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February 24th, 2005 (Permalink)

New Entries for the Doublespeak Dictionary

The Scottsdale Arizona Unified School District has changed some of its job titles:

Doublespeak English
Director of First Impressions Receptionist
Executive Director for Elementary Schools and Excelling Teaching and Learning Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Schools
Transporter of Learners Bus Driver

I guess that makes me "Executive Director for Weblog Development".

Source: Anne Ryman, "For Scottsdale schools, the receptionist is now 'Director of First Impressions'", Arizona Republic, 2/23/2005

Via: James Taranto, "Best of the Web Today", Wall Street Journal, 2/24/2005

Update (2/26/05): The Superintendent of Scottsdale schools seems to get his management ideas by reading "Dilbert". Back in early January, Scott Adams ran a series of four comic strips in which the receptionist received the new title "Director of First Impressions Pro Tem".

Also, a follow-up article supplies another entry for the dictionary:

"Executive Director of Human Capital" = "Human-Resources Director"

This one shows doublespeak inflation since "Human-Resources Director" is already doublespeak. Apparently, just about everybody in the Scottsdale schools is either a director or an executive director. I guess the executive directors tell the directors what to do, but who's left for the directors to direct, and who actually does all the work?


Via: James Taranto, "Best of the Web Today", Wall Street Journal, 2/25/2005

February 19th, 2005 (Permalink)

What's New?

February 11th, 2005 (Permalink)

Blurb Watch: Hide and Seek

Here's a critic's blurb from an ad for a new movie:

Like "Psycho" or "The Shining",
"Hide and Seek" KEEPS US ON EDGE!'
―Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune"

The single word "brilliant" in all capital letters followed by an exclamation point should ring warning bells. Though the capitals and the punctuation mark were supplied by the ad writer, the word itself does occur in the review, but that's as far as honesty goes. This is an example of one of the oldest tricks in the movie ad writer's book: take an adjective which applies to some aspect of the movie and quote it out of context as if it applies to the movie as a whole. Here's the only place in which the word "brilliant" appears in Wilmington's review:

"De Niro…has…a stunningly gifted and well-matched costar in 10-year-old Dakota Fanning (of 'Man on Fire,' 'I Am Sam' and TV's 'Taken'). Fanning is an unusual child actress. Like Margaret O'Brien, she has eerie maturity and a brilliant presence at a young age." (Emphasis added.)

So, it's Dakota Fanning―or, more accurately, her "presence"―who is "brilliant", rather than the movie.

The second sentence is an even worse contextomy because its two halves are cobbled together from two sentences separated by a paragraph:

"Like 'Psycho' or 'The Shining,' 'Hide and Seek' transports us to a zone of rural anxiety and inner terror. … 'Hide and Seek' keeps us on edge because it never tips its hand until the right moment―though, even if you anticipate its surprise ending, it's still scary." (Emphasis added.)

It's odd that the ad writer thought it necessary to do such a cut and paste job on Wilmington, who gave the movie 3 out of 4 stars, which is the best review listed on Metacritic.


February 10th, 2005 (Permalink)

A Contextomy and a Contradiction

I'm skeptical about the free, online Wikipedia encyclopedia, which can be revised by anyone at all, but the entries that I've read have been better than I expected. While recently researching a contextomy listed in Boller & George's book, I came across the following in the entry for General Motors:

"During the 1950s, GM president Charles E. Wilson famously stated, 'What's good for General Motors is good for the country.'"

However, the entry for Wilson says this:

"…[W]hen asked if as secretary of defense he could make a decision adverse to the interests of General Motors, Wilson answered affirmatively but added that he could not conceive of such a situation 'because for years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa.' Later this statement was often garbled when quoted, suggesting that Wilson had said simply, 'What's good for General Motors is good for the country.'"

The Wilson entry is correct about what Wilson said. No doubt traditional encyclopedias have repeated popular misquotes, and have contained articles which contradicted other articles in the same encyclopedia. However, I wonder whether Wikipedia is especially vulnerable to these types of error. As it grows larger and more popular, it is likely to become harder to prevent both misinformation and contradictions from creeping in. Of course, the advantage of Wikipedia is that, having noticed this error, I could have immediately fixed it myself―except that I wanted to leave it as a horrid example! Perhaps some good samaritan who reads this entry will fix the GM entry to remove both the contextomy and the contradiction.

Wikipedia is an interesting, even noble, experiment and I hope that it can survive its own growth and popularity.


Update (2/13/2005): The GM entry has now been corrected by good samaritan Przemyslaw "Pshemekan" Plaskowicki of Poland, but who knows how long that will last?

February 8th, 2005 (Permalink)

A New Headline and a New Deadline

February 7th, 2005 (Permalink)

Godless Contextomies

Ann Althouse has exposed a contextomy of James Madison in a recent article in The Nation, which argues for separation of church and state by citing quotes concerning religion from various of the Founding Fathers. I will leave you to read Althouse herself for the details of the Madison contextomy, but here's a passage from the article quoting another President:

"John Adams, though no more religious than Jefferson, had inherited the fatalistic mindset of the Puritan culture in which he had grown up. He personally endorsed the Enlightenment commitment to Reason but did not share Jefferson's optimism about its future, writing to him, 'I wish that Superstition in Religion exciting Superstition in Polliticks…may never blow up all your benevolent and phylanthropic Lucubrations,' but that 'the History of all Ages is against you.' As an old man he observed, 'Twenty times in the course of my late reading have I been upon the point of breaking out, "This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!"'"

