Category: Literature

Should Cecilia have said “insecure” instead of “unsecure”?

In this funny PhD Comic, the main character – Cecilia (the girl in red) – says:

“Do you realize how unsecure your coffee distribution system is?”

That made me wonder – should she have said ‘insecure’?

Even the WordPress spell-checker has a problem with “unsecure”.

It thinks that “unsecure” is a spelling error.

However, the word “insecure” doesn’t sound as if it were the right term to use in the context of computer security.

That is because the word “insecure” is usually used in the context of a person to mean a person who is not confident and self-assured.

To call a computer “insecure” would be a bit like saying that the computer had self-image issues.

Others have written about this cognitive dissonance as well (see http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/19653/insecure-or-unsecure-when-dealing-with-security for a nice discussion).

Given the problem, the author of the cartoon seems to be justified in using a newly-minted word (one not found in any dictionary) in order to describe the lack of security.

This is also very interesting because it throws some light on how words are born.

Before I can explain what I mean, I’ll need you to take a look the Oxford dictionary’s definitions of the word “insecure” (from the Oxford English Dictionary online search at http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/insecure?q=insecure):

insecure

adjective

  • 1   uncertain or anxious about oneself; not confident:  a rather gauche, insecure young man,  a top model who is notoriously insecure about her looks
  • 2   (of a thing) not firm or fixed; liable to give way or break:  an insecure footbridge 

                 not sufficiently protected; easily broken into:  an insecure computer system

  • 3   (of a job or situation) liable to change for the worse; not permanent or settled:  badly paid and insecure jobsa financially insecure period

There are three ways in which the word “insecure” can be used.

The second usage would have been perfect for the context of computer security.

But the first usage might be conflated with the second in that context.

And that is because (sorry, I no longer recall the references to support this claim) computers appear to the human mind to have human-like characteristics (we say things like “Google tells me that …” or “my computer has gone to sleep”).

So, the only word in the dictionary that can do the job – the word “insecure” – has a conflict of interest.

And therefore, a new word needs to be coined that is not susceptible to the same sort of ambiguity.

And if the new word “unsecure” catches on, then one day, the second sense of the word “insecure” could become extinct in the context of computers.

Oh well, “it’s only words!”

POST EDIT

A friend pointed out that the Google NGram Viewer shows a history of the use of the word “unsecure”: http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=unsecure.

The word seems to have been in use between 1650 and 1850 (there is evidence of use in literature), and has in more recent times simply fallen out of circulation (being eclipsed by “insecure” in around 1750).  Thanks, Prashant.

(You can also search for those early usages in books – http://books.google.com/books?id=WmpCAAAAcAAJ&pg=PA12&dq=%22unsecure%22&hl=en&sa=X&ei=aOcLUq7aA-3iyAHu8YGwAg&ved=0CDMQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=%22unsecure%22&f=false)

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H. G. Wells and his use of certain words in connection with the Middle East

I had always thought that words like Jihad came into the English vocabulary very recently until I read a story written by H. G. Wells well over a hundred years ago.

It contained the words:

and from Gobi to Morocco rose the standards of the "Jehad."

I have read many of H. G. Wells’ works of fiction, but I never saw one as full of sad forebodings about the immediate future as “The War in the Air”.

The theme of the story seems to be progress.  Wells argues that progress is not a given, that all the progress of centuries can be reversed if due care is not taken.

Here are some passages from the story:

The accidental balance on the side of Progress was far slighter and
infinitely more complex and delicate in its adjustments than the people
of that time suspected

The following would be quite controversial today:

the growth in their midst of an evil-spirited press, mercenary and
unscrupulous, incapable of good, and powerful for evil.

Quite contrary to our acceptance of the importance of press freedoms today, but there it is.

Wells painted a picture of a very pessimistic outcome from religious divisions in the middle East (and in India, I am sorry to say).

But what is astonishing is that he painted it using terms still in use today.

And Wells lived a hundred years ago.

Anyone who wants to read the story can find it on the Project Gutenberg website: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/780/pg780.txt

A work of literature that plays with word patterns (Melanctha by Gertrude Stein)

This blog post is about a story titled “Melanctha” by Gertrude Stein, a novelist who lived at about the same time as Renoir and Picasso.  Picasso painted a portrait of the author that this blog post is about.  Picasso painted a portrait of the author in eighty sittings that spanned a year, and finally ended by painting out her face and replacing it with a mask.

I recently came across her writings in a book by the name of “Three Lives”.

The description of the writings in the introduction was very intriguing, so I picked up the book.

In the introduction, I read that Gertrude had had a very high opinion of the importance of her writing and had once said “think of the Bible and Homer, think of Shakespeare, and think of me”.  In the introduction, I read that she considered the second story in “Three Lives” about a girl called “Melanctha” to be “the first definitive step away from the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century in literature”.

The story did not disappoint.

The language in “Melanctha” was very different from anything I’ve ever read, and it produced a very pleasant sensation.  The language was very different, and it’s about the language that I want to write.

One interesting thing about the language is that in some parts phrase patterns appear in pairs and with a rhythm.

Here is an example of the pairing of sentences that is so interesting in the language:

“Jeff Campbell sat in his room, very quiet, a long time, after he got through reading this letter.  He sat very still and first he was very angry.  As if he, too, did not know very badly what it was to suffer keenly.  As if he had not been very strong to stay with Melanctha when he knew what it was that she really wanted.  He knew he was very right to be angry, he knew he really had not been a coward.  He knew Melanctha had done many things it was very hard for him to forgive her”

In some parts, the repetition gives rise to sentences like.

“Good night now, Dr. Campbell, I call you if I need you later to help me, Dr. Campbell, I hope you rest well, Dr. Campbell.”

I found an essay on Stein’s work online that said that Stein had tried to write memory-less literature, where the literature kept itself always in the present by not relying on the reader’s memories of past sentences.

But it seemed to me that there was a sort of similarity with impressionist painting if you considered the granularity of language used in rendering the story.

What Gertrude’s writing had in common with impressionist paintings, it seemed to me, was a form of broad, rough brush-strokes.

So, it seemed to me that the phrases that were often repeated in quick succession, fused within themselves to became separate units of expression, and therefore the smallest units of expression that Gertrude’s stories were built of were not single words, but phrases made of many words, making the language richer and more beautiful.

There was also a certain musicality in the prose.  There was a certain way for certain phrases to be repeated time and again, like a musical theme, for example, the line “what you mean by what you were saying” which, with its variants appears time and time again in the story.

Finally, I found it hilarious to read in the story a passage that was very similar to things that Ramana Maharishi and Osho had said about “thinking” that I had quoted in an older blog post in November https://aiaioo.wordpress.com/2012/11/22/contradictions-in-some-thoughts-on-thinking/.

I had quoted the following:

To bring about peace means to be free from thoughts and to abide as Pure Consciousness. ~ Sri Ramana Maharshi

Thoughts can create such a barrier that even if you are standing before a beautiful flower, you will not be able to see it. Your eyes are covered with layers of thought. To experience the beauty of the flower you have to be in a state of meditation, not in a state of mentation. You have to be silent, utterly silent, not even a flicker of thought – and the beauty explodes, reaches to you from all directions. You are drowned in the beauty of a sunrise, of a starry night, of beautiful trees.  ~ Osho

I had quoted the above and commented that those who wrote that must have thought a lot about thinking.

In the story “Melanctha” there was a meme that was similar to the above lines that I had quoted.

I quote from the story:

“Don’t you ever stop with your thinking long enough ever to have any feeling Jeff Campbell,” said Melanctha a little sadly.