Posts Tagged ‘navel-gazing’


two points don’t make a line in the gap

July 23, 2010

When did the Gap become all I am interested in talking or writing about? It’s sort of getting embarrassing. Ah, well, I’ll stop soon.

So, on twitter, a mild non-debate. Benladen, one of my esteemed colleagues who keeps what I consider one of the weirdest blogs ever, also known as That Guy Mark Yudof Kicked Out of Twitter for a while, posted this:

next time you think something is “beyond words” or you’re experiencing something “past language,” please fucking die you idiot


I retweeted it, which is what Ohhhlala, a good friend of mine, responded to thusly:

There are ways of communicating “beyond words.” A soft touch, a kiss, a smile, tears. And more often, those are more powerful than words.


Now, I’m in a bit of a pickle, because I mostly don’t think anyone’s an idiot, especially on this topic. But I do think there are a couple main points regarding the first tweet which need to be better articulated:

1. Language is an infinite resource. Lexicographers and English majors really don’t like hearing this, but there’s no actual rule about who has the authority to create new words and use them. Which words survive and which never get out of a circle of five assholes on a street corner is sort of up to usage and spreading patterns, but there’s no law that you have to have a PhD in Literature to be allowed to coin words. People do it all the time. Moreover, there are mathematically infinite combinations you can make with existing words, because syntax is iterative and recursive, so you can keep adding on those similes and prepositional phrases with adverbial content until you are literally blue in the face, and there’s no language cop gonna pull you over for speeding.

2. Reality is totally subjective. A bold statement, but not a new or inventive one. To be clear, I do ssssssort of believe that there is some external, objective reality off of which we all base our subjective models in our heads, but since the ones in our heads are the only ones we can prove to actually exist, we’re sort of stuck. Language is one of the mechanisms we use to try and physically realize some arbitrary symbolic code representing the reality in our skulls, so that someone else can interpret those symbols and try to piece it together in their own skull. If we ever encounter a thing, an event, or an idea that doesn’t seem to be able to be expressed in words, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any words for it, just that we don’t have words in our particular understanding of language. Also, see point 1.

Now, on the other side, some equally important points:

3. Not all communication is language. Not every tenuous bridge over that scary two-layered gap between two humans is going to be made of language. Besides the basic so-called “body language” (which has no grammar and the vocabulary of which is largely intuitive but that’s not my specialty and I’m not getting into it), there’s still music, art, dancing, throwing rocks at people… these are all ways of communicating that are not within the mathematical abstract body that we can adequately call language. Are there things in the world that can only be symbolized or actualized in the world by way of throwing rocks at someone? I actually don’t know; that level of specific abstraction makes me suspect that throwing rocks would then become semi- or at least para-linguistic. Ish. Don’t quote me on that.

4. Language is a flawed tool. As demonstrated by all sorts of wonderful people totally misunderstanding me when I try to have serious conversations over text message, language alone is obviously not enough. Actions “speak” louder than words (and I use that cliche very carefully), and there are many things that would be misconstrued or not cleanly and clearly communicated in words that are very, very easily communicated by throwing rocks.

So, uh, there. For any confusion with my weird idiosyncratic gap metaphor I refer people back to my illustration of The Gap

Edit to add: In Ben’s defense, he immediately also posted this, which I then failed to retweet because I didn’t see it. It’s possibly the most crucial point in the whole debate.


brooklyn to manhattan (minding the gap)

July 22, 2010

I’m in New York City. Alone. It’s sort of trippy, not least because I’m moving around a lot each night. My car’s well out of the city, parked Somewhere Safe, and this is the first time in about two months that I’ve been this far from it. My van’s my home right now, and it makes me nervous not to be able to check on it constantly.

No matter. I’ve been riding the subway a lot, as one does here, and it is a peculiar kind of delight. I have, and always have had, a deep fear of the vestibules on trains; I think it’s some combination of dangerous liminal spaces and really loud noises, but I can barely breathe when the doors between cars are open. That said, that’s not the gap they warn you about on the subway; the announcer is always sweetly reminding you to keep your toes and fancy high heels out of the small gap between the train and the platform. That gap does not alarm me, because I know what’s down there: train tracks, cigarette butts, and a lot of gum. But the open vestibule does alarm me, because that gap still exists while we’re hurtling under the city at deafening speed, and because there is no guarantee of what exactly exists in that space.

My Gap Anxiety is a constant motif of this grand roadtrip of mine, but I have a hard time explaining it while sober. To save everyone a lot of angst, and myself a lot of liver damage, I’ve drawn a picture for y’all:

I am highly-trained in design and presentation. You can tell from my skillful use of Microsoft Paint.


To begin:

June 25, 2010

There is, within the confines of my mens, an abstraction of the world by which I percieve it– the world, that is. Since there is no way to actually process the physical world into meaningful semantic categories of analysis without abstracting, I abstract. It is the first step of removal. There are ways to undo this process– language, especially referential language, is a way of externalizing that inner world in which “I,” or my first-level abstraction of myself, reside, by turning these thoughts into physical actions of my body which can code and then be decoded by other people back into their own abstraction of the physical world. However, since there is an inherent and inalienable gap between my first-level abstraction and the physical world, there is no way of ever knowing that the signifiers and signs I choose to use in my physical actualization of my abstraction will be construed to signify the exact same set of conditions and categories when some listener percieves and decodes the physical language into their own idea of the world.

This, my darlings, is the semantic gap. It is a yawning chasm which has long woken me up at night, shaken me from myself in terror. It is also the gap that some choose to stare into, in hopes of seeing beyond; the notion is that it is possible, and indeed preferable, to encounter the truth of the world without mistaking that truth for the abstraction we use to represent it.

