Linguistic Relativism and Korean

[Warning : this is long.]
An email exchange with Kevin Marks a few weeks ago got me thinking more about one of the theories of linguistics that I’ve always taken for granted as a given. Only now as I am about to begin graduate level work in the subject am I realizing the degree to which various researchers in the field disagree about it. Of course, as is undoubtedly the case in most academic fields, there is disagreement about pretty much everything.
The following is probably of little interest to those not interested in linguistics (although may be of some small interest to those curious about the Korean language), and may best be skipped entirely. I am, however, keen to hear what people think, if they are interested in this field at all, so rather than keep my response restricted to email, I’ve decided to post it here. I suspect that it doesn’t even answer the question that Kevin put to me, which was ‘I’d like to hear a cogent argument for (the validity of linguistic relativism),’ if I understood it correctly. More of a wee survey for my own interest. Ah, well.
The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which is variously referred to as the ‘Whorfian Hypothesis,’ ‘linguistic relativism,’ and ‘linguistic determinism’ (a description of the strong formulation meant by implication to be a bad thing, I think) concerns the relationship between language and thought, and suggests in its strongest form that the structure of a language determines the way in which speakers of that language perceive and understand the external world. This formulation is generally understood by many to be untenable, but the hypothesis also exists in a weaker form : that language structure and content does not determine a view of the world, but that it shapes thought to some degree, and is therefore a powerful impetus in influencing speakers of a given language to adopt a certain world-view.
A possible opposite claim, from a sociolinguistic viewpoint, is that the thought (and thus culture) of a linguistic group is mirrored in the structure and content of their language, that because they behave and understand things in a certain way, their language reflects those behaviours and understandings – the idea that language is molded, if not determined, by culture.
Two quotes from the linguists whose names are most closely associated with this idea, the first from Edward Sapir (Language, 1929b, p. 207) :

Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language that has become the medium of excpression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsiously built up on the language habits of the group…We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.(Sapir, E. Language, 1929b, p. 207)

Benjamin Lee Whorf, who was a student of Sapir, went further than the ‘predisposition’ suggested by his teacher, and proposed that the relationship was a more deterministic one :

the background linguistic system (in other words, the grammar) of each language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper of ideas, the program and guide for the individual’s mental stock in trade. Formulation of ideas is not an independent process, strictly rational in the old sense, but is part of a particular grammar, and differs, from slightly to greatly, between different grammars. We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscope flux of impressions that has to be organized by our minds — and this means largely by the linguistic system in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way, an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees.
(Whorf, Benjamin, (1956). In J, Carroll (Ed.), Language, Thought and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf.

Whorf does not go so far as to say that language structure totally determines the world-view of a speaker here. He does add, though :

This fact is very significant for modern science, for it means that no individual is free to describe nature with absolute impartiality but is constrained to certain modes of interpretation even while he thinks himself most free. The person most nearly free in such respects would be a lingusit familiar with very many widely different linguistic systems. As yet no linguist is any such position. We are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity, which holds that all obcervers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are simialr, or can in some way be calibrated.

This last is where the argument runs off the rails for me, at least the argument in which I have any interest. It is also the portion of the idea upon which most critics focus, and which was fueled by the Great Eskimo Snow Silliness set off in great part by this :

We have the same word for falling snow, snow on the ground, snow packed hard like ice, slushy snow, wind-driven flying snow – whatever the situation may be. To an Eskimo, this all-inclusive word would be almost unthinkable; he would say that falling snow, slushy snow, and so on, are sensuously and operationally different, different things to contend with; he uses different words for them and for other kinds of snow.
(Whorf, Benjamin Lee. 1940. Science and linguistics, Technology Review (MIT) 42, 6 (April))

and which has been discussed at length in many places, including, cogently here, for example.
To most people, particularly those with little knowledge of Hardcore Linguistics, including myself, the weaker form of Sapir-Whorf seems self-evident. Of course the words we use, the words we know, have some influence on the way we think! The very fabric of our cognition is language, it might well be claimed (but of course that would be a claim that would meet great opposition as well). There is, predictably, great argument about what constitutes ‘mentalese,’ the native language of our minds, as it were). Do words determine the shape of our thoughts? Well, it seems equally clear that that’s nonsense, and though it may and can be argued, it must be said most people don’t bother to try.
Steven Pinker, who was the entry point to the brief exchange between Kevin and I a few weeks ago, calls the idea ‘linguistic determinism,’ and argues as most do that the strong version is nonsense. A student of Noam Chomsky, he works from Chomsky’s idea of ‘Cartesian linguistics,’ that the brain has a ‘hard-wired’ built-in language acquisition device with an understanding of ‘universal grammar’, and suggests that language acquisition is an instinct. If we accept that language is an instinct, as Pinker and his mentor Unca Noam argue, it seems as if we must reject the proposition that language shapes thought. Some consequences of this :

Thinking of language as an instinct inverts the popular wisdom, especially as it has been passed down in the canon of the humanities and social sciences. Language is no more a cultural invention than is upright posture. It is not a manifestation of a general capacity to use symbols: a three-year-old … is a grammatical genius, but is quite incompetent at the visual arts, religious iconography, traffic signs and the other staples of the semiotics curriculum[…]
[…] Once you begin to look at language not as the ineffable essence of human uniqueness but as a biological adaptation to communicate information, it is no longer tempting to see language as an insidious shaper of thought, and, we shall see, it is not.
(Pinker, S (1994). The Language Instinct New York: William Morrow and Company Inc.)

In this, Pinker seems to be arguing not only against the idea that culture shapes language, but also the against idea that language shapes culture (by shaping thought). The use of the pejorative ‘insidious’ is a little unnecessary, but I’m not one who should poke people with sticks for using flowery language.
In his discussion of the idea, Pinker suggests three possibilities for interpretation:
(a) identicality: that language determines thought precisely, word-for-word;
(b) concept determinism: language determines (to an unspecified degree) what we
can think (doubleplus ungood!);
(c) linguistic relativity: that the form of our language (merely) influences what we tend to believe.
In Chapter 12 of The Language Instinct (quoted to me by Kevin), it seems that Pinker does concede the weak form :

Language surely does affect our thoughts, rather than just labelling them for the sake of labelling them. Most obviously, language is the conduit through which people share their thoughts and intentions and thereby acquire the knowledge customs and values of those around them.

