The Dictionary Story

(I’m still procrastinating on “The three stories that made me stop reading Asimov’s” but I am slowly working on it.)

Back in the late ’80’s when I was an Intern at RCA Missile and Surface Radar, I worked with a couple of rather old engineers. One thing I learned was that really old engineers spent a lot more time getting their retirement accounts in order than actually engineering…. But for a while I was working in the main building rather than the trailers. And they had an amazing reference library there that I still sometimes wish I had access to. Browsing original bound issues of the Bell System Technical Journal was kinda cool, at least to a 19 year old me still in the Electrical/Computer Engineering track. (These days they can be found online). But they also had some rather old reference books in the hands of the engineers as well, for desk reference, even if they didn’t really need them.

To wit: Both of these guys had copies of the Webster’s New World Dictionary. Physically, these dictionaries were identical, blue cloth-covered hardbacks with the logo embossed and painted into the front cover. The difference was one was a 1932 edition, and the other was published in 1948. One slow day I had a chance to amuse myself by comparing various entries in the two. (We had no smartphones in those days to occupy our every idle moment, nor even real internet connectivity. It would be another five years before I got my first account).

I looked up “Yen” in the 1932 edition. It said, “The Japanese currency, valued at about 50 cents.” 1948 said, “The Japanese currency, valued at 360 to the dollar.” I know these days it more or less runs about 100 to the dollar. But it was an interesting historical lesson. I’d later found out that the 360 value was an artifact of the Occupation – MacArthur was told that the word for money also meant round (Hence the Japanese hand gesture for money that looks a lot like the OK sign, as opposed to the western gesture of rubbing your thumb and forefingers like you were sliding a couple of bills against each other.) so round = 360 degrees = 360 yen to the dollar, and that rate was fixed until we left.

I never would have learned that without having different hard-copy editions of the same dictionary to compare. Those books were snapshots in time.

Of course, being a callow youth, I also tried looking up naughty words. And that was a real revelation. When I looked up “Masturbation”, the 1948 edition gave a straightforward and fairly clinical definition. However, the 1932 definition is what really shocked me. One expects the dictionary to be unflinchingly honest and factual and tell you exactly what a word means without editorializing, but this was not so. The 1932 edition of Webster’s New World Dictionary defined “Masturbation” with just two words: “Self Pollution.”

What the hell did that even mean? Apparently that was enough to satisfy the editors in 1932. They included the word because it was a real word, but gave it a definition right out of an evangelical tent revival. The message being “We know you know what this really means, because you’re looking it up, but this is what we think of it, and you should be ashamed.” This is the shocked face of a teenaged me learning that even the editors of dictionaries would allow bias to creep into their work. (Or perhaps creep is the wrong word, I should consult a dictionary…).

The reason this story came back to me as something to write about is because of some recent events. You see, even though eventually the editors of Webster’s, at least for a time, decided that brave factuality was what people needed in reference books instead of proselytizing, the pendulum swings. But when you’re talking about physical books, publishing a revision does not make the older editions cease to exist. People can compare them, and that keeps you honest. Not so much today, where digital references can be revised, editorialized, and even vandalized on a continuous basis, and often there is no record of what came before. In an ideal world, online references like Wikipedia would only be revised by enlightened individuals who want to openly contribute their knowledge of a subject to the world, on a purely factual basis. Okay, stop laughing. We have seen what happens when political factions organize to control the “Narrative” and seize the institutions like Academia, the Media, and yes, even the Dictionary into the service of their side. And it doesn’t help when the other side still believes that factual information will win out simply because it is based in the real world, and thus don’t want to take on the organized opposition, they’d rather just be left alone, and thus they also remain unorganized.

Brandolini’s Law also becomes a factor:

You can exhaust yourself trying to refute the garbage that your opposition throws at the wall like a toddler throws spaghetti, waiting to see what sticks. Eventually you retire from the field and the opposition goes wild making all the bullshit stick. Just read the Wikipedia Entries on Sad Puppies or GamerGate or even the Trump administration if you want to see what one-sided editorialization looks like instead of the purported Neutral Point of View that is supposed to be the hallmark.

“But wait, Dr. Mauser,” you might say (or probably not), “You started with the Dictionary, The frigging Dictionary man, why are you talking about Wikipedia? Even Wikipedia says that it shouldn’t be treated like an original source.”

