Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Another way to look at it

Here's another one from the A&M anthropology page. It's a NYT article about how language shapes perception. Of course the Benjamin Lee Whorf theory recapped near the beginning falls apart on the face of it. If it were true, Europeans coming to the Americas would have no way of perceiving bison or tomatoes. But there are subtle effects that are no less interesting.

This is a passage that really made me take notice.

The area where the most striking evidence for the influence of language on thought has come to light is the language of space — how we describe the orientation of the world around us. Suppose you want to give someone directions for getting to your house. You might say: “After the traffic lights, take the first left, then the second right, and then you’ll see a white house in front of you. Our door is on the right.” But in theory, you could also say: “After the traffic lights, drive north, and then on the second crossing drive east, and you’ll see a white house directly to the east. Ours is the southern door.” These two sets of directions may describe the same route, but they rely on different systems of coordinates. The first uses egocentric coordinates, which depend on our own bodies: a left-right axis and a front-back axis orthogonal to it. The second system uses fixed geographic directions, which do not rotate with us wherever we turn.

We find it useful to use geographic directions when hiking in the open countryside, for example, but the egocentric coordinates completely dominate our speech when we describe small-scale spaces. We don’t say: “When you get out of the elevator, walk south, and then take the second door to the east.” The reason the egocentric system is so dominant in our language is that it feels so much easier and more natural. After all, we always know where “behind” or “in front of” us is. We don’t need a map or a compass to work it out, we just feel it, because the egocentric coordinates are based directly on our own bodies and our immediate visual fields.

But then a remote Australian aboriginal tongue, Guugu Yimithirr, from north Queensland, turned up, and with it came the astounding realization that not all languages conform to what we have always taken as simply “natural.” In fact, Guugu Yimithirr doesn’t make any use of egocentric coordinates at all. The anthropologist John Haviland and later the linguist Stephen Levinson have shown that Guugu Yimithirr does not use words like “left” or “right,” “in front of” or “behind,” to describe the position of objects. Whenever we would use the egocentric system, the Guugu Yimithirr rely on cardinal directions. If they want you to move over on the car seat to make room, they’ll say “move a bit to the east.” To tell you where exactly they left something in your house, they’ll say, “I left it on the southern edge of the western table.” Or they would warn you to “look out for that big ant just north of your foot.” Even when shown a film on television, they gave descriptions of it based on the orientation of the screen. If the television was facing north, and a man on the screen was approaching, they said that he was “coming northward.”

This fascinates me. I love the idea that somewhere a child is at the fridge asking her mother where the orange juice is, and the mother is replying that it's eighteen centimeters northwest.

Of course it's not just a matter of language shaping ideas. It's language and ideas being shaped by environment. A language without egocentric coordinates is likely to arise in a land of open spaces, where everyone learns early the subtleties of where the north and the west are.

What's cool is that if all language comes from somewhere, it can carry clues as to what that where is like.

Monday, August 30, 2010

New York State of Troubled Mind

Tonight I watched Synecdoche, New York, one of many fine films available through our local library. Through much of it I wondered whether it was a depressing movie that lucked intoa few funny moments or a parody of depressing movies.

Probably an unfair question. It's actually a serious attempt to put the methods of magic realism onscreen. This is not something that American movies are generally known for, and it's a surprise to see Charlie Kaufman succeed as much as he does. For example, the disorientation of hero Caden Cotard watching years pass by him as he thinks they're days and we see only minutes.

What makes it hard to get into is that Cotard can be--is--a rather offputting character. He's a self-absorbed depressive lump, and the question isn't why his wife ran out on him. Nay, the question is how she stayed with him long enough to birth a daughter and watch her turn four. Given that the character, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is named after the Cotard delusion (being convinced that you're dead) means his unattractive qualities are almost certainly intentional. But it is something you have to get past, and it may take me more than one viewing.

In short, I think that while it may take some reaching, this is a wothwhile and accomplished film. And if I want to convince my friends to see it, my money quote will be "Emily Watson takes her bra off."

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Winged vanity

Today I saw one of the most hilarious wastes of money it's been my privelege to witness. A plane was dragging a banner through the air. It was all red, with a familiar yellow M on the right hand side. To the left of this were three lines of text in white. What did they say? I don't know. I couldn't read it. There is no way anyone standing on the ground could read this banner. So this pilot was paid probably thousands of dollars to tell the public that McDonalds exists. We were all so close to forgetting, I'm sure.

