Saturday, September 20, 2008

Is it possible to speak a salad?

I am comfortable saying butterfly in four languages: papillon, farfalla, mariposa, and… butterfly. [Crowd cheers] I learned the Italian word, farfalla, last. While muttering it to myself as memorization technique, it occurred to me how the word is anonomopeaic in each of those languages. Try it: whisper each of the words softly and see if you can place the wing motions of the insect. I was pretty shocked. I cannot say whether this trend holds true for any other languages—my best guess is that Russian will be an instant counterexample, but I am still surprised.

It is hard to identify a favorite word: they all have a role and are all pretty interesting. The bit on "Inside the Actors Studio" where James Lipton asks a celebrity her favorite curse word is excellent, maybe because of the experience in hearing and seeing a word, if only partly, in context. I admit that I find it incredibly satisfying to deliver the line with a blank face: shut the fuck up. It is hard to keep serious after delivery. The multi-tiered significance of a word in the context of language seems to have a parallel with the sense of smell and its ability to overstep into adjacent senses. Diane Ackerman has a really interesting discussion of this in her book.

Naming things, such as cars, boats, et cetera, has never really interested me. The whole butterfly thing, though, made me reconsider that position. I found that I could identify at least one instance where I did have a name, or at least an association, for something without realizing it. About ten years ago, I drove to San Antonio to see a friend who was there giving a presentation on primate behavior. When traveling, I like to find and explore music stores. I stopped into Alamo Music downtown and came across a Taylor Leo Kottke 12-string guitar. Other than seeing Kottke play one himself, I had never encountered one in person. (As an aside, I was at a show in Columbia, Missouri where said guitar was stolen between the end of the show and the encore). The one at Alamo was great. I left it there and made it late to meet my friend. I ended up driving back to San Antonio the next day to buy the instrument. Willie Nelson named his guitar Trigger; my guitar named itself “lechuga”. At least that is how it occurs to me. I am not exactly sure how the tactile experience of playing a 12-string translates to lettuce, but it does. It could be the number of strings being similar to a section cut of an Iceberg head or possibly the sensation of muting chords that seems like chopping through said head. In my mind there is also a very “clean” sensation in playing that particular guitar that reminds me both of eating a salad, as well as audibly pronouncing the word: leh-choo-guh—saying “lettuce” has a similar, though less pronounced effect. I love that guitar for many reasons, one of which is its capacity for saving me from the bother of convention in deciding a name; I wish other things, such as meals, would take similar initiative in removing me from the decision-making process.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Dear Library, Dear Library

I walked by the Palo Alto public library today and in the front window they have a hardware store-type sign that says: "Yes, We're Open!" in neon orange on black.

My first thought was that the sign was utterly inappropriate for an institution as grand as a library, albeit a local branch. I love everything that libraries seem to stand for: massive amounts of knowledge, the exaltation of all learning, the preservation of physically life-sized tomes that require the use of gloved hands and climate-controlled rooms. In fact, the biggest downside of Tim Berners-Lee's great contribution to the world is the obsolescence of microfilm and microfiche. I miss picking out a film reel of the 1979 Boston Globe, carefully winding it into the massive machine, placing my face in front of the viewfinder, and the subsequent feeling of swimming through the newspaper at whatever pace I felt appropriate. Spin the wheel on the microfilm and see what gem you land puts Google's "I'm feeling lucky" to shame.

Coincidentally, this past Christmas eve I sat across the aisle from Tim Berners-Lee at church. Being a proper Unitarian celebration, we spent the entire time singing Christmas carols. I don't know him, but my mom knows his wife, which is generally the way of most connections and enough to sneak a few glances. I was struck by the vigor with which he sang the carols, full of gusto and facial expression. What a bizarre reality: the man that essentially enabled the internet sings an enthusiastic Noel in a church across the street from the library that taught me to love microfilm.

