Some thoughts about language

These are some random musings that came out of a conversation with Shelly this morning, and out of a conversation on a mailing list I read.

Language is a tricky thing. We use language to express our concepts and worldview, both to ourselves and to each other, yet many people have a fuzzy grasp on language, and use language in ways that are not terribly effective. As a result, people may often fault language in situations where it’s the use of language, not the language itself, that’s the problem.

You’ll see this in the way people use language to describe themselves. Example: I’ve heard people say things like “I don’t call myself ‘bisexual,’ because people think that bisexuals will sleep with anyone, and I won’t sleep with anyone. So labels are wrong, and I don’t use labels to describe myself.”

Well, no, that idea puts the cart before the horse. The problem is not “labels are bad;” the problem is that people use labels in inaccurate ways. The term “bisexual” is neutral with respect to the number of sexual partners a person has, or how selective that person is about sexual partners. The term “bisexual” has a very specific meaning–a meaning which has nothing whatsoever to do with that person’s political identity, partnership strategies, or promiscuity.

People use the word “bisexual” in a fuzzy and distorted way; they say “bisexual” when they mean “promiscuous,” and this fuzziness distorts their perceptions of people who are, in fact, bisexual. But that doesn’t mean nobody should self-identify as “bisexual;” it simply means that people should learn to use language clearly and accurately.

Words have meanings. We express oursieves in language; fuzzy language leads to fuzzy expression.

Rather than say “I don’t use labels,” which is both silly and impossible–labels are nothing more than the language we use to describe ourselves, and without labels we can not describe ourselves–the better approach, I think, is to examine the labels, and see how well they work once the fuzziness is removed and they are applied with precision. A bisexual person is a person who is sexually attracted to or sexually involved with persons of both physical sexes. It does not mean “promiscuous,” but when you say “I don’t use the word “bisexual” because I’m not promiscuous, you have not only deprived yourself of a tool to describe yourself, you’ve accepted the fuzzy, distorted, and inaccurate language of others.

Labels, when properly applied, are descriptive, not conscripted; and they are precise, not fuzzy. A label describes who you are; it does not define who you are.

If a prson is attracted to members of both sexes, then it might be reasonable for that person to say “I am bisexual;” where it becomes unreasonable is when someone says “I am bisexual; bisexuals wear Birkenstocks and vote Deomcrat; therefore, I should wear Birkenstocks and vote Democrat.” Labels are descriptive language; descriptive language *describes.* You don’t change yourself to fit the label; you use labels that fit yourself.

The conscriptive use of language is often particularly evident in the poly community. Labels like “primary” and “secondary” are especially prone to this sort of abuse; people will say “I want a secondary relationship. Let’s see, a secondary relationship looks like this; therefore, I will seek to make my relationship look like this.” Just as there’s a vast chasm between saying “I am bisexual because I feel this” and “I feel this because that’s how bisexuals feel,” there’s a vast gulf between “My relationship is secondary because it looks like this,” and “my relationship looks like this because that’s how secondary relationships look.” There is nothing wrong with labels and there is nothing wrong with descriptive language, as long as the language fits the reality, rather than the reality fitting the language.

As an afterthought, from Shelly: Labels still have descriptive value even in those situations where people’s use of the labels is not 100% accurate. If you say “I don’t call myself ‘bisexual’ because peoplemight believe something that’s not true about me, like I’m promiscuous,” you neglect the fact that if you don’t call yourself ‘bisexual,’ people will definitely believe something that’s not true about you.

The state of the world and other stuff

It pays to advertise

There’s a billboard near my house advertising a local motel. For the past five years or so, every headline on that billboard has been something like “Sleep with me tonight, my wife won’t mind” or “Sleep with my hubby tonight–he’s had 23 since ’93 (awards, that is),” with a picture of the owners beneath the headline.

I always more or less assumed the owners were swingers. The new billboard that recently went up, however, is dominated by an enormous picture of a parrot–and the rest of the billboard, advertising a tie-in with a local attraction, has nothing to do with parrots at all.

Okay, so they’re poly. Cool.

Just me and a baseball bat, Lord, just me and a baseball bat

I have several clients who’re being slammed by the Novarg virus–not because they’re infected, but because their email servers are getting swamped by people who are infected.

It blows my mind that in this day and age people are still dumb enough to download file attachments they get in their email.