To be fair, they may be trying to reach out to the seagull community.

Friday, August 27, 2010

A Friday Random Ten both Calvinist and Lutheran

Not much to report. I'm taking a few days off from work, and feel just fine about that. So why don't I show you this from here?

1. Jackson Browne--Before the Deluge
2. Taj Mahal--Take a Giant Step
3. Brian Eno--Spirits Drifting
4. Gnarls Barkley--Run (I'm a Natural Disaster)
5. The Kinks--Mister Pleasant
6. Arcade Fire--Half Light II (No Celebration)
7. Yma Sumac--Gopher Mambo
8. Isobel Campbell--Thursday's Child
9. Nina Simone--Four Women
10. Sonic Youth--Stones

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Jiminy Cricket was a friend of mine, and doctor...

The silencing of anyone's voice is not really a good goal, even when as in this case, it's self-silencing. That said, is the retirement of Dr. Laura an occasion for great regret? Not really.

She always appealed to--and eventually aimed straight for--a conservative talk-radio audience. No surprise there. Under "government off our backs" there's usually a whole lotta busybody. That's not really the issue. True, she alienated gays and lesbians with clueless gusto. And true, she ended her career with a bizarre racial meltdown. But these are sidetrips.

What made her really not-so-helpful was the finality of her advice. When people called her, she didn't help them think through their problems and moral dilemmas. She just told them what to do. And even if her advice was good--stopped clocks and all that--giving answers without a way to get there doesn't help. You can't always carry your favorite radio host around.

Then again, there seems to be a market. Maybe people don't want a friend to talk to. Maybe they actually want a visit from the morality police. In which case the next Laura Schlessinger is on the horizon.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Speak, boy!

In college I took a voice and articulation class. It was taught by a woman who was... nice on a certain level. And she was a good teacher in a lot of respects. But she was a singer, an actress, and a professor. That's a lot of crazy for one body to hold.

In this class I did learn that my optimal pitch was in the baritone range. That's held up pretty well. I do seem to sound better that way.

However, you kind of have to go beyond that. Good posture is, I think, important to sounding your best too. If you have your feet planted firmly on the ground and your back straight, you can summon up more energy when you need it. And it helps to take a direct approach to communication. If you're trying to pussyfoot around a subject, you could well find yourself stammering and falling back on other old habits.

It's also good to imagine that you're holding a miniature laser cannon in your hand. But now we're dealing with advanced methods...

Friday, August 20, 2010

Friday Random Ten from a ghost town

How many people are scrambling to get their vacation hours in now? Quite a few, I'm guessing. Even as Fridays go, it was abandoned and tomblike at work today. Spa-kooky!

1. Brian Eno--Zawinul/Lava
2. The Magnetic Fields--The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure
3. Jackson Browne--Walking Slow
4. Sly & the Family Stone--Run, Run, Run
5. Nina Simone--Come Ye
6. The Kinks--Session Man
7. Sonic Youth--Paper Cup Exit
8. The White Stripes--Little People
9. The Velvet Underground--Pale Blue Eyes
10. Stan Kenton--Peg o' My Heart

* At first I disliked the snide tone of this song. Now I kind of like it. Wny shouldn't peace and love allow for a little grumpiness?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

#21 & #24

I returned a book to the Fox Point library today. Since I still had a couple of brief chapters to go, I read them at one of the tables. A few feet away, one of the librarians was giving kids the 411 on the development of a monarch butterfly. They had a display with caterpillars in glass 'n grass, the difference between a cocoon and a chrysalis, etc. It was kind of a neat refresher course for me, too.

The caterpillars turn from green to brown to avoid being eaten. Birds are either fooled by this or are really good sports.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Making the mosque of it

To reiterate, what can be gleaned from the Park51/Cordoba House "Ground Zero" "mosque" kerfuffle?

1.Outside of xenophobia there is no case against the project.
2. President Obama is right to support their rights on this and remind people of what country this is supposed to be.
3. Most of the country is wrong on this one. Hey, happens to the best of us.
4. Harry Reid has no balls.

