That vs Which: examples that compare apples to apples, which will help you out.

Many people take the loose view that grammar and language evolves over time, and therefore you should go with whatever sounds right. Others argue the that/which distinction has basically disappeared. I want to do a comparison to prove once and for all the distinction is necessary. It isn’t preference. They aren’t interchangeable. The meaning of the sentence gets changed by swapping one for the other.

Let me be clear. I am not some obsessive grammar person. I kind of suck at it. But the way people dismiss this point as unimportant and a matter of personal taste (including professional editors!) drives me crazy. It isn’t taste. It’s important.

Many great sources fail miserably in describing the difference between that and which. I’m looking at you Grammar Girl (I love you for everything else) and you Chicago Manual of Style (an excellent doorstop as well). I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a source that gives you the same sentence with “that” and “which” swapped to show the distinction. Everyone has one sentence with “that” to show the use and then a different sentence with “which” to show the use. How is that helpful? It’s like comparing apples to oranges.

Let’s start simple.

Example 1: I played with the marbles, which were blue.

When you use which, you imply that every single marble was blue. This is what is meant by “which is nonrestrictive.” You aren’t restricting your attention to just the blue ones out of a bunch of colors. You’re saying they were all blue. This implication matters. Consider what happens with a simple substitute of “that.”

Example 2: I played with the marbles that were blue.

This sentence has a totally different meaning! “That” implies you have a bunch of marbles of all sorts of different colors in front of you, but you’ve decided to only play with the ones that were blue. This is what is meant by “that is restrictive” or “that is essential.”

Example 3: The puppies, which were cute, ran across the yard.
Example 4: The puppies that were cute ran across the yard.

In example 3, all the puppies ran across the yard. It just so happens they were also all cute. In example 4, only some of the puppies were cute, and only those few puppies ran across the yard. Read these over and over until it makes sense.

Now be horrified at all the times you used these incorrectly and probably implied something you didn’t mean to (did you seriously just imply there are non-cute puppies? Are you sure?). Now look what you’ve done. He’s self-conscious:

Some people argue it’s the comma causing this change in meaning and not that/which. Walk away from that argument. You’ve found someone wrong on the internet, and it isn’t worth your time to engage them. They’re probably a troll anyway. What’s more probable: the distinction made for hundreds of years in a rigorous way still retains some meaning or the words have no meaning anymore and the meaning has magically shifted to comma usage even though the words are still there? Think about it.

I’ve seen a bunch of rules for trying to distinguish between that and which. To me, they’re all pretty terrible. Here’s the easiest rule, which will work 99% of the time.

Step 1: What noun comes before that/which?
Step 2: Does the thing after that/which apply to all of [insert Step 1 answer] or just the ones you’ve described?
Step 3: If Step 2 answer is “all,” use which. If Step 2 answer is “only those described,” use that.

Officially, I wanted to end the post here, but I just know that someone is going to complain I’ve only told you how to tell the difference between that/which when they distinguish between restrictive/nonrestrictive clauses. Not only is the other type of distinction easier, I’m much less concerned with it. Here things can be a bit more stylistic, because the use (often) doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence.

Rule: If you can delete the stuff after that/which without causing confusion, use which. Otherwise, use that.

These examples are slightly harder to give, because they often require context to know if the information is needed.

Example 5: I went to the store, which had roast beef.
Example 6: I went to the store that had roast beef.

If you’re writing a story and there’s only one store. You can delete “which had roast beef” without confusion. The clause “which had roast beef” is inessential. The store just happens to have it. No big deal.

If the story is about a person who must get a serial killer roast beef or they will kill again, and they find out that three of the four stores in their area are out, then “that had roast beef” specifies which of the four stores you went to. It’s essential information, because if you delete it, the reader will think: which store? Are they wasting time picking up some quinoa pasta at the Whole Foods when they need to be getting to the roast beef store?

As you can see, the meaning doesn’t change all that much if you use the wrong one here, but there’s still a correct choice between the two words. If you play fast and loose with this distinction, puppies aren’t going to start hiding their faces, so the stakes aren’t as high.

And there you have it. Some comparisons that actually make sense. I hope that helped.

Year of Giant Novels Part 2: Don Quixote

I’ve made it into Part 2 of Don Quixote. I’ll fully admit upfront that it has become a bit of a slog. I find it difficult to get motivated to keep reading. The book is indeed episodic, and many of those episodes involve a random character telling a story. This makes it hard to care about the story when you know the character is only there for 20 pages or so.

In any event, let’s continue to point out ways in which the book was way ahead of its time. If you’ve studied classic philosophy, you’ll probably be familiar with Descartes’ First Meditation. This was published in 1641, and it has a thought experiment so famous that people refer to it as Descartes’ evil demon.