This isn't as misleading as the Madison quote, but it is taken out of context in a way that makes Adams sound more negative about religion than he was. Here's the quote in context:

"Twenty times, in the course of my late Reading, have I been upon the point of breaking out, 'This would be the best of all possible Worlds, if there were no Religion in it'!!! But in this exclamation, I should have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly [Adams' boyhood parish priest and Latin school master who argued vehemently about religion]. Without Religion, this World would be something not fit to be mentioned in public company, I mean Hell."

A little fact-checking should have revealed that this quote was taken out of context, since I did a weblog entry on it over two years ago. Moveover, that entry was based on Boller & George's book They Never Said It, the subtitle of which is: "A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, & Misleading Attributions", published in 1989. The Nation ought to get a copy.


Resources: Contextomy, 1/23/2003

Via: Jim Lindgren, "Althouse on Separation of Church and State", The Volokh Conspiracy, 2/7/2005

February 6th, 2005 (Permalink)

The Great Baggini and a Little Reminder

Julian Baggini's latest "Bad Moves" column is, as always, worth reading. Also, today is the deadline to send in your solution to the second "Untie the Nots" puzzle.


February 4th, 2005 (Permalink)

The ABCs of Myth

I missed it when it aired, but ABC's John Stossel did a recent "20/20" segment on popular myths which included the "record high gas prices" one:

"No. 7―MYTH―Gas Prices Are Higher Than Ever

"'Record high gas prices,' has been the refrain of many in the media this past year while talking about the price at the pump. Jay Leno even said, 'They don't even put the price on the sign anymore―it just says, "If you have to ask, you can't afford it."' Drivers I talked to at a New York gas station agreed. 'Too high, it's scary,' said one man. 'It's going up and up and up and it's the most expensive it's ever been,' said another woman. But the reality is that the 'record high gas prices' are a myth. The U.S. Department of Energy records show that when you adjust for inflation the price of gas is now lower than it's been for most of the twentieth century. Prices are lower now than they were 25 years ago. Yes, the price is up from the 1998 all time low of $1.19, but they are a dollar lower than they were in the early 1980s. When I told this to people at the gas station they didn't believe me. And why should they? The media keep telling us about the record high prices―they're just not adjusting for inflation!"

This would have been a more effective debunking if he hadn't mixed it in with some other dubious "myths" and gripes about "nasty behavior".

Source: "John Stossel Takes on Myths, Lies and Nasty Behavior", ABC News 20/20, 1/28/2005

Resource: Record-High Innumeracy, 1/24/2005

February 3rd, 2005 (Permalink)

Another Notty Problem

Here's another problem similar to the "Untie the Nots" puzzles. Untangle the "nots" in the last sentence of this paragraph from a recent Annenberg Political Fact Check column on social security:

"The Academy states that there is already much uncertainty using 75-year projections, and that extending estimates into the infinite future only increases that uncertainty, producing results that 'are of limited value to policymakers.' They point out that changes which took place over the last 75 years were unforeseeable to actuaries in 1928, such as the Great Depression or the baby boom, and therefore have no reason to expect that unforeseeable changes will not occur in the future."

The conclusion in this last sentence, indicated by the word "therefore", is: "[Actuaries] have no reason to expect that unforeseeable changes will not occur in the future." That's three negations in one statement: "no", "un-" and "not". The human mind seems to be capable of easily handling no more than two negations in a single statement. Moreover, given the logical principle of double negation it is usually possible to reduce negations to one, or none. Let's do this to the example (if you want to try this on your own before seeing my answer, don't read further until you do).

According to the conclusion, what the actuaries have no reason to expect is: "unforeseeable changes will not occur in the future." This is logically equivalent to: "all changes which occur in the future will be foreseeable". Thus, the whole conclusion can be rewritten: "[Actuaries] have no reason to expect that all changes which occur in the future will be foreseeable," which reduces three negations to one, and produces a more easily understandable statement.

Source: "Does Social Security Really Face an $11 Trillion Deficit?", Annenberg Political Fact Check, 1/21/2005

Resource: Untie the Nots, Part 2, 2/1/2005.

February 1st, 2005 (Permalink)

Untie the Nots, Part 2

Later in the same trial, the defendant was asked to clarify her ambiguous reply for the record, and this is how the court reporter transcribed her answer:

Defendant: "I said not not not not not not would mean that I did."

Strangely enough, this actually does clarify her previous answer! If you think that you can untie the "not"s, send your solution to the Fallacist by the seventh of this month.


Resource: Untie the Nots (Part 1), 1/22/2005

Solution to "Untie the Nots, Part 2": Congratulations to Chris Cooper and Paul Farrington who correctly untied the "not"s! The correct punctuation of the defendant's second statement is:

"I said 'not', not 'not not'; 'not not' would mean that I did."

This indicates that the defendant's first statement, from "Untie the Nots, Part 1", is correctly punctuated as: "I said 'not', not 'not not'".

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