Monday, December 28, 2009

Yes, this post is about failure, but not in the way you think

One of my high school English teachers was fond of saying that, to a poet, there are no synonyms. Not only does each word have its own range of connotations and implications, but the very sounds in a word can affect that word's impact. Consider the following sentences:
  • "I made a boo-boo." This is something you might say when making a mistake that is nearly inconsequential, and is easily forgotten, like if you were making cookies and a glob of dough fell on the counter.
  • "I made a mistake." This has a wide range of possible uses, because it is fairly neutral as far as connotations go. If we're making cookies, this could be something like turning the oven to the wrong temperature, or just forgetting to turn it on.
  • "I fucked up." This seems to imply that the project was a failure. Maybe you cooked the cookies too long, or forgot to add baking soda. Whatever happened, the cookies might be edible, but they are not exactly "delicious."
  • "I just totally botched this mother fucker." This seems to imply that your involvement in the project has made the general situation worse. Not only are the cookies inedible, but the kitchen is a mess, and there is a mess of burnt cookies that need to be cleaned from the bottom of the oven. In the future, you should not be allowed to cook while unsupervised.
So, from a "logical" point of view, each of these sentences means the same thing. But they actually mean rather different things, from the point of view of  how we use language. For each one of these sentences, though, there is a way to convey the same connotative message, while carrying it in a different style. "I have failed at making cookies" has a formality and specificity that is lacking in "I fucked up."

To a comedian, this difference between connotations is something easily exploited for jokes, because it can be downright funny when someone uses "incorrect" phrasing to describe a situation. If a general discovers that he is outnumbered two-to-one, it seems proper for him to say, "This is going to be more difficult than I thought," but if he is outnumbered ten-to-one or twenty-to-one, that is more like an attempt at humor. And his soldiers might think he is kind of a dick for it.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Take my advice, do as I say, save a little money for a rainy day

There exists a perennial problem in the older generations giving advice to the younger generations. Old people, being wizened to the ways of the world, often wish that there were things that they knew when they were younger, because it would have made life a bit easier for them, or they would have made fewer terrible mistakes. So, they think, "I would like the younger generation to have the benefit of the knowledge I have, so that they can learn from new mistakes, instead of the same damn mistakes everyone makes."

But that younger generation will only learn this wisdom if they want to. Some of them are resistant to anyone trying to tell them how to live their lives, and some are in a receptive mood to receive this advice only at particular times. This means that the older generation tries to give advice whenever they can, and nine times out of ten, the kid is not listening, doesn't care, or what have you. It is almost like a classical Hegelian dialectic, with a constant thesis and antithesis going on, and rarely ever any synthesis. It is those few who do take this advice to heart who tend to do better in life, or feel better about their lives.

So, at my ripe old age of 26, I am going to give you young kids some advice: consider the advice of anyone who offers it to you, young or old, destitute or successful. Everyone in this world knows something that you do not. What they tell you might be outright wrong, and what they tell you might be something you already know, but if you do not at least consider it, you will never find out which things are the ones you can learn from.

While we're at it: never stop learning.

And another thing: take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment. Costly thy habit as they purse can buy, but not expressed in fancy; rich, not gaudy, for the apparel oft proclaims the man...

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

An introduction to existentialism

Monday, December 14, 2009

On brain crack

"Ideas are not property, they are infections. And anyone who reads everything will know that ideas nave no allegiance to their host body: They pass from brain to brain untraceably, or simply break out spontaneously, separated by continents or even centuries, without explanation." - John Hodgman, "More Information Than You Require"

This is going to go off some of the ideas I had in the previous post, to wit: every generation has its own particular set of circumstances that lead to its artists and scientists producing what they do. Though one person might be credited with an idea, and developing that idea, there are often other people around them talking about similar things. Ezra Pound is sometimes credited as being the most influential person in modern poetry, not because of the poems he wrote, but because of what he did for the people around him.

So, if you have an idea... probably someone else thought of it already.* And that's okay! Because what is more important than an idea is what you do with the idea. Are you going to work that idea into a novel, and explore its implications? Are you going to write a non-fiction book or essay that develops the idea, and goes further places with it? Are you just going to put it on some bumper stickers and T-shirts, and call it a day? There are a lot of options here.

If you do nothing with your idea, though, nobody will ever give you credit for the idea, or even for doing anything with the idea. You might even develop innovative ideas without realizing it, and though you take pride in your contributions to the "time traveler tourist" thought experiment, ten years from now, people actually admire you for your perspicacity in seeing the way that corporations control and define our very way of life.

But nobody will ever talk about you if you don't give them something to talk about.


* - It is possible that no one else has thought of Time Cube independently. At least, I really hope no one has.

