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Category Archives: art

the importance of Interstellar

iDo not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

                                                    Dylan Thomas (1951)

Over the last few years a lot of movies -among other things- seem to have shrunk in ambition while appearing to be”bigger.” The Transformers series of movies are perhaps the best example. Best way to turn off your brain while watching fights of giant robots and cool explosions? Sure. But while mega-budget blockbusters focus on size, many of them lack ambition and scope. Art, entertainment, and movies in particular, given their reach, matter a lot in terms of what they reflect of us and what they can inspire. For all their grandiose intergalactic-battle-of-the-ages mumbo jumbo, Transformers and other similar movies always feel small, and petty. Humans in them are relegated to bit actors that appear to be props necessary for the real heroes (in this case, giant alien robots) to gain, or regain, inspiration and do what they must do. And always, always by chance. Random people turn into key characters in world-changing events just because they stumbled into the wrong, or right, (plot)hole.

Now, people turned into “the instruments of fate (or whatever),” if you will, is certainly a worthwhile theme and something that does happen. But stories in which the protagonists (and people in general) take the reins and attempt to influence large-scale events through  hard work, focus, cooperation, even -gasp!- study, became less common for a while. Art reflects the preoccupations and aspirations of society, and it seems that by the mid-to-late 2000s we had become reliant on the idea of the world as reality TV – success is random and based on freakish circumstances, or, just as often, on being a freak of some sort. This isn’t a phenomenon isolated to science fiction — westerns, for example, declined in popularity but also turned “gritty” or “realistic” and in the process, for the most part, trading stories of the ‘purity of the pioneering spirit’ or ‘taming the frontier’ with cesspools of dirt, crime, betrayal and despair.

Given the reality of the much of the 20th century, it was probably inevitable that a lot of art (popular or not) would go from a rosy, unrealistically happy and/or heroic view of the past, present, and future, to a depressing, excessively pessimistic view of them. Many of the most popular heroes in our recent collective imaginations are ‘born’ (by lineage, by chance, etc) rather than ‘made’ by their own efforts or even the concerted efforts of a group. Consider: Harry Potter, the human characters in Transformers (and pretty much any Michael Bay movie since Armageddon), even more obviously commercial efforts like Percy Jackson or Twilight along with other ‘young adult’ fiction and with pretty much all other vampire movies, which have the distinction of creating ‘heroes’ simultaneously randomly and through bloodlines, the remake of Star Trek turned Kirk joining Starfleet into something he didn’t really want to do; the characters in The Walking Dead; the grand-daddy of all of these: Superman… and, even, as much as I enjoy The Lord of The Rings, nearly everything about its view of good and evil involves little in the way of will and intent from the main characters. Characters talk a great deal about the importance of individuals and their actions, but in the end they’re all destined to do what they do and the key turning points are best explained as either ‘fate’, simply random, or manipulated by people of ‘greater wisdom and/or power’ like Gandalf, Galadriel, Elrond and so on. Good and evil are defined along the lines of an eugenics pamphlet in a way that gets to be creepy more often than not (the ‘best’ are fair-skinned, with blue or green eyes, and from the West, the ‘worst’ are dark-skinned, speak in hellish tongues and are from the East, along with an unhealthy obsession with bloodlines and purity of blood, and so on; Gandalf “progresses” from Gray to White, while Saruman falls from being the leader as Saruman the White into shrunken evil serving Sauron, the Dark Lord… as “Saruman of Many Colours”… you get the idea).

All of which is to say: I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in this environment good Science Fiction in general and space exploration SF is always relegated a bit, particularly in movies. There is nothing random about space exploration: it requires an enormous amount of planning, study, effort, hard work, and money. You can’t inherit a good space program. It has to be painstakingly built, and supported, across decades. When a not-insignificant percentage of society flatly discards basic scientific theories in favor of religious or political dogma while giving an audience to Honey Boo Boo or Duck Dynasty, it’s not illogical for studios to finance another animated movie with talking animals than to push people beyond their comfort zones.

Even so, there’s always been good SF, if perhaps not as frequently as SF fans would like. And over the last 20 years we have started to see  Fantasy/SF stories that combine a more “realistic” view of the world, but mixed in with the more idealistic spirit of movies like The Right Stuff. In these we have characters succeeding, or at least ‘fighting the good fight’, through exertion of will, the resolve to change their reality. And even if there’s an element of ‘fate’ or chance in the setup, the bulk of the story involves characters that aren’t just pushed around by forces beyond their control. Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Avatar, Serenity, most of Marvel’s new movies: Iron Man, Captain America, The AvengersWatchmen. In books, the Already Dead series and the Coyote series, both of which could make for spectacularly good movies if ever produced. In TV, Deadwood, which is perhaps the best TV series of all time, was a good example of the same phenomenon — it felt realistic, but realistically complex, with characters that weren’t just swept up in events, and that exhibited more than one guiding principle or idea. We got ‘smaller’ movies like Moon that were excellent, but large-scale storytelling involving spaceflight that wasn’t another iteration of a horror/monster/action movie is something I’ve missed in the last few years.

