Archives for category: Language

Tomorrow I fire up the second phase of my time machine project. Tomorrow I’m attending my first class at the Goethe Institut. I signed up for an eleven-week course in intermediate German after completing the Einstufungstest. This is something I’ve wanted to do for years as I slowly stood by and allowed my language skills atrophy with lack of use. This January marks the twentieth anniversary of the beginning of my year abroad in Germany. Personally, socially, academically — that year was one of the most enriching times in my life I have ever experienced. And now looking back on it I feel that I have squandered some of what I worked so hard to develop while there. I’m setting out to recapture it before it is gone entirely.

So with that mindset firmly fixed in place I stepped into the offices of the school — just a few blocks from where I live — and turned in the written portion of my exam. I underwent the subsequent oral examination. The speaking component was much less formal, much more conversational than the written. Despite that informality I felt self-conscious, almost embarrassed for myself. I knew that I knew how to do this, and yet I didn’t. I floundered. I stammered. I reached for words that at one time I knew were ready at hand only to have them slip traitorously from my grasp.

I’ll get them back.

They might have escaped me this once, but I will get them back. I’m determined. I’m excited. Walking home from the institute down Randolph and Wabash I felt a version of the same rush I remember when walking across the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin to get back to the small apartment I shared with my fellow students from Geneva. I’ve taken to thinking this is a sign that my time machine is working.

When I got home I collected my trusty Duden, and my Langenscheidts Kurzgrammatik. The next day I headed over to Beck’s Book Store to pick up my textbooks for the course. It’s been fifteen years since I’ve done anything like this.

Tomorrow: jetzt geht’s los!

I am a strong proponent of minimalism. Particularly when it comes to web design. If you asked me, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with compelling aesthetic arguments as to why I prefer minimalist design. I just do. I like the absence of clutter. Minimalism done right gives me just the information that I want and nothing more. And that’s very different from giving me just the information I asked for and nothing more. Computer systems are quite adept at that second request. But as with many things, when making requests of computer systems often I ask the wrong questions. The computer is glad to give me what I asked for but not necessarily what I wanted. I believe good design should employ the art of intuitive anticipation along with the removal of distractions: potential, actual or hypothetical.

So it was with these ideas in my head that I set about looking for a new theme for our blog. Yes, this very blog you are currently reading. (Thank you for that, by the way.) When I decided upon the Wu Wei theme by Jeff Ngan and began showing it to my friends, I got several comments about how I was in love with minimalism. And while I don’t believe I am a particularly vocal evangelist of minimalism, I do recognize my own predisposition toward its use. And in those moments that I work on my own ideas of design, it comes out. I like the Helvetica font. My computers all have plain black backgrounds, without images or ornamentation. I try to think about minimizing clutter, and a consistency of look and feel. As I said, I hadn’t vocalized this in any particularly concrete way. It was just a set of preferences I had arrived at over time. So when the responses came to me, reminding me externally of a conversation I had only sporadically had with myself internally, I rejoined.

Yes! More minimalism!

And then I was immediately struck by the humor of such a statement. Minimalism, this movement in visual design where the work is stripped down to its most fundamental features. And I wanted more of it. Smokes suggested that it would make a great slogan for a t-shirt: make the word “more” really small, and the word “minimalism” really big. You can never get too much irony, right?

I sat on the idea for a few days, and then decided to give it a try. This morning I got out a piece of paper and a pencil, sketched a few ideas and then fired up Photoshop. Pretty soon, Smokes and I were exchanging ideas and I kept making new iterations on the design. Again, this was more of a learning exercise in trying to get my mind around Photoshop CS5 than an attempt at a career change. So without further ado, I present my iterations of “More Minimalism”.

Opinions welcome in the comments.

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I find this week’s episode of This American Life fascinating. Entitled “Frenemies” the show’s caption begins:

This week we bring you stories about friends. Or wait, enemies? How about both? Tales of estranged sisters, BFFs breaking up and making up and breaking up, and how reality stars walk the fine line between making friends and making a name for themselves.

