Month: August 2013

The Hyperbole Defense

730Good evening and welcome to tonight’s edition of the 7:30 Report. With the Australian Federal Election looming, we have with us representatives of the contending parties to explain aspect of their campaigns. Firstly tonight, we have the pleasure of the Minister for Finance.

Host: Welcome minister.
Minister: Thank-you very much.
H: Minister, you recently made the claim that the opposition’s policy costing have a budget hole of 29.3 billion dollars.
M: That’s right.
H: But their entire budgetary costings only add up to 17 billion.
M: That’s right.
H: How do you explain that?
M: They are completely unsuitable to manage our economy.
H: But minister, what you are claiming about their budget is not even possible.
M: I don’t follow you?
H: Well based on what you’re claiming, they’re missing a funding source for more money than they are actually planning to spend. How can they require a funding source for money they don’t plan on spending?
M: Obviously we’re taking into account debt repayments that they’re not aware of?
H: Really. So there has been debt incurred during your administration that isn’t a matter of public record?
M: Look, I’m using hyperbole. The point I’m making is that if they obtain office they’ll destroy the economy. We’ve been assured of that.
H: Oh really? By whom?
M: The Treasury office has officially costed their budget and declared it to have more holes than an asylum seeker vessel.
H: So why has the Treasury office issued a formal declaration that they have done no such thing?
M: Well it wasn’t a formal official declaration.
H: What was it then?
M: Well I hung around the car park of the treasury department and found one of their officials who confided over a cigarette that he didn’t trust the buggers. So it did come from an official.
H: If I may be so pointed let me ask, how does this claim of an official declaration not constitute a blatant lie to the Australian public?
M: I’m using hyperbole. When you look at me like that, it’s hyperbole. Look there’s big issues at stake here and we need to get our message across. I’ll bet you’ve complained that your bag weighs a ton before when it hasn’t really. It’s just like that.
H: Minister, thank-you for your time.

Host: We now turn our attention to the Shadow Minister for Immigration. Welcome minister.
Shadow Minister: Thank-you, it’s good to be here.
H: I’d like to ask you about your policy on boat people.
S: Ah yes, clearly the government has lost the battle against the toxic tidal wave of illegal invaders. We’ll stop the boats.
H: I think some people might describe them as asylum seekers.
S: Yes but we can’t afford to risk being seen as soft or we’ll be crucified by the media. That’s the first point in our 5 point plan to stop the boats. We toyed with the term illegal terrorists but didn’t want to be seen as racist so settled on illegal invaders instead. Tough but fair don’t you think?
H: I think some would say misleading.
S: Potato … Potaato
H: The second point in your plan is to buy back all the boats in Indonesia?
S: Yes, really clever isn’t it? Can’t cross the water without a boat right?
H: But couldn’t it be considered impractical?
S: No, that’s the beauty of it. When we get the boats, we get the fuel in them – boost to the economy. And some people still have wood fires so we can be green by chopping them up for heating.
H: I don’t really know what to say in response to that, so we’ll move on to the next point. You plan on sending intercepted boat people to be processed on the moon?
S: That’s right. No-one there to complain that we’ll be burdening any existing nation. Plus it’s way more extreme that those buggers in Government so we look better. Would you like to hear our final two points?
H: Are they worse?
S: Of course.
H: Then no thank-you.
S: Probably for the best. They’re pretty horrible. We have to do it of course for show, but everyone knows it’s all hyperbole. Then when the dust settles and all the hysteria dies down, we can pull back from the brink and discuss a real solution.
H: I don’t think the Government is planning no pulling back.
S: Good lord, you think so? That’s horrible.
H: Shadow minister, thank you for your time.
S: My pleasure.

