Posts Tagged ‘linguist’

mindful language, propaganda, lying, redistribution, conscious competence, and neuro-physiology

April 1, 2012
Homo neanderthalensis. Skull discovered in 190...

Homo neanderthalensis. Skull discovered in 1908 at La Chapelle-aux-Saints (France). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

a brief but serious and provocative look at mindful language

(about 4.5 pages on my word processor with font-size 12)

Language is perhaps the most amazing of human inventions, at least so far. I just finished reading a recently published book on the origins of language, co-authored by a linguist and a neuro-physiologist (someone who measures and studies things like the electrical patterns in a living human brain– whether one that is “healthy” or not). The ultra-short version of the content of the book is that significant quantities of evidence support the intriguing possibility that humans evolved language as an indirect by-product of developing the capacity to throw.

No other primate can throw with anything close to the accuracy of the dominant hunter among earthling creatures, the human. The particular complexity of throwing (for the primary purpose of hunting) is distinct from the also complex neuro-physiology involved in something like walking or seeing. While I don’t think it was never mentioned in that book (titled “Lingua Ex Machina”), I can imagine that the upright walking of humans may have set the evolutionary foundation for throwing, besides the obvious freeing up of the arms, though there are other species that would walk upright on two legs, such as penguins and kangaroos and tyrannosaurus rex, though apparently none of them developed language.

The particular way that throwing involves a set of joints all making incredibly precise motions, with the throwing movement being coordinated between the eyes (looking at a target that may be moving- such as a penguin or kangaroo) and refining the joint motions for the particularities of the projectile being launched and the wind and so on, is an extremely distinct neurological process from any other process of any earthling species. Other primates may grab branches to swing or toss, but their accuracy is quite imprecise.

Only humans throw. And we’re all “wired” to do it… and very well.

Plus, throwing is not just a trivial thing, like a thing for sports or games, at least not from an evolutionary perspective. The ecological dominance of humans on this planet is predicated on the immense superiority of human hunting over the hunting of any other species (at least on the land). Apparently, the immense superiority of human hunting for the last several million years on the whole rests on the single fulcrum of throwing.

What is established by recent neuro-physiology experiments (with the latest scanning equipment and so on) is that the actual process by which humans link together words and prepositions and clauses may actually use the exact same neural pathways and functions as the process of throwing a projectile- or close enough to have attracted the attention of neuro-physiologists. Apparently, the unconscious planning process of throwing is virtually identical neurologically with the unconscious planning process of how humans as young as 2 years old can suddenly shift from sprinkles of words to complex sentence structures running on and on with embedded verbs and pronouns. Of course, 2 year-olds are notorious for making mistakes in their use of “irregular” verb tenses, but the fact that most anyone can effortlessly understand what they are “saying almost correctly” is still distinctive, even though mastery of the various verb formations generally takes several more years.

So, first, language just magically appears, with single words and then sets of up to five related words- which is about how far other primates can go when taught sign language. Soon, human children begin producing complex sentences and eventually learn that they do not have mastery of all the verb forms. That is the stage of “conscious incompetence” in regard to conjugating verbs- which seems much easier for small human children to master than human adults who study a language foreign to them. (This may be related to the fact that adults typically try to learn foreign language by reading it, which is never how they learned to speak their native “tongues,” with tongues being a physiological reference to the primacy of speech in language.)

Indian family in Brazil posed in front of hut ...

Indian family in Brazil posed in front of hut – 3 bare-breasted females, baby and man with bow and arrows. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Within a few more years beyond the age of 2, young humans typically develop conscious competence in various aspects of grammar and syntax- when they can produce proper constructions of spoken language, but only with attention and effort. They can distinguish proper and improper constructions, but sometimes only if reminded and prompted.

They are competent in properly constructing complex language, but only when conscious to properly forming their language. With a few more years of practice, that competency may be automatic and unconscious for most humans.

Other primates that have been taught sign language apparently do not have the capacity to communicate in complex sentence structures at all. The other primates that have so far been taught sign language seem not to comprehend complex sentences and do not ever generate them.