As engaging as the listed elements of the show are, for me the most interesting section is a smaller transitional piece with Ira Glass and lexicographer Erin McKean. Glass relates the history of the use of the portmanteau “frenemies” and its emergence into popular culture. Before leaving the topic entirely for the next act of the show Glass and McKean digress to discuss other similarly blended words. During the interview McKean gives four examples. Some are well-known; some are more obtuse.

  • guesstimate : McKean attributes the creation of this word to 1936.
  • anecdotage : The essential meaning here being the arrival at that point in life when you tell the same anecdotes repeatedly.
  • linner : That meal you must have between lunch and dinner. Glass responds, “That just makes me feel mad at somebody.”
  • slanguage : McKean describes the allegedly clever introduction of this term into conversations with lexicographers, “Slang plus language.” Glass, “But you do not find that clever.”

McKean goes on to describe a phenomenon that particularly intrigued me: the lexical gap. She assigns it as a potential source for some of these new terms. While admitting that there are lots of words for things that are uncommon, there are holes in any given language. And when we come across a concept that is not adequately filled by a single term, lexicographers refer to that absence as a lexical gap. In English the most famous case of a lexical gap is the existence of the term for a child who has lost its parents: an orphan. But there is no single term for a parent who has lost a child. A lexical gap.

When I heard McKean name the term my mind immediately jumped to the warning plastered everywhere on the London Tube: Mind the Gap.

I don’t know why I thought of that.

The Road, Cormac McCarthy A week or so ago, Smokes recommended this book to me. So on my most recent trip to the bookstore I picked it up. I’d seen it several times and considered it as a possible read, always putting it back down again. I would get distracted by something shiny.

The Road is a novel by Cormac McCarthy: tale of a father and son traveling across the blasted landscape of a post-apocalyptic world. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007. Most of the structures of a story are missing. The characters are nameless; there are no chapters. Pieces of punctuation are missing. These editorial decisions provide a haunting framework for the story itself. A meditation on isolation and desolation and meaning. The style adds to the artistry of the piece, increasing its emotional impact on a personal level. The themes reach the scope of the literary epic because they have been drawn with such bleak minimalism: through a mirror darkly.

The Washington Post writes:

The Road is a frightening, profound tale that drags us into places we don’t want to go, forces us to think about questions we don’t want to ask. Readers who sneer at McCarthy’s mythic and biblical grandiosity will cringe at the ambition of The Road. At first I kept trying to scoff at it, too, but I was just whistling past the graveyard. Ultimately, my cynicism was overwhelmed by the visceral power of McCarthy’s prose and the simple beauty of this hero’s love for his son.

Bill PlacherToday I learned Bill Placher has died. Bill Placher was one of the most influential men in my life. I am overcome with grief. I met Bill my freshman year at Wabash College. I took courses with him in Ethics, ancient Greek philosophy, Dante‘s Divine Comedy, Enlightenment philosophy, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. He became my college advisor. He guided me through my major. He encouraged me to study abroad and advocated the unconventional approach of my direct enrollment at Universität Tübingen in Germany.

My sophomore year Bill thrust the novel, Hyperion, into my hand and challenged me to interview his classmate, Dan Simmons.

Fall of my junior year, Placher taught a seminar on Dante’s Divine Comedy. The seminar met once a week, on Friday afternoon. There were 27 students in the class. This was twice the usual size of a Wabash seminar. The first week I remember Bill commenting on the class size, “Who could have anticipated there would be this many of you wanting to talk about Hell late on Friday afternoons.” It was a testament to Placher’s influence.

When I returned to Wabash after my year abroad I would often spend evenings with him at his home. We would talk about our respective experiences — he had studied abroad in Aberdeen, Scotland when he was a Wabash student. A byproduct of those evening meetings was my education into the wonders of scotch whisky. The distinct smoke-filled flavor of Islay’s Laphroiag was Placher’s favorite malt.

We reprised this tradition of evening conversation whenever I would return to Crawfordsville. I had the opportunity to return the favor when he took a sabbatical at the University of Chicago in 2000-2001.