Some commentators apparently do not take this as evidence that Pinker is admitting the weak formulation (c, above) of Sapir-Whorf. As I do not have access to a copy of The Language Instinct (no English language libraries and no damn money!), I’ll have to take their word for it.

The amount of time and energy that’s been expended on arguing about how vocabulary effects cognition surprises me, frankly. I think there’s a much more interesting discussion about grammar and deeper structures here that often seems ignored, at least in what reading I’ve managed to do.
The effect of such things on language users seems to me to be more pervasive and more subtle than simple differences in richness or breadth of vocabulary, on which most work and thought has seemed to focus.
One reason I believe this to be so is as a result of some of the fundamental differences in language structure between Korean and English (and to a great extent, the other European languages with which I have some familiarity). Please note that I neither claim to be a expert in Korean language (more of a lazy amateur), nor have I conducted any experiments or formal observations. First, some background. There are three ideas with some circulation about the earliest genetic relationship of Korean with other language families : 1) the traditional view that Korean is an Altaic language, sharing its origins with Manchu, Mongolian, and Turkish, amongst others; 2) the proposition that Korean has its origin in two language families, Altaic and Polynesian; and 3) the view that because of insufficient evidence to support a definitive relationship with other languages, Korean is a language isolate.
Regardless of its origins, Korean does share a number of features common to Altaic languages : words are built by agglutinating affixes, vowels within words follow certain rules of harmony, and articles, relative pronouns, explicit gender markers, and auxiliaries are not found.
Although Korean is not related to Chinese, as a result of history and geography more than 50 percent of the words in the Korean dictionary are of Chinese origin. Most legal, political, scientific, religious and academic vocabularies, as well as Korean surnames, and increasingly at present given names, are based on Chinese borrowings and can be written with Chinese characters, although meanings and pronuciations have often shifted as they have been adopted.
Although some basic words for body parts, clothing and agriculture are shared between Korean and Japanese, and other similarities exist, including grammatical structures similar enough that word-for-word translations between the languages is relatively easy, it is still uncertain whether the similarities are genetic or come as a result of historical borrowing between the two. Many features of Korean separate it from English and other Indo-European languages. Some of the most important of these (for my discussion here, at least) are the use of honorifics, relationship words, and different levels of speech (others include articles, plural markers, pronouns, adjectives, verb forms, demonstratives and so on).
Honorifics are markings for nouns and verbs that express the speaker’s attitude toward the addressee and the person who is being spoken of. Relationship words are blanket nouns denoting relationships between people that are commonly used in informal conversation between people, rather than given names – older brother, younger sister, uncle, auntie, grandmother and so on. (In the slummy, thin-walled building I used to live in in Busan, it was de rigeur on Saturday nights to hear sounds of passion and female cries of ‘Opa! Oh, opa! (older brother)’ from the playboy-next-door’s apartment.) These extend to the common practice of referring to a woman as ‘so-and-so’s mother,’ rather than using her given name.
There are four main levels of speech – polite-formal, polite-informal, plain, and intimate style – from which a speaker chooses, generally unconsciously, in everyday speech. The rules which determine the appropriate choice in conversation derive from the arcane art of knowing the ins and outs of the complex sociocultural fabric of Korean. It is equally inappropriate (in general) to address an older non-relative informally as it is to address a child with the polite-formal style, and mistakes like this may constitute a social breach (although it is generally understood that non-native speakers might make such mistakes). Depending on the relative status of the speaker, the person spoken to, and the person or thing that may be spoken about, the speaker can choose different words and forms to express intended meaning. For many basic verbs like eat, sleep, or give, at least two Korean words are available, each reflecting a different status of the subject or object of the verb. Each verb in Korean is further altered by a choice of grammatical affixes, adding not only grammatical information (such as tense), but carrying different levels of respect, deference, or politeness. Many nouns that refer to kinship or the household alsohave plain and honorific versions, the latter of which are used speak of another’s house or relatives, and the former of one’s own.
How does all of this relate to my earlier discussion of Sapir-Whorf, and considerations of how much and in what manner language may shape thought, and whether culture (loosely) determines language stucture, or vice versa? Don’t worry, I’m getting to that.
Korea is widely acknowledged to be the most Confucian nation in the world technically neo-Confucian, but there’s no need to split that particular hair here). Confucius focused on the need to maintain social order though willing or unwilling submission to the five primary relationships :
1) Ruler and subject
2) Parent and child (teacher and student)
3) Husband and wife
4) Older and younger person
5) Friend and friend
All of these relationships are explicity hierarchical, excepting, significantly perhaps, the last, although friendship of a Confucian bent is a considerably more meaningful proposition, it may be argued, than ‘buddies’ in North America might be.
Appropriate behaviour is expected for participants in each of these relationships, and the language used must be similarly hierarchical :

…a son should be reverential; a younger person respectful; a wife submissive;a subject loyal. And reciprocally, a father should be strict and loving; an older person wise and gentle; a husband good and understanding; a ruler righteous and benevolent; and friends trusting and trustworthy. In other words, one is never alone when one acts, since every action affects someone else.

Although as in many nations, the strength of these traditional beliefs is fading, Confucian tenets still underly a great deal of the conscious and unconscious expectations of social behaviour, and deeply influence the relationships between the sexes and the generations.
The question that interests me, then, is this : do structures and forms like these in the Korea language shape the way in which Koreans think, particularly in terms of their relationships not so much to the world but to the people in it, to such a degree that we can say that language has given them a world-view substantially different than, for example, my own, as an English native speaker? It certainly seems so, to me.
Language is a tool for communication, a social construct, and it seems somewhat pointless to argue about what nouns one uses, and whether the presence or absence of a given bit of vocabulary in one language or another either permits and limits one’s ability to think about it. This may be so, but I don’t think it’s very interesting, except in the abstract.
More interesting to me is the idea that the structures of a language – in this case Korean – may expand or limit the way in which one thinks about something much more important than snow (for example) : how one fits into society, and how one interacts with other humans. That Koreans really do think differently about these things, and that this may spring (entirely, partially, as much or less so?) from their language.
Is this a valid argument for a weak form of lingustic relativism? Is it even something that comes under the Sapir-Whorf rubric? I’m not sure. An opposite, equally important question is this : is it the case that the language has come to have the form it does as result of culture and belief, rather than the opposite? Confucius was Chinese, after all, and from an entirely different language group!
Again, I’m not sure. The correct answer is usually ‘a little from column A, a little from column B’, I know. Like I said, though, I’m an amateur who hasn’t taken a single course in this stuff (yet!). So I’m curious about what you might think, dear reader, whether you’re a full-fledged linguist (like languagehat) or just, like me, an enthusiastic dabbler.