Pop quizzes an exams will be held every day from now until eternity.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Snap judgments

Artcle here about Richard Avedon, whose work is being exhibited at the MFA. I must confess he's an artist it's been difficult for me to warm up to. That kind of difficulty runs the risk of personal growth.

This is largely because he was so much of his time, place, and social circle in ways in which it's difficult for me to identify. He was a very good-looking man all through his life, and he made his living by taking pictures of other pretty people in chic (translation: Go out there and sell! Sell! Sell!) clothes. He went to a therapist more often than I go to the dentist. Said therapist has since bought his own island, and you can be executed for visiting it without a written invitation. Plus he directed those eighties Calvin Klein ads with models staring into the distance and sputing inane prose poetry.

Yet there is quite a bit to admire in him and his work. While he worked within a framework--a very commercial one at that--he found a method that worked for him as it wouldn't for anyone else. He created his own discipline. Important, that. And while he followed his muse through places I wouldn't follow, it did lead to some interesting destinations.

And some of those destinations were off the beaten path for a New York fashion photographer. As seen here, he exposed some places and people in rural and interior America that were unknown twenty miles away. Including a guy who let bees crawl all over him. How hardcore is that?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Fri...zzzz... Oh! Friday Random Ten

Spent the end of last night figuring something out in Microsoft Word. That is, figuring out how to add page numbers to a manuscript with name & title as part of the same field, while not putting a page number on the first page. I've found webpages that have claimed to offer instruction on how to do this, but they were lying frauds.

Now, in sussing this out, I stayed up later than usual. This has required some cat-napping today. Totally worth it, though.

1. Roy Orbison--The Clown
2. Johnny Cash--Staring at the Wall
3. The Velvet Underground--Jesus
4. Elvis Costello & the Attractions--Oliver's Army
5. Arcade Fire--City With No Children
6. Nina Simone--Nobody Knows you When You're Down and Out
7. The Kinks--Most Exclusive Residence For Sale
8. Sly & the Family Stone--I Cannot Make It
9. TV on the Radio--Things You Can Do
10. Dinah Washington--Drinking Again

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Speak softly and...

It's an interesting experience to get up, think you're cutting it close on time, and wind up arriving at work about an hour early.

Weird set-up for something about Richard Thompson's Cul de Sac comic strip. Then again, it's notable for its sense of almost-uncontrolled movement. Here's one of his three-panel gems translated into animated form.

So far no clips have turned up with Alice's angst-ridden older brother Petey. Ah well, Petey Otterloop, we do appreciate you.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Time wounds all heels

Languageologist Erin McKean has a new column where she provides a history of insults and epithets taken from politicians' names. For example "gerrymandering" from Elbridge Gerry and the unjustly maligned salamander.

Into this context she puts "Breitbarting, or intentionally taking a statement out of context for political ends", inspired by Andrew BreitbartDon't worry, the article is more interesting than if it were all about that. But that's what we're focusing on here. It must be said that the shoe fits. And "breitbarting" sounds Teutonic. German is one of the world's more percussive languages, always gets the point across. And yet, and yet...

Face it. This is Andy Breitbart. He's a dimwit. Do you really think he even rates lasting infamy.

The truth is that most eponyms--positive or negative--don't last. You can find scores of them in any book of obsolete words. "Borking" is already faded to almost nothing. Conservative pundits occasionally use it, once they have the bandages unwrapped. Outside of them, it's widely assumed to be sexual slang. "Yeah, we got high, took a shower, and borked some more."

Friday, August 6, 2010

Thanks for the tip

As a rule, creative writing manuals fall into two camps.

There's the stereotypically male one. Do this. Follow these instructions. Here are ten bestselling novelists. Read them and do exactly what they did. This is a good approach if your hobbies include going to Bellevue and shopping for a new straitjacket.

Then there's the stereotypical female. Find out how you feel. Face your issues. Here are eight to fourteen things you can find while searching your navel. Reading these you can waste time facing personal problems that either you're not ready to deal with or that you don't actually have.

Kelly Link's roundup isn't a book. In hard copy it would be a magazine article of a couple of pages. There isn't really that much to say. But what she does say is helpful.

The exercise of starting with one sentence and going onto the next, say. It gives you the idea, "Why don't I try to make every sentence a keeper?" Is this possible? I don't know. Probably not. But the attempt is energizing, not tiring.

