One of the last books I read as a university student was Outlaw Culture by bell hooks. I don’t remember if this was explicitly stated or just something I noticed while reading it, but bell hooks often leaves out the common article “the” when referring to movements. Rather than “the feminist movement,” she’ll talk about “feminist movement” and “the gay rights movment” becomes just “gay rights movement.” Such a subtle change has a surprisingly large effect on the meaning of such phrases.

I was reminded of this at the unitarian church this morning during a service around the topic of Martin Luther King, whose national holiday will be observed tomorrow. One woman spoke of attending the march on Washington during which King delivered his famous I Have a Dream speech. “The was the beginning of the civil rights movment,” she said. Of course it wasn’t. The minister went on to talk at length about Vernon Johns and Bayard Rustin, who both did extensive work for civil rights before King ever arrived in Alabama.

Clearly King’s speech wasn’t the beginning of the civil rights movement for these two men, nor for Rosa Parks, who sparked the bus boycott that first made King famous. It was, however, the beginning for the woman who called it “the beginning.” Or more precisely, it was the beginning of her civil rights movement — the moment at which her ideas about civil rights began to move.

And that’s all movements are really. Before reading bell hooks, I had imagined movements as groups of people physically moving. But while marching is powerful iconography for movements, it is not really the point. The important thing to move is not people’s bodies, but their ideas. And it’s clear this doesn’t happen in some collective reconsideration deserving a title like “the movement.” It’s a more liquid process that can’t really be quantified. Just as a collection of “water” is still “water,” the collection of each individual’s movement on any given issue is just “movement.”

Where this becomes important is not so much in determing the beginning of movements, but in determining the end. “The civil rights movement” is clearly over, as most of the people involved are either dead or retired. But “civil rights movement” goes on, as people’s ideas about civil rights continue to move.

This movement is a rather abstract concept, not something we can easily quantify (though perhaps votes for Obama for president will come close), but one way to keep people thinking about movement as an ongoing process is to leave off “the.” It’s a rare opportunity to improve public consciousness by doing less. So next time you find yourself talking about a movement, try saying one fewer word. It may just move the way someone thinks.


This evening I heard the phrase “concentration camp” on NPR and starting thinking about what that phrase means. In common use, “concentrate” is both a noun and a verb. Juice comes in a concentrate, it's pushed together in a small space. Or students are told to concentrate, to focus on what they should be doing. Either of these are an incredible euphemism for Nazi death camps, but which euphemism have we adopted? Do concentration camps concentrate people? Do they force people to concentrate? Do they concentrate death? And why is there an English-language euphemism for an atrocity carried out by Germans anyway?

The answer to the latter question, from Wikipedia: the term “concentration camp” was first used to describe British internment camps in the Second Boer War. After gold was discovered Transvaal, British citizens flocked to the country, where they found the native population less than hospitable. To secure the rights of their own resource-exploiting citizens, the British entered a war against a Boer insurgency.

The conditions in the camps were very unhealthy and the food rations were meager. The wives and children of men who were still fighting were given smaller rations than others. The poor diet and inadequate hygiene led to endemic contagious diseases such as measles, typhoid and dysentery. Coupled with a shortage of medical facilities, this led to large numbers of deaths — a report after the war concluded that 27,927 Boers (of whom 22,074 were children under 16) and 14,154 black Africans had died of starvation, disease and exposure in the concentration camps

So when the Germans later rounded up a group of people they didn’t like and started killing them, the phrase “concentration camp” was used because it had already been used as a euphemism for similar British atrocities. On top of the story of a superpower invading another country to control its natural resources, the word “insurgency” particular caught my attention here, with thoughts of the insurgency in Iraq. Were concentration camps a standard means of fighting insurgencies?

Indeed they were. The list of concentration camps throughout history is full of attempts to contain insurgent populations during armed invasions. Most recently, in 2001 the Russian military gathered up twenty thousand men and boys in Chechnia. Over 80% died. More immediately, the US military continues to entertain the idea of registering and rationing food to Iraqi residents, in the interest of controlling the insurgent population.