Lakoff A La Carte

Some context for the George Lakoff article recently noted here and elsewhere around the traps : a one-hour discussion from NPR [realaudio, 52 minutes] with him, rooted in linguistics, on metaphor as core to our cognition, and why he thinks that neuroscience has proven philosophical method to be flawed. Useful perhaps in understanding where he was coming from with this.
Special SuperCaliFragiLinguistitastical bonus audio : Steven Pinker on Words and Rules [NPR realaudio, 56 minutes]
You like that? Hmmm, you liiiiike it? You want more, baby? OK, here’s the motherlode. Enjoy.

Hanoi Ed Rocks!

Ed has said some interesting things about the latest conversation we find ourselves blogging our way through, including this :

Given the peremptory perception of a post and the false sense of importance behind an entry, people are loath to actually express what is on their minds. Popular weblogs are disinclined to state anything about politics or war other than the neocon hard line, something else that can be filed under the rubric of “oblique” commentary. And thanks to the extension of our cult of personality to weblogging with terms like “A-list,” referrals, the intricate brownnosing and insularity seen at events like SXSW and Fray, it has now expanded to a level that sometimes negates the socializing and collective innovation that these events are supposed to be about. The Leo Buscalgia-like need to be liked, linked, or befriended, to be noticed as if the whole personal writing gambit or sense of weblog being was some spineless, drug-free answer to Studio 54 and the strange Bush-NATO idea that “an attack on a person’s writing is an attack on a person” (tell that to a libel expert and he’ll laugh you out of his office), causes people to pull punches or take things far too seriously. And it corrupts honest expression.

which is excellent and with which I agree quite emphatically, but to which I must reply ‘Not the wonderchicken, muthaf–ka!’

Awareness Matters

Linguist George Lakoff talks again about the metaphors that have been and are continuing to be used to sell this war to the public, the very same metaphors that were used back in Gulf War I (and many other times as well).
He also has some points to make about the anti-war movement, which echo what some friends in the neighbourhood are discussing at the moment, and in which they may well be interested.

I think it is crucially important to understand the cognitive dimensions of politics – especially when most of our conceptual framing is unconscious and we may not be aware of our own metaphorical thought. I have been referred to as a “cognitive activist” and I think the label fits me well. As a professor, I do analyses of linguistic and conceptual issues in politics, and I do them as accurately as I can. But that analytic act is a political act: Awareness matters. Being able to articulate what is going on can change what is going on – at least in the long run.
This war is a symptom of a larger disease. The war will start presently. The fighting will be over before long. Where will the anti-war movement be then?
First, the anti-war movement, properly understood, is not just, or even primarily, a movement against the war. It is a movement against the overall direction that the Bush administration is moving in. Second, such a movement, to be effective, needs to say clearly what it is for, not just what it is against.
Third, it must have a clearly articulated moral vision, with values rather than mere interests determining its political direction.

[via Mefi]


From the three years or so I recently lived in Sydney Australia, my primary olfactory memory is of stale pee. At least twice a block, on my daily walk downtown from my apartment in Surrey Hills to my job at Town Hall, my tender nostrils would be assaulted by a cloud of piss-reek so terrifying, so staggering in its ability to claw its way up into your sinuses and perch giggling behind your eyeballs… well, let’s just say it was pretty damn whiffy. This stink would taunt me, mock me, appear and disappear willo-the-piss, then turn a corner and pow! there it would be again.
The odd thing, though, was that although there was an almost constant smell of downtown pee, I almost never saw anyone actually, well, doing it. A city of ghost-whizzers.
Here in Seoul, it’s almost impossible to walk down the street in the evening, particularly on a Friday or Saturday, without spotting two or three teetering drunks fumbling at their little weiners and tinkling on a wall or car or doorway or small child too slow to escape. One particularly enthusiastic gent a while back was on the subway platform at about 5 pm, canted at a 60 degree angle or so, pants around his knees, squeezing out a sadly unimpressive stream toward the opposite platform, where I was standing. It was difficult to tell for sure, but I was under the impression he was trying to hit me, and was frustrated that he was falling short by a good 50 feet or so.
But for all the determined urban micturation here, I almost never smell pee. It’s odd.
I have concluded as a result of this painstaking scientific study that the urine of Korean men does not smell. Your mileage may, as they say, vary.

Who and What

A thought this morning that is a follow on of sorts from my Anti-America piece a couple of days ago, that I don’t have time to flesh out right now, but that I want to remember. This idea is in part why my little Anti-America post was not called Anti-American. It smacks a little of pop-psychology crap, and may be obvious to many, but the more I think about it, the more I feel it.
It seems de rigueur when people think and talk about themselves that they answer the question “What are you?” You know – I’m a Man, I’m a Democrat, I’m an American, I’m a Dyke, I’m a Rotarian, I’m a Patriot, I’m a Mother, I’m a Christian, I’m a Programmer, I’m a Liberal. (I’m a Woman, I’m a Republican, I’m a Korean, I’m a Heterosexual, I’m a Shriner, I’m an Activist, I’m a Father, I’m a Buddhist, I’m a Teacher, I’m a Conservative) And so on, in endless permutation.
I reckon this is a sure way to shred the last few tatters of one’s soul – defining oneself, and thinking about oneself in terms external and collective. And for many people, if my collective noun isn’t the same as your collective noun, you can easily be categorized as Other, and claws-out monkey shrieks and feces-flinging may well ensue.
Better to know the answer to the question : “Who are you?” Granted that this one is a hell of a lot harder to answer, perhaps.
The best answer has got to be “That’s for me to know, and you to find out! Nyah!”