Just let me have half an hour alone with the virus writer, just me and him and my baseball bat, please, Lord…

A few whacks of that bat are reserved for Comcast and other broadband service providers who allow their networks to be flooded with the virus and don’t notify the owners of the infected computers, and who connect new customers to broadband without teaching them about firewalls and viruses and phishing scams and Nigerians. I really, really think broadband ISPs should be obligated to tell new customers about these kinds of dangers, and I really, really believe that ISPs who have reason to believe their customers’ machines are infected should disconnect those customers from the Internet until the problem is fixed.

And now for something completely different…

I’m working on a peer-to-peer chat program for Macs and PCs (and soon Linux), mainly because I want to teach myself about TCP/IP networking. I’m also adding encryption to the chat program, largely because i feel I don’t know enough about the nuts and bolts of how encryption works, and I feel I should learn.

It’s been stuck for a while, because I haven’t been able to get the encryption (an implementation of RC4) working properly. I finally had a flash of insight last weekend while I was in Miami for Graphics of the Americas, and two nights ago, I got it to work. Yay me!

Of course, Shelly asked me who needs secure, end-to-end encrypted, point-to-point chat besides kiddie porn dealers, which is an interesting question.

Yes, I know she said it largely in jest, but it deserves a serious answer, because plenty of people feel that encryption in the hands of private citizens benefits only criminals.

I’m not one of those people. i believe that people have certain basic rights to privacy, and that a country which encourages and values free expression must make it safe to express ideas and opinions that are unpopular.

Popular speech doesn’t need protection. Unpopular speech, on the other hand, is a very different matter. i happen to hold unpopular social, religious, and political ideas myself, and I am well aware that there are people in this world who hate me for it and who would, if they had the chance, use those unpopular ideas against me in any way they could. I do not trust those people not to read my mail, listen in on my telephone conversations, and even eavesdrop on my Internet connections if they can, even though all these things are illegal. Those who oppose unpopular speech can’t always be bothered with trivialities like ethics or the law.

I know there are other secure chat applications out there; my own program is mostly an exercise in learning networking and secure encryption. But I do plan to make the newest build available on my Web site when it’s working properly, and if someone can use it to exchange ideas privately, all the better.

San Francisco, finally

So here it is–the long-delayed Post About San Francisco(tm).

I love San Francisco, and every time I’m out there, it’s harder to leave. If it weren’t for the outrageous cost of living, the crushing unemployment, and the fact that the economic landscape is a shambles, I’d be very tempted to live out there.

For me, it’s not really the city that has the appeal; when it comes down tobrass tacks, San Francisco is an inconvenient city. The location is inconvenient, the terrain is inconvenient, Nob Hill is possibly the developed world’s most inconvenient feature… No, it’s the people and the thriving, vibrant, electric culture and sense of community in San Francisco.

And I have Lena (altenra to thank in no small measure for my awareness of what San Francisco has to offer.

This particular trip was all about new people. We met Jay and Lynn, both notworthy figures in the BDSM community (and both, just for the record, absolutely awesome people in real life). We met dawnd, who has mad pizza modding skillz; punzel (sunyata__, I think you’d quite like her–she’s very cool), and their families and cat. We hooked up with Lena and her partner David (and got to introduce them to the violet wand!), with feorlen and roadknight…am I forgetting anybody?

What we didn’t get to do is spend enough time with any of these people. Next time we’re out there, we’ll make that second trip to PE with Lena and David, and get to do more than eat at dawnd‘s place and make a mad dash for the door.

Perhaps I’ll even remember the phone I left at feorlen‘s place.

There are a lot of things about San Francisco I wish I could import to Tampa. Whatever else you can say about San Francisco, good or bad, that place understands community. I don’t care who you are, or what your relationship to the world is–if you’re a masochistic redheaded lesbian Elvis impersonator who reads Kurt Vonnegut, there’s a community in San Francisco where you belong.

And just for fun, here’s Lena, me, and Shelly atop a cliff where Lena’s lab is located:

Maybe next time I’ll get more pictures of people.

Views of San Francisco, Part 1 of 2

San Francisco is an interesting city. I wouldn’t call it “beautiful,” exactly, though parts of it are stunningly gorgeous; but it is a dynamic, living, culturally and socially dynamic city.

The people and experiences I had in San Francisco will have to wait for another post. But these are some of the images of the city as I experienced it, split into two posts for the bandwidth-impaired and with the bulk of the photos tucked safely behind a cut tag.

See the rest: Work-safe