facts. Scientific reasoning may suggest that my entire biological purpose is to pass my genes on to my children. Yet my deep and abiding love for my wife does not enter into it. It might be argued that love evolved to increase the chances of human genetic success, but such argument neither supports nor refutes my love the way scientific research refutes the value of fire. It simply is.

It’s not just love and religion that work like this, that are a-rational. Art. Jazz. Hacking. That which motivates, that drives passion, dedication, and creation, that embodies culture in the Anthropological sense-including, yes, the pursuit of scientific research and reasoning-is a-rational. No, better: it’s extra-rational. That’s part of what makes it beautiful.

You cannot refute love. You cannot refute art. You cannot refute faith. Because they are not in the domain of refutation, are not subject to the facts. They are something else entirely. Often-not always, but often — they create beauty.

And beauty isn’t subject to refutation, either.

This post originally appeared on Medium.

Rationality and Faith

I got an invitation to write on Medium a couple weeks ago. I have been pondering some more philosophical posts lately, so I thought I’d try posting there. My first post, “Misguided Delusion,” [update: moved here] tries to pull apart the the false dichotomy between faith and rationality. Yeah, really. That kind of thinking is a throwback to a previous career path, but one that has, of course, always stuck with me. And I am very happy with how the post turned out.

It remains to be seen whether or not I write more stuff like that. It’s rewarding, but time-consuming.

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TV Providers Hate Their Customers

I’ve been using Comcast for Internet for several years, but we haven’t had any TV service at all since we cancelled DirecTV about 18 months ago. And thanks to iTunes, Netflix, thedailyshow.com, and colbertnation.com, and BitTorrent, we haven’t missed it one bit.

It has been our preference to download officially sanctioned TV shows and movies. But there are a number of really great shows shows for which the current season’s episodes aren’t readily available through sanctioned online channels. There are only three ways to get them, that I know of:

  • From a cable or satellite provider
  • BitTorrent
  • Wait for DVD/Netflix/iTunes releases

Yeah, that’s it. And it’s even worse if you don’t happen to live in the US. I’m grateful for thedailyshow.com and colbertnation.com, and shows that appear pretty quickly in iTunes, like Breaking Bad. But many quality shows do not. Of course there are services like HBO Go, but they’re only available to cable and satellite providers.

I don’t want to download such shows from BitTorrent; I want to make sure that the people who created them are well rewarded for quality programming. So if I want to see them now, that leaves me only one choice: subscribe to a cable service.

Into the Lair

A few weeks ago we did that. We added phone and TV (including HBO) to our Comcast service. The Internet service was the same as ever (pretty good), while the phone service is pretty transparent (and cheaper than Qwest). And that makes sense: These are just services for pushing bits around, not at all complicated.

The TV service was something else entirely.

Holy mother of hell is it terrible. We opted not to get a DVR; the pre-DVR technology is worse than you remember. But it’s not the technology that’s so awful, since we could always opt for a DVR or subscribe to TiVO. The real issues are:

  • The remote is impenetrably complicated; I don’t have any faith a DVR remote would be much better
  • The on-screen menus are miserable to navigate and read
  • I couldn’t find shit about what “package” we had on the web site
  • Comcast.com thought we didn’t have HBO and so wouldn’t let us access HBO Go
  • There are 1000s of channels of shit
  • I called support, and before I gave up, at some point an ad for pay-per-view programming streamed into my auditory canal
  • Did I mention that there are 1000s of channels of shit programming?

Truly, the user experience is just terrible. Now, I know it can be better, because we had the old DirecTV TiVO, which worked pretty well. But even DirecTV doesn’t use TiVO anymore, and from what I understand, all other DVRs have a terrible interface.

And don’t get me started on the programming. Remind me again why I should pay for the privilege of getting horrible programming and atrocious ads pushed into my TV? Shouldn’t they pay me for that privilege?

I can only conclude that cable and satellite providers hate their customers. They get them to sign up for a plan to auto-pay $80 or $90 or $125 a month, and then they don’t have to care about what kind of service they provide. Interfaces don’t matter. Design doesn’t matter. Simplicity doesn’t matter. Complication matters.

I don’t want this. Why do I have to pay such a heavy price in terms of usability and quality just so I can pay for the shows I actually want to watch? I don’t want to give Comcast my money. I don’t want to give “Real Housewives of Miami” my money. I want to give Blown Deadline and HBO my money.

A Plea

Dear Distributors and Production Companies:

Please don’t make me pay the cable or satellite provider tax! Don’t make me pay for a bunch of crap I don’t like, and for a terrible user experience, just so you can get a small slice of it. Please, please, please let me pay you for your shows. Release them on iTunes. I’ll pay. Release them on Netflix. I’ll pay. Make them available outside the US, people will pay to be caught up on the great stuff everyone else is talking about on Facebook! Just let us find your shows easily and pay to download or stream high-quality videos to play on our computers and Apple TVs. (Bonus if I don’t have to deal with flash!).

If you make it easy for people to pay for great shows, we’ll pay. Netflix now streams more content than BitTorrent because it’s easier to use: and people pay for that.

Back to Reality

After 2 weeks, we called Comcast and cancelled the TV service. We’re back to our original plan, minus BitTorrent. Here’s what we’ll do:

  • If a show is available from Netflix, we’ll get it there.
  • If a show is available for free on the web, like thedailyshow.com, we’ll get it there
  • If a show is available from iTunes, we’ll get it there
  • If a show is available on DVD, we’ll order it from Netflix

And for shows that are not immediately available for the current season by any of these means, well, I guess we’ll wait. I think most shows come out on iTunes or DVD after a year or so. We’ll just deal with the lag. I wish it wasn’t there, but it is, and I’m no longer willing to dirty myself using a TV service.

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