log (2005/06/10 to 2005/06/16)

So let's see. Rachel Chalmers pointed us at the Slacktivist's close readings of the "Left Behind" series (infinitely better than actually slogging through the books, I expect). One of those postings led us in passing to the poem that that "a poem should not mean, but be" line that we're always abusing comes from.

It's a good poem.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

Also on Slacktivist, an item that's changed my whole attitude toward those car fish:

There's a good summary of the history of the fish symbol at religioustolerance.org, in which they trace the symbol's pre-Christian meaning.

The symbol, originally, was not a fish but rather, ahem, an image representing fertility. (The fact that it also resembled a fish was a very ancient and very, very dirty joke.)

From the mysterious HTML o' the Day, the Laws of Guano Islands!

Whenever any citizen of the United States discovers a deposit of guano on any island, rock, or key, not within the lawful jurisdiction of any other government, and not occupied by the citizens of any other government, and takes peaceable possession thereof, and occupies the same, such island, rock, or key may, at the discretion of the President, be considered as appertaining to the United States.
The discoverer, or his assigns, being citizens of the United States, may be allowed, at the pleasure of Congress, the exclusive right of occupying such island, rocks, or keys, for the purpose of obtaining guano, and of selling and delivering the same to citizens of the United States, to be used therein, and may be allowed to charge and receive for every ton thereof delivered alongside a vessel, in proper tubs, within reach of ship's tackle, a sum not exceeding $8 per ton for the best quality, or $4 for every ton taken while in its native place of deposit.

(48 USC Chapter 8)

And another bizarre site from the reflog tricks me into linking to them with these words:

Log -- David Chess
Asset protection, offshore bank formation, tax shelter and formation of international business companies.

Is that what I ought to be writing about, then?

Paul Ford writes a piece that includes a reference to tiny cameras, which started a little email thread, which led me to actually read my 2004 NaNoWriMo novel. And you know, it was actually pretty good!

The Bubble itself has not been free of camera dust since that first day; some got in on the bottom of someone's shoe, or in a puff of wind, or a box of chocolates. They would like to have devices to hunt down the individual specks, or fields to disable them, or sweepers to sweep rooms clean of them. So far they have no such thing, and the world (including presumably whoever launched the dust into the clouds in the first place) can watch them (sporadically; some rooms are more contaminated than others), and they can watch the other labs that are doing the same thing, and none of them have succeeded. There may, Mary points out, be a lab that has succeeded, but that shoulder they would not be able to look over. They have heuristics running, watching the cameras, watching for any sudden suspicious failure of a large group of them in a small area.

Lightning strikes seem to be effective, sometimes.

And meanwhile it has become common again to make love with the lights out, and conversely to make love with the lights on and everyone watching. There are services that track which cameras are the most-watched right now, and the most-watched in the last hour, and the last day (because the cameras track and broadcast that about themselves also; "here's how busy I am, how popular"). Cameras showing attractive naked people, and attractive naked people together in the throes of passion, are very popular. The fashion shows no sign of abating so far. What a mass of hacks we are, Keda thinks.

Maybe I'll try to sell a publisher on it or get it onto amazon dot com through some vanity electropress or something. Or maybe I'll just review it. *8)

"And after the spanking, the oral sex!"

We all sat on the couch last night and watched the DVD of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

It was silly.

Two things:

  • Treading water in the deep part down at the lake is sort of like a mild aerobic thing at the Gym, except that it's in a lovely natural setting, and that if you get tired and stop doing it without sufficient preparation you might die.
  • It would be really cool in some Director's Cut of that last Star Wars movie (the "Return of the Jedi" one) if, in that last scene where the big Ewok party is going on and Our Heros are waving at the ghosts of the dead good guys, if there was an additional bit of like five or six seconds where the ghost of Sidious (Palpatine, the Emperor) walks up and joins the other ghosts, all smiling and waving like they are, and Our Heros smile and wave back. It would give a whole nother level of depth to the series.