How humans can decode complex sentences and even produce them as early as the age of 2 is still somewhat mysterious no matter how well a biologist may explain how this capacity evolved. Consider the recurring amazement of some grandparents, even though they may have already witnessed more than a few young humans develop competency in language. Of course, no one is surprised that human children learn to speak in general- though not all do- but many children may surprise us with the particularities of their learning of language. “Oh, you won’t believe what she said today!” We may be simply amazed at language itself- and being around a young child just learning language tends to remind us of how amazing all language is.

Likewise, no one is surprised that human children learn to throw with accuracy, though some children’s skill may be distinctively impressive, “at least for someone of such a young age.” However, in the current state of human culture, throwing to hunt is not of particular functional relevance to most human families, while competency in language may be essential to adaption and survival- not only to particular families, but even to humanity itself.

Human brainSo, what is language for?

Language, according to evolutionary neuro-physiologists, not only developed using the exact same neural pathways as those for hunting, but may have developed specifically to improve the process of hunting. While one human with throwing precision can out-perform most any other predator on land, some of those other predators hunt in packs- and some of those predators may even hunt humans.

Further, if most any human can develop the skill of throwing with precision, how is it that some human groups (such as the Europeans) have consistently dominated certain other groups (such as the Native Americans)? Consider that language could be a factor.

One may suggest that military technology- such as the use of domesticated horses, tanks, ballistic missiles, grenade launchers, or helicopters- is the foundation of the military dominance of “the industrialized west.” However, consider that the most basic foundation is language, and that it was through language that not only did groups of humans organize their throwing into the most effective hunting parties among all land species, but that the singular technology of language was foundational to the development of all other forms of organized military dominance, from the stage of invention to the accumulating and refining of of raw material resources like steel and oil, the mass production of new technology, the distribution of the technology, the training of soldiers, and the implementation of whatever complex technologies for conducting the organized violence of the already dominant (AKA “legitimate”) governments as well as any competing factions.

So language is not just a means by which to improve hunting for a kin group- just as throwing improves hunting for an individual. Language is also a tool for various families and tribes and nations and factions to compete with each other. Language is now a primary mechanism of social organization.

A fMRI scan showing regions of activation in o...

A fMRI scan showing regions of activation in orange, including the primary visual cortex (V1, BA17). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In military terms, the use of language for social organization is called propaganda. Propaganda may sometimes be much more efficient for governing troops and conducting psychological warfare than other available methods, such as overt terrorism (“hot warfare”). Note that a popular definition of terrorism is “organized violence conducted specifically for the advancing of a political purpose,” which may seem functionally synonymous with “war.”

Currently, there is massive redistribution of the ownership of resources underway from those who are incompetent in certain uses of language toward those who are competent. Consider that the language of promises has enticed many investors, though they may have not considered the viability of the stated promises.

It may be a promise made by a politician: “Everyone will have more because we as your government will take from some of you and give to some of you, plus maybe keep just a little something for ourselves, but only a little- we promise!” Or, it may be the promise made by the salesperson for an insurance company: “It would be foolish for you to purchase anything other than this annuity contract. In this contract, we promise to pay you consistent returns no matter what happens to the value of the underlying investments.”

Did you notice anything unusual about that last sentence? If not, I invite you to read it again (and again).

Hey, didn’t you just say: “no matter what happens to the value of this investment, we guarantee the value of this investment?” Isn’t that at least just a little bit weird?

These promises may be instantly ridiculous when stated in clear language (such as in a political cartoon), but still many people invest in such promises and then express surprise and upset when they are unsatisfied by the results of their investments in promises which may have been unrealistic from the beginning. The particular types of promises which would most predictably de-stabilize governments and insurance companies and credit markets and so on may be the ones in which some people would be most eager to invest.

With each passing moment, some human groups may prosper more than others. The ones that are most competent in language may predictably develop further their social dominance. Their investments will differ from the investments of others, and thus their results will differ. Whenever a group of humans invest, some may prosper more than others.

In particular, government programs may be used to discourage certain behaviors as allegedly unsafe while encouraging others as allegedly safe. Is it possible that governments might ever publicize information that was inaccurate (whether the KGB or the FDA or the SEC)? Even sincere communicators may occasionally make mistakes, and certainly some bureaucrats are quite sincere. I used to be a bureaucrat myself, though I “did not quite fit in.”

