Welcome to XX10!

So, the new year’s begun.

It seems most people will be calling it twenty ten. How unimaginative! In fact, I’ve tried, unsuccessfully so far, to introduce my own little name for it, namely, Double X Ten, i.e. twenty = XX (and) ten. However, it doesn’t seem to be catching on.

(Come to think of it, I guess it could be called Triple X, too, or XXX, i.e. twenty = XX, ten = X. Ha!)

Is illegal copying of software theft?

If I take a DVD with a piece of software on it, without the owner’s approval, then everyone would agree that it is an act of theft. But if I only copy the disc’s content, or download it over the internet, and thus do not deprive the owner of any physical object, is it still theft?

The most basic understanding of theft would be when you take possession of someone’s physical property without that someone’s approval, be it a car, a wallet, or some jewels. Prototypically theft involves touchable things, but it can also extend to nonphysical things. For instance, you can illegally empty someone else’s bank account without actually moving any physical coins or money around. It would still be theft, even though no physical objects are involved. In both cases, you would have deprived the rightful owner of something of value.

But can the concept of ‘theft’ be extended to illegal copying and downloading of software? Clearly you have not deprived the owner of anything physical or even digital. You have merely copied it. The software itself is still there in its original place, so how can it be theft?

If I steal a physical DVD with software on it, it is not the disc itself I want. It’s the content of the disc that I want. If I illegally copy or download it, I’m after the same thing. The fact that I’m not taking the software with its physical container/carrier seems irrelevant to me. I have illegally transferred something into my possession that doesn’t belong to me. I have thereby also unduly benefited from someone else’s property. I have infringed on the legal owner’s right to control it’s distribution. Does this amount to theft? Instinctively I would say yes, it does.

Now, I can understand if people object to this. It’s common to treat words and their meanings as fixed points in the universe. If you have a fixed concept of the word ‘theft’, and try to apply that to illegal copying/downloading, then you would naturally conclude that illegal copying is not an act of theft because you’re not depriving the owner of the thing you’re making a copy of.

But words and meanings are not fixtures. Nor should they be treated as such. The world around us changes all the time, and so we must constantly re-negotiate our vocabulary to match it. Otherwise our language would eventually be useless.

The meaning of ‘theft’ relies on (at least) three concepts, namely, property, ownership and possession, as well as on how those concepts are transferred between keeper and taker. When the idea of theft was originally thought up (an occasion now long lost to history), there were no digital products around. Now there are. I can have ownership and possession of a physical thing like a car, and I can have ownership and possession of a digital product like a piece of software or a digital recording.

A piece of software cannot normally change hands in a physical sense, only copied. That is, while you can transfer the ownership of software, you cannot physically transfer the property itself. You can copy it and then delete the original, but unless you transfer the software’s physical carrier/container, the software by itself cannot be transferred.

If the concept of ‘theft’ depends necessarily on the illegal transfer of the property itself, it should by implication never be possible to steal digital products. To me, there’s something wrong, and obsolete, about that. In principle, anything that can be possessed can also be stolen. It really isn’t that much of a stretch to re-think the idea of ‘theft’ to include illegal copying/downloading. We need to focus on theft as an act of illegally taking possession of a property, and only that. The physical transfer of the property itself does not have to be involved.

I should perhaps emphasize that I’m not talking about the legal definition of ‘theft’ here. I’m trying to understand a colloquial usage of the word ‘theft’, in particular my own. And to be quite frank, I’m not even sure that I’m all that categorical about it. Perhaps we do need a new word for this. I guess my only point is that it’s at least not impossible to think of illegal copying/downloading as an act of theft.

Don’t say he’s foreign

Here’s an odd bit of language usage.

What qualifies something or someone to be of a "foreign persuasion"? In its most literal interpretation, you would expect it to refer to someone being influenced by a foreigner, a foreign nation, or otherwise something foreign. After some googling, it seems clear that that is in fact also how many people use it.

However, the phrase has another usage, too, and an odd one at that. For some people, it’s a roundabout way of referring to foreign (and foreigner?), as when writing about "films of the independent and foreign persuasion", or the "foreign persuasion in NASCAR" (referring to foreign-born drivers). Can NASCAR drivers be persuaded to become foreign-born?

In those contexts, "foreign persuasion" doesn’t refer to any particular opinions (as in Christian persuasion), or people who have been persuaded into believing or doing something. It’s simply used as a tortuous alternative to foreign.

When did foreign become a derogatory word in English?

How literal is literal?

Have you noticed that literally doesn’t literally mean ‘literally’ anymore?

It’s now quite frequently used as a general intensifier. I’ve only recently begun to notice it in phrases like I literally died laughing and I literally worked myself to death. Online dictionaries say this is an "informal" usage.

Compact English Dictionary:

1. in a literal manner or sense
2. informal used for emphasis (rather than to suggest literal truth)

Cambridge International Dictionary of English:

1. used to emphasize what you are saying
  <He missed that kick literally by miles>
  <I was literally bowled over by the news>
2. simply or just
  <Then you literally cut the sausage down the middle>

Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary:

1. in a literal sense or manner : actually
  <took the remark literally>
  <was literally insane>
2. in effect : virtually
  <will literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty or injustice — Norman Cousins>

They add:

Since some people take sense 2 to be the opposite of sense 1, it has been frequently criticized as a misuse. Instead, the use is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.