Host: Finally tonight, we turn our attention to the minor parties. Welcome all.
Parties: Thank-youu … ank-you … you.
H: Can you please explain how you feature in this election in the presence of the two major parties?
P: Well it’s quite simple. Vote for us and we’ll promise you whatever your little heart desires.
H: Really, how do you propose to do that? Aren’t people’s interests often conflicting?
P: We’re not just one party. There’s a bunch of us so you’re bound to find something you like the sound of.
H: I see, so have you costed your promises?
P: Pfft. Why would we bother wasting our time on that. We’ll never get a large enough majority to be held accountable for our promises.
H: Makes sense. Thank you for your time.
P: Our pleasure.

That’s about time for our show this evening. I’m not sure that we’ve actually clarified anything of use to the voting public, but unfortunately that’s par for the course in a political campaign. Join us next week as we consult with medical experts on techniques to reduce bruising cause by bashing your head repeatedly against a rock.

Thank-you for watching and good night.

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Fuhrer of the Sausage People

Sausage Trio, Mash and Cabbage with Onion Gravy

They would always turn up after midnight. Somewhere near the back of the store, between the racks of lamb, bulky beef legs and frozen chickens, they would appear marching in a conga line. Such a scrappy band of brothers, he often thought. Clothed in patchy woolen shirts and caps, always dirty, they would wind their way out onto the main shop floor ready for the nightly fun. In some ways they were a risk. Occupational Health and Safety would freak if they ever found out such creatures were in his shop, but nobody did random inspections in the middle of the night.

The best word he could use to describe them was munchkins. Small and impish, but not exactly delicate. They were far too plump to granted that complement, but as a result it was almost impossible to damage them. Their inbuilt layer of padding seemed to act like a natural shock absorber. All manner of falls and spills, which were a frequent occurrence, held no danger for them whatsoever. He’d once seen one fall all the way from the ceiling to the concrete fall and walk away with nothing more than an embarrassed grin.

They’d been trying to fit too much into the mincing machine in one go that night. With meat clogging the inlet, the crew had stood around arguing, casting accusations and gesticulating wildly when the plucky little fellow had decided to take matters into his own hands. Climbing up the shelving, he’d made his way via an astonishing sequence of steps and jumps to the ceiling fan above the grinding bench. With a flourish he leapt off, obviously intending to land on the blockage and add a little oomph to get it moving again. Unfortunately aim wasn’t his strong suit. The little guy had ended up missing not only the grinder, but the entire bench, pancaking himself with a soggy little squelch on the floor. Bursting into laughter, the rest of the crew had shared their appreciation for his effort, applauding with whistles and catcalls.

And that was the thing about these guys. For them life was all fun. Even when things went wrong, it all still seemed to work out. Misguided, act first think later impulsiveness was their modus operandi. He’d never really worked out what might have happened if that little guy had landed in the machine just as it spluttered back into life, although he had a hunch that it would have been fine. Munchkin sausage wouldn’t have been the special of the day as it were. Not that he could have called them that even if the unthinkable had happened. Munchkin was his description for them, they actually called themselves the Sausage People.

Their appearance one evening over a year ago had come as quite a shock. You don’t go around living life expecting a tiny race of humanoids to be living in your meat freezer. It just doesn’t happen. Well, he’d thought it didn’t happen, but when a conga line comes winding through between your feet, you’re not left with much of a choice are you? He’d been working hard that night, burning the midnight oil in an attempt to find a way to get his butcher’s shop back on it’s feet. The competition from the major supermarket chains was simply pushing out the small guys like him. So that first night that it happened, he’d staggered out the door, had a stiff whiskey and put himself to bed, chalking it all up to stress.

The following day he’d talked himself out of his delusion and bolstered enough enthusiasm to take another stab at his new flavours. But when the music had started again that night, he’d broken into a cold sweat. Refusing to look down at what he knew couldn’t be true, he’d held strong for a while but finally cracked when he felt something bipedal walking across his foot.

By the fourth night he’d had enough. The phantasms showed no signs of relenting and he had to find a way to stay in business. If imaginary creatures were going to exist, then he might as well immerse himself in the delusion. It was the beginning of a beautiful partnership.