In publicly-funded educational systems, participants may be trained in a certain ideology of how things should be. Training in how things should be is a way of distracting attention from how things are. Of course, people will eventually find out various details of how things are, but when they have been indoctrinated in advance with an ideology of how things should be, then people may reject certain details of how things actually are, then ridicule, condemn and finally try to “correct” those things. Of course, such so-called liberalism is encouraged and then made distinctive by also encouraging a slightly varied form of idealism called conservatism.

Human brain - midsagittal cut

Human brain – midsagittal cut (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For instance, by propagating the myth that governments have ever been anything other than instruments of social control (i.e governing operations), then producing ideology of how certain methods of governing are fundamentally better than others, the masses are set up for outrage when they confront the reality that it is not only the foreign governments identified by their governments as “your enemy” that implement propaganda, exploit their own domestic populations, and so on. Outraged intellectuals then predictably push for however trivial reforms, believing that government has ever been anything other than corruption and thus could someday be cured of any “sudden new outbreak” of corruption.

Returning to the broader subject of language, language is the only realm in which the form of deception called lying can manifest. Politicians and governments seem to specialize in this type of language. I am not saying this of certain politicians, or only of politicians of a certain foreign government alleged to be “our enemy,” or of a certain historical period of time. Politicians- or the most successful ones at least- tend to be those most competent in a particular manifestation of language called lying. In fact, deception and even self-deception may not only be epidemic amongst politicians, but amongst all the populations of the industrialized west, though perhaps most notoriously so amongst lawyers and salespeople and so on (teenagers?).

The fundamental linguistic self-deception or delusion is this: “this should not be.” The rejecting of anything simply because it does fit a preconceived notion of how it should be is a rejecting that may be happening however consciously or unconsciously.

Further, the selecting of certain particular things, then interpreting of those things as valuable or relevant is always based on models of prior experiences. We, like all biological organisms, always have available for our attention huge ranges of perception, and we select certain perceptions, rejecting all others, then we organize or interpret those limited perceptions into our emerging behavior. That is called adaption- or life.

Many of us may be unconscious of our incompetence in regard to sustainable living- like a chimpanzee that does not comprehend complex sentence structure, so does not ever have issues with proper or improper sentence construction. We may worship certain indoctrinated ideologies as “what should be,” then react against reality, resisting it, wishing to fix it, shaming it, looking for who to blame for how inconveniently real reality is.

Soon, some of us, in the sustainability of our patterns of living, may shift from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence. Conscious incompetence is also known as the stage of learning (or of “the seeker”).

The term “spiritually dead” or “asleep” has been used for those who may be unconscious of their true social functionality. Of course, those who are most fanatical about how they are “born again”and so on may be the least spiritually alive or awake. Religions, by the way, may have been formed in order to organize social groups for the particular benefit of certain portions of the organized social grouping.

Those who are consciously competent recognize that attention and discipline may be relevant in order to practically adapt. They may be beyond the stages of rejecting reality or fixing it (or of ignoring or denying it). However, their partnering with reality is still in the realm of developing increasing competence.

For them, noticing how language forms- like moment to moment- may be one of many subjects of particular interest to them. The term “mindfulness” has been used for that quality of attention and consciousness which is neither that of one asleep nor a novice nor one fully awakened.

The most ridiculous of all ideologies may be in the form characteristic of “religious psychology:” how I should be. However, for the novice, exposure to the fact of ideological delusions of “how I should be” may be an essential part of training and development. Mythology is another word for religious psychology, and every religion has mythology, just as every government has mythology. Governments, by the way, may be the dominant forms of religion on the planet today. (Or, saying the same thing with other words, perhaps religions used to be the dominant form of government on the planet.)

Either way, both government and religion are institutions organized specifically to influence human behavior. Perhaps by studying religious language and religion in general, that is a fitting context for developing our basic skills before we actually wake up to the point that we may be ready to “go out there and get in to the dirty trenches” of politics. Or, perhaps religion really is, as it advertises, the singular escape from the hell of delusion and contentiousness. Are you willing to explore that question further now?