Putting an (arbitrary) value on human life, part 3

Friday, December 11, 2009

Measuring the value of life, part 2

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Can't buy me love

Yeah, I got nothin'

The thing about stuff being stuck in your teeth is that when someone points it out to you, it doesn't always help. They're trying to give you directions on where it is, and they keep saying, "No, no, other way... okay, it's still there..." Going to the mirror is what you should really do, if it's that big of a deal, but in the heat of the moment, that doesn't occur to you. (Remember this for the future: IF SOMETHING IS STUCK IN YOUR TEETH, FIND A MIRROR.)

Sending someone an "ecard" bypasses this entire awkward experience. The person is going to go directly to the mirror to try to get rid of that thing. There will be no awkward, drawn-out sequence. You also don't draw any attention to yourself, so if there is someone you're concerned about impressing, you can pretend that person never noticed the thing in your teeth.

See how I switched pronouns there? That's a little writing trick we writers use. It's called "making a mistake but being too lazy to fix it."

I'm going to take this opportunity to tell you to get the Greasemonkey script that displays all three easter eggs for each Dinosaur Comic: the title text, the "alt text," and the e-mail subject line when you click on "Contact." It's like expanding the comic from six panels to nine panels. That is 50% more comic! There is no reason not to have this script! Unless that reason is "I don't use Firefox" in which case you are missing out on a whole lot of things, my friend. A whole lot.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Teenage Demigod Warrior Achaeans

There is a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, called "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote." It is very much like what T-Rex describes, except a bit less silly: a man in the 20th century is attempting to write Don Quixote word for word, not as a transcription, but producing them as if he were writing a novel of his own. He was not going to do this by trying to be Miguel de Cervantes—learn Spanish, return to Catholicism, forget about European history from 1602 onward—no, that would be too easy. He was going to do this by writing from the mind and experience of Pierre Menard. "I have assumed the mysterious obligation to reconstruct, word for word, the novel that for him was spontaneous."

This complete recontextualization makes a word of difference for how one is to interpret and understand the book. "The Cervantes text and the Menard text are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer":
Cervantes, for example, wrote the following (Part I, Chapter IX):

... truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, examplar and adviser to the present, and the future's counselor.
This catalog of attributes, written in the seventeenth century, and written by the "ingenious layman" Miguel de Cervantes, is mere rhetorical praise of history. Menard, on the other hand, writes:
... truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, examplar and adviser to the present, and the future's counselor.
History, the mother of the truth!—the idea is staggering. Menard, a contemporary of William James, defines history not as delving into reality but as the very fount of reality. Historical truth, for Menard, is not "what happened"; it is what we believe happened."
(I am going to take this opportunity to say that you should go read Borges's Collected Fictions. It is a thick volume, but I don't think any of the stories in it are longer than ten pages, and you will not be disappointed. A couple of the "classics" are "The Library of Babel" and "The Garden of Forking Paths." Prepare to have your mind blown, man.)

When placed along side Borges, T-Rex's idea for recontextualizing classic stories is not as silly as it sounds. Rather than The Odyssey, let's look at the opening lines of The Iliad, because I know that book much better.  So, think of the following lines as coming from a blind poet living in Bronze Age Greece:
Sing, muse, of the rage of Peleus' son Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses, hurling down to the House of Death so many souls, great fighters' souls, but made their bodies carrion, feasts for the dogs and birds, and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end."
As opening lines go, that one is pretty damn good. But let's reimagine it as a commercial interrupting "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." You see a commercial for how Pantene Pro V can make your hair shiny and beautiful, then you see a commercial for how you can own a Toyota Forerunner today with no money down and 0% APR financing... and then you see this commercial come up:
Sing, muse, of the rage of Peleus' son Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses, hurling down to the House of Death so many souls, great fighters' souls, but made their bodies carrion, feasts for the dogs and birds, and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end."
Nobody writes like that anymore! Not only that, but nobody puts that kind of poetic craft into writing commercials, unless the poetry is meant to be part of a joke. "Hurling down to the House of Death"? Fuck. Yes.

And then! There's that part at the end where Priam is trying to get Hector's body back from Achilles, and he gets down on his knees and says, "I have been through what no man has been through. I put my lips to the hands of the man who has killed my children." Can you imagine anyone in the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan doing something like that? Imagine that the Taliban captured and killed a high-ranking US officer, maybe even General Odierno, and not only refused to give us his body but hooked him up to the back of a humvee and spent the day dragging it around. We would be shocked and appalled, and though there might be negotiations to get the body back, nobody is going to get down on their knees and say, "I put my lips to the hands of the man who has killed my children."

That is the kind of balls this commercial has. Good sir, whatever you are selling, I am buying it.

Oh, fuck, it's a commercial for AXE body spray? I'm going to have to backtrack here. It was a good commercial, but there is no way I'm going to go around smelling like a douchebag.