What about last year’s Gravity? It was visually arresting and technically proficient but fairly mundane in terms of what actually happens. It’s not really inspiring — it’s basically the story of someone wrecking their car in the middle of the desert and having to make it to the next gas station… but in space, the focus on experiencing a spiritual rebirth, and in case we were confused about the metaphor the see the main character literally crawl out of mud and water and then slowly stand and start to walk. Bullock’s character in Gravity is also one of those guided by circumstances, frequently displaying a lack of knowledge about spaceflight that even the original monkeys that flew in the early space missions would have slapped their foreheads about.

Which brings me to Interstellar. No doubt it will be compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey (with reason) and with Gravity (with less reason). Interstellar is more ambitious than 2001 in terms of science, matching it or exceeding it in terms of story scope and complexity, while leaving Gravity in the dust.  2007’s Sunshine shares some themes and some of the serious approach to both science and fiction (… at least the first 30 minutes or so, afterwards it shares more with Alien) as well as with the (in my opinion) under-appreciated Red Planet (2000) and even some elements of the much less convincing Mission to Mars. It also reminded me of Primer in terms of how it seamlessly wove pretty complex ideas into its plot.

We haven’t had a “hard” SF space movie like this for a whileKey plot points involving gravitational time-dilation, wormholes, black holes,  quantum mechanics/relativity discrepancies… even a 3D representation of a spacetime tesseract (!!!!). 2001 was perfect about the mechanics of space flight, but Interstellar also gets as deep into grand-unified theory issues as you can probably get without losing a lot of the audience, and goes much further than 1997’s Contact. There are some plot point that are weak (or, possibly, that I may have missed an explanation for, I’ll need another viewing to confirm…), and sometimes there are moments that feel a bit slow or excessively, shall we say, ‘philosophical’, although in retrospect the pauses in action were effective in making what followed even more significant.

Comparisons and minor quibbles aside, Interstellar is spectacular; the kind of movie you should, nay, must watch in a theater, the bigger screen the better, preferably on IMAX.

The movie not only has a point of view,  it is unapologetic about it. It doesn’t try to be “balanced,” and it doesn’t try to mix in religion even as it touches on subjects in which it frequently is mixed in the name of making “all points of view heard.” Interstellar is not “anti religion” … and it is not pro-religion either. There’s a fundamental set of circumstances in the plot that allows the movie to sidestep pretty much all of the usual politics and religion that would normally be involved. Perhaps someone can argue whether those circumstances are realistic (although something like the Manhattan project comes to mind as an example of how it can actually happen). But the result is that the movie can focus almost exclusively on science, exploration, our ability to change things, either individually or in groups.

This, to me, felt truly refreshing. Everything that has to do with science these days is mixed in with politics and/or religion. This also helps the story in its refusal to “dumb things down”…  its embrace of complexity of ideas, even if less focused on a lot of specific technical details than, say, Apollo 13 was, which is a natural result of having the Apollo data at hand.

How many people, I wonder, know by now what NASA’s Apollo program really was? Sometimes it seems to be relegated to either conspiracy joke material or mentioned in passing to, for example, explain how your phone is more powerful than the computers that went to the moon. Somehow what was actually attempted, and what was actually achieved, isn’t remarkable anymore, and the true effort it took is less appreciated as a result. With that, we are making those things smaller, which gives us leeway to do, to be less. It makes “raging against the dying of the light” sound like a hopelessly romantic, useless notion. It justifies how approaching big challenges these days frequently happens in ways that makes us “involved” in the same way that Farmville relates to actual farming. Want to feel like you’ve solved world hunger? Donate $1 via text to Oxfam. Want to “promote awareness of ALS”? Just dump a bucket of ice water on your head. Want to “contribute in the fight against cancer”? Add a $3 donation while checking out of the supermarket. No need to get into medicine or study for a decade. Just bump your NFC-enabled phone against this gizmo and give us some money, we’ll do the rest.

I’m not saying that there is no place for those things, but recently it seems that’s the default. Why? Many commentators have talked about how these days we lack an attitude best described by Kennedy’s famous line “Ask not what your country can do for you, as what you can do for your country”. But I don’t think the issue is not wanting to do anything, or not wanting to help. I think the issue is that we have gotten used to being scared and feeling powerless in the face of complexity. We’ve gone from the 60’s attitude of everyone being able to change the world to feeling as if we’re completely at the mercy of forces beyond our control. And we’ve gone overboard about whatever we think we can control:  people freaking out about the use of child seats in cars, or worrying about wearing helmets when biking, while simultaneously doing little as societies about the far greater threat of climate change.

When education was a privilege of very few, very rich people, it was possible for pretty much everyone to accept a simplistic version of reality. That was before affordable mass travel, before realtime communications, before two devastating world wars and any number of “smaller” ones. Reality has been exposed for the truly messy, complicated thing it is and always was. But instead of embracing it we have been redefining reality downwards, hiding our collective heads in the sand, telling ourselves that small is big. Even heroism is redefined — everyone’s a hero now.

