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Language, language, please!

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron – unclear language gives an out-of-focus snapshot of reality, estimative language hopes to facilitate precision ]

Take a quick look, then skip to the rest of this post & come back later. Unless you already know this thing by heart, and perhaps nurse an inordinate hatred for it. In which case you can skip the whole post — we may even see eye to eye already..

NIE what we mean when we say estimative language


In light of the above, I was a tad surprised to read these words in Time this morning:

“Documents were also found and they prove, without any ambiguity, that the individual was preparing an imminent attack, in all probability, against one or two churches,” Cazeneuve said.

Somehow the combination of “without any ambiguity” and “in all probability” didn’t quite mesh. But the original speaker was French, so I did whatever diligence I could muster, and found this, selon Minister Cazeneuve:

Les perquisitions menées à son domicile ont permis de retrouver, outre de l’armement et du matériel de vidéo, des écrits « établissant sans ambiguïté que l’individu projetait de commettre un attentat, vraisemblablement contre une ou deux églises », a précisé Bernard Cazeneuve.

Apparently Le Monde viewed Cazeneuve as having “clarified” the matter, bringing it to precision.. And I suppose that means we should read the Minister’s words as indicating that the intention to attack was proven “without ambiguity” while the targeting of “one or two” churches was — my French is rusty, so I asked Larousselikely, convincing, or plausible.

All of which is by way of remarking on the necessity for — and inherent problems arising regarding — what’s called “estimative language”. Problems which may be doubly obscure in translation.

Unless someone suggests a “plausible” reference from Walsingham, Marlowe or Shakespeare, a decent starting point for consideration is to be found in Sherman Kent’s 1964 Words of Estimative Probability:

It should not come as a surprise that the fact is far from the ideal, that considerable difficulty attends both the fitting of a phrase to the estimators’ meaning and the extracting of that meaning by the consumer. Indeed, from the vantage point of almost fourteen years of experience, the difficulties seem practically insurmountable.

For a more recent take on the matter, and to see whether we’re surmounting the insurmountable yet, there’s always the chart at the head of this post, taken from the 2007 NIE on Prospects for Iraq’s Stability — something we should still be worrying about eight years later, no?


No sense in beating about the bush: poets can handle this sort of thing better than layfolk, but then – what’s the use? Who can read poetry any more?

Sunday surprise: petals, faces, cities

Sunday, April 12th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — so come on, be honest — which do you prefer, Washington 2015 or Paris 1913? ]

Admittedly, the text in the upper panel came from a report on yesterday’s suicide on the Capitol west front..



I’m not sure whether the most interesting comparison here is between prose and poetry, Washington and Paris, the seat of power and the underground — or the present day and a century or so ago. No matter, text for text and language for language, I’ll take the Pound.


  • Politico: Capitol lockdown – shooting – cherry-blossoms festival
  • Poetry magazine: Ezra Pound, In a Station of the Metro
  • **

    Until next time..

    Ukraine, The, unh?

    Friday, February 20th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — when the definite article is simply too definitive — and how about The Levant? ]

    In my ongoing, if pretty much one-sided, convo with Marc Andreessen [1, 2, 3], I’ve been arguing for Twitter to offer a format for DoubleTweeting. People do it anyway, because it’s a neat way of raising questions or making points — but it would be nice to have a format that made it both easy and elegant, and thus expand the practice. Today gave us another example of what I’ll call, for want of a better term, DoubleTweeting in the Wild:

    That was tweeted on February 18, 2015.


    I’d actually like to suggest that Vox isn’t dumb, at least as far as these two tweets are concerned — it’s learning.

    Jimmy Princeton had to dig back to April 2014 to find Ezra Klein‘s use of “the Ukraine”

    and he then compares it unfavorably with Max Fisher ten months later, ie two days ago, on February 18, 2015 — the same day on which he posted his own DoubleTweet:

    Even more to the point, Fisher’s post on the importance of the distinction between “The Ukraine” and “Ukraine” was posted on Vox on September 3rd, 2014, so they hadn’t even issued their own warning at the time Klain tweeted his needless “The”.


    Cheryl Rofer had to teach me the distinction, and language being language, I still can’t promise I’ll get it right every time — old habits die hard. But for the record, here are the first paras of Fisher’s Vox “card” giving the reason for the change in name

    It used to be “the Ukraine,” but after breaking away from the Soviet Union in 1991 the name changed to just “Ukraine.” That distinction actually turns out to be pretty important for understanding the current crisis.