Shelley speaks, in pellucid and evocative language, of the tensions between the individual and community, conflicts between the strength of uncompromising individuality and the sense of responsibility to others, which are often expressed in ways contrarian and discordant. If you read her words often, you know that she cherishes this part of herself, and is proud to be the one who pushes back, who questions, about matters political and gender-related, about issues social and relating to the blogosphere, and this is one of the things many other people cherish about her too. I’m glad – more than glad, I’m indebted in a multitude of ways and even if I disagree with her on the details deeply grateful – that she is around to kick against the pricks, as exhausting and demoralizing an avocation as that is.
One of the many reasons I feel indebted to her (and to others around the ever-more-loosely-joined virtual neighbourhood of which I feel a part) is that she kickstarts thoughts in me, and if I’m at the precise juncture where the caffeine has overcome my natural lethargy (like right now), I’m liable to write about them. The exercise of deciding whether this is a Good Thing or not is left to the reader.
The following is long and personal, and no doubt philosophically suspect. So sue me!
Particularly in these difficult days, people accuse me of being anti-American, and I invariably admit that I am, although perhaps not in the sense in which they mean it. The phrase anti-American almost certainly means different things to different people, and in different languages (long ramble about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis excised – I’ll leave that for another day). Occasionally I’m even asked why, although this is rare, and like dg here, it’s usually as part of a low-intensity injoke that bounces around Metafilter occasionally : ‘Why do you hate America so much?’
I wish I were able to trace back to the beginning my first stirrings of anti-American sentiment, way up there in my Northern BC village. That sort of thing is a fool’s game, though, particularly when your long-term memory is as wildly inaccurate as mine. We only got two television channels up there – CTV and CBC – and so there was no nose-upturned pseudo-intellectual pooh-poohing of American entertainment, though you can be sure I affected a whole range of other arrogant smartboy behaviours, feeling as I did a lone island of brilliance in a sea of millworkers and fetal alcohol syndrome genetic sports.
The second album I remember buying was The Clash’s London Calling – perhaps that was the trigger.
With lyrics like

The judge said five to ten-but I say double that again
I’m not working for the clampdown
No man born with a living soul
Can be working for the clampdown
Kick over the wall ’cause government’s to fall
How can you refuse it?
Let fury have the hour, anger can be power
D’you know that you can use it?
The voices in your head are calling
Stop wasting your time, there’s nothing coming
Only a fool would think someone could save you
The men at the factory are old and cunning
You don’t owe nothing, so boy get runnin’
It’s the best years of your life they want to steal
You grow up and you calm down
You’re working for the clampdown
You start wearing the blue and brown
You’re working for the clampdown
So you got someone to boss around
It makes you feel big now
You drift until you brutalize
You made your first kill now

it fired me up in a way that I still feel, bowel-deep and still burning decades later. But really that album, political as it was, had very little in the way of attacks on America itself – it chose broader targets, and knocked them over with rakish, snarling aplomb.
Like Shelley, I read Ayn Rand as a teen too, and everything else I could get my hands on, which, thanks to a mother visibly relieved that I was more interested in books than cars, was almost everything I could think of, but it didn’t leave much of a mark on me, I don’t think. Similar expressions of libertarian ideals in Heinlein’s juvenilia and other SF novels did leave their mark, though. I remember quoting him, sneeringly, over the years : ‘specialization is for insects.’ But I was too interested in individuals (which I mentioned in another context, in a post of which I’m particularly proud, here) to care much about -isms. This decision, this disdain of politics, has stayed with me to this day.
So how does a disdain of politics and a Clash song jibe with a repeatedly-reiterated anti-Americanism? I’m getting to that, honest.
One of the things that Shelley’s piece today started me contemplating was how my feelings on individuality differ from the ones she expresses so well, and how imagining myself as a contrarian (if people-loving) curmudgeon all these years has molded my life. When I think about it, lyrics from another song bubble up into my mind, and I suppose they express the root of my feeling as well as anything else :

I thought thought that I could find a way
To beat the system
To make a deal and have no debts to pay
I’d take it all take it all I’d run away
Me for myself first class and first rate
But all that you have is your soul
Here I am waiting for a better day
A second chance
A little luck to come my way
A hope to dream a hope that I can sleep again
And wake in the world with a clear conscience and clean hands
‘Cause all that you have is your soul

All my life, I’ve fashioned myself as the Outsider, the exile, the individual, rugged or otherwise. I feel little to no obligation to any sense of community, other than that which is mandated by my own sense of what is right. It has roots, no doubt, in childhood bereavements, and first saw the light when a psychologist diagnosed me as a kindergarten sociopath. It matured with the fingernails-ripped-out clawing at the well-walls of my hometown – let me out! – and has evolved slowly since. It’s led to me to live as an expatriate all over the planet for most of the last 15 years, complaining about my new hosts, wherever they have been, and equally kept me from returning home. It’s made me unwilling to consider myself part of any group larger than a self-selected circle of close friends, virtual and otherwise. It’s led me inexorably to spending a significant portion of my waking hours in front of a computer, typing my life out for people I have never met.
But it’s also made me a better man, in many ways, I think, if a somewhat solipsistic one. I do believe that all you have is your soul, and that, absurd as it seems, is true even if there is no such thing as a soul. That’s an argument I’m not interested in, as it simply doesn’t matter. But I believe that once you have done your best to detach, in best buddhist fashion (though I hasten to add that I am no more a buddhist than I am an evangelical christian) – detach from political or religious affiliation, from outmoded and useless labels like ‘left’ and ‘right’, from exhortations to patriotism and considerations of race, from fretting about whether this group or that is disadvantaged or exploited – and tried to live according to the dictates of your conscience and love and do what good you can for those you know….well, we all want that, in one way or another, don’t we?
At the end of the day, ignoring the clamoring of the crowds to join in and be a part of something is the strategy of the hermit, and I am no hermit. I partake, joyfully or furiously, depending on the provenance of the brain chemicals circulating intraskull, with as much enthusiasm as someone might who defined themselves by their job, or their religion, or their gender, or their sexual preference, or their nationality, or their political affiliation, or their race.
So why do I hate America so much, though I’ve said over and over again that I love many American people? Because America does evil, and I cannot help but hate that which does evil, all the while knowing that it is evil. There’s no need for me to recite the litany of Terrible Wrongs that America has done – no matter how you sit on the love/hate/fear/security map, you know those things of which I speak.
This is not to say that other nations, other governments, other groups political or otherwise, today and in the past (and no doubt far into the future) have not done great evil. Cambodia, Germany, Japan, Rwanda, Russia, El Salvador, Guatemala…. any of us could go on, endlessly, and point to massive evils that, in sheer scale if nothing else, dwarf the worst that anyone could accuse America of.
For me, though, disappointment is the key to my dislike of America. Deep, weary, beaten-down disappointment. Disappointment at the massive disconnect between the way that America portrays itself, and the way that many Americans who are ignorant of both history and geography perceive America. Regardless of how shocked people may have been at the million corpses littering the ground in Rwanda a decade ago, I believe that were the blood of those multitudes on American hands through action rather than inaction, the shock and outrage would be many times more powerful. When I was young I expected – and many people, American and otherwise feel the same – that America would always be a force for good in the world. Americans are supposed to be heros, damn it! That’s what their movies tell us, and their television, and their news agencies and their government. That’s what their duplicitous sold-out scumbag of a president keeps repeating in halting tones when they trot him out to read another script about ‘smoking out the evil-doers.’ And nothing, we all know, is as disappointing as a fallen hero.
(Of course, you can probably guess that I directly blame George W Bush and his administration for the death of one of my best friends, as much as I blame the sack of sh-t who set and detonated that bomb in Bali. They loaded and cocked the gun – that little Indonesian just pulled the trigger. Their bumbling PR-driven war in Afghanistan drove al Qaeda members to Indonesia, the nation with the largest Muslim population on the planet, where those escappes were no doubt instrumental in the murder of all those people in Kuta. My resentment of the abject stupidity of the conduct of the little Bush-te revenge-war has only honed my anger and resentment and disappointment to a fine edge.)
But to people not dependent on their politics or their nationality to define themselves, to someone for whom identity is not built on ideas and groups outside of him or herself, the words of Official America are at so far a remove from the realities that anger and disappointment are the only responses that seem rational. Anger that wrong is being portrayed as right, to the apparent unquestioning satisfaction of many who would fight evil if they recognized it. Disappointment because America, the great power of our world, could do so much good, and instead has been locked into a path that will bear bitter fruit for everyone for as far as the mind can see into the cratered, smoke-shrouded wasteland of the future.
I love Americans, many of them. I hate America because through those who lead that powerful nation, it seems to be hellbent on making a world that is worse in every way that’s important for most of the people in it. And I feel this way not because I am Canadian, or ‘lefty’, or religious, or anything else other than who I am. I hate America because I want so desperately to love it.