Interstellar is important not just as a great science fiction movie, not just because it is inspiring when it’s so much easier to be cynical about the past, the present or the future, but also because beyond what it says there’s also how it says it, with a conviction and clarity that is rare for this kind of production. It’s not a coincidence that it references those Dylan Thomas verses more than once. It’s an idealistic movie, and in a sense fundamentally optimistic, although perhaps not necessarily as optimistic about outcomes as it is about opportunities.

It’s about rekindling the idea that we can think big. A reminder of what we can attempt, and sometimes achieve. And, crucially, that at a time when we demand predictability out of everything, probably because it helps us feel somehow ‘in control’, it is also a reminder in more ways than one that great achievement, like discovery, has no roadmap.

Because if you always know where you’re going and how you’re getting there you may be ‘safe’, it’s unlikely you’ll end up anywhere new.

here’s when you get a sense that the universe is telling you something

In the same Amazon package you get:

    The latest Thomas Pynchon novel.
    The World War Z blu ray.
    Soup.

Telling you what exactly…. well, that is less clear.

diego’s life lessons, part III

Excerpted from the upcoming book: “Diego’s life lessons: 99 tips for survival, fun, and profit in today’s baffling bric-a-brac world.” (see Part I and Part II).

#9 make the right career choices

Everyone will have seven careers in their lifetime, someone said once, and we all repeated it even if we have no idea why.

The key to career planning, though, is to keep in mind that while the world of today ranges from complicated to downright baffling, the world of tomorrow will be pretty predictable, since as we all know it will just be a barren hellscape populated by Zombies.

So the question is: post-Zombie Apocalypse, what will you need to be? Survival in the new Zombie-infested world will require the skills of any good D&D party: a Healer, a Warrior, a Thief, and a Wizard — which in a world without magic means someone to tinker with things, build weapons, design shelters with complicated spring traps, and knowledge of how to brew a good cup of coffee.

Clearly you don’t want to be a Healer (read: medic/doctor), since that means no one will be able to fix you — you should have friends or relatives with careers in medicine, however, for obvious reasons. Being a Thief will be of limited use, but more importantly it’s not really the kind of thing you can practice for without turning to a life of crime as defined by our pre-Zombie civilization (post-Zombies, most of the things we consider crimes today will become fairly acceptable somehow, so you may be able to pull this off with the right timing).

That leaves you with either Warrior or Wizard, which translates roughly to: Gun Nut or Hacker. And by “Hacker” we mean the early-1980s definition of hacker, rather than the bastardized 2000s version, and one that is not restricted to computers.

So. Your choices for a new career path are as follows:

  • If you’re a Nerd, become a Hacker.
  • If you’re neither a Nerd or a Hacker, just become a Gun Nut, it’s the easiest and fastest way to post-apocalyptic survival. This way, while you wait for Zombies to strike you won’t need to worry (for example) about a lookup being O(N) or not, or why the CPU on some random server is pegged at 99% without any incoming requests.
  • If you’re already a Gun Nut, you’re good to go. Just keep buying ammo.
  • If you’re already a Hacker… please don’t turn into an evil genius and destroy the world. Try taking up some activity that will consume your time for no reason, like playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim or learning to program for Blackberry.

NOTE (I): If you’re in the medical profession, just stay put. We will protect you so you can fix our sprained ankles and such.
NOTE (II): there is also the rare combination of Hacker/Nerd+Gun Nut, but you should be aware that this is a highly volatile combination of skills which can have unpredictable results on your psyche.

#45: purchase a small island in the Pacific Ocean

As far as having a permanent vacation spot, this one really is a no-brainer. Why bother with hotels when you can own a piece of slowly sinking real estate? Plus, according to highly reliable sources, you don’t need to be a billionaire.

True, you will have significant coconut-maintenance fees and you’ll probably need a small fleet of Roombas to keep the place tidy, but coconuts are delicious and the Roombas can help in following lesson #18.

NOTE I: don’t be fooled by the “Pacific” part of “Pacific Ocean.” There’s nothing “pacific” about it. There’s storms, cyclones, tsunamis, giant garbage monsters, sharks, jellyfish, and any number of other dangers. Therefore, an important followup to purchase the island is to buy an airline for it. You know, to be able to get away quickly, just in case.

NOTE II: this is actually an alternative to the career choices described above, since it is well known that Zombies can’t swim.

NOTE III: the island should not be named Krakatoa — see lesson #1. Aside from this detail, owning a Pacific Island does not directly conflict with lesson #1, since the cupboard can be actually located in a hut somewhere in the island (multiple cupboard hiding spots are also advisable).

#86 Stock up on Kryptonite

Ok, so let me tell you about this guy… He wears a cape and tights. He frequently disrobes in public places. He makes a living writing for a newspaper with an owner that makes Rupert Murdoch look like Edward R. Murrow. He has deep psychological scars since he is the last survivor of a cataclysmic event that destroyed his civilization. He leads a secret double life, generally disappearing whenever something terrible happens. He is an illegal alien. Also, he is an ALIEN.

Does this look like someone trustworthy to you? Hm?

That’s right. This is not a stable person.

Add to the list that he can fly, even in space, stop bullets, has X-ray vision, can (possibly) travel back in time and is essentially indestructible. How is this guy not a threat to all of humanity?