The Sausage People turned out to be masters of the processed meats. If it was ground up and shoved into a skin, then they could make it magical. Soon his little butcher shop had reinvented itself as THE purveyor of exclusive designer sausages. Tony’s Wurst Shop. He’d laughed himself silly over the genius of that name. The world was at his feet and the supermarkets just didn’t get a look in.

The best part of the situation was that the Sausage People loved it. For them, apart from slapstick stupidity and pranks, nothing could compare to the joy of sausages. Making sausages. Tasting sausages. Inventing new flavours. Refining the blend. It was their life and they doted over their benefactor who so kindly made the meat and equipment available.

Interestingly enough, another of their quirks had lead to his private nickname. Each night the routine of the conga line ended with a special ceremony of their own creation. Forming a circle around him, they would raise their hands in salute, arms straight out in front, thanking their friend for his goodness before scurrying off to their work. He never knew where they got it from, but it bore an uncanny resemblance to the Nazi salutes from World War II.

Likening himself to Hitler was not an image that he wanted to propagate, but in his subconscious he couldn’t help but notice. So he’d found himself, in private moments only, thinking of himself as the Fuhrer of the Sausage People. A kind, beneficent shop owner perhaps, but definitely not a dictator. In fact, each night when the clock hit midnight, his shop became such a frenzy of activity that he had no more chance of controlling it than a hurricane. During those hours, his shop was not his but theirs. And he loved it.

 

The title comes from a little anecdote I heard about a poem of Robert Burns.  The poem is customarily read before the cutting of the Haggis and contains the line ‘Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!‘.  It was once translated into German and then independently from the German back into English and ended up as ‘Mighty Fuhrer of the sausage-people‘.  I’ve no idea if it’s a true anecdote, but it sparked my imagination.  You can catch the clip from the TV show QI where I saw it here.

Why?

I wonder what they would say if they knew? Would they ask me why – these people who flock around me?

It’s not me they are interested in. I am like a statue in Trafalgar Square, surrounded by pigeons, bustling and noisy, I play the role of scenery in their minds. My presence is simply a fact to be navigated and, if necessary, stepped on. They are as uncomprehending of my real purpose as a pigeon is of Nelson’s column and yet they flow thick around me, pressing in on every side.

I’m not sure why I came here at this moment, why I feel compelled to seek out their company. Is there some subconscious obligation within me to share in their condition, a hidden agenda of conscience pushing me to identify with them finally? It certainly doesn’t sound like me, well not as far as I’m aware. You could ask my psychologist if it mattered to you, but it won’t matter to me – not soon anyway.

I marvel that I have these thoughts, they are not my native territory.

My home ground is turfed with certainty. A flat track on which to run, unimpeded by the distraction of doubt, I don’t like to be way laid by wasteful self-reflection.  That is how I like things thank-you very much. Neat and compact, like a present wrapped for Christmas, perfect in the box, with well decorated trimmings and even a little bow. What point is there in breaking the perfection simply to find out what is inside?

With a little smile, I shake my head and refocus my attention on things more concrete and external.

Would they ask me WHY?

Surely they would – surely.  That is how most people are wired.

Built with a need to know the answers, at least when it affects them, I can see them in my mind’s eye pleading with me. “Please tell us”, they cry, as if understanding substitutes for salvation. “Please”, the tears rolling down their faces. “If there is any humanity in you, then tell us.” The stronger ones stand with fists bared, seeking to extract with physical intimidation what can’t be done with empathy, but the irony is that none of it would work – I really couldn’t tell them.

Yes, I know what you are thinking: that I actually mean I WOULDN’T tell them. That I’m small, a runt who was picked on relentlessly at school. A man built stubborn, spiteful and vindictive from his years of torment, and so I clam up to get revenge in a passive-aggressive refusal to satisfy their needs – but you are wrong. I mean what I said, that I really couldn’t tell.

You assume that I am like you. That it matters to me why the Agency sent me here. That it matters why I have been tasked with removing this planet.

In your mind will be horror at the destruction of their history, culture, families, arts and loves. Or relief at the cessation of their wars, crimes, greed and hates. To you, there must be a purpose – a purpose derived from something you value. It is something that is wired in.