The idea is that there might be some powerful evil demon out there that makes us believe reality is a certain way, but in fact, it is completely different. How do we know such a thing isn’t deceiving us? This lead Descartes to doubt all of reality as the starting point for his philosophy.

Now that I’m reading Don Quixote, I’m confused by why we attribute this to Descartes. Thirty years before Descartes wrote this thought experiment down, Cervantes perfectly articulated the same idea. Unfortunately, I didn’t mark the page, or I would quote it directly.

This was probably one of my favorite moments in Part 1, because it so brilliantly illustrated the whole point of the book. Some people see Don Quixote and try to convince him he is crazy; what he sees is not reality. But in a great twist Don Quixote argues back that they are the ones being enchanted by an evil sorcerer. It is he, Don Quixote, that sees reality and everyone else is being fooled. As Descartes found out, it is quite difficult to argue back against that.

Part 2 is where things get really heavy on the meta-fiction. Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote has made it into the fictional universe of Part 2. Early on, he even has a character make the same criticism I made above. There are too many digressions in which Don Quixote (the person) isn’t a character. Don Quixote and Sancho go off on new adventures and keep meeting people that know all about him because of reading Part 1.

You have to know a bit of real life history to be in on some of the more complicated jokes. Someone under the pseudonym Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda wrote a fake Part 2 to Don Quixote (sort of like fan fiction). In real life, this fake version actually got Cervantes motivated to finish the real Part 2.

But that’s not all. He actually uses the fake Part 2 for plot points in the real Part 2. This fake Part 2 has been read by the people in Cervantes’ real Part 2. Don Quixote (the character) is unaware of this fake version of himself for some time, and some great silliness happens when he finally realizes this impostor version of himself exists.

He gets upset when he encounters people who have read the fake version in which he is no longer in love with Dulcinea. To spite the fake version, he decides to change what he was planning on doing (which actually corresponded with something that happened in the fake version!). These meta-fictional episodes play right into the novel’s main concept of blurred lines between fiction and reality, because the fictional version of Don Quixote overlaps with the “real” Don Quixote in places.

These jokes get quite complicated, and really nothing like it existed for hundreds of years afterward.

Year of Giant Novels, Part 1: Don Quixote

Back in my youth, I used to love reading giant novels: Infinite Jest, Underworld, Gravity’s Rainbow, The Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina, Les Misérables, etc. There are still quite a few left on my list that I haven’t gotten around to.

In the past few years, I’ve mostly read short novels. I even find myself getting annoyed when a 350-pager has gone on too long. The most common complaint I have these days is a lack of focus that leads to too long of novels.

I hereby declare this The Year of Giant Novels, where I will attempt to get through all the giant novels I own but haven’t read. I may even get some more if it goes well. I will, of course, blog about them as I read them. My list so far is: Don Quixote, Moby-Dick, and Ulysses. Let me know if I should do any others (Warning: I might veto War and Peace). I would like to add something from the past 50 years (maybe 2666?).

Anyway, on to Part I of Don Quixote. This novel is quite a strange beast. Say the name Don Quixote to anyone, and they will probably think they know all about it without having read it. They’ll have images of pure silliness.

They probably won’t be able to tell you why he fought the windmills, but they will know it happened. Some might even predict that the novel is episodic and monotonous going through his crazy and delusional adventures. Pretty much everything anyone knows about the book happens in the first 5%.

What most people don’t realize is that this novel was published in 1604 (according to the Penguin Classics edition). 1604! They also don’t realize how far ahead of its time it was; we’re talking about being hundreds of years ahead of its time. This thing is a tome of post-modernism 200 years before modernism happened.

First off, the narrator wants you to believe this really happened. Cervantes goes so far with this idea that in an early chapter, he has the narrator interrupt the story mid-action to say that he doesn’t have the proper citations to continue the story.

The narrator goes off on his own story. He visits a library where he accidentally comes across an Arabic text that contains the end of the story about Don Quixote he interrupted. This qualifies as Borges-level mind games (which is probably why Borges chose Don Quixote for the backdrop of his famous “Pierre Menard” story). When Barth used this technique in the 1960’s, it was considered a mind-boggling innovation. But here it is in something published in 1604.

Another example of these postmodern techniques is in Chapter 6, where a barber and a priest are trying to destroy the books that Don Quixote read that led him to his delusions (already a clever premise examining the interaction between fiction and reality, author and reader). The two come across another of Cervantes’ novels.