Human brain Polski: Mózg człowieka

Human brain Polski: Mózg człowieka (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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WaiguoYuxueyuan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

why I do not believe in the existence of atheists

March 29, 2012

Below is a dialogue between myself and Mark Newbrook, “resident” Linguist of Skeptical Humanities (as of a few weeks ago):

Major levels of linguistic structure

Major levels of linguistic structure (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This dialogue emerged from my recent post linked below, with Mark’s original comment (not interspersed with my reply) posted at this link:

…It is claimed here that language means nothing and never will mean anything.
It is claimed where? Let’s imagine that someone did claim exactly what you stated. Wouldn’t it be self-evident as nonsense and thus inspire no further comment?
Given my deep appreciation for parody, let’s imagine that I may have said “language does not mean anything.” If I were to say something so obviously absurd, such as “this sentence is not an instance of language,” that might only be for the “philosophical” point of playfully demonstrating the absurdity of the issue.
Of course language has meaning. For instance, one obvious definition would be that language means “symbolic codes for directing the attention and behavior of other humans.”
However, what I may have written (and I also reserve the right to make innocent typographical mistakes), is that no particular symbolic code has any particular meaning. The same word can denote a few very different things or a multitude of not very related things, and that is just denotation- not even connotation.
The mere fact that there is such a thing as connotation (as well as “secret codes”) points to the fundamental reality of language: the meaning is not in the words themselves. The meaning is in the social context in which the words arise- not just in the context of syntax, but of non-linguistic social “cues.”
From sounds, language arises. However, the mere fact that it is possible NOT to be fluent in a particular language is prima facie evidence that the language itself inherently means nothing. Only in a particular social context can language arise, and the social context DEFINES the meaning of the language.
What do these shapes on this screen “mean” to my cat or my infant? Nothing at all.
What do these shapes on this screen “mean” to you? Something very specific!
Language is amazing. In fact, it is so amazing that I titled this video that:
Now, is this supposed to be news to linguists or anyone else? Of course not. It is self-evident. Everyone knows from direct experience that language is amazing and that social contexts define the meaning of language, like “I love you” can be spoken with several different tones that all communicate different WAYS OF RELATING, such as the soothing “oh, sweetie, I love you” and the apologetic “Really, I love you” and the defensive “hey, I love you, alright?” and the longing, manipulative “but, but…. I love you!”
Actually, it is all manipulative. Language is manipulating. That is what it is for- at least in the broad sense of manipulating as influencing or re-organziing.
So, I state the obvious not to inform you of something new, but to establish a particular context or way of relating.  Now, let’s explore from here together, given that what we have been doing all along is self-evidently nothing more than that.
English Language and Linguistics

English Language and Linguistics (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  Subject to the major issues regarding how the term nothing is being used here, this viewpoint is, of course, contrary to prevailing opinion both popular and academic (the latter including both linguists and philosophers), and thus needs to be justified at this point. Indeed, it might be suggested that if language ‘means nothing’ it cannot itself be used to say anything useful.  And, while – as is proclaimed here (albeit in somewhat strange wording) – language can be seen as ‘a sequence of codes for the directing of attention’, it is generally taken as obvious that language has other functions and aspects in addition to this.
Such as? I challenge you to name one instance of language that is not directing my attention to whatever alleged instance of language you might name.
You could say that language is the moving of attention or the motion of intelligence or the activity of consciousness, but all that would be a trivial variation on the other statement. You can say that “unconscious linguistic events” do not qualify as “directing attention,” but that is limiting the verb “directing” to its transitive case only, which is not the only possible meaning.
Within language, it is accepted here that different words and letters are distinct.  (The use of the term letters seems to betray a folk-linguistic starting-point; a writer with knowledge of linguistics would instead talk here primarily of phonemes.)
…perhaps unless writing for an audience that may lack a knowledge of the formal lexicon of non-folk linguistics. Whatever, though…. Or are you unplayfully applying the standards of a academic linguistics journal to a non-academic linguistics journal internet blog entry?
  But these words and letters are all seen as variations on ‘nothing’ (this raises the above-mentioned issues regarding this term); and, while they do possess meaning (this apparently contradicts what is said earlier), this supposedly arises only ‘through perception’. Concepts are identified as ‘linguistic formations’ arising ‘out of nothing’, which is ‘the capacity for linguistic formations to simply happen by themselves’.  Like individual words and ‘letters’, each specific language is distinct, being seen as ‘a specific set of distinct, isolated formations’ – and is ‘finite’, in contrast with ‘language itself’ which is ‘infinite’; it is not clear how the terms finite and especially infinite are to be understood here.  And boundaries between languages are, again, seen as different manifestations of ‘nothing’.  I find the conceptualising obscure at this point, and it is difficult to comment helpfully.
What if all concepts are inherently obscure and only so precise? What if the spectrum ranging between precision and obscurity is one which language can never escape?
Further, returning to the issue of language as a utilitarian (or “useful”) phenomenon, what if directing attention does not require any more precision than actually “required?” What if, upon the fulfillment of whatever amount of clarity is deemed subjectively “enough,” the activity of language simply ceases?
I add here brief comments on some specific points in later sections of the material.‘One language evolves into another, with perhaps an entire family of languages being similar to each other’While essentially ‘along the right lines’, this claim apparently mixes diachronic and synchronic points and needs to be clarified.  (The term evolve is also contentious here.)
I admit that in the case in point, I was just synchronicalizing mixtures of diachronology. Okay, I might have just made up those words, but apparently you made up synchronic and diachronic first before I did because, when I see those words, I instantly recognize that they are synonyms for harmeronomic diaxophosphate, by which I mean slightly unfamilair to me.