World of Assholes

Like everyone else, I noticed Dr Weinberger’s and Doc Searls’ World of Ends this morning, linked from Bb. I have taken the liberty of making a response, of sorts, in the form of a satire fetchingly entitled – in true profane wonderchicken style – ‘World of Assholes’.
Although I do disagree with many of their points, I recognize the good will in their intention, and intend this in turn as good-natured if pointed ribbing, not ideological warfare. Manifestos by their very nature invite a kick in the ass, though, and I’m willing as always to step up to the plate. (And mostly I was just annoyed that I didn’t get one of those emails Shelley mentioned. Heh.)

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The Nutshell

  1. The Internet is complicated.
  2. The Internet isn’t a thing or an agreement : it’s a place.
  3. The Internet isn’t stupid, but it’s filled with stupidity.
  4. Adding value to the Internet adds to its value.
  5. Value on the internet goes unnoticed unless some high-traffic node connects it to the mainstream.
  6. Money moves to the greedy.
  7. The asshole of the world? Nah, the world of assholes.
  8. The Internet’s three vices:
  9.   a. Americans dominate it
      b. The wealthy populate it
      c. More inhabitants does not automatically mean more value, except to those who want to sell you something

  10. If the Internet is so complicated, why do so many seem driven to try and simplify it?
  11. Some mistakes we can stop making already.


1. The Internet is complicated.

The internet is probably the most complicated thing in history, although it’s built on technology (TCP/IP) that is deceptively simple. Confusing the technology with the creativity and conversation is like confusing the truck with the beer it’s carrying.

2. The Internet isn’t a thing or an agreement : it’s a place.

Actually, it’s probably all three, but aphorisms have to be pithy, so you’ll excuse the confusion. The best way to understand something that’s complicated is to examine the metaphor or metaphors one uses to describe it or think about it. In America, football is a metaphor used to think about business, and war is a metaphor used to think about football, for example. This helps us to understand why bombing the living sh-t out of Iraq will magically make problems with the economy go away.
The internet feels like a place to most people – an environment that exists out there independantly of whether of not they are participating in it. The wires and servers, the hardware and the software – the things give the protocols a way to interact. The protocols are an agreement, and they allow the space to exist. The space is where we exist when we are on the net. See also : highway, truck and beer.

3. The Internet isn’t stupid, but it’s filled with stupidity.

The internet isn’t about packets, it’s about people. Just like in the real world, many of those people are egregiously stupid, and say and do stupid things. There are a few barriers to entry – literacy and money are two, for example
– so this makes the situation slightly less excruciating than it is in our daily lives offline.

4. Adding value to the Internet adds to its value.

If you change something about the way the internet works to favour a certain way of communicating or a certain technology, you may well be having a negative impact on other aspects of the environment. If all you are doing is adding something, however, the expected rules apply. More is, however, not necessarily better, for anyone except those who want to make money. See also : 8c.

5. Value on the internet goes unnoticed unless some high-traffic node connects it to the mainstream.

It’s entirely possible that the most brilliant minds of our generation are out there in the net hinterlands, exposing their genius for the world to see, and nobody is seeing it except the googlebot. Unless a higher-traffic node or nodes of the net (with a human intelligence in the driver’s seat) notes and disseminates the value that is being created out on the edges back into the middle and out again, nothing happens, and our new Shakespeare or Einstein labours unnoticed.

6. Money moves to the greedy.

If value goes unnoticed until the Big Nodes notice, then you or your product needs to get noticed by the central hubs somehow. Once that happens, the greedier you are, the more you’ll make. Mostly it’s about knowing the right people, just as it is in Real Life.

7. The asshole of the world? Nah, the world of assholes.

Because the internet is a place, it’s populated by all sorts of folks : the good, the bad and the fugly. Many people with even a shred of decency and integrity left bemoan the cesspool of evil, filth and stupidity that much of the internet has become. For some, the metaphor we used to use to describe my end-of-the-world hometown when I was young might be appropriate : The Asshole of The World.
This comes as a natural consequence of human nature, of course, and is to be expected. Just as in any other place, there are the good neighbourhoods and the bad, the saints, the sinners, and the scumbags. The internet may route around damage, but it builds a bus route directly to porn and cheap laughs. (You got here, didn’t you?)
Regardless of whether the internet is the rectum mundi (ahoy! fake latin to port!) or not, the place is unimportant without the people who populate it. Unfortunately, just as in real life, many of them are deeply unpleasant : the world of assholes.