This nearly killed me. Cervantes’ character, Don Quixote, has been so enamored by one of Cervantes’ other novels, which somehow exists in this fictional universe, that he goes mad. That’s not all. Then the barber claims to know Cervantes in real life. This means the author wrote himself into his fictional universe! Then the barber goes on to criticize the novel. This is brilliant. A fictional character speaks a critique of the author who wrote him.

I’m starting to see why Don Quixote went crazy.

Thoughts on Björk’s Vulnicura

Björk has been quite a polarizing figure throughout the years. I used to absolutely love her music in the early 2000’s. I thought Vespertine was a brilliant culmination in all the ideas she had been exploring.

It was an album with palpable emotional output. It pushed the boundaries of accompaniment with grandiose and experimental orchestration combined with electronica. The chord progressions were otherworldly in their strangeness. The melodies wound around in huge, tangled phrases.

Iceland is known for its musical creative geniuses, but this was something special even for Björk. Then came Medúlla. That album terrified me. It not only marked a change in direction to a more aggressive and wild sound, but the album only used voice. It was a wildly successful experiment in just what a human voice could achieve.

Björk basically fell off my radar at that point. I’d periodically notice something new come out, but it felt safe and sterile. I couldn’t get too excited about it. Sure it was more interesting and original than most of the other things released by mainstream artists, but she had also turned to a more pop sound. Her collaborations were still pretty great through these years (especially the one with The Dirty Projectors).

It just came to my attention, nearly a year after its release, that she came out with her ninth album Vulnicura. I decided to give it a chance, because I can’t quite shake how much her earlier stuff influenced me.

I’m glad I did. This album returns to the Vespertine sound in many of the aspects I listed above. The emotional content is back. This is essentially a break-up album, but not like any you’ve heard before. This goes right to heart with its poetic lyrics and winding, understated melodies.

There are a few standout tracks. “Black Lake” occurs as roughly the half-way point, and it really focuses the other songs on how painful the experience was. It is only string and voice for over 4 minutes. It then ramps up with sparse but hard hitting electronica to bring depth to the song:

The other highlight is “Atom Dance” where Antony Hegarty from Antony and the Johnsons makes an appearance. Their two voices create a huge mass of agony.

My one complaint is that some of the earlier songs use repetition effectively on the first few listens, but once you’ve heard it five or so times, it feels like too much.

Overall, this is an excellent album by Björk, and if you’ve been turned off by her lately, you might still want to give this one a try.

Silly Calculations Related to Driving

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I had a long car trip. Whenever I have to drive a lot, I find myself thinking of the same silly questions, but I never care enough when I stop driving to do the calculation. Here they are:

Motivation: If you’re driving 69 mph on the highway (65 mph speed limit), you will probably never get pulled over. I’m not advocating breaking the law. I’m just stating a pretty well-known fact. If you go 71 mph, you’re flirting with getting a ticket. I always wonder just how much time I would save by going those 2 mph faster.

I warned you this would be silly. You can probably even do this one in your head. Suppose my trip is about 500 miles long. Going 69 mph would take a little less than 7 hours 15 minutes. Going 71 mph would take a little over 7 hours. So you’d only save about 10 minutes on a trip that is over 7 hours. Considering the significant increased risk for a ticket, this doesn’t seem worth it to me. On short trips of an hour or less, the difference in time can’t even be detected.

Motivation: No one drives perfectly straight. You always have to make little adjustments back and forth to stay in the lane. You also probably change lanes on the highway. I always wonder just how much distance those little adjustments add. Do they add up over a long trip, or does it remain insignificant?

Wikipedia tells us a highway lane is 12 feet wide. Let’s do an underestimate that doesn’t factor in lane changes and say you swerve from one end to the other of the lane twice every mile:

Now use the Pythagorean theorem, and you’ll find that the diagonal line isn’t even a full foot longer than if you didn’t swerve. In fact, the 4 diagonal lines don’t even add up to an extra foot over that mile. That means this swerving estimate produced less than 500 feet extra travel distance over 500 miles. It’s not even a quarter of a mile!

Even if you try to modify the estimate to be way over, factoring in lane changes and everything, as long as you keep the numbers realistic, you probably can’t even get it to be more than a mile or two. This means that these little adjustments do not add up, even over a very long drive. So swerve away!

Do We Perceive Reality As It Is?

Recently I had to do a ten hour drive, so I was listening to a whole bunch of stuff. One of the weirder ones was a conversation with Donald Hoffman at UC Irvine. The discussion revolved around what reality is and whether we can know it.

This is a well-known, old philosophical question. I’ve also discussed it in several forms on the blog before (see embodied mind and cognitive biases). What interested me was how clear of a metaphor Hoffman described to get this idea across.