Why? Because what happens when something that is supposed to be as rock solid and reliable as the Dictionary turns into a corrupted political propaganda engine like Wikipedia? Astute watchers are seeing that with Webster’s Online Dictionary. It’s one thing for a reference to try to remain on top of the current vernacular, and take advantage of the immediacy of a continuously updatable database to follow the trends. It’s quite another when you debase that reputation for reliability and factuality to try to lead the narrative by redefining terms in favor of a particular political agenda.

One example is the word Vaccine. Since Covid-19 started, people have watched the definition of “Vaccine” go through at least three revisions that softened the definition from providing immunity to “Helping reduce the severity of an infection.” (paraphrased). Similarly, the definition of “Anti-Vaxxer” has been expanded from originally being a person opposed to the use of vaccines, to also include anyone who is opposed to laws/regulations mandating them (One of the revisions cataloged noted that the mandate was not actually a law, so Webster’s scratched Law and substituted Regulation).

What’s worse is that unlike Wikipedia, which at least includes a revision history, every change Webster’s makes throws the previous definition down the Memory Hole. There is no 1932 edition to compare it to to see where the bias was or crept in. There isn’t even a 1984 edition. If it weren’t for people keeping an eye out for these things, you might not even notice as the bias became woven throughout the entire database. And the edits aren’t signed, so we don’t know who is under the Scooby-Doo mask. (“See, it was old man Webster who was really editing all the dictionaries.” “And I would have gotten away with it too if it weren’t for you meddling kids!”) I won’t be too surprised when it turns out that posting “Outdated” screenshots from Webster’s is grounds for a “Misinformation” ban on Twitter and Facebook.

The thing is, if you’re the custodian of what is meant to be a reference, you are obligated to maintain a purely factual and politically neutral point of view. Objectivity is the watchword. Those Bell System Technical Journals would have been useless as an engineering reference if all the articles were just people slagging other people’s ideas because they rubbed each other the wrong way, and documenting how they wished circuits worked instead of conducting empirical tests. The Dictionary and the Encyclopedia must hold themselves to the same standard. The gift of the move to electronic media enables them to avoid being out of date, but it is a foundational error to use that revisability as a political bludgeon. Of course, some of the blame lands on us, for expecting our institutions to remain true to themselves simply because of what they are, when what they are has been rendered infinitely mutable. However what the other side fails to realize is that as they trade on the institutions’ reputation for being true and factual to clothe their opinions with the imprimatur of truth, the more they debase and diminish the reputation of those institutions, leaving nothing that people can rely on for honesty.

After all, if you can’t trust the Dictionary, who can you trust?

Alan Richard Chandler

My father died last week. He was just short of 91 years old.

Born in the summer of 1930, he was the son of a tool and die maker for the Waltham Watch company, the finest grade of machinist there is. He grew up in New England, and went on to earn a Master’s degree in Mathematics from Boston University. He found employment with the Mitre Corporation, working on early computers like the Whirlwind and on intercept radar systems. On a trip to the Smithsonian we saw parts of the Whirlwind on display, and told me about how it worked (Did you know that ferrite core memory is destructive read?). He told me about those early days in radar as well. On a beach in Massachusetts they set up their first system. And the first time they turned it on, the antenna started moving and tracking, but the test aircraft weren’t anywhere near yet. It turned out the system was tracking a seagull. When they did conduct the test, they gave vectors to the pursuit aircraft, and when they should have intercepted, the pilot couldn’t see the target aircraft, until they suddenly realized it was a mere 20 feet below him. Their vectors were just a trifle too accurate.

He was doing pretty well for himself, and met a pretty young woman named Cynthia who worked as a bank teller. He had a brand new DeSoto, and had insisted the dealer install seat belts, which were not standard in 1959. It was around Christmas, and the roads were wet and snowy as he drove to see her the night he planned to propose. But there was a disabled car hidden under an unlit underpass. Had it not been for the decision to install those seat belts, this story would be a whole lot shorter. The proposal was delayed a few days, but accepted, and their marriage lasted nearly sixty years, until cancer finally took her after its fourth try in 2017.

Together, they had four children. I’m the third, and the only son. The vagaries of his career sent him to Polaroid and IBM (I have one of the original IBM think pads, a leather-bound pad of paper with the word THINK embossed on the cover), but in 1972, a job with RCA Missile and Surface Radar working on the AEGIS system uprooted the family and landed us in Cherry Hill, NJ, where they remained until all of us children had left for college.