None of my readily available print dictionaries mention this "informal" usage, although the thesaurus part of Collins dictionary and thesaurus (publ. 1987) lists actually and really under literally, words which can similarly be used for emphasis. Also, one of my English-Swedish dictionaries, Engelsk-Svensk ordbok by Kärre, Lindqvist, Nöjd & Redin, publ. 1938, does add "fullkomligt" (meaning ‘entirely’) as a possible translation for literally, but labels it "familjärt" (i.e. colloquial).

It’s use for emphasis must be fairly new. At least I’ve just started noticing it, although that’s admittedly no proof of anything but my observational skills. However, older dictionaries don’t seem to recognise it at all. For instance, the online version of Webster’s 1828 dictionary says:

1. According to the primary and natural import of words; not figuratively.
  <A man and his wife cannot be literally one flesh>
2. With close adherence to words; word by word.
  <So wild and ungovernable a poet cannot be translated literally.>

(The same appears in the online version of Webster’s 1913 edition.)

Anyway, I’m not opposing this (new?) usage. The fact that words change meaning is an inevitable and natural feature of any living language. It’s a sign of health. Word meanings are only stable in dead languages.

Slips of the tongue: read vs wrote

I’ve noticed that I sometimes mix read (past tense) and wrote. When intending to say I just read a good book, I might say I just wrote a good book instead. Or, instead of saying I just wrote a letter, I could just as well say I just read a letter. This has bugged me for some time. I refuse to believe that I’m going crazy. That just can’t be.

The curious thing is that I only seem to mix the past tense forms (read, wrote), and never the present tense forms (read, write). At least I can’t ever recall having made a mix involving present tense forms.

The fact that read and write are semantically linked concepts certainly plays a part, but apparently not sufficiently so in order to cause the mixing by itself. Otherwise I would be making mistakes involving the present tense forms, too. But I don’t. I’m pretty sure about that. Hence the answer must be something else, or at least something additional to that.

The best explanation I can come up with is that my brain links the two past tense forms via a chain of associations that looks something like this:

READ (past tense)
sounds like
means the same things as
ROT (German)
sounds like

Indeed, that’s a perfectly logical chain of associations via phonetics, semantics (plus a little bit of phonetics), and phonetics again. And it works both ways, of course. The fact that it involves two languages (English and German) may seem a bit unintuitive at first, but really isn’t. I did study German for seven years, after all.

How’s that for a home-spun theory.

There are no ethnic conflicts in Africa

Why is it that people persist in labelling African conflicts “ethnic”?

Virtually any African conflict is immediately labelled “ethnic” (or worse, “tribal”) without any deeper consideration of the actualities involved. The rioting in Kenya following the elections in late 2007 were referred to as ethnic. The Rwandan Genocide is still often referred to as an ethnic conflict, even though there were no ethnic groups involved. But hey, it’s Africans. And they’re fighting. Ergo it must be ethnic/tribal.

It is true, of course, that some people invoke ethnicity as some sort of justification when making decisions (political or otherwise), or when applying simplistic (often post-hoc) explanations to otherwise complex social issues. Politicians are usually guilty of the former, journalists of the latter.

But, the fact that there are ethnic groups in Africa (like anywhere else in the world, incl. Europe) does not justify labelling African conflicts ethnic. Ethnicity is/was not a causing (or even relevant) factor in Rwanda, nor in Kenya, nor in Sudan, nor anywhere else in Africa. When it comes to conflicts, ethnicity is, and always has been, a pseudo-issue.

Conflicts in Africa, just like everywhere else in the world, have their roots in issues dealing with access to power and resources, not people’s ethnicities. It would be much more apt to use labels like “political” or even “social” instead, in as much as any single label can be valid.

Labelling African conflicts ethnic is not only wrong. It is evil. It perpetuates harmful misconceptions about African conflicts in particular, and Africa and Africans in general. It makes most people think of African conflicts as if they are some sort of spontaneous, inexplicable outbursts of violence born out of age-old “ethnic rivalries”. This image stems from old colonial desires to impose “proper” law and order in Africa. Fighting is just something they do down there. They can’t help it. It’s part of their culture. Why else would people refer to the conflicts as “ethnic”?

By comparison, the different sides in the Northern Ireland conflict divide themselves (largely) along religious lines. You have the Protestant on one side, and you have the Catholics on the other. Does that make the Northern Ireland conflict a religious conflict? Is religion a key factor in the conflict? Is religion a causing factor? Does the Northern Ireland conflict become more understandable if we think of it as a religious conflict? No, of course it doesn’t. There are religious components involved, sure, but religion is not causing the conflict, nor is it a particularly important factor. It would be simplistic and irresponsible to reduce the Northern Ireland conflict to a matter of religion.

Similarly, African conflicts cannot be reduced to a matter of ethnicity. Ethnicity is not a causing factor. It’s intellectually irresponsible to single out ethnicity as an all-important factor in African conflicts. It’s not. It’s about politics, power, resources. Referring to African conflicts as ethnic is just as inaccurate and irresponsible as labelling the Northern Ireland conflict religious.