Consider the computer (or phone or whatever) on which you are reading this. There are probably icons that help you run programs. This interface with the computer is basically never confused with the reality of what the computer is doing.

If you have a folder icon, you secretly know that the information of that folder is a bunch of 0’s and 1’s encoded by low/high voltage transistors, etc. But it would be paralyzing to think like this all the time. This interface we use completely alters our perception of the reality of the computer in a way that makes it functional.

So that’s the analogy. We basically have no idea what reality is. All we get is the way our brain presents reality to us. And like the computer, it is almost certainly presenting us with something that makes the world a functional place for us rather than presenting every detail of reality “as it is” (whatever that means).

This is abundantly clear when you think about our visual spectrum. We cannot see in the infrared part of the light spectrum. That information is out there and part of reality, but it isn’t functionally necessary for us to see it. The bigger jump is that maybe it isn’t only our body filtering out excess information, but that our perceptions are some sort of interface that has nothing to do with reality.

The evolutionary explanation for this is painfully obvious with a little thought. If a mutation occurs that causes us to perceive the world in some “false” way, but that false perception increases our chance of surviving, it will stay.

He went into some suspicious sounding math, claiming he had a theorem that there is a probability 0 chance that our perception of reality is true. The specifics don’t matter, because anyone with a basic understanding of evolution should immediately admit that it is exceedingly unlikely that every trait conducive to survival also gives us a true perception of reality.

On another note, this topic actually came up in one of my first posts ever on the blog. I used to debate whether or not aliens would have the same math as us. It seems the further you go in math, the most offensive people find the view that aliens may have a different math. For some reason, people are really tied to the idea that math is some universal that exists out in a mysterious Platonic universe.

In light of the above description, doesn’t it seem very likely that an alien species with a different evolved brain would vastly deviate in their perception of the world? We are so trapped in our bodies as humans, we find it hard to even entertain what a different experience would be.

If you know about the foundations of math, then you know everything is built from a set of axioms. Our choice of these axioms is based on how we experience the world. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume their mathematics would be different.

Status of ABC Conjecture

I rarely do this, but I’m going to direct you to a different blog this week. I’m in the middle of two big projects, and I didn’t feel like blogging today. The abc Conjecture is one of the most important unsolved problems in math. It is also relatively simple to state. Go read about it at that link if you haven’t heard of it.

A few years (?!) ago someone claimed to have solved it. Unfortunately, the proof was one of the longest and most complicated things the math world had ever seen. Ever since, the status of the conjecture has been up in the air. Some people have attempted to understand it to try to verify if the proof holds up.

A few days ago, we got a massive status update. You can read about it here.

Best Books I Read in 2015

I read over 60 books this year. Although I averaged less than one physical book a week, I also trained for a half-marathon and listened to a lot of these on tape while training. They were divided pretty evenly into three categories: genre fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, romance, mystery, etc), literary fiction, and nonfiction. This post is not to be confused with Best Books of 2015. Instead of doing a list, I’ll give each of the best books an award that indicates what made it stick out to me.

Best Overall: Hyperion by Dan Simmons.

This book cannot easily be described. It pulls together several sci-fi elements that made me skeptical at first. Anything that deals with time manipulation, particularly time moving backwards, usually makes me groan. This cleverly makes it work.

The mystery is brought up early, and the narration is done through a sequence of stories. Each story hints at different pieces, but are wildly different in tone, style, time frame, and reference point. Each story is excellent in its own right. Together they form a beautiful non-traditional narrative.

Simmons is not only a master at suspense and mystery, but proves he can create a timeless work of art that still feels fresh and original 25 years later.

Most Surprising: The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James.

What a truly ahead of its time book. I hate most of the traditional “marriage plot” novels like Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, and so on. Even though this looks like such a novel on the surface, it goes deep into issues that plague us still.

Some of the basic questions explored include but are not limited to: Is marriage a partnership of equals? What is the purpose of marriage? Do you lose some autonomy when you choose to get married? What does it mean to live a meaningful life? How should one balance work, a career, and leisure? Is one ever truly free in one’s actions? Is clothing an expression of the self? Does being a rebel subject you to being manipulated more strongly than someone that appears to go with society’s expectations? How does money affect relationships? How does one balance the life of the mind with the living of life?

The writing is also fantastic. It is dense and mature but not impenetrably so. The plot moves along through dialogue, and is not nearly as wordy and dull as many would have you believe (unless the above questions don’t interest you). I find Austen far more difficult to slog through than this.

Anyway, The Portrait of a Lady is an excellent examination of life’s toughest questions that seems even more relevant today than back when it was written.