8. The Internet’s three vices

So, those are the facts about the Internet. See, I told you they were complicated.But what do they mean for the behavior of the corporations and corporatists that keep trying to make the internet into a mall or a propaganda tool or a surveillance network?
Here are three basic rules of behavior that are tied directly to the factual nature of the Internet:
  a. Americans dominate it
  b. The wealthy populate it
  c. More inhabitants does not automatically mean more value, except to those who want to sell you something
Let’s look a little more closely at each…

8a. Americans dominate it

Americans, with their brash ways, their aspirations to Empire, their big hair and good teeth. Ah, those wacky Americans. They built the internet, and they’re determined to make it a mirror of their crumbling society. It’s a safe bet they’ll succeed.

8b. The wealthy populate it

Not too many poor folks on the net. Damn near none, in fact. Most people who can’t find enough fresh water to drink on a daily basis (well over half the population of the planet) don’t have access to a personal computer. And the wealthy got wealthy f–king the poor, personally or by proxy, so nothing’s new there.

8c. More inhabitants does not automatically mean more value, except to those who want to sell you something

A virtual space cannot get overcrowded, but it certainly can get messy and loud. But more people online means more targets for marketers, more data for surveillance units, more money for telcos. Go go go!

9. If the Internet is so complicated, why do so many been seem driven to try and simplify it?

There’s money and recognition in talking down to people.
Could it be because the three Internet vices are the exact analogue of how governments and businesses view the world?
Americans dominate it: The American government (and many of its people) are keen to dominate the world politically, militarily, and economically. Why should the net be any different?
The wealthy populate it: If you haven’t got enough money to buy my products, then f–k you.
More inhabitants does not automatically mean more value, except to those who want to sell you something: More human targets mean more sales, and more data for the Information Awareness miners. If they’ve got the money to get online, they’ve got the money to buy stuff, and if they’re breathing, they’re quite possibly a threat to the American government.

10. Some mistakes we can stop making already.

Enough already. Let’s stop banging our heads against the facts of Internet life, and go outside for some fresh air.
We have nothing to lose but our cupidity.

A New Hope

A read of this thread at MetaTalk just might reveal to those of good faith something of significance for weblogging and for journalism, being born all a-squall. It’s an exciting idea, and an inspired way to leverage the enormous number of Smart People who are connected to one degree or another to Metafilter (and kuro5hin), and if it really does amount to something, will be a great gift from MeFi to the wired world to commemorate The Mothership’s upcoming fourth birthday.

Dirt Stick Stone

About a year ago, I squeezed out the following brainfart

…is it only a matter of time until Hollywood starts regularly hiring hundreds of blogtemps to fire up new weblogs, post furiously and praise to the skies the latest piece of crap opus by Jerry Bruckheimer or some other purveyor of soul-destroying cinematic garbage, interlink to themselves and a few ‘a-listers’, start offering large cash incentives to Kottke and Rageboy and other high-traffic blognodes to link back to the rent-a-bloggers, and watch the Google rank for their new Product soar? Or record companies to promote their wares? Or governments? Are recent, highly-successful experiments in spiking the GooglePunch like the recent one by Matt Haughey the tip of the iceberg? How soon before big business catches on, before the Office of Strategic Mind Control realizes the subtle power (if they haven’t already) of the interconnectedness of blogs and begins working blogspace like the infopimps they strive to be? Before this ‘place’, too, becomes branded and corporatized? (Forget the stone-knives-and-bearskins, bandwidth-wasting crudity of banner ads – savvy marketers will work the medium, pimp the actual hyperlinks, and tickle Google till it quivers, moans, and page-ranks, gratefully. Linkwhoring could become a serious business. Perhaps we could form a mafia, a Blogga Nostra, and skim a little of that corporate cream off the top, broker linkage deals, extort flame-protection money.)

And today, as weblogorrhea reaches epidemic proportions, Dr Pepper’s soulless, clue-deficient marketing shills are actually giving it a go, boys and girls.

Next comes a blog-related twist on viral marketing — recruiting ‘key influence bloggers’ to promote Raging Cow by sharing their enthusiasm, linking to the site and distributing special screensavers, banners and skins. Beginning with an initial group of six people in their late teens and early 20s — flown to Dallas with their parents for an induction session — Dr Pepper hopes to develop a ‘blogging network’ to hype Raging Cow and “be part of the ‘in the know’ crowd,” says its brand-marketing honcho Andrew Springate. Those spreading the news via their blogs won’t disclose their flackitude, says Springate, because officially they’re not paid Dr Pepper employees; they only get promo items like hats and T shirts.

*Takes off tinfoil helmet*
Doc Searls is quoted as saying in response to this : “In my view blogs are the antidote to viral marketing.”
In my view, this clumsy teentastic attempt at manipulation – more likely to attract attention to itself (which, let’s face it, has got to be the real goal here, rather any genuine attempt at marketing juice thanks to the efforts of some cadre of hiphop dipsh-t teend00d bloggers pimping their avatars for some gear – it’s a metacampaign, kids!) and spawn subtle and inventive imitations as a result of the MSNBC article and other media attention – is the first salvo in a coming war of web words. Blogs aren’t the antidote to viral marketing, they’re the petri dish where the virulent brain-colonizing memetic equivalent of Ebola will be grown. Call it wEbola, and reach for the mental prophylactic of your choice. At stake are our very souls!
That’s complete bullsh-t, of course. I’m just flinging hyperbole around to make this all seem a little more interesting, you know, ’cause I can. The truth is, even if I do disagree with Doc’s quotable quote there, if I should happen across a weblog pimping some craptacular, pointless and inevitably unnecessary new product (“Buy this crap! Buy it you f–kers, or we’ll lose our jobs and have to whore out our children!” – now that’s a marketing campaign I could respect), well, *click*
Heck, I even refuse to read weblogs that perfunctorily link to Amazon, for christ’s sakes, never mind ones that are busy flogging some sh-tty sugar drink. But this sort of thing is going to get more sophisticated, mark my words, brothers and sisters, and more insidious. The marketrons will continue to colonize the new frontier. I have seen the enemy and he is us.

Open Source Constitution

Friend Adam Greenfield has been doing some thinking about emergent democracy, and has come up with a ‘conversation starter’ called “The minimal compact: An open-source constitution for post-national states“.