Readers have mixed reviews of our previous entry:

Denotation: "Yawn".

We'll see how much yawning there is when they start lopping off ears for Insufficient Piety, eh? Mark my words, whippersnapper!

On the other hand, a reader of taste and discernment writes:

Subject: Re Ferrets

I'm no Bill Perkins but I loved your "the creature in this box" thingy.

And perhaps you might give tea another chance.

(I looked for a transcript of the Monty Python "I've got a viper in the box" sketch ("Some people think it's an asp; more fool they, I say"), but I couldn't find one.)

I haven't given up entirely on tea; it's just not my preferred class of hot drink lately. (It'd probably help if I could smell better.)

I've been reading Vidal's Creation. Really slow going, but the occasional nice image.

"...and there is no pleasure on Earth to equal
that of dining aboard a boat
tied to a willow tree
in the Wei River
at the time of the summer moon."

Lineation mine.

Today two readers do us the great compliment of paying attention.

This one needs no particular amplification (but definitely gets extra points for the first several words):

I must concur in part and dissent in part with your earlier reader. Tea is tannic, but not bitter, when made properly. However, tea is often over-brewed, and when over-brewed, tea is both tannic and bitter.

As a point of comparison, red wine is tannic (some types more so than others; Cabernet Sauvignon tends to be especially tannic) but never bitter (unless something's gone horribly wrong with the wine).

Possibly then I think of tea as bitter because I make it Wrong. Or perhaps I'm just Undiscerning. *8)

This next one, on the other hand:


I read with interest your comments about Scalia's recent speech and his views of "originalist" interpretation of the Constitution.

I'm not a lawyer and I'm not going to pretend to understand the nuances of the issue, but it seems to me you're wandering into the very position that Scalia is warning us to avoid. That is, you seem to want the current Jurists to connote what the Constitution means. Connote is defined as "To suggest or imply in addition to literal meaning." So, whatever five of nine jurists believe a clause may suggest or imply today becomes the law of the land. That's what you want?

It MAY be possible to determine, based on whatever evidence we can discern from history, case law, etc., what the original authors of the Constitution might have considered cruel and unusual, for instance. That, I believe is the vaguely empirical starting place that Scalia wishes us to address. Then, if we today want something different then there are democratic mechanisms in place to get there. But if five jurists believe it is cruel and unusual to spank a child or place a prisoner in isolation or deny prisoners access to 'Playboy at Night', and so rule, its a done deal unless some latter Supremes reverse it.

This necessitates the confirmation gymnastics we see going on whereby everyone wants to know what a potential jurists believes in, not whether they are a capable lawyer, because who can guess the connotations their values, childhood and nightmares might unleash on us. Again, exactly what Scalia said.

Connotation does not interpret the law, it embellishes it with whatever baggage a jurist might bring to the case. That's the job of the lawmaking bodies, not judges.

Bill Perkins

Well, the easy part of that is that no, when I say "connotation" here I don't mean it in the sense of "vague subjective non-literal meaning" like in that dictionary. I mean it in the more technical sense; in (in fact) the "sense" sense, as in Frege's Sense and Reference (Sinn und Bedeutung, which I think I did a junior paper or something on back in the day). Not literal versus non-literal so much as what words point to versus how they point to it.

So at a given time it may be the case that

The creature in this box

refers to the same thing (has the same denotation) as

The ferret which is number 47222119 in the Big Registry of Ferrets

(if, of course, the creature in this box is the ferret which is number 47222119 in the Big Registry of Ferrets).

But even if those two phrases refer to the same thing, have the same denotation, they mean different things: they have different senses, different connotations.

So if at that original time you have sworn that

I will love and nurture the creature in that box.

and then at a later time I take that ferret out of the box and put in some iguana or something, there's an interesting open question about whether you're now supposed to love and nurture the ferret or the iguana. It depends on whether the words of your vow were working by denotation (just a shorthand for whatever was in the box at the time the vow was made) or by connotation (a vow about whatever comes to be in the box at a particular time).