Lex Luthor was deeply misunderstood — he could see all this, but his messaging was way off. Plus there were all those schemes to Take Over The World, which should really be left to experts like genetically engineered mice.

The only solution to this menace is to keep your own personal stash of Kryptonite. Keep most of it in a cupboard (see lesson #1) and a small amount on your person at all times.

After all, you never know when this madman will show up.

dialtones

When my home phone… you know, the bulky, heavy one, plugged in to a wireline (perhaps for sentimental reasons, at this point), rings… I don’t answer.

Ever.

It is muted. Permanently.

There’s a generation … a group of people, a dividing line, somewhere… for whom the idea of a dialtone, of verified communication, sounds insane. Most of them are kids at this point, sure, but some aren’t. To me, it is noticeable. To others, it is alien.

A dialtone.

Think about it, how many people alive today don’t know what a dialtone is? Have never heard one?

How many people do not answer their phone because they assume it’s spam?

Spam. Email… bits, translated into voice (also bits). Video. TV, or, truthfully, the constructs that TV (and to some degree radio) created.

Advertising.

Something to consider…

indiana… smith

via an old post from Mystery Man on Film, The “Raiders” Story Conference: the transcripts of meetings in 1978 during which George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Lawrence Kasdan ironed out what would become Raiders of The Lost Ark. It is really something to see the movie unfold in the discussion, the recurring themes and references (e.g. James Bond), the highly structured way in which Lucas (in particular) approached the story-crafting process, and moments like this, when Lucas first names the character:

Kasdan: Do you have a name for this person?

Lucas: I do for our leader.

Spielberg: I hate this, but go ahead.

Lucas: Indiana Smith. It has to be unique. It’s a character. Very Americana square. He was born in Indiana.

Kasdan: What does she call him, Indy?

Lucas: That’s what I was thinking. Or Jones. Then people can call him Jones.

If you’re interested at all in art, movies, or the creative process in general, the transcript and Mystery Man’s analysis are a must-read. (Almost a Movie has more formats).

must watch (canceled) tv

There is no doubt in my mind that TV has gotten measurably better in the last decade or so. Something, I imagine, having to do with people figuring out how to really create art in a medium that is relatively young by historical standards. Setting aside the vagaries of the physical medium of TV (which Netflix, with House of Cards just proved pretty convincingly didn’t matter, if HBO hadn’t done that already…) there’s the episodic nature of it, the idea that this isn’t something you go watch in a theater but that you experience at home, either by yourself or with others.

Sometimes TV Series are canceled before they even get to the point of even closing off the story in a good way, usually after one season. Every once in a while those canceled series still stand the test of time, and even if the story is left unfinished they’re still worth watching. I thought I’d add a two here that fall in that category, with the caveat that if you get into them you should fully expect to be frustrated when you reach the end.

Rubicon (13 episodes, 1 season, 2010)

rubicon-showPerhaps what I appreciate the most about Rubicon is the silences. No dialog, just long stretches in which people do what they do in everyday life… like being in their apartment by themselves, for example. Not constant action and interaction between characters…. But people being alone and still moving the story forward. This is extraordinarily difficult to pull off and Rubicon does it really well. Almost everything in Rubicon is against the grain. It’s a conspiracy thriller set in our post-9/11 world with a distinct 1970s vibe, where people carry around huge piles of paper, memos, and reports and rarely use computers. Subtle character building instead of in-your-face exposition. Steady but slow story building, with strands emerging until it all comes together in the last few episodes. As far I can tell it is only available through Amazon Instant Video, but you may be able to find it through, um, other means. AMC has dropped the ball on not having this on iTunes, or DVD/Blu-Ray. Then again, they nearly destroyed The Walking Dead in Season 2, and almost managed to kill Mad Men over some silly argument around a few extra minutes per episode, so I’m not that surprised. I’m rooting for them to do better, though.

If you like movies like The Conversation (1974), Three Days Of The Condor (1975) or The Parallax View (1974) then you are sure to enjoy this series. Note the dates on those movies — not a coincidence.

SGU: Stargate Universe (40 episodes, 2 seasons, 2009-2011)

260px-SGUTVlogoStargate became, to some degree, the heir of Star Trek as a TV Science Fiction franchise, but SGU took things to the next level. The writing is spectacularly good, and the “cliche problem” is almost non-existent, as are occurrences of Deus ex machinas  (I say again: almost). SF classics like Rama and 2001: A Space Odyssey are clearly strong influences here. It is available pretty much everywhere, including Netflix. It ends with a semi-cliffhanger that will almost certainly never be properly resolved (maybe a Kickstarter campaign could fix that… but I’m not holding my breath).

If you like the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica then this series is a must-watch. It is one of the few series I’ve seen that does Science Fiction right (two others that come to mind at the moment are Caprica and Firefly, both cancelled as well — perhaps the subject of a follow-up post). Watching SGU makes you wonder if its writers and producers were also following Ron Moore’s “Battlestar Galactica Series Bible” (Google that, if you don’t know what I’m talking about).