linguistics (Photo credit: quinn.anya)

‘Languages mix and influence each other.  Languages may be called distinct, but the boundaries between them shift’Although the reference to shifting boundaries is obscurely expressed and perhaps mis-conceptualised, these general points are, of course, very familiar to linguists. 
This reminds me again of my clearly stated disclaimer at the beginning of the article: “this is written exclusively to professional full-time linguists, both of them.”
‘If the boundaries shift, then the boundaries are arbitrary. In fact, the alleged boundaries between various languages are alive, existing only through the declaration of language’This appears obscure.  There may be a good (if familiar) point in the former of these two sentences, though it needs to be much more clearly expressed; but the second sentence, as expressed, is very strange (what do alive and declaration mean here?).
Alive means changing or evolving. And that was a great question: what do these words actually MEAN?
My analogy is this: how many colors are there. Are there exactly 6 colors, as any 2 year old can tell you? Or, are there actually 24 different colors, as anyone 4 year old with the big yellow box can tell you? Or, are there any number of colors depending on however many distinct labels one chooses to categorize?
Language is categorizing. How many languages are there? 214? 32,915? That is a trivial question. Fundamentally, there is one language which is language itself.
The most famous poets of human history, such as Lao Tzu and Buddha and Abraham, have referenced the singularity of that universal meta-language by such labels as Logos, Tao, and even The Heavenly Father, through which “the world of subjective experience” is “created” by what method: speech!
Name one word that is not fundamentally just a word. Yahweh? YHWH? Jehovah?
No, those are all words, too- though those “words” are all references to something “subtler than all other concepts.” Linguists who do not comprehend “metaphysics” may be liars, insofar as metaphysics and linguistics could be two labels for the same- but wait, that simply could not be possible to have two labels or appellations or names or titles for the exact same pattern, right?
What if when ignorant translators translate some ancient Sanskrit phrase in to the English words “name and form” and then call it “Buddhist mystical metaphysics,” that is an ENTIRELY ARBITRARY way of relating to those Sanskrit terms, though of course an entirely valid way of interpreting them or labeling them or translating them or relating to them? Was the Buddha a linguist or not? Well, if the English word “linguist” had not been invented by the time of his life, then how could he have been a linguist? Maybe he is finally now a linguist, but only became a linguist within the last few sentences- not that I care, by the way- but that brings me back to the earlier question raised by our academic correspondent of what is meant by declaration: by declaration, I mean all instances of language, as in all instances of the directing of attention, including gestures or then again possibly not… 😉
Anyway, there was no such thing as a linguist until someone created the term “linguist” and then declared self-authoritatively themselves to be the apt target of such a label. “Linguist” is a totally arbitrary label like all labels of symbolic code, but many “academic” linguists may or may not pretend otherwise, even though they do not deny the self-evidence of any of it.
Before there was a linguist, there was language. Linguist is just an instance of language, as is “The Buddha” and “metaphysics” and “spiritual poetry” and “incurable diaxyphosphatitis.”
I am the author of language. Why? Because I said so.
Is it even true, though? Well, declarations in language are never exactly TRUE. They are just more or less USEFUL. Precision (aka “TRUTH”) is a spectrum invented in language and language never can get all the way to the end of a spectrum that only exists as a linguistic concept.
In other words, precision is just a relative term. In fact, because precision is just a relative term, all terms are just relative terms. Truth is just a relative term. Language is just a relative term. “Absolute” is, ironically, just a relative term.
In the ancient Hindu tradition of Advaita (“non-dualism”), the fundamental relativity of all terms of linguistic relating is relatively recognized as just one way of relating to the absolute relativity of all language, except of course for the word “joke,” which is actually not a word at all. 😉
‘Is Creole [= a particular creole language? (MN)] a language? Clearly it is entirely composed of other languages.  [Not necessarily the case. (MN)]  However, it is also not a dialect of any particular language. What is it? It is whatever it is called!’It is not clear that there is a genuine issue here regarding creoles as such.  There are relevant definitional-cum-philosophical issues at a more general level concerning the individuation of languages, the ‘language’-‘dialect’ distinction, etc.; but these are not rehearsed here.
Labelification is individuation. That was my point.
The fact is that “languages” is just a label and so is “dialects.” You can’t get away from the fact that all words are just symbolic categorical linguistic conceptualizations of individuation or division or duality. Beyond language is the non-duality called “nothing” by certain Buddhists, about which there is really not a lot that can be said, but then again, all language is an expression of that nothing and a labeling of that nothing and a directing of that nothing.
While quite contradictory, language is inherently contradictory. Or then again, maybe not. However, there either are or are not any instances of contra-diction except only in language. If language is not inherently contradictory, fine, then I take it back and contradict myself as if to demonstrate the point: language gives rise to the possibility of contradiction, not that it is at all important to point this out.
It may simply be a lot of fun. But that could be important, too, right?