In recognition of the apparent inability of nation states to adequately address and provide for human goals and desires in the twenty-first century, and anticipating that if anything this situation will only worsen, it is desirable to begin thinking about alternatives to this obsolescing structure.
Of interest are alternatives that are designed from the beginning to
Ensure the greatest freedom for the greatest number, without simultaneously abridging the freedoms of others.
Permit individuals with common goals and beliefs to act in their own interest at the global level and with all the privileges afforded nation states, even when those individuals are separated by distance.
Provide robust resistance to attempts to concentrate power, and other abuses of same.
This paper is intended to sketch, however schematically, just such an alternative.
The question then becomes, what kinds of constitutional structures are appropriate to furthering the stated aims in an internetworked, interdependent age? What sorts of arrangements of power between humans can account for the deep variation in beliefs and assumptions among the six billion of us who share this planet, while still providing for a common jurisprudence? What measures can be taken that enhance the common security without unduly infringing on the sovereignty of the individual?
I believe that a useful model for the desired structure can be found in the open-source or “free” software movement.

Essential reading, and packed full of ideas that resonate very deeply with this particular wonderchicken.
Edit : I am both honoured and pleased that Adam has told me via email that “a lot of this was catalyzed by reading what you wrote about Rick. As a former NYer, I shall know 09.11 in the bone for the rest of my days, but when I read about Rick on MeFi it was my most immediate experience yet of…of…of everything to which I want to offer future generations an alternative.”
I believe Rick would have loved these ideas, and it’s a beautiful thing if the tragedy of his loss may in any way have helped this kind of dream reach more people.
Go, read, think.

Three Thoughts

Three random thoughts that ambled through the wonderchickensian mind this evening, ideas that to be honest I’m just too damn lazy to flesh out into real posts. Quality is therefore not assured.
1) How much do I hate that everytime someone mentions a goddamn book, they have to link to Amazon?† When did a glorified shopping mall become the primary maypole around which our discussion of books must dance? (I tried to like, but it gives me indigestion.)
2) 8 Mile = Quadrophenia strained through a Rocky Balboa cheesecloth.
3) Before radio and television, we are told, people entertained one another – told stories, sang, did little skits, whatever. Nearly a century of the glass teat and all that, electronic opiate of the masses, yadda yadda, passes. Us bloggy types are just returning to a long-lost tradition of making our own damn entertainment for each other, thank you very much, just amped-up, sped-up and woven from a spectrum of sources so kaleidoscopic as to blow the muttonchopped or maidenly minds of our forebears.
And, for a limited time only, a special bonus thought, free with every purchase : reading a Kerouac biography the last few days – ‘Subterranean Kerouac’ (and no, I’m not going to link to the thrice-cursed Amazon page for it) – I found myself wondering how those Beat types found any time to actually write when they were so busy sucking each other’s dicks all the damn time. Crikey.
† the answer, of course, is ‘one hell of a lot’.

Masks and Mirrors

This is going to be one of those posts that starts : “So, I….”
I usually hate those kinds of posts.
So, I get an EGR send in my inbox today. Rageboy – or Locke, or whichever mask he was wearing when he hit ‘send’ or ‘go’ or ‘cry havoc’ or whatever the button said (assuming that both personas are masks, to one degree or another, and assuming that it was an actual button he pressed) – included a couple of quotes in the header, and I got as far as

“Sentimentality is a superstructure covering brutality.”
– Carl Gustav Jung

before I got distracted, as seems to happen so often to me. All that youthful experimentation has left me with an attention span that is somewhat unreliable, I’m sad to report. Don’t worry your pretty heads, though, dear readers : I make do.
So, this Jung quote (I did read a lot of Jung when I was young – har!) is one that I’ve never run across before, oddly, unless of course I did run across it, but forgot about it because I was in the middle of one of those youthful experimentation sessions I mentioned above. My memory has a few holes in it too, unfortunately. Again, though, I make do.
It resonated in the echo chamber behind my nose and I was keen to see what had been said, and when, and by who. It seemed to apply to something I’ve been turning over in my mind lately : one thing that a filthy foreigner in Korea who spends any time watching his hosts will learn quickly is how inspidly sentimental these folks can be. I loathe sentimentality, but I’m keen to understand more about it, ’cause, you know, I’m such a groovy guy. The other bit of data is the fact that Korean soldiers, in the Vietnam War and elsewhere, were universally feared for their ‘casual brutality’.
So, off to Google. Shiver me timbers, boy wonder, who should be at the pole position for this interesting phrase, gunning his virtual engines, but the excellent Jonathon Delacour!
He was talking about warbloggers in his post, which interested me not at all at that moment – “We’re on a mission from God, ma’am.” – but he does quote the equally splendid Joseph Duemer :

Sentimentality is the substitution of emotion for intelligence; sentimentality requires of the reader assent to heightened feelings not legitimated by the matter at hand; sentimentality seeks to manipulate the reader’s emotional response by calls to conventional wisdom or attitudes; sentimentality seeks approval by reference to the vast warm blanket of majority opinion; sentimentality never, ever risks the disapproval of any member of its intended audience.

Now this sounds like the kinda dirt I’m trying to dig up, here, tonight. This sounds like words I can get behind, and apply to something that at least has the odor of insightfulness.
But then, I notice this in the comments :

At least part of the problem here is that Duemer’s, and Jung’s, definition of “sentimental” is contrary to the definition held by 99% of Americans.
“Sentimental” has positive connotations, not negative ones. We associate it with things we know are not necessarily true but things we would love to believe.
Things like Santa Claus, things like joyous Thanksgiving reunions with loved ones, even if we only love them at a distance, are considered “sentimental.” Even when we consciously know these things are not entirely true, we would like to believe them and see nothing wrong in believing in them.
Kitsch at least comes closer to the meaning Duemer is assigning to “sentimentality” because it has somewhat negative connotations for most, though certainly not all, people.
People are going to resist transforming a word they have positive connotations with into a negative idea, even if they might otherwise be convinced that the argument itself is sound.

and I wonder if that’s true. Does sentimentality have a positive connotation for most Americans? And how about for Koreans? And am I unusual in hating it so?
Back to Google I went, feeling the need to dig some more, and came up dry. Serried ranks of quotable quote pages, with no commentary to sink my nose into, truffle-hunting webpig that I am.
Then I tried a bit of wiggling with my search terms a bit, and found this :