Growing up in 1970’s suburbia was not a horrible thing, not at all the hell some millennial might imagine. True, we didn’t have cable TV, and only about 7 channels between VHF and UHF. There was no internet. And when you used the phone, you called a place and asked if a person was there, rather than calling a person directly on their electronic leash. We played outside and came in when the streetlights turned on, and there were “The Creek” and “The Trails”, where development would take another couple of decades to encroach, where we could play, and build and re-build a tree fort with scrounged scrap wood from construction sites in that one tree that everyone seemed to pick (until some idiot sawed off the lowest branch). The Creek is in a culvert now, and half of the Trails is a retirement village, and the other half is a hiking park with marked and paved walking routes, and I’m sure the rusted hulks of abandoned cars with trees growing through them that we used as landmarks, which dated back to the time it was all farmland, have been cleared out. But back then, that’s where you went for independence and adventure, where you jumped your bikes and explored the banks.

But at home, my dad was always there for me. “Daddy”, actually, although eventually I outgrew that. He always had time for me, and gave me so much. When I was 8, he gave me my first camera, which had been his first camera. It was a Kodak Retina I, and I still have it, and the Leica III-G he upgraded to. He taught me how to develop black and white film and print pictures, and he built a special folding table to set up in the bathroom to use as a darkroom. He taught me woodworking, and built a workbench for me right next to his in the basement. He had an amazing ability to build furniture from his head, with little in the way of written drawings – at best a few notes or a sketch. I still have two end tables and a bookcase he built. When I was 11, he got me into the Boy Scouts. Troop 147 was a very active, year-round camping troop. And as a family, we took camping vacations every summer, so it was a natural fit. But as a father and son activity, he was always there. Not necessarily hovering over me, like some of today’s helicopter parents, but supporting me. And as I moved up the ranks and moved into more responsibility, he built a loft in the garage to store the troop’s equipment when I became Troop Quartermaster, and designed some seriously tough kitchen boxes for all the patrols, and built a few Klondike Derby sleds as well. He kept up his support until I finally earned my Eagle Scout badge at 18.

In High School, I was on the Stage Crew. But this was no mere Drama Club level crew. Our stage was the second largest in the state, so we had some actual professional level work to do. Some of us even got paid. Aside from some major school productions, and all the concerts, we had all the recitals from the local dance schools, and even the Miss New Jersey pageant. And he supported me in this, maybe because it helped build a work ethic, or perhaps because it was a social outlet. If I was at a cast party after a show, and it was really late, I could call and he’d pick me up, no questions asked (although usually I could get a ride home, and once I started driving, that was no longer an issue.)

Because of his position at RCA, when I scored well on the PSAT, I qualified for a National Merit Scholarship sponsored by them. And since Drexel had a Co-op program where you spent half a year studying, and half the year in internships, I worked two internships at at RCA-M&SR. But when my grades came crashing down, he was there at the other end of the phone to console me, and even though I had to change majors, I still ended up in the software industry. (Until the software industry crashed in 2000-2001). Alas, the one thing he wasn’t able to pass on to me was his mastery of Math.

He taught me to be ethical, and to tell the truth. “I’m very disappointed in you,” could be a harsher punishment than any spanking, and then he’d set me on course to make things right. I learned camping and canoeing and fishing (We took trips, just the two of us sometimes). I did inherit his amazing ability to pack a huge amount of gear into a tiny space.

But perhaps the greatest gift he gave me was a love of reading, and science fiction and fantasy were at the core of it. Perhaps my fondest memory of my dad was when he was reading me The Lord of the Rings as a bedtime story, and I would be leaning my head against his chest and hear his voice rumbling in there as he read to me about Tom Bombadil. I had a map of Middle Earth tacked to the wall in my bedroom, and another of Narnia. We were not particularly religious, so when I read the Chronicles of Narnia, the Christian allegory was wasted on me, but they were a fine adventure. There was always money when they brought out the Scholastic Book Club catalog at school. I think the earliest one of those I remember was The Forgotten Door. And then when I was 8 or 9, I started on Heinlein’s juveniles. Orphans of the Sky was the first. When I was that young, I only read it as a straight adventure. When I re-read it at 21, I saw a whole lot more about what was going on. I re-read it again on my Kindle a few years ago and saw even more aspects of it that I had missed. Then there was Niven’s “Known Space”, and Pohl’s “Heechee”, Piper’s “Little Fuzzies.” All these books he had waiting for me on the shelves. I read voraciously. The library at my elementary school had a good run of Tom Swift Jr. And I even made my way through all the Hardy Boys books, and even Nancy Drew (and these were the older editions too, although I don’t think the rewriting had been too severe in the 60’s when those editions must have been published).