‘Is there such a thing as “I” (“me”)? In many languages there is such a thing as “I” or similar concepts to the concept of “I.” However, “I” is fundamentally a concept, a construct of language, merely a thing. “I” is not itself fundamental (which is the ancient teaching called anatma).’

There, of course, are words meaning ‘I’ in all languages.  But it is not clear how significant linguistic facts of this kind might be for philosophical issues regarding the reality or otherwise of persons; as I have argued elsewhere, it is probably dangerous in a philosophical context to focus too heavily upon the ways in which ideas are expressed in specific languages – although this approach is common enough in mainstream ‘analytical’ philosophy.

What do you mean by the “reality or otherwise?” What are you talking about in reference to something besides reality?
“Person” is a real WORD. Isn’t that enough? Is it so dangerous for me to just come out and say what is self-evident? Next thing you know you are going to launch in to some obscure poetry about “nothing.” That would be very diaxyphoshate of you, sir!
 ‘Language is more fundamental than “I,” and nothing is more fundamental than language.’It is not clear what fundamental means here, or what this claim amounts to.


The same source presents  This material again deals with some linguistic issues, this time in the context of an essentially religious discussion involving claims regarding souls, sin, etc.  Linguistics, as an empirical discipline, cannot be grounded in specific theological viewpoints; and as an atheist I would prefer not to engage in this context in discussion which assumes a religious stance that I do not share.

“Religion” is just a category of language. If you deny the existence of that particular category of language, that is entirely alright with me.
As a worshiper of Santa Claus, I would just like to state for the record, your honor, that there is no such thing as mythology or poetry or humor. Also, I do not believe in atheists. There is simply no such thing, by which I mean no such word.
 However: it is undoubtedly true, as is claimed here, that it is a conceptual error to mistake a piece of language, such as a word, for the item in the non-linguistic world to which it refers.  Like the well-known picture of a pipe by Magritte, the word pipe is not itself a pipe.  Some such conceptual errors are potentially damaging.  But the further claim that ‘belief in words is the root of all malice or ill will’ is not adequately defended and appears vastly overstated.
I completely agree. I furthermore assert that the hypocritical idiot who made such a ridiculously dramatic accusation was entirely precise in an “absolute truth” kind of way. Forthwith, the diachronic subjective experiential pattern of “malice” is completely unrelated to words, which are just ways of relating, and therefore do not exist, at least not in the absolute sense of the word. I arrest my case.
More credentials of Mark:

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