    Ukraine has a very long history of being subjugated by outside powers, and a very short history of national independence. That may actually be why the country became known as “the Ukraine,” which many historians think meant “the borderland” in the language of ancient Slavs (it may also mean “the homeland,” a theory that Ukrainian nationalists understandably prefer). In other words, it may have been called “the” because it was considered more of a geographic region than an independent country, and one defined by its in-between-ness.


    Having said all that, I’m still grateful to Jimmy Princeton for illustrating the sort of use a DoubleTweet can be put to. And I’ll try to get my own wording right in future, now I’m reminded I haven’t always done so in the past.

    Unholy: perhaps it’s a useful word

    Friday, January 30th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — when religion casts a long and violent shadow ]

    unholy cover
    cover art for the Unholy album, New Life behind Closed Eyes


    Unholy may prove to be a very useful word, I think.

    It’s not secular, it’s not irreligious, it doesn’t lack for some sort of supernatural influence — in fact it fits right in with the metaphysical implications of such Biblical phrases as (Revelation 12.7):

    there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels

    and (Ephesians 6.12):

    we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places


    Because, I am arguing, it is neither secular nor irreligious, it fits perfectly, I’d say, the kinds of situation we’re in so freuqnetly, globally, of religiously motivated group violence.

    The word jihad — besides focusing entirely on Islamic variants, when in fact Buddhist, Hindu and Christian militians are also in evidence — concedes too much to those who regard their warfare as holy, divinely sanctioned, while other terms make things sound secular and almost normal, as if politics without the religious booster was all we are talking about.

    BrutaL and spiritual, spiritual and brutal on both sides — in the Central African Republic, for instance:

    It was March 2013 when the predominantly Muslim rebel coalition Séléka swept into the riverside capital, Bangui, from the northeast. President François Bozizé fled as a vicious campaign of looting, torture and murder got underway. Séléka leader Michel Djotodia soon proclaimed himself the successor; he would later lose control of his ranks and an attempt that fall to disband them would do little to stop the atrocities.

    At the same time, groups of militias called anti-balaka had begun to form and train and retaliate against Séléka. Their name in the local Sango language means “anti-machete”; their fighters are comprised of ex-soldiers, Christians and animists, who think magic will protect them. They’re adorned with amulets to ward off attacks and fight with hunting rifles, poison-tipped arrows and machetes.

    Amulets and machetes.. warriors and angels.


    Maybe we should say “unholy warriors” and “unholy wars” rather than “holy warriors” or “jihadis” — and “unholy monks” for the Burmese mobsters in saffron robes.

    And I’d reserve the use of the term for situations in whiuch at least one side in a conflict openly avows religious motivation. Someone making a treaty someone else feels is foolish or dangerous simply doesn’t meet the bar.


    It’s worth considering the Unholy CD cover art alongside two other recent images:

    Moebius Floating City



    And about that top image from the Unholy album, just so you know:

    UNHOLY present their Prosthetic Records debut, a metal massacre fueled with down-tuned guitars, double bass and deep grooves akin to the sounds of Entombed, Crowbar and later Carcass, with members having been in bands like Santa Sangre, Another Victim and Path Of Resistance.

    Pinker, Blake and Moebius

    Thursday, January 29th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — looks like I’ll have an “Author’s blog” up soon to accompany a book I’m working on, and it’ll be called “Seeing Double” — which is what this post is about ]

    Steven Pinker, I’m sorry to say, appears to be one of those

    One can imagine a world in which oracles, soothsayers, prophets, popes, visionaries, imams, or gurus have been vouchsafed with the truth which only they possess and which the rest of us would be foolish, indeed, criminal, to question. History tells us that this is not the world we live in. Selfproclaimed truthers have repeatedly been shown to be mistaken — often comically so — by history, science, and common sense.

    The characters I’m interested in here are the visionaries — and my point is that truth as fact is not the only truth there is.


    Can “history, science and common sense” really detract from the “truth” of this image by Blake?


    or this, by Moebius?

    Moebius Floating City


    Pinker is interesting — that single para of his just gave me a chance to rant — so let me return you to his whole piece.

    I have other disagreements with him, no doubt, but he’s a mind to be engaged with.

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