The BSG Bible has more to say about the “cliche problem” I mentioned before:

Story. We will eschew the usual stories about parallel universes, time-travel, mindcontrol, evil twins, God-like powers and all the other cliches of the genre. Our show is first and foremost a drama. It is about people. Real people that the audience can identify with and become engaged in. It is not a show about hardware or bizarre alien cultures. It is a show about us. It is an allegory for our own society, our own people and it should be immediately recognizable to any member of the audience. 

(My emphasis). SGU does “break” those rules now and again, certainly more than BSG ever did. But it does it not do it because it’s out of things to say, but in the interest of the overall story arc, which in my mind makes it acceptable. For BSG, for example, Edward James Olmos revealed later that he had a clause  in his contract that no strange aliens or monsters would ever appear on the show, because he wanted to insure that the story stay focused on human drama (basically if a monster or alien showed up, he would just drop dead of a heart attack at that point). Apparently, this made the writers nervous when the introduced the concept of Hybrids but Olmos was fine with that because it fit the story and was a natural outgrowth of it (thank the Gods! heh). What SGU does is generally within that framework.

So, enjoy! And be prepared to scream (silently… or not) at your TV at the end. You are going to wish these series had arrived at an appropriate conclusion.

remembering

“The movie will begin in five moments,” the mindless voice announced. All those unseated will await the next show. We filed slowly and languidly into the hall. The auditorium was vast and silent. As we were seated and were darkened, the voice continued.

“The program for this evening is not new. You’ve seen this entertainment through and through. You’ve seen your birth, your life and death. You might recall all the rest. Did you have a good world when you died?… Enough to base a movie on?”

ghost stories

You think it will never happen to you, that it cannot happen to you, that you are the only person in the world to whom none of these things will ever happen, and then, one by one, they all begin to happen to you, in the same way they happen to everyone else.

 Paul Auster, Winter Journal

Solipsistic. That’s the word I’m looking for.

We all experience solipsism at times, and consciously applied it can be a refuge, even if not quite a philosophy. A natural reaction, probably, at the attack on the ego that are shared experiences. After all, if nothing is real, nothing can hurt you. Right? Biographies can bridge the gap, to climb out of the hole, at least briefly. They’re also about ghosts, beyond the more classical definition of the word: the ghosts of who yourself and others were.

Ghost stories. The ethereal presence of past selves that hang around us, unbidden, unshakable.

I’ve been re-reading three this week. Two autobiographies, neither of which, perhaps appropriately, was written in the first person, and one biography.

The first is Winter Journal by Paul Auster. Maybe not his best work, but still worthwhile. Subdued, fragmentary. Nowhere near the power of The Invention of Solitude. Written in the second person, it feels disembodied at times even as he describes the physical in detail: “a catalog of sensory data,” he says at some point, and after all this is much of what consumes life, living, death, dying. The narrative nudges, rather than pushes, forward. It ends up feeling like a meditative exercise.

Joseph Anton: A Memoir, the second book, is on the other hand like being thrust into the edge of a tornado. You can see the calm center of the storm, integral to it but out of reach, as you spin wildly on its edges. This is may also not Rushdie’s best, but to place it against works of fiction, however autobiographically informed they may be, is a disservice in my mind. “Life and death” feels real in these pages, and I doubt any one of us could have done better at navigating the choices he faced. Fear is palpable, so is anger: he could have easily borrowed the title from his 2001 book: Fury. Writing it in third person as he did may have been the only way to frame these experiences.

Rushdie’s celebrity status is responsible for a lot of the negative reaction towards this book, but it’s an important work, and I tend to ignore what surrounds the celebrity obsession within the book, wives, girlfriends, meeting Bono… and focus instead on the struggle around the fatwa and The Satanic Verses. Self-publishing is revolutionary and is happening in this area is important and in any case would happen no matter what. But disintermediation can have the effect of, um, disintermediating and therefore exposing bare an artist, leaving them without a support structure. What would happen today, I wonder, if instead of principled editors and publishers all that stood between an artist and a murder proclamation was… the complaints department at Amazon?

I wonder.

This applies more broadly. The very force that gives everyone a voice may be also be empowering those who want nothing but to take our voices away (think China, or Iran, or Syria, or…).

Irony.

Which brings me to Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, by D. T. Max, and perhaps the best book I read last year. Here, finally, a biography written in third person about a third person. It could also have been subtitled “DFW’s Battles With Irony And Addiction,” although it didn’t deal exclusively with that of course, and I use the word “with” carefully here, since it doesn’t univocally mean against. What follows is a brief passage that illustrates well not only some of these ideas but also makes visible to different degrees strands that are woven throughout the book and the story, and DFW’s life.

America was, Wallace now knew, a nation of addicts, unable to see that what looked like love freely given was really need neurotically and chronically unsatisfied. The effect of Leyner’s fictional approach to life—mutated, roving, uncommitted—like that of Letterman and Saturday Night Live—was to make our addiction seem clever, deliberate, entered into voluntarily. Wallace knew better. And now he was far clearer on why we were all so hooked. It was not TV as a medium that had rendered us addicts, powerful though it was. It was, far more dangerously, an attitude toward life that TV had learned from fiction, especially from postmodern fiction, and then had reinforced among its viewers, and that attitude was irony. Irony, as Wallace defined it, was not in and of itself bad. Indeed, irony was the traditional stance of the weak against the strong; there was power in implying what was too dangerous to say. Postmodern fiction’s original ironists—writers like Pynchon and sometimes Barth—were telling important truths that could only be told obliquely, he felt. But irony got dangerous when it became a habit. Wallace quoted Lewis Hyde, whose pamphlet on John Berryman and alcohol he had read in his early months at Granada House: “Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy the cage.” Then he continued: “This is because irony, entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground-clearing….[I]rony’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks. That was it exactly—irony was defeatist, timid, the telltale of a generation too afraid to say what it meant, and so in danger of forgetting it had anything to say.”