This first-level abstraction doesn’t always cause the big problems, though. We then further abstract the first model, which is our understanding of the physical world as it exists in categories and events, into a second model, which is our story of ourselves. Our second-level abstraction is the way we categorize for analysis more complex things, like emotions and philosophies and dreams and imaginations and free will as it pertains to events in the world. It is drawing connections between categories, drawing causal links and formulae to help us understand what is ultimately too massive and unorganized to otherwise be comprehended; our whole idea of the world as it exists is too big, so we sort the piles of “things that are grass” and “things that are me” and “events of breathing” and “events of falling” into “things that are objects” and “things that are events” and “things that I like.” That last one is excessively complex, because it requires both a conception of “I,” which is some prototypical me-ness sublimated from a series of events and things that I’ve observed in the world, and it also requires a conception of “liking,” which is some prototypical emotion sublimated from a series of events and things that I’ve observed in the world.

Let me back up one step: people are not people. People are a series of events and things.

Let me back up one more step: I’m on this road trip, see.


On Squibhood and human scientists

June 1, 2010

Midterm for Syntax 2

I am enamored with the idea of squibs. This is not simply because of the name, I swear– though it does conjure rather interesting mental images. But I am enamored with the idea of academic writing that is witty, fun, chatty, smart, grounded in data, and not driven by some presupposed thesis. I love the idea of a scientific essay that comes with a punchline.

What I’ve posted is not exactly a squib. It’s not very good, for one thing– I skipped some data, didn’t quantify or formalize it very well, and got a little too caught up in the style to focus on the science.

It also has an extended conceit, in the manner of lyric poetry. I’ll be the first to admit that syntax homework and poetry should probably not be mixed when we’re getting graded on it.

But what about when we’re not?

What I propose is a new kind of squib: one in which the science is part of a narrative about our personal scientific processes, a story about ourselves. As any good linguist will tell you, we don’t come with an “off-switch.” We don’t ever stop thinking, angsting, flailing, arguing, observing, analyzing. Not when we’re asleep, not when we’re on a hot date, not when we’re out drinking with our buddies. The midterm I’ve posted is fictional, but not excessively so; and why can’t this be a new form, a new way to write, a new way to incorporate our science and our humanity so that it better reflects what we actually do with our time? Our best work doesn’t happen in a library cubicle with noise-canceling headphones, it happens in that hipster cafe with half a beer in front of us, it happens with screaming fights waking up the dozing actors on the next couch over, it happens on impulsive drives to Monterey and it happens in the tattoo parlor and the bedroom and the roof of the science building and the cave under the library. Why not write about that? Why not aim to please as well as edify, to teach and delight our readers?

My attempt was a failed one, this is sure in my mind. But it won’t be the last one, most especially now that I’ve had a few weeks and some feedback to help suss out where I’m trying to go with this. I’d be interested to hear what other linguists (or any kind of scientists) have to say about this, though.


Processing Speed and Performance

March 3, 2009

Usually it’s not a it deal if I stretch the stats a little while running complex programs, but lately whenever I’ve got a complex program going my CPU craps out for a minute or two at a time, overheats, goes to standby, comes back.

Oh, yeah, and my computer’s behaving a little funny, too.


Googleability and Nomenclature

February 6, 2009

I’ve been googling myself a lot lately. It’s rather silly, because I haven’t really done anything notable yet, but I still like seeing my existence validated in the collective consciousness. Due to my rather unique name, I’m very easily googleable–my full name will get you articles and pages in which I am mentioned, rather than someone else with the same name, or unrelated pages that happen to use my name as separate terms. If you put quotes around it, you of course narrow it down even further, but it’s quite unnecessary. I’m lucky that way.

Other people I know (and Google) are rather harder to track down. Both my parents have rather common names, and it takes some creative Google-fu to pin them down precisely. The problem with common names is that of course there are always people out there with the same name. (There is no other Kirby Conrod on the internet. Don’t bother checking, I already have. Extensively.) You still get people, though, which shows that at least the name is recognizably a name. My Latin teacher, on the other hand, is virtually ungoogleable by name alone. Christian Blood (yes, that’s really his name) of course gets hundreds of thousands of results, but none of them refer to people. They refer, predictably and overwhelmingly, to the blood of Christians. It’s only if you hone the search string to include a mention of his academic context or somesuch that you get results that have anything to do with him, and even then it’s only because his papers have won a few awards, not because he has any real presence on the web.

Now, this all would be sort of pointless and boring if it weren’t for my most recent line of thought, which is baby-naming in terms of search optimization. Kirby is frequently a surname, not to mention a brand of vacuum cleaners and a video game character, so my given name alone is completely useless. However, with the addition of my surname–an alternate spelling of a moderately common one–the search is far, far narrowed down. If my name were Kirby Smith, I would be harder to find. If my name were Alice Conrod, I’d be harder to find. So naming a person so as to optimize their ability to found is a tricky balance– you want something that’s recognizable as a person’s name, but adequately uncommon so as to be unique when it’s a full name. If, as I plan to, I name one of my children Eureka, a search on her first name alone will get all sorts of non-people results. However, if you google “Eureka Conrod”, you’ll notice there are no results. (Yet. This blog entry will be the first.) That empty space is, effectively, a hole for Eureka-the-yet-unborn to fill, with whatever notoriety she manages to scrape together for herself.

(I’d be worried about Christian finding this blog and being a little peeved for my mentioning his name, but I am fairly confident he has better things to do than Google himself like I do.)