So when I say that I'm (at least often) a connotationist about Constitutional intepretation, it means that I think that when the Founders wrote about (for instance) "cruel and unusual punishment", I think they meant to be writing about punishment that is cruel and unusual.

I don't think that they said to themselves:

Let's see, we want to outlaw crucifixion, and drawing and quartering, and the stocks, but not execution or imprisonment or -- hey, look! By an amazing coincidence, the things that we want to outlaw are exactly those things that we consider to be cruel and unusual! So we can save lots of paper in the Constitution here by just writing "cruel and unusual punishments"!

Now that's a parody of a denotationist position, of course; no one thinks that the Founders actually thought that way. But it seems nearly as obvious to me that they intended to outlaw those punishments which really are cruel and unusual exactly because they are cruel and unusual; so if we want to respect what they wrote we are obliged to figure out for ourselves which punishments are cruel and unusual, not punt by doing historical research into what they thought on the subject.

(On the suggestion that if we don't like what the words meant in 1789, we can always use "democratic mechanisms" to change them, I will just say again that much of the role of the Constitution is to allow minorities to assert rights against often unwilling majorities; so "if you don't like it, get the majority to agree to change it" isn't really very comforting.)

You're quite right that Scalia would probably approve of the argument that connotationism leaves the meaning of the Constitution to the opinion of "five of nine jurists". I think that that's wrong and/or a red herring, though.

Look at it this way. When we look for the correct reference (denotation) of words in the Constitution, we have various choices of what to look for. Some include:

  • What the original authors of the Constitution thought.
  • What the American people thought at the time the Constitution was adopted.
  • What the Justices of the Supreme Court think today.
  • What the American people think today.

The first two have us doing historical research, which is fine as far as it goes. The first one seems to privilege the opinions of a tiny (tiny) group of people somewhat too much (among other things). The second one isn't actually possible to determine; at best we can get some evidence for the opinions of the fraction of the American people wealthy or powerful or literate or lucky enough that their thoughts have survived. That's interesting, of course, but I see no reason it should be definitive; those people are mostly dead, after all.

The third one is what Scalia tends to imply that connotationism must mean (actually he never acknowledges that connotationism as a position exists at all, but he sometimes derisively hints that the only alternative to originalism is the opinions of individual Justices). And it's the position that leads to worries about confirmation battles; if the Supremes are going to vote based just on personal opinions, then we'd better be very careful about those personal opinions!

But connotationism, or at least what I mean by it and what I suspect most other non-originalists would mean by it if they were introduced to the term, is actually the fourth thing up there. Rather than doing historical research into what people thought in 1789, let's instead figure out what people think now. By which I don't mean public opinion polling (polls invariably lie), but I do mean the thing that good judges constantly do: looking at the law, and the cases, and the previous decisions, and the state of society and public opinion, and making judgements that are appropriate and correct today. And that pay due attention to what people thought in 1789, and 1868, and 1920, but that are not bound by any of those as the One True Denotation.

It would definitely be bad if we had judges who thought that the right reference for words in the Constitution was determined by their own personal opinions, and that denying a prisoner access to cable TV was cruel and unusual; that is to say, you can have a bad connotationist judge. No doubt about it.

It would also be bad if we had judges who thought that the right reference for words in the Constitution was whatever their intuition told them that people probably thought in 1789, and that lopping off a prisoner's ears was not cruel and unusual; that is to say, you can have a bad denotationist judge. No doubt about it.

Possibilities of badness aside though, when choosing between a good connotationist judge (one that honestly and wisely tries to determine the right sense of the words in today's world) and a good denotationist judge (one that honestly and wisely tries to determine what the reference of the words was on the day they were adopted), I far prefer the former. Not least because, to get all meta about it, it seems extremely likely to me that that's what the Founders intended! Is there any evidence at all that they intended us to be bound by the reference, rather than the sense, of the words that they wrote?

(Whew! That was fun. Thanks, Bill, for the chance to think about it again. And to use the Big Registry of Ferrets in a weblog entry.)