Most Thought-Provoking: Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell.

I had never read anything by Gladwell despite hearing his name come up all the time. This book will make you think hard about everything you thought you knew about how to be successful. The stories are interesting and provide counterintuitive examples. I have to wonder if this book is an outlier of Gladwell’s work, because I then picked up The Tipping Point and found every aspect of it subpar.

Best Characters: Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood.

I blogged a full review of it here.

Do we live in a patriarchy?

I recently read Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. It was far better than I was expecting. The essays are personal and humorous yet address a lot of serious and deep issues. Her takedown of trigger warnings is particularly good. The essays are best when sticking to specific topics like the critiques of The Help, 50 Shades, The Hunger Games, Twilight, 12 Years a Slave, and Tyler Perry’s work. The inside look of the professional Scrabble scene is entertaining.

The essays get a bit worse when being more general. Sometimes back-to-back essays contradict each other. In one she argues that there should be more diverse representation in TV, movies, and books, because people have a hard time relating to people that don’t look like them. In the next, she spends 5,000 words about how deeply she identified with the white girls in Sweet Valley High. How are we supposed to take the previous essay seriously after that?

The most cringe-worthy part had to do with the elusive concept of “patriarchy.” She had just gotten through critiquing Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men, which provides a book-long study with evidence and statistics to argue that patriarchy is essentially dead.

Gay’s sophisticated response to this was to laugh it off. Ha ha ha. Of course it’s not dead. Just look around you. It is so obvious we live in a patriarchy. Sorry Gay, but you can’t argue against the conclusion of an entire book by saying the conclusion is “obviously” incorrect.

Let me begin with a (fictional) story. In college I took a lot of physics. One day the professor gave a bunch of solid arguments with evidence and studies to back it up that the Earth goes around the Sun. I burst out laughing. It was so obviously false a conclusion.

I raised my hand, ready to embarrass the professor. I pointed out that I see the Sun go around the Earth every single day with my own two eyes. He might have had some fancy arguments, but I had obviousness on my side.

It is an unfortunate truth that much of what seems obvious (we can even produce convincing arguments!) is often wrong. This is exactly what is happening when Gay’s rebuttal is: look at the political system, most of Congress is men, we’ve never had a woman president, thus men hold all the political power.

That is convincing on its surface like the Sun going around the Earth is convincing on its surface. The gender of elected officials is one metric to measure political power. Can we think of any other?

Maybe we should take the premise of a representational democracy seriously and say the electorate have the power, because they elect members of congress. Who votes more? Well, women do! Now we’re at an impasse, because one metric claims women have the political power, and the other metric claims men have the power. This is looking a little less obvious now that we dig deeper.

I haven’t defined patriarchy yet. Most people don’t, because they don’t want to be tied down to a particular type of evidence. The relevant dictionary definition is: a social system in which power is held by men, through cultural norms and customs that favor men and withhold opportunity from women.

For each metric you come up with to show our culture favors men, I’ll come up with one to show it favors women. My starting statistics will be: life expectancy, education (measured by amount of degrees conferred), incarceration rate, poverty rate, homelessness, victims of violent crimes, workplace fatalities, and suicide rate. Your turn.

I grant you that many people argue patriarchy causes these problems for men (often stated “patriarchy hurts men too”). But that’s playing with words. By definition, a patriarchy “favors men,” and therefore cannot be the cause of society-wide disadvantages for men.

Here’s the truth. Any claim about anything can be supported with evidence if the person who believes the claim gets to pick the metric by which we measure something. This is a form of confirmation bias and sometimes the Texas sharpshooter fallacy. Raw statistics like the ones we’ve been looking at are slippery business, because they tell us nothing about causation. Is the sparsity of women in congress because the opportunity is being withheld from them by some social system that favors men, or is it some other causal factor at play?

When you pick the gender of Congress as a measure, you see ahead of time that it works in your favor, and that’s why you picked it. In other words, when you look for a pattern, you’ll find it. To avoid statistical fallacies like this, we need a metric whose results we are blind to, and we need a solid argument that this metric is actually measuring what we think it is. Only then do we test what the results show. Then we repeat this with many other metrics, because the issue is way too complicated for one metric to prove anything.

I’m not saying we don’t live in a patriarchy. What I’m saying is that you can’t laugh off someone that claims we don’t with a book-long argument to support her case because it is “obviously false” to you. Any argument that we live in a patriarchy is going to have to be subtle and complicated for the reasons listed above. It’s also more likely that the answer is somewhere in the middle. Men are favored in some places; women are favored in some places; and it’s counterproductive to decide if one outweighs the other. We can work towards equality without one gender “winning” the “oppression” war.