Lieutenant Colonel James S. Corum of the US Army recently wrote about various strategies for dealing with insurgencies, in the context of possible application to America’s military activities in Iraq, in FIGHTING INSURGENTS--NO SHORTCUTS TO SUCCESS [PDF, 3kb]:

International law and the traditional rules of war allow for some very firm tactics employed to coerce and control populations. For example, to cut off support for rebels in pro-insurgent districts, Kitson advocated that government forces commandeer and carefully control all food stocks. Food was rationed by the police and army only to registered village residents, and whole villages would be cordoned off to prevent extra food from being brought in. If the villagers wanted to give food to the rebels, they could do so only if they starved themselves. The British also figured that, if the insurgents came in the night and took the peoples’ carefully rationed food, people would eventually inform on the insurgents rather than face hunger. Such tactics were not only effective, but also legal.

The good thing about Kitson’s approach to waging a counterinsurgency campaign strictly within the rule of law is that it generally works. The downside is that such an approach to counterinsurgency and intelligence takes a long time, and success is measured not in any dramatic terms but in small, local, and incremental victories. It should be no surprise that some of our intelligence personnel and leaders might instinctively opt for the Trinquier approach with its promise of quick and decisive results, when our military doctrine is filled with adjectives such as “rapid” and “decisive” to describe the American mode of warfare. Yet the traditionally successful counterinsurgency doctrines are peppered with adjectives such as “methodical,” “systematic,” and “long-term.”

Emphasis added. The downside of internment under threat of starvation, according to the US Army’s assessment, is not that it’s morally reprehensible; it just takes a long time to starve people to death. Our national unwillingness to concentrate on the “victory” some would imagine in Iraq has prevented us from establishing concentration camps. May our impatience save our souls.


One of my pet peeves is the incorrect use of technical terminology in public. Sometimes I feel like I’m some sort of linguistic elitist when I point out that not everything interesting done in JavaScript is "AJAX." But unlike those who obstinately repeat “ain’t ain’t a word,” technically meaningless terminology actually affects people’s ability to communicate.

Case in point:

>> If I have a form element like
>> <input type="text" name="mydata">
>> Is there a way to select it in a similar manner to getElemntById()?
> var nameArray = document.getElementsByTagName('mydata');

I can' seem to get getElementsByTagName working. I am not sure what I am doing wrong.

This confused individual thought “TagName” referred to the “name” attribute. Why would anyone think the “name” attribute was a tag? Because hundreds of people go around referring to attributes and tags. Stop it. You’re confusing people. If you don’t know what a technical term means, don’t use it. Use plain English instead.


Talk Like a Pirate Day is a yearly event in which many people talk like a pirate, especially online. But not nearly enough people talk like a pirate, so for tomorrow's Talk Like a Pirate Day, I wrote a Greasemonkey script to force the entire web to talk like a pirate. An example with Browse Like a Pirate enabled:

New York Times Browsed Like a Pirate

New York Times Browsed Like a Pirate


Dan points out that Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo. I had no idea there was such a problemm among Buffalo buffalo.


Three Words (MP3, lyrics) is a new song, about language falling short. An interesting part of working in a buzzword-heavy industry is watching as words become meaningless, by "too many people, saying too much, saying nothing at all." The term "AJAX," for example, meant something more than "DHTML" for maybe a week before it was thrown carelessly into so many sentences that it lost all meaning in common use. I think the same thing happens with all words (e.g.), though not often as quickly.


Thanks to Christoph Wagner's translation, there is a new German version of fastr. Having translated the tags into three languages now, I can say with some experience that flickr desperately needs to improve language support. The entire system assumes everyone is using the same language, but they obviously are not. So when you search tags for strand, you don't get pictures of strands; you get pictures of beaches, because "strand" is German for beach. And "boot" is a mixture of boots and boats, because "boot" is German (and Dutch?) for boat.

This isn't really that much of a problem for English speakers because the English tags tend to dominate any overlap with another language, but all those people using flickr with non-English tags are getting a semi-broken service. And at two years old, flickr doesn't have much excuse for not dealing with this problem. Anyway, there's a German version of fastr now, but it's missing a bunch of tags because of substantial language overlap with English tags.


Though I said I wouldn't, I made a simple tool to mark trademarked words on a website, based on querying the USPTO, but it turns out to be not at all a useful measurement of corporate influence on a website for two reasons. First, it's incredibly slow. Don't bother running it on any site with more than a couple dozen words, because it will time out. The speed could be improved by saving the USPTO query results locally, but I'm not going to bother with that because of the second problem: nearly every word in the English language has been trademarked. Scary but true.