D.T. Max., Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story

Life. Addiction. Irony. Death. There are no simple, clean, tidy answers, and fragmentary is an appropriately recurring idea.

DFW, commenting on Infinite Jest once said that the novel was “[…] sort of what it’s like to be alive […] really a very pretty pane of glass that had been dropped off the twentieth story of a building.”

Indeed.

honestly, let’s unpack this: it’s like, you know…very unique?

I am fascinated by (obsessed with?) slang, colloquialisms, jargon, argot, and of course language use and misuse in general. Perhaps most entertaining are slang and colloquialisms that pop up and become widespread in the space of a few years.

“Honestly…,” “Let’s unpack this,” and a few notable others have become more frequent (at least from my point of view) and I wanted to dissect them a bit and think about what could be behind them.

New terms or ways of communicating can be hard to see “appear” sometimes, since they enter everyday language incrementally, and the best part is that some of them may not be new at all, “new” defined here as “having popped up in the last 10 years”, but they may be new to me as they become common or even pervasive in the conversations I have and the information landscape that I inhabit.

There’s more than pure nerdish entertainment to this. For one thing, it can be used as a lens through which to look at society and culture, but more specifically at organizations and what makes them tick. Religions, in particular are an interesting subtype of organization since some of them maintain their high-level structures for hundreds or thousands of years. For example, Scientology’s obsession with redefining  language is notable in that they are at the extreme end of the spectrum combining both jargon and and repurposing of common language, which naturally affects how you communicate and therefore relate to, and to some degree how we perceive, reality.

Startups go through a similar (even if simultaneously more overt and less structured) process in this regard. Most of us have seen how companies have their own terminology for everything. In engineering, in particular, you could literally sit through an entire conversation about infrastructure between two engineers from the same company and never know what they’re talking about, while in marketing or sales they don’t so much invent terminology as repurpose it freely, leading to a overloading of commonly used terms that can some times create confusion (e.g. “Active users” or even “pageviews”).

I’m not saying that startups, tech companies, or even non-tech companies are cults (Apple’s perception as such notwithstanding..), but there’s some similarities that I think speak to a need of a group, no matter of what kind, to define itself as separate from everyone else and, of the mechanisms necessary for that to happen, language is one of the  easier starting points.

But back to what are more widely shared colloquialisms and/or slang, here’s a few personal favorites that I’ve observed have become more common in recent years, and some of my own musings on what’s behind them.

Some of these trigger “old man yells at cloud” syndrome in me, since (apparently) I have a hard time handling the cognitive dissonance, sheer nonsense, or just plain lack of meaning involved.

“Like, you know…” and the invisible question mark that follows

This one is fairly established, dating I think back to the mid-90s. And it hasn’t just endured, it has become so widespread and entrenched that it’s definitely worth mentioning.

It’s one of the most fascinating colloquialisms in my opinion. It’s a simile in which the structure that follows “like” is not explicit, but rather vaguely points to some idea that perhaps, maybe, hopefully, the other person shares in some indeterminate way in the statement we’re about to make, while expressing that we really don’t care too much one way or the other.

It is maddening to me to be in a conversation in which the other person constantly trails off, attaching “like, you know”s and question marks at the end of sentences. We are, apparently, not supposed to have conviction anymore, and language tinted with this construct communicates that clearly. It says: I have nothing invested in this statement.

All too often, in fact, “Like, you know…?” has no follow up at all and it just trails off, the question mark implicit in the inflection of our voice, the interrogative tone, the you know parenthetical. It’s filler, pretending that you’re saying something when you really aren’t, a statement without content, a commitment to nothing in particular that nevertheless creates the impression that we’re communicating. Whatever is said gets turned into a question, something to be challenged on the receiving end. But when the receiver also answers with similar lack of definition, then it’s just a bunch of words strung together, isn’t it? A charade: because, actually, we don’t want to have a real conversation.

Declarative language, straight up statement of beliefs, of facts, of what we know to be true even if it is subjective, has been appropriated by the extremes, the Glenn Becks of the world. The alternative, nuance and complexity of thought, are in everyone else often replaced by a quivering indecision.

The flip side of this indecision is how we pretend to counteract it with an earnest declaration: “Honestly…”

“Honestly”

This type of preface or clarification instantly triggers, at least for me, the thought that the rest of what the other person’s been saying has not been “honest.” Not “dishonest” necessarily, but the addition raises the level of whatever comes after over what came before. And, when it’s used constantly it just makes me question everything.

