Moving Mountains to Overcome Cultural Stasis

Posted on 18th October 2007 by Ryan Somma in Enlightenment Warrior - Tags: ,
Querty VS Dvorak
Querty VS Dvorak

Keyboard layoutsThe Metric SystemBase number systemsWhere to sneeze… I’ve been wrestling with a lot of obsolete cultural artifacts in the last few weeks. All of these subjects are examples of society adhering to overly-complex, inefficient, or just plain wrong cultural standards.

We make life complicated for a our children because it was complicated for us. We invested the time and effort into learning Imperial Measurements, QWERTY, and the two-party political system; so rather than adapt to a simpler, intuitive system at some midpoint in life, we force the younger generations to adopt our stupidity.

In a bit of conceptual synchronicity, I stumbled across an Isaac Asimov article from 1982, “A Question of Spelling,” this week, where he blames America’s high illiteracy rates on the absurdity of the English language’s spelling and grammar. The fact that the words “‘through,’ ‘coo,’ ‘do,’ ‘true,’ ‘knew,’ and ‘queue'” all rhyme, and can be written phonetically as “‘throo,’ ‘koo,’ ‘doo,’ ‘troo,’ ‘nyoo,’ and ‘kyoo'” is pretty damning evidence against the nonsensical, haphazard complete lack of architecture behind our system for spelling.

“i” before “e” except after “c.” With the exceptions: caffeine, casein, codeine, phenolphthalein, phthalein, protein, ancied, policies, conscience, prescient, ancient, efficiency, deindustrialize, reignite, being, seeing, swingeing

…and SCIENCE. Why are so many Americans illiterate? Because the English language sucks ass.

One of the most convincing arguments I’ve heard for why English will become the dominant world language is that Westerners are incapable or unwilling to learn another language. We’re lazy, we buy the most useless crap, and if anyone wants us to buy from them, they better speak our language. This is the sad reality of cultural norms: our lowest common denominators define them.

Don’t believe it? Go channel surf the non-cable channels for fifteen minutes and come back here. Now we’re on the same wavelength.

Society has a mini reboot switch built into it that prevents it from total stagnation: death and birth. New generations adapt completely to their environment, while the older, inflexible generations die and make room for growth; thus, civilization grows and matures. A civilization who’s members never die would itself croak on its obsolescence.

Things will get better, but first the stasis generation must relinquish control. They’ve really made a mess of things. National Debt, War, ridiculous social policies… but what could we expect from people who can’t program a VCR? There’s light at the end of the tunnel though, the First Baby Boomer filed for Social Security recently. Now we just need to herd the rest of them off to the old folks home (Sorry Mom and Dad).

The Baby Boomers are a wash, but there’s no reason Generation X can’t take up the cause of changing at least a few cultural standards. We lived through the cultural shock of migrating into the Information Age after all. Information Technology’s mercurial nature creates standards that are a moving target. We in the IT world (ie. “Your Betters”), must constantly adapt to new coding standards, new technologies, and new innovations. We know how to adapt.

It’s true the Millenials were born into a world of perpetual, fluidity. To them, change is the norm. As progress accelerates, future generations will become more adaptable. There’s hope for Dvorak, Metric, and Independent Political Parties.

In the meantime, Gen-Xers should prove that old dogs can learn new tricks. Let’s start with something simple, lazy, and true to our rebellious reputation.

Lik spelling theengs fonetically!

“A Question of Spelling,” Isaac Asimov, appeared in Popular Computing, June 1982.


  1. swingeing? really?

    Comment by Clint — October 18, 2007 @ 11:36 pm

  2. Funny thing — with the advent of so-called ‘leetspeak’ or ‘IM-speak’, people actually ARE going a bit closer to fonetically spelling things… d00d.

    Now did you read that article recently about how the half-life of irregular verbs is inversely proportional to the frequency of their use? fascinating…

    Comment by Clint — October 18, 2007 @ 11:39 pm

  3. (I liked this post a lot, by the way.)

    Comment by Clint — October 18, 2007 @ 11:40 pm

  4. I’ve got yah hat-tipped for the link to the Mathematical Model for predicting past-tense use. That’s some fascinating stuff.

    l33t speak!!! Why didn’t I think of that? That’s a great example of phoenetical spelling! So are the LOLCats, in a bizarre, funny way. I think spelling pisses me off, because I r so bad at it. : )

    Comment by ideonexus — October 22, 2007 @ 2:33 pm

  5. Yea, the internet has, in a way, turned the people who define a language from “scholarly writers” to “everyday schlubs”. The language might start teh suck if we aren’t careful.

    I am still wondering what “swingeing” is, if you care to humor me.

    Comment by Clint — October 22, 2007 @ 3:55 pm

  6. Ummm… It’s a word I found on wikipedia. : )

    One sec… Okay, according to, it means to beat the crap out of someone in a very British manner (ie. to “give them a good thrashing” or “thumping” or some other European manner of bullying).

    Comment by ideonexus — October 22, 2007 @ 10:11 pm

  7. That’s freakin’ awesome. Thanks :)

    Comment by Clint — October 22, 2007 @ 11:25 pm

  8. (big impatient sigh) It’s not just the culinary world that would suffer by switching to a metric metric. It’s simple logic: having a base-12 system that allows you to build to half, third, fourth, and sixth ratios is MUCH more flexible than one that only allows half and fifth! Think Carpentry, Architecture, Sphere Math (I’m sure there’s a smartguy term for that.) Not to mention TIME! You’re a math dude…for everyday use, Imperial is simply PRACTICAL! Yes, for science, ONLY metric will do. But climb down off that ivory tower, my friend!

    Oh, and as for phonetic spelling. It would only work if we had an alphabet that actually reflected the sounds incoporated in the English language AND if regional accents could somehow be eliminated. Ben Franklin tried to remedy this (, and I remember learning in Russian from Mr. Kobyljanec that a Russian who grew up in the north of Russia would pronounce an unfamiliar word presented to him in Cyrillic in exactly the same way as a Russian who grew up in the South. Don’t know if it’s true, but Mr. K believed it with a passion. But how are you going to agree on phonetic spelling when signs in Boston would tell you to pahk ya cah and signs in Atlanta would tell you to pawak yuh cawa?

    Food for thought. Or, if you prefer…füd fur ?ot.

    Comment by flyingsirkus — October 23, 2007 @ 11:11 pm

  9. I totally agree that a base-12 system would be awesome for measurements. It’s terrific for keeping time and measuring angles, too bad Imperial Standard is not base-12. There are 12 inches in a foot, 3 feet in a yard, and 1760 yards in a mile. Imperial Standard isn’t base anything, and that’s the problem with it. There’s no rhyme or reason, no consistent way to relate units, and no reason anyone should have to memorize dozens of numbers to relate those unrelated units.

    There are 1,000 liters in a cubic meter because metric is base-10. How many cubic inches are in a gallon? How does that number relate the two measurements in a manner consistent with all other measurements within Imperial Standard?

    Regional dialects is a great counterpoint to phonetics, but one that’s growing increasingly irrelevant as everyone in America starts speaking the same accent (See here, here, and here). Yes Northeasterners, Southeasterners, and Midwesterners all still have minorities of people who talk funny speak, but that’s because these people aren’t part of the WWW dialogue. People who watch TV, listen to the radio, and are otherwise plugged into modern media all speak with the same accent.

    If someone says to me, “Yah’ll mossy’n dan tan?” I may safely assume this person still asks the operator to make his calls for him and is definitely not reading my blog. : )

    Comment by ideonexus — October 23, 2007 @ 11:56 pm

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