In any event, as I pondered what might make a better "Yes, We're Open!" sign for the library this morning, it occurred to me that maybe local libraries are now exactly like mom and pop hardware stores. They both have regular customers, many with wrinkles, that come in to browse regularly. They're safe places where you can ask for help from someone who couldn't want to help you more. They have specific smells. Finally, and sadly, they're usually overlooked for bigger, shinier, pricier, and often more incompetent versions.

I think if John Prine was sitting across the aisle from me right now he'd likely have a song about the graying of the local public library. It wouldn't go like this, but if it went like this, it'd go like this:

To the tune of Dear Abby

Dear Library, Dear Library,
You're not open late.
You have some free parking
and an RFID gate.
I love new book smell
but you don't have it there.
Won't you serve me a coffee, won't you blend me a pear.
Signed, Jamba-lover

Jamba-lover, Jamba-lover,
You have no complaint.
You drink what they tell you,
and you eat what they ate.
So forget about box stores,
forget cell phone calls.
Won't you come read a novel,
won't you bypass the mall?
Signed, Dear Library.

Dear library, Dear Library,
You are full of misfits.
People hang there for hours,
and no shower is legit.
I like to read books,
but you don't allow food.
Can't I just use the internet, can't I do it in the nude?
Signed, Naked Reader

Naked Reader, Naked Reader
You have no complaint.
You piss away hours
on Hulu for jaint.
My librarians all tell me
they're not used at all.
Won't you close online Boggle,
won't you help slow our fall?
Signed, Dear Library.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Who is Joe Biden?

Where is Joe Merchant? Both are mysteries. I turned to Jimmy Buffett to answer the latter, looking toward Warren Buffet for the former. Warren could only offer a song, so there is still some doubt in both counts. It is a funny thing living in a state where your vote might actually count: you should probably try to learn something about the candidates. I regret not having people around me on both sides of the fence politically. It made for interesting conversation, as well as a chance to learn something amidst the crossfire.

Biden’s website does little to stir my emotions other than to make me think of Hallmark or American Greetings cards of the highly cursive variety. The copy on the site covers a spectrum from bland to poor. How is it possible that someone in the public eye, someone with a knack for crafting winning legislation can front such banality? Aha! Sweet Wikipedia, the source of potentially incorrect information, steer me toward controversy! In 1988, according to said source, Biden plagiarized a bit of melodrama from a speech by British Labour Party Leader, Kinnock. Hard to fault him for culling the tones of a Briton, but no citation is a poor citation. In engineering shorthand: NG. What’s that Wiki? Oh, he plagiarized in law school as well? Was the incident brought before any sort of Honor Committee? No. The incident was dismissed and the course grade ultimately dropped. From the outside this seems reasonable based on Biden’s claim of ignorance at referencing etiquette, but in fact, no, it is not reasonable. The fact is that university systems are plagued today by mechanics that make truly actioned responses entirely impossible; faculty are burdened by the very notion of reporting violations for fear of initiating processes lengthy as their own tenures rather than those of the students in question. So, again, Biden: NG.

In stepping back a bit, I am further displeased by this potential lack of academic integrity based on yet another piece of linguistic evidence (this time free of the Wikipedia wellspring): the naming of Biden’s legislation. Consider two examples: the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and the College Affordability and Creating Chances for Educational Success for Students (ACCESS) Act. The first seems to be an excellent piece of legislation, but in my immediate mind, I cannot offer a more inappropriate misnomer, coupled with an acronym that makes me wonder if VAGA or VULVA was only narrowly defeated just before press time. As for the latter, again, I have to raise issue at being a slave to the acronym. If this is the manifestation of original thought, perhaps we would be better off having a ghostwriter. Maybe John Updike has some spare time.

What do I like about Biden? The answer is certainly not his moldy history with original published thought. Alaska is a much better place than Delaware, though George Thorogood does put on a good show with his Destroyers. No, the one thing that might have me convinced despite the apparent history of misplacing the thoughts of others is his surprising willingness in lending a hand to local businessmen, even in rival states.

That is the sort of thing that we need now. Harry Doyle, I support you for Office.