To me these things have no value.

Love, war, culture, greed – these things mean nothing to me. I have no compulsion to care one way or another, what I crave is certainty. A certainty that the Agency provides with disciple and hierarchy, and what leg do you stand on to condemn me for it? From where to you get your built in values and the wiring that makes some things important and others not?

If they must have an answer then, it would be, “Because the Agency sent me”.

That is all I could tell them if they asked me, although I doubt that it would be enough. So why do I immerse myself among them at this time? To be honest I don’t know.

It is not long now.

I am good at my job.

I knew that this was a one way ticket.

Goodbye.

The satellites recorded that in the last moment before the end, he reached out. Grabbing the nearest person available, he wrapped them in the most intense bear hug he could muster. It was his first and last.

Is It Readable?

I was browsing Facebook this morning, taking advantage of Brisbane’s Ekka show holiday, when I stumbled upon an article shared by a friend.  It’s an infographic produced by The Guardian showing the linguistic standard of Presidential addresses over time.  The article titled ‘The state of our union is … dumber‘, implies that a simplification of writing style used over time in US Presidential speeches demonstrates a dumbing down – of what exactly I’m not 100% sure.

Presidents

Perhaps the Presidents themselves are less intelligent or educated?  Or perhaps it is the American public?  My suspicion however, is that the trend is more a deliberate strategy than an inevitable decline caused by stupidity.  A strategy meant to spread messages as far an wide as possible.

The factors involved will be complex for sure.  The people who were even allowed to vote in the first place have changed dramatically over time.  Originally there was no universal right and it has slowly expanded over time to include slaves, the poor, women and other ‘minority’ groups.  Now I don’t mean those groups are less intelligent, but almost by definition they would have (at least initially) struggled to achieve the same level of education as established voters.  Coming to grips with a broader voter base would have forced politicians to speak in a more universal manner.  It just doesn’t make sense for a politician who wants people to vote for them to speak in a way that goes over people’s heads.

I think this is probably the main reason for more straight-forward Presidential speeches.  In fact there is a science that has grown around trying to measure this simplicity.  It made me think, what is this measure?  And how does my writing measure up?

Turns out that there are a number of ways to measure how easy something is to read.  The one used in the Guardian infographic was the Flesch-Kincaid readability test.  It is a measure developed in 1975 for the United States Navy.  Kind of weird right?  Well at least I thought so at first, but the reason they wanted it was to test that their technical manuals could be understood by the people who actually run their expensive war ships.  They didn’t want to write stuff that didn’t help, so they developed this test.

What the test does, is to provide a number showing the grade someone needs to get to at school so they can easily understand the writing.  Have you ever wondered what people are talking about when they boast that their 5 year old is reading at a 10th grade level?  Well this is it.  It made me ask, “What level is my writing at?”.

Many word processing packages have this calculation built in, so firing up Word, I whacked a bunch of my short stories in and got a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level for each.  I also gave a rough personal estimate of what Grade level I thought might start to appreciate the content included of the story.  That’s amazingly subjective I know, but I didn’t have time to get a bunch of school kids to read my stories and rate them – although that would be really cool (anyone?).  You can see the result below.

ReaderGrades

The big question is, what does it all mean?  Well I’m no expert (heck, I’ve only spent an hour at lunch reading Wikipedia), but here are a few thoughts.

  • If the complexity level (Flesch-Kincaid) is lower than the intended audience level then that’s cool.  It means that they can understand (unless they get bored – but I think the content itself needs to hold the attention).
  • If the complexity level is higher than the intended audience level then that’s probably a bad thing.
  • Some of the complexity levels seemed wrong.  The story ‘Albert Fienman – Physics Cop’ was one that my wife didn’t understand because she didn’t have the background in quantum physics that’s needed.  So the measure is about linguistic complexity but can be greatly affected by the actual subject domain too.
  • Shorter stories tended to result in a higher grade (or higher than I expected) and this is probably because the statistics that go into the formula require a longer section of writing for accuracy.  I also tend to think that shorter passages allow a reader to keep more complexity in their heads at once and still understand (although I have no idea if this is true or not)
  • The way to get lower scores is to have shorter sentences and words with as few syllables as possible.