Aside from combining it with “like, you know…”, to give the appearance of weight while simultaneously reducing the importance of what we’re saying, “honestly” is also used in many other cases. Why are we suddenly using this modifier so frequently? Is it that in a world when The Onion‘s headlines can appear as serious as those in The New York Times we have suddenly decided that, by default, everything is suspect? Or is it perhaps that PR, marketing and advertising are so pervasive that we look at everything with skepticism and some degree of mistrust, requiring the additional emphasis of “honestly” to separate what we say from what we’re supposed to say? Maybe a bit of both. Ironically, advertising continues to be pretty effective. Instead of applying these filters to ads, we look at everything with suspicion.

“Let’s unpack this”

This one seems to have become more common in the last couple of years. I don’t know if it’s been traced back to its origins, but it seems to me that it’s a byproduct of technology –both explicitly and implicitly, partially around lack of trust, but also increased (real and perceived) complexity.

Explicitly: software, first, where so many things are “packaged” and have to be “unpacked” to look at them. More importantly, thanks to e-commerce, followed by a relatively new phenomenon of boxes everywhere. We all get packages at home or the office that have to be unpacked. Think back, pre-e-commerce, how common was it to get a package? For most people, not very. Now, unpacking is a frequent action in our daily lives, a common occurrence.

Implicitly: everything around us now has layers within layers, a Matryoshka doll of seemingly neverending complexity. The phrase “let’s take a look under the hood” used to be applicable beyond cars — the world generally had one level. You’d open the hood and there was the engine. Done. Now, “under the hood” is just the first of many layers, even in cars (batteries, microprocessors, software…). A phone is no longer just a phone, and you can even have a phone built into your car, nevermind connected to it. A car contains maps. The maps contain reviews. The reviews link to social media. And on and on it goes. The ongoing merging of cyberspace and meatspace often leads us down rabbit holes in everything we touch.

Which also relates to “Honestly” since “Unpacking” is often used for discussing statements by public officials, and even facts. The only way you would need to “unpack” a statement is if its true meaning, or different interpretations, were “packed” under the “wrapping” of its surface. Orwell’s doublespeak (or maybe n-speak?) ingrained to the degree that the default assumption becomes that there’s hidden meaning, or inherent obfuscation. Hence, “Honestly” may be functioning as a vaccine for “Unpacking” — something that communicates “Unpacking not required.”

“Very unique”

Once more, I chalk this one up as trying to counteract the lack of trust we have come to assume in what’s communicated. It is more commonly used by marketing types, but recently I’ve heard with alarming frequency in other contexts.

Something is either unique, or it isn’t. It can’t be “very unique,” or “incredibly unique.” Period. But I suppose that when words like “unique” have become overused, we start to add adjectives in the hopes of making it clear that, yes, this is unique, as opposed to all those other things that we say are unique even if they’re not.

This is the most egregious misuse of an adjective, but there are others. I typically use words like “beautiful,” “love,” “hate,” and others sparsely, because their weight is diminished by attaching them to everything. I like rain, in itself but also because I appreciate sunny days more when they’re juxtaposed with the alternative, and viceversa.

If everything is beautiful, if beautiful is the norm, then how do we talk about something that is special, that touches us beyond that? We start adding superlatives: “incredibly beautiful,” “profoundly beautiful” and so forth (“profound” is another overused term these days, now that I think about it). Until that becomes the way we refer to even the menu transition of an iPhone app, or some icon, or the color of a couch, at which point we are left with a situation in which our depiction of it leaves us little room to enjoy the occasional good thing, because we have done away with contrasts by turning everything into positive happy feelings.

Most of the time, nothing remarkable happens, our lives are routine, and that should be just fine. Also, a lot of things just suck. And that’s a good thing, because if they didn’t we wouldn’t be able to tell when they don’t.

On Borges and Languages, or, On rigor in translations

In the process of writing something else I wanted to use a quote from Jorge Luis Borges’ short story Del rigor en la ciencia. I ended up doing my own translation of it, and it seemed worthwhile to document why. (Note: I will use italics for Spanish words throughout the text, for clarity).

This short story (quite short actually, less than 130 words), was first collected in Historia universal de la infamia (“A universal history of infamy) and later in El Hacedor (“The Maker”). It is of the “recovered text” genre, supposedly dating to the year 1658.

The English translation quoted most frequently is by Andrew Hurley (Collected Fictions, Penguin, 1998). Hurley translates the title as “On Exactitude in Science” and that’s where my disagreements with his version begin.

First, the word “Rigor” from the Spanish title is translated by Hurley as “Exactitude.” However, “Rigor” (which is spelled the same in English and Spanish) is more than just “Exactitude.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines rigor as “the quality of being extremely thorough and careful; severity or strictness; (rigors) harsh and demanding conditions,” which is roughly equivalent to the definition of the Spanish word by the Real Academia Española (although the Spanish word includes other meanings that are not exactly the same, but closely related to the ones used by the OED).

Second, the word “Exactitude” exists in Spanish: “Exactitud.” Borges would have used it if that’s what he wanted to convey.  The structure “Rigor en…” is frequently used in Spanish, and in this case it actually conveys accurately the Latin cultural perception of Science as being not just exact but also strict, even severe, a perception that is far more muted, if at all present, in Anglo-Saxon cultures. The argument using “Exactitude” could be that “rigor in science” would be a somewhat archaic phrasing, but this is actually something that works to our advantage given the supposed origin of the text in the 17th century.