I still organize my academic library by the principle Bill first showed me. I recall walking into his office one afternoon to discuss a paper I was writing and looking for some secondary literature to help me make my point. I had a couple of particular books in mind. Placher was on the phone when I entered but encouraged me to browse his bookshelves. I began looking and it occurred to me that these books were shelved in an entirely unfamiliar way. He had hundreds of books on his shelves. Philosophy, theology, religion, literature. At first impression the collection seemed entirely haphazard, random. And I was put off by that conclusion. It did not make sense given what I knew about him otherwise. Something structured his library — I just hadn’t struck upon the organizing principle. Eventually I arrived at what seemed a likely conclusion and set about finding the texts I had originally sought. When Bill finished his phone call I tested my hypothesis. “Are your books ordered historically?” I asked. He revealed his own quiet grin and admitted as much. We talked at length about how that came about and I still lean heavily on the lesson I learned from the experience: that history and knowledge is a conversation. To set these books in a historical order is a way to physically place these texts in conversation to one another.

In some cases, the interlocutors are close: Kant‘s awakening from his dogmatic slumbers in response to reading David Hume. In others the interval between episodes in the conversation take place across generations. Aquinas responding to the Church with references to his friend, Aristotle. This quirky principle struck me as clever, subtle and sound. We do not live or write or think in a vacuum. To organize the greatest symbols of that task in such a way that celebrates the continuous conversation of thought underlines Bill Placher’s sublime brilliance. — This was a recurring theme in his life and his teaching: to encourage conversation. I doubt there was something he loved more than intelligent conversation.

I am using these encouragements, challenges and academic anecdotes to illustrate how Bill Placher embodied the spirit of the liberal arts: to think critically, act responsibly, lead effectively, and live humanely. These are not easy tasks, and often we hamper our own ability to accomplish them.

Bill wrote to this point in his 2007 text, A Triune God:

We human persons are always failing to be fully personal. As persons, we are shaped by our relations with other persons. Yet we always deliberately raise barriers or cannot figure out how to overcome the barriers we confront. When those we most love come to die, or in the dementia of old age are no longer able understand what we may most want to say to them, we realize how much there was in our hearts that we never shared with them. When we best articulate our ideas, we cannot escape the feeling that there was something there we never quite captured. When we most rejoice in sharing with someone different from ourselves, difference nevertheless scares us. The doctrine of the Trinity, however, proclaims that true personhood, however impossible its character may be for us to imagine, involves acknowledging real difference in a way that causes not fear but joy.

Relationships built upon honest interaction, typified by sincere conversation, celebratory of differences, relishing the new, the other and confronting these truths of life without retreating into the dark caves of fear– these are lessons I hope never to forget. Ideals by which I strive to live my life. I draw these principles in part from my time with Bill Placher. And I am left with exactly that realization he wrote of: there is so much in my heart that I never shared with him.

I will leave it to others to catalog Bill Placher’s accomplishments. They are not insignificant, but his influence upon me was not defined by what he wrote or where he studied or what awards he won. His influence and inspiration are defined by who he was, how he lived– how he spoke. And so I redouble my efforts to live in a way guided by his quiet, clever teachings and wit.

Wild Ducks Flying Backward is Tom Robbins’ latest book. This anthology contains short stories and poems, reviews and essays written throughout Robbins’ career. Some of the material in this collection appeared previously in publications ranging from Esquire to Harper’s to Playboy to the New York Times. His introduction is a story in itself, describing the anticipation and culmination of opening your new Tom Robbins’ book for the first time. He describes the steps necessary to ensure privacy for this intimate encounter: finding the proper climate, the proper space and reminding us that “every halfway serious reader is perpetually subject to a form of coitus interruptus.” Those issues addressed, he continues to the heart of the matter:

Okay. At last you’re set. You prop up your feet (we should always read with our feet up, even on the subway or a bus) and retrieve the book, feeling in your hands the weight, the newness, the bookness of it. For a brief second you close your eyes, sip your libation, and allow yourself to wonder what Robbins is up to this time around. What strange lights on what distant mountainside have attracted his focus? Over whose campfire– gypsy? guerrilla? Girl Scout? shaman?– has he been toasting his ideas, his images, his figures of speech?