One of my pet peeves is declarations of what words mean, especially when such declarations dispute conventional wisdom. If most people think a word means something, that's what it means.

This morning Cory Doctorow was apparently in a bad mood, unleashing such scathing grade school recess-worthy rants as Westchester proposes stupid no-open-WiFi law -- stupid! As a general rule, if you find yourself using the word "stupid" twice in the same headline, you should probably wait until you've regained enough mindfulness to come up with a decent synonym before posting. (Dumb, moronic, idiotic, dense, ... there's no shortage.

But anyway, in the middle of this mood, Cory decided to play language police. In particular, Cory is pretty sure he knows what that word "WiFi" means:

The article's great, though inexplicably, the reporter feel sthe need to point out that WiFi is "short for wireless fidelity." Of course, this isn't true...

Fairly certain I'd seen WiFi defined as "wireless fidelity," I consulted Google, which offers ten defintions for "WiFi." Half of those offer the phrase "wireless fidelity" as the meaning of "WiFi." So I wrote in to point out that despite what Cory might want the word to mean, the reporter in question was actually offering a definition in common use, certainly not inexplicable. (I do not think that word means what he thinks it means.)

Apparently other people wrote similar comments, so Cory posted an update:

30,000 or so people have written in to quibble over whether WiFi stands for wireless fidelity.

And he went on to post another paragraph about why these people are wrong. But he's missing the point. It doesn't matter what you want a word to mean, or even what a word should mean. A word means whatever it can successfully communicate. If half the internet thinks "WiFi" means "wireless fidelity" then that's what it means. Cory can post updates for months, but the meaning of the word will still be found in its actual use. Because that's how communication works.

"Quibble" is a good word, because that's what Cory has done here. That's all anyone can do when they see a good word go bad. However much we might like to, we simply can't force the world to adopt our own definitions. I'm amazed that Cory, a professional writer, doesn't realize this.


I just read an email that says: I'm looking for a CMS system for work.

CMS, as you may or may not know, is an acronym for Content Management System. Presumably the person who wrote this email was not actually looking for a system of Content Management Systems (what a frightening concept), but rather just a CMS. I started to write a reply, but then I wondered if it wasn't already too late. I decided to investigate if CMS has already succumbed to RAS syndrome, which claimed such friendly acronyms as PIN number and ATM machine. It turns out RAS syndrome has even claimed JEB (John Ellis Bush) Bush! This may even call for an FBI investigation, but I'll do what I can as an average citizens concerned about RAS Syndrome.

The following is a comparison of Google results for acronyms in their redundant form, standard form, and the percent of redundancy:

PIN number2,540,000 PIN78,100,000 3.54% redundant
CMS system2,540,000 CMS78,300,000 3.24% redundant
ATM machine751,000 ATM35,700,000 2.10% redundant
HIV virus1,260,000 HIV119,000,000 1.06% redundant
RSS syndication2,370,000 RSS877,000,000 0.27% redundant
CSS style sheet179,000 CSS216,000,000 0.08% redundant
VIP person8,890 VIP32,200,000 0.03% redundant

Alas, it appears CMS system is too far along to save. It would be interesting to see a graph of these numbers as they change over time, and an acronym fades into redundancy. But probably only interesting to me.


it's national novel writing month again. you may recall last year i entered the fray, with the intent of composing an entire novel from strings of text found on google. i kept running into problems and after exhausting my daily limit of searches on the google API, i had to wait until the next day to start work again. as i tend to hit my unpaid web development in binges, this didn't produce a novel within the month.

a couple weeks ago, tom coates posted five years worth of his writing on in the hopes that someone would create visualizations of it, and so it was that i gained the source material for my second attempt at a computer-generated novel. what i have so far is "virtual tom coates," though currently it would probably be better titled "virtual drunk tom coates" as it tends to speak in incomplete and/or incoherent sentences -- though i must admit i have never even met tom coates, much less experienced him inebriated. every two adjacent words it spits out are found together somewhere on plasticbag, but that's the current extent of the similarities between tom coates and virtual tom coates. here's an example of the output, which is different every time the page is loaded:

Of work on is finally my hair cut suits my stride the short-lived before the best project I'm going to

there's obviously a lot of room for improvement. since i have no significant limits on my work, i will only have myself to blame for any failure to produce a 50,000 word novel based loosely on the last five years of writing by tom coates. and if all goes well, i should have a system i can then apply to any text source to produce similar text.