Third, Hurley also capitalizes the words “Exactitude” and “Science” in the title, whereas the original Spanish text does not. This matters because in this particular story Borges actually turned several words into their “proper” form (e.g. Nouns into Proper Nouns), using the effect of capitalization to expand the importance of those words. Critically, this use of capitalization places the text in a historical context — use of capitalization was not generally properly codified prior to the 18th century in either English or Spanish (for just one example of archaic use of capitalization in english, see George Washington’s “Rules of Civility,” starting with Rule 1: “Every Action done in Company ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.”)

Within the text, other differences in tone and depth of meaning become visible:

Spanish Original: “Con el tiempo, estos Mapas Desmesurados […]”

Hurley’s translation: “In time, those Unconscionable Maps […]”

My translation: “In time, these Excessive Maps […]”

To start, “estos Mapas” is “these Maps,” not “those Maps.” While I can see why Hurley would choose “those” here, I have no doubt that Borges would have used “esos” or “aquellos” if his intention was to say “those”. Then there’s the translation of “Desmesurados” as “Unconscionable” which on one hand captures some of the feeling of the Spanish word but not all. Lacking context “Desmesurados”  means “Without Measure,” but in this context I’d actually say that “Unconscionably Excessive” or “Unmeasurably Excessive” is probably the most accurate reflection what Borges was going for. I ended up using only “Excessive,” exchanging brevity for lack of verve and depth. 

Another example can be found in the following partial sentence:

Spanish Original: “Menos Adictas al Estudio de la Cartografía, las Generaciones Siguientes entendieron que ese dilatado Mapa era Inútil […]”

Hurley’s translation: “The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless […]”

My translation: “Less Addicted to the Study of Cartography, the Following Generations understood that that dilated Map was Useless […]”

Hurley here introduces another proper noun (“Forebears”) which isn’t even included in the original, and demotes “Following,” by reversing the capitalization of the word. In the process he affects, in my view, the weight implied by “Generaciones Siguientes” and not in a good way (he makes this mistake in the opposite direction with the word “Relic” in the last sentence).

Hurley translates “entendieron” as “saw” but I think there’s no reason to avoid the direct translation “understood” since it maintains the implication of understanding not just as the cognitive process but also as seeing or realizing something. Hurley’s addition of a comma before “saw” also affects the pace of the sentence for no good reason.

He also changes “Adictas” (“Addicted”) to a much more mellow “not so fond of” from the original, much harsher implication of addiction (with a capital “A” no less!). If we recontextualize the change into a more common setting we can see the damage this causes to the text. Compare “Joe was less Addicted to heroin after that” to “Joe was not so fond of heroin after that.”

I did have some qualms about using “dilated Map” here instead of Hurley’s “vast Map” but once more I defer to Borges on this. Using “dilated” for a map (“ese dilatado Mapa”) is pure literary license and not the way in which you’d ascribe vastness to a map either in English or in Spanish, so there’s really no reason not to use the English word (“dilated”) that is the exact translation of the Spanish text to maintain the mental image that Borges was going for.

There are other specific changes I made, but need to work on other things. So, without further ado, here are the original, my translation, and Hurley’s for comparison.

Spanish Original

“Del rigor en la ciencia”, by Jorge Luis Borges

. . . En aquel Imperio, el Arte de la Cartografía logró tal Perfección que el Mapa de una sola Provincia ocupaba toda una Ciudad, y el Mapa del Imperio, toda una Provincia. Con el tiempo, estos Mapas Desmesurados no satisficieron y los Colegios de Cartógrafos levantaron un Mapa del Imperio, que tenía el Tamaño del Imperio y coincidía puntualmente con él. Menos Adictas al Estudio de la Cartografía, las Generaciones Siguientes entendieron que ese dilatado Mapa era Inútil y no sin Impiedad lo entregaron a las Inclemencias del Sol y los Inviernos. En los Desiertos del Oeste perduran despedazadas Ruinas del Mapa, habitadas por Animales y por Mendigos; en todo el País no hay otra reliquia de las Disciplinas Geográficas.

Suárez Miranda: Viajes de varones prudentes, libro cuarto, cap. XLV, Lérida, 1658.

My English Translation

On rigor in science

. . . In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied an entire City, and the map of the Empire, an entire Province. In time, these Excessive Maps did not satisfy and the Schools of Cartographers built a Map of the Empire, that was of the Size of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. Less Addicted to the Study of Cartography, the Following Generations understood that that dilated Map was Useless and not without Pitilessness they delivered it to the Inclemencies of the Sun and the Winters. In the Deserts of the West endure broken Ruins of the Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in the whole country there is no other relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

Suárez Miranda: Viajes de varones prudentes, libro cuarto, cap. XLV, Lérida, 1658.

Andrew Hurley’s English Translation, in Collected Fictions, Penguin, 1998.

On Exactitude in Science

. . . In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

- Suárez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV, Cap. XLV, Lérida, 1658

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