Curiosity suitably aroused, anticipation at a delicious pitch, you take a small breath and open the book and … Whoa! Wait a damn minute. Hold on. This isn’t the new Tom Robbins novel. Oh, it’s by Robbins alright, but … You look again at the cover. The Short Writings of … It’s printed right here on the jacket. Maybe it could have been in bigger type, but it isn’t as if you’ve been tricked. It’s your own fault and you should have paid closer attention. This will teach you to dash into a bookshop on your lunch hour. Wild Ducks Flying Backward is not a novel at all.

I have loved Tom Robbins’ work for over two decades when I first read Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. I fashioned my online nickname as a reverent reference to the mysterious man with a helmet of swarming bees in Robbins’ novel, Jitterbug Perfume. Robbins’ deteriorating eyesight reminds me just how great a treasure each new book, each new story must be.

We talk about art being derivative. Or at least we talk that way when we do not like it. When we like a piece of art we talk about how it was inspired by others’ works. It is not imitation. I think these two reactions are emotional gut-checks on essentially the same phenomenon facing creativity. I believe creativity is a virus– creativity can infect others, induce them to write, to paint, to sculpt, to sing. And yet we seem to approach that fact with mixed emotions. We complain that our creativity is being copied at the same time we become excited that someone has thought so much of what we have created to do something themselves.

One of my favorite expressions of this paradox is– unsurprisingly– from an artist. These lyrics are from U2’s song, “The Fly” from their 1991 album, Achtung Baby.

It’s no secret that a conscience can sometimes be a pest
It’s no secret ambition bites the nails of success
Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief
All kill their inspiration and sing about their grief

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I am convinced something is changing with the way people communicate. I do not like this change. I am not talking about the insidious invasion represented by technology, but rather the linguistic shift that accompanies the barbarians. I am talking about the pernicious degradation of language itself.

Slang fills the Internet. I think that it has for quite some time. I remember writing a paper and giving a speech on the syntax, style and elements of Internet slang in 1992—spring of my senior year at Wabash. While the world wide web was invented in late 1990 at CERN. But the web needed a client. It needed a program to make it accessible. That program was Mosaic. Without Mosaic there was not much interest in the world wide web. Mosaic was released in April of 1993. I obtained my first exposure to Mosaic shortly thereafter at Loyola University here in Chicago. I developed my first web page– using Mosaic as the test client– in the summer of 1993.

What is significant about that moment, the creation of that first web page, is that it was the first time I incorporated an image into any content I transferred electronically to someone else. Up until that moment my use of the Internet was almost entirely textual. Not visual. In fact my exposure to networked computer systems at all up until that moment was almost entirely textual: LAN Manager networks, Novell NetWare networks and predominantly dial-up bulletin board systems. The client operating systems and applications all ran on DOS, or Windows 3.11. The servers usual did not run on anything much more sophisticated. My first exposure to the Internet came in 1991 when I discovered it was an even broader set of interconnected systems than the BITNET system to which Wabash connected. My first several Internet applications included email, BITNET relay, telnet, USENET news, IRC, FTP and gopher. I learned these programs primarily by obtaining accounts on first the Wabash VAX/VMS system and then later a Loyola AIX system.

Those first years on the Internet consisted of me staring at black window boxes filled with white text. The written word. Much of my early web browsing was done using the text-based web browser, lynx. I did this for two reasons: it was considerably faster, and the computer lab only had a very limited number of X-Windows workstations capable of running Mosaic. They were in high demand by computer science students. Philosophy graduate students “just screwing around on the computer” were significantly lower on the priority list. Then I learned about the dial-up access modem bank that was rarely used. I fired up ProComm Plus, dialed in, and was able to sit on that AIX shell for hours from the (relative) comfort of my grungy apartment and explore to my heart’s content—just as long as I did not mind everything being text-based. I did not mind. At the time, the Internet essentially was text-based.

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