paul graham takes a careful look behind taboos in "what you can't say."

i find graham's points thought provoking, especially this passage:

No one gets in trouble for saying that 2 + 2 is 5, or that people in Pittsburgh are ten feet tall. Such obviously false statements might be treated as jokes, or at worst as evidence of insanity, but they are not likely to make anyone mad. The statements that make people mad are the ones they worry might be believed. I suspect the statements that make people maddest are those they worry might be true.

i don't have to look far to find examples of these fear-induced taboos, and neither does tom engelhardt of tomdispatch.com (a national institute project). engelhardt intersects with paul graham's article concerning the need to repress dangerously different conversation using carefully devised bits of language, especially in times of war.

he has written on the topic of new, often orwellian rhetoric entering the english language. in his post, "'extraordinary rendition' and other terms of our times," engelhardt takes up terms created by the bush administration and other elements of what he calls "bushworld" that seep into daily use of a much wider population. his follow up to this is a post titled "the opposite of pax americana is..." in which he includes many of the "bushworld" rhetoric eagerly submitted by tomdispatch readers.

"bushworld" rhetoric is certainly a timely and public example of this tactic, but by no means the only one. i have been virtually silenced in conversation after being labeled "alarmist," and i have thrown many "ist" stones myself. practically everyone uses these devices at some point, no matter what their arguments. what i hope of engelhardt and graham readers is that we begin to observe such rhetoric so that we may question the motives behind its use, regardless of whom the speaker is.

 

i did my senior thesis on suicide (PDF), motivately largely by reading what i thought was a rather flippant reasoning given for suicide. people don't kill themselves casually. they have serious reasons, even if we fail to take those reasons seriously. i feel like the following quote from this reuters story on suicide indicates a lack of understanding of these reasons:

"Fighting this kind of war is clearly going to be stressful for some people," Assistant Defense Secretary for Health Affairs Dr. William Winkenwerder told reporters in an interview.

how are they going to do anything about it, if "stress" is the best description they can come up with for the cause?

 

sigh...there was a time when i couldn't have come up with an example of mark pilgrim being wrong about a technical issue. but either the times or i have changed. mark wants to do a "thought experiment", but without comments. lucky for me, i have my own weblog, in which i can point out how wrong mark's thoughts are.

mark's article starts by suggesting that the people who are calling for strict parsing of atom feeds don't themselves have valid markup. but this is entirely confusing the issue (and either it's intentional, or mark isn't as bright as i had thought). tim bray specifically stated: This [strict parsing] works because Atom doesn?t have an installed base. RSS and HTML have installed bases of invalid markup, so strict parsing doesn't work for these formats. mark ignores this part of what tim is saying and goes on to point out that the (X)HTML of people who are promoting strict parsing is invalid. but no one is arguing here for strict HTML parsing. the other factor mark is conveniently ignoring is that HTML is primarily produced by people whereas atom markup would be primarily produced by computer programs, which we can reasonably hold to a higher standard of strictness than people. RSS is much more like atom than HTML, and all but one of the people mark points to have valid RSS (and the one only has one minor error). mark seems to have made a better argument for strict parsing of RSS than for liberal parsing of atom.

but mark goes on, imagining that the comparison between atom and HTML is at all valid: But imagine that all browsers worked this way, regardless of MIME type. even pretending that is a valid comparison, this hypothetical situation is still ridiculous. to see why, just look at how long it has taken the web standards project (which mark is a part of) to get all modern browsers to properly display standards, which doesn't even involve enforcing standards. all atom browsers are never going to be equally strict.

if mark is so horrified by the idea of a strictly parsing atom format browser, why doesn't he write his own browser? he is an experienced developer, after all. and if he's right about this, there's a market waiting to be taken. but if he's wrong about this, then brent simmons, someone who actually makes a popular RSS browser, is right when he emphasizes:

Every minute I spend making my Atom parser more forgiving of not-well-formed XML is a minute taken away from working on features people are asking for, things like searching and synching and everything else.

and nick bradbury, another developer of another popular RSS browser writes:

Rather than wasting our time working around validation issues, aggregator authors such as myself can spend our time coding the features our users really want.

to me, this is the most compelling argument for strict parsing of atom, and mark doesn't even address it. there are two possible outcomes to this situation: mark is either wrong and we'll have his detractors to thank for a generally valid XML format, or he's right and we'll have him to thank for . . . well . . . being right. to paraphrase camus: it's better to be wrong by strictly parsing than to be right by invalid markup.