The next question that came to mind then was, “How does this compare to literature in general?  I mean, I’m probably averaging a Grade 8 or less and most people in western society get past Grade 8.  That means I’m cool right?”  Well, here’s how a selection of my short stories stack up to other literature.  (Mine are marked with an asterisk on each side of the name if you can’t work it out).

Comparative

  • What this tells me is that on the whole, my writing is harder to understand than generally accepted novels.  Depending on my goals this might be good or bad, but if I want a broader audience then I need to work on simplicity.  This is something that my father and wife have both mentioned.
  • It makes sense that ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ has a negative score because it’s mostly read to children before they get to school.
  • It’s really interesting to note how J.K. Rowling seems to have grown her writing style with the growing age of her audience as observed in different scores for ‘The Philosopher’s Stone‘ and ‘The Order of the Phoenix‘.
  • I’d bet that most people would find my writing more accessible than Hamlet, so the formulas for complexity don’t take into account changing language.
  • I wonder if I’m bold enough to ever tackle Ulysses (and how does it compare to The Silmarillion)?

While the Fleish-Kincaid measure is widely used and built into word processors, not everyone agrees that it is the best.  The Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh recommended using an alternate measure called SMOG (Simple Measure of Gobbledygook) – man I love that name.  However, my summary is that this is a useful pointer of to how widely accessible writing is.  It cannot be taken verbatim because there are many other factors that affect it (e.g. relies on English language characteristics), but I probably should start to take more notice.

Out of interest, the grade score for this blog post is: 9.1 (not really what I was going for).  🙂

Catharsis?

Words tumble and fall,
Like the bursting of a dam;
No longer able to be held behind the wall of his lips.

Turbulent and churning,
Insistent and relentless like the flow of a tsunami,
They proceed regardless of obstacles,
Smothering the countryside encountered in their path.

Embedded their flow is the detritus of frustration,
The debris of half-formed thoughts, lost hopes;
A conglomeration of random possibilities,
Jumbled together – injuring, abrading, concussing,
Energised by the force of the torrent that sweeps them along.

And finally,
When the outpouring of emotion has reached its peak,
The waters retreat,
Residing sullenly to the depths from which they arose.

In their wake the landscape lies changed;
Barren, exposed and tender,
Requiring care to tend, cultivate and renew.

A different land, damaged by the outburst;
He regrets the pain inflicted.

And hopes for redemption on all sides.

 

“… the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.”  James 3: 5-10

I remember

I remember the mountains in Nepal. The sense of wonder that there is something so tall and majestic.

We had been walking for a week when I had my first glimpse of a big one. The day was overcast and we’d finally hiked into the main mountain range. Because of the cloud, the main massif had been hidden for most of the day when something subconscious grabbed my attention. For some reason, I chose at that moment to crane my neck above the cloud line to see the enormous peak towering above.

You have to understand that I come from Australia, a land for the most part excessively flat. It makes no sense to look for mountains above the clouds here when they are so relatively insignificant. Yet on that day I did look and for the first time got some sense of the sheer physical presence into which I was hiking.

Later in the trip I distinctly recall marvelling again at the beauty of the environment in that country. Descending from the Throng-La Pass, we hiked through a valley. Across the gap was another magnificent mountain range, tops shrouded in cloud and there, above the clouds, stood another mountain range on top. Both obviously the same, it was astonishing to see their immensity; both halves large enough to stand their ground within the ranks of Australian peaks.

The scene made me think of imagery from Monkey Magic. Of a land above the clouds from which mystical beings peer down and occasionally interact with the mortals who dwell below. Perhaps it is this mixture of imagination and physical beauty that produced such stories in the first place.

A response to http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/08/05/writing-challenge-remember/

(10 minutes)