Our summer camping trips often ended up with the whole family sitting around the campsite reading. Alas, the lack of available alternatives forced me to make my way through all 6 Thomas Covenant books. It was a dark time….

With all the children grown, and all of their daughters married, they retired to a small house in Audubon, NJ. They spent a lot of time traveling and camping, although as they got older, they gave up the tents for trailers, and then conversion vans and bigger trailers, and then a full-blown motor home. But eventually that was too much for them. Mom’s health was failing, and alas, Dad’s mind was being claimed by time. Living on the other side of the country, there was little I could do beyond the occasional phone call. The one exception being their 50th anniversary, when my oldest sister arranged a trip for them to the Jersey shore (Mom loved the beach), and surprised them by having all the rest of us in a rented Condo next door, show up in their room just as they settled in. It was probably the last time I saw my dad while he was recognizable as the man he was.

The last time I saw him was a few years ago. I visited my youngest sister over the Christmas break, and we drove up to see him in the home he’d been moved to after mom died. Senile Dementia had left him barely a shadow of the man who had figured so prominently in my life. His not remembering me during our phone calls had not prepared me for seeing him that way, bent and shrunken, repeating the names of his children as a litany as if to remember them, but not knowing that two of them were standing right there before him. It broke my heart. And even as much as I thought I was prepared for this day, it’s bringing me to tears trying to write this now.

I was named after him, after a fashion. He didn’t want me to be Al Jr. so they swapped his given names. One of my greatest regrets is that I wasn’t able to give him a grandson. I would have started one of those horrible family traditions and swapped the names back. In my writing, I used my full name just to honor him, even if by that point, he was no longer able to read.

I guess while I was so far away, I could imagine everything was okay, but now he’s gone and the illusion will no longer stand. I miss my dad.

Quick Update

One of the usual precursors of the death of a blog is the post that begins “Sorry it’s been so long since I last updated.” But, Sorry it’s been so long since I last updated. Which is pretty sad when you were only shooting for quarterly posts.

Actually, the reason is because I decided to take on a really, really horrible task, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of it. For years I’ve been promising to write up “The three stories that made me give up on Asimov’s” and alas, I have finally located them, and the preceding story for one of them, and a Bonus story too. The only problem is, to do them justice (“Hangin’s too good fer ’em”) I have to actually RE-READ them. And that’s almost a bridge too far….

So you can understand my reticence.

In other news, I’m watching with slight interest how the upcoming WorldCon is unraveling. It just might be that this year’s Hugos will be the one that actually deserves an Asterisk, because they might not manage to have one. One part of the problem is that they managed to drive off the part of the staff that has actual experience running conventions, and the other is the dust-up over the newest fan awards that allow them to bring in everybody, his brother, and their dog in under the umbrella of the nomination, threatening to bankrupt the con under the weight in numbers of people attending the banquet and getting other amenities normally accorded to nominees.

There’s also a notable lack of nominees from any of the venues people actually have to pay for, you know, the SF magazines that have been the cornerstone of the genre since before it was even properly named. Yup, they took over the Hugos, and instead of using them to award the creators of SF, they’re using them to give awards to themselves and all their friends.

This of course assumes the con doesn’t get cancelled for Covid paranoia, or goes disastrously virtual like the last time.

Fun times….

Quick update to the quick update.

The Hugo Noms are out, and I can see why the con chair resigned. One of the nominees has nearly NINETY people listed as being a part of it. If they all showed up, with their +1 for the banquet, at a typical $30/head…. That’s in the range of $5400 just to feed that one nominee group. That’s a budget buster right there.

The other telling thing is they gave a vote range for the nominations it took to get on the shortlist. Those numbers were very low. Of course, with the new math, it’s hard to say if the nominee got a lot of .2 votes or a smaller but denser number of 1.0 votes, since now instead of picking five, you get to divide your one vote up. Let’s just say the totals were so low it was possible that group of 90 voted themselves a nomination all by themselves.

Now the fact that TOR.com swept a Category or two should not be compared in any way to the Sad Puppies. After all, this had to be totally legit because of the crazy new nomination system. Absolutely totally legit. Just like all other voting that took place recently. TOR.com can’t help it if the rest of the sf world just sucks… as far as the minuscule Hugo Electorate cares.