Recently I went back to a project that I had played with and sort of given up on. It was the usual deal for me. Start out with what seems like an interesting idea. Meander. Get a few pages done and sort of give up. This time out, though, a funny thing happened. The interesting idea led to other interesting ideas. As time went on I got more keyed up, not less. And while endings suck in general, I managed to wrap this draft up in a way that wasn't embarassing.

There have been other changes in my life and outlook lately, and these have helped too. But I figure I should at least give Link's advice partial credit.

"A Funny Thing Happened"/Friday Random Ten

Today I carried a linen jacket with me, letting it dry out from a rainstorm. A rainstorm that lasted about as long as an infomercial. Yesterday: It's overcast and I walk into a store. I come out and it's like there are invisible gardeners holding hoses everywhere. The streets are flooded. Two or three minutes to walk home, and it only takes a fraction of that for me to get soaked to the skin. Bizarre.

1. Harry Nilsson--Me and My Arrow
2. Yuka Honda--The Last One to Fall Asleep With
3. Nina Simone--The Other Woman
4. L'Attirail--Disco Tel Aviv
5. Bjork--Vertebrae by Vertebrae
6. Taj Mahal--Statesboro Blues
7. Bob Dylan--Early in the Morning
8. Isobel Campbell--James
9. Modern Jazz Quartet--The Queen's Fancy
10. Magnetic Fields--Bitter Tears

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Stuffed into a locker, thrown overboard

Through bjkeefe, I saw this Mother Jones story on Bob Inglis. Inglis is a Republican congressman from South Carolina who's been overthrown by the Becktist wing of the party. Without sarcasm, I'd say he seems like someone I like. I hope that he follows his good instincts.

That basically means getting out and staying out of electoral politics. If he continues to try and be voice of reason--especially in his home district, after the scorched earth campaign that did him in--he's not going to get anywhere.

If he did run and win again, it would probably be by doing a 180 and agreeing with everything he was shying away from at that angry rally. Then getting ahead of it. Suffice it to say, that kind of thing will mess up your head.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Quote of the day: The wonders of...

This is a one-paragraph passage from a book I'm reading. I found it evocative somehow.

It was my dad who introduced me to the wonders of the natural world. In a sacred way, he revealed the first crocus of spring, removing the debris around the jack-in-the-pulpits in the forest as he chopped a fallen birch for firewood. He reveled in the salamaders and crayfish in the brook and marveled over where the deer must have fawned in the fairy circle next to the old barn.

Caitlin O'Connell, The Elephant's Secret Sense: The Hidden Life of the Wild Herds of Africa

A brilliantined stick insect

What can be said about Rudy Giuliani? He exists. He's from New York. And while he'd probably like to be remembered for more than those two things, anything more is probably a long shot.

Recently a Muslim group has applied for a permit to build a tower that includes a mosque, rather than the whole thing being a mosque, as you may have heard. The site happens to be on the site of in the same county as the World Trade Center attacks. Well, that prospect made the former mayor's saggy diaper leak, and he responded with a show of bluster. "Bluster" in this case being a fancy word for "being an asshole."

"This is a desecration," he added. "Nobody would allow something like that at Pearl Harbor. Let's have some respect for who died there and why they died there. Let's not put this off on some kind of politically correct theory.

"I mean, they died there because of Islamic extremist terrorism. They are our enemy, we can say that, the world will not end when we say that. And the reality is it will not and should not insult any decent Muslim because decent Muslims should be as opposed to Islamic extremism as you and I are."

There was a time when these words would have carried weight. An aura of heroism surrounded him for a good three or four years after 9/11, even if it was mostly reflected glory. He was "America's Mayor" back then, after a long and honorable term by Mayor McCheese.

At the time, his public castigation of the Landmarks Preservation Commission would have put the fear into them, and perhaps even spurred a reversal.

That was then, before he was revealed as a more venal than average big city pol. Before his presidential campaign showed what a lousy campaigner he was three inches out of his comfort zone. Now he's been reduced to background noise in his own backyard, thank God.

Oh yes, and one of Giuliani's fellow New Yorker's has something to say about hizzoner's forehead.

Word, Count. Word.