In his overview, [Dr. Luke Kim, whom many regard as the godfather of Korean American psychiatry says] Koreans regard cheong (he spells jeong) as “one of the most important ingredients that would make [Korean] lives enriching and meaningful.” He agrees there is [no] equivalent English word that translates the meaning exactly.
“However,” he says, “Jeong itself embraces all the meanings to such words as feeling, empathy, sympathy, compassion, emotional attachment, trust, pathos, tenderness, affinity, sentiment and even love.
“If I were to choose one English word among these, I would choose the word empathy.”
Kim observes that Chinese, Japanese and Koreans all share the general concept of jeong with a somewhat different emphasis in its concept.
“For example,” he observes, “Koreans tend to stress the aspect of emotional attachment and bond, while Chinese emphasize the aspect of loyalty and reciprocity.
“The Japanese equivalent word – Jyo -tends to emphasize sentimentality.” Jyo-ni-moroi means one is weak and vulnerable with sentimentality.
Jeong among Koreans denotes a special interpersonal affective bond: a trust and closeness between two individuals. That’s why, Kim believes, Koreans attach great importance to the presence or absence of jeong in their relationships with a person such as mother-child (mo-jeong), two lovers (ae-jeong), or two friends (woo-jeong).

This set me back for a minute or two, and led me to remembering my wife’s stated reason for sticking with me, when asked why she had a couple of years ago, despite her parents threatening to disown her, in the face of her friends’ avowals that she was nuts to shack up with a nasty foreigner, ignoring the stares we got when we walked arm in arm down a Korean street. She said that she remembered me saying one night not long after we first got together something along the lines of :
Love is love is love. Mother for child, friend for friend, lover for beloved. It’s all one, even if it is different in the ways that it is shown and shared.
That simpleminded belief of mine dovetails micron-close with this ‘jeong’ idea, doesn’t it? Not that I had the faintest idea at the time that such a belief existed and was so important to so many Koreans. It’s not particularly insightful, certainly, but it’s true, or true at least for me, and that’s more than enough. It was enough for her, too, it seems.
So. At this point I kind of ran out of steam. I lost track of what I had been thinking about when I went off searching for some background on the Jung quote (which was probably going to end up in something mean-spirited anyway) but I ended up remembering something that has made me a better man.
And Rageboy? Well, I guess I gotta thank him, for starting me wandering down that track this evening, which ended for me in a happy memory and a cuddle with my woman. And feel ‘jeong’, a bit, for the guy, because the very public road that led him to his pressing that ‘send’ button today hasn’t – at least as far as I know – as happy an end as my short road did tonight.

There must be a way…

I wish there were some way that some sort of reliable device for parsing out and evaluating text could be created, one that was capable of remotely applying painful shocks to the testicles based on the results.
This device – let’s call it the Fiery Parser of Comedy Justice™, for lack of anything else that comes to mind – would deliver the scrotum-singeing amps say 7 out of 8 times that it caught someone posted an ‘amusing’ one-liner to Metafilter, just to help them be certain that they were indeed posting Comedy Gold and it was worth the risk.
(I feel comfortable in choosing the testicles, as I’m pretty certain this is a Boyzone phenomenon.)
Ideally, it would be 6 or 8 metres high, with a huge On/Off lever, be topped with buzzing Tesla coils, and throw off random crackling bolts of electricity through the darkness. A tiny almost circular 50’s-style cathode ray tube would sit at its foot, connected to the main apparatus with monster alligator clips and greasy, wrist-thick cables, casting a small, comforting, #006699 glow on the broken concrete and piles of skulls nearby.
I’m aware that this probably won’t happen. Pity.
I am also fully aware that (pot, kettle) probably 80% of my MetaSchtick for the first year I was there was rubber-chickening and merry pranksterism, but that was before it became an epidemic. The monkey house (and god bless its every byte) was created to siphon away all that stuff, but now there’s a whole new generation in the blue, this growing and seemingly unstoppable crapslide of quipsters who seem bent on being The Wackiest MeFite, and they’re beginning to give me the sh-ts.
OK, I’m done now with my little rant now. Just had to vent. Back to the (much-beloved) ‘filter I go.
Edit :

“It’s funny how the colours of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen. Now, all the time I was watching this, I was beginning to get very aware of like not feeling all that well. And this I put down to all the rich food and vitamins. But I tried to forget this, concentrating on the next film, which jumped right away on a young devotchka who was being given the old in-out, in-out first by one malchick then another, then another. When it came to the sixth or seventh malchick, leering and smecking and then going into it, I began to feel really sick. But I could not shut my glazzies. And even if i tried to move my glazz-balls about I still could not get out of the line of fire of this picture.”

Things like this, over at MeFi, are part of the reason I keep going back there, even after I have a little half-serious spaz-out like I did earlier. It may be a hoax, but if not, I am fascinated in equal measure with being repelled. It’s a strange, wonderful, horrible new world we’re building ourselves.
Another Edit : See, this MetaTalk discussion about the previously mentioned thread is a great thing too.

We're a Happy Family!

I was a little let down, as the taxi pushed through the rain into downtown Vancouver, at how little had changed. This feeling intensified over the next few days : other than a few new buildings scattered here and there, and a new colour scheme on the buses, it seemed to me as if nothing much had changed in Vancouver in the five years since I last set foot in the homeland. In fact, not much that I could see had changed in the 20 years since I first moved there as a thirst-bedeviled freshman.
After living in Korea, where the entire country reinvents itself every five years or so, and the one constant is change and ferment and fresh concrete flowering skyward fast as bamboo, it was a little disconcerting. I had never thought of Canada as…well, stodgy, until now.
But over the next couple of weeks there, I noticed that at least one significant thing had changed, other than the amount of grey hair on friends and family.

“And if ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should somehow happen, why, there’s always soma to give you a holiday from the facts. And there’s always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish these things by making a great effort and after years of hard moral training. Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are. Anybody can be virtuous now. You can carry at least half your mortality about in a bottle. Christianity without tears – that’s what soma is.”
-Brave New World

I had read that the drug companies were getting more aggressive with their carpet-bomb marketing in North America over the past few years. Read about the scattershot Ritalin-dosing of children, read about the emergence of the Prozac nation, read about the drug companies inventing ‘female sexual dysfunction’ in order to manufacture a market for more of their pills. But I wasn’t prepared for the fact that there wasn’t a single commercial break that I can recall on network TV over those couple of weeks that didn’t have at least one drug advertisement. When did heartburn become ‘acid reflux disease’? How many cold medicines do people actually need? ‘I love my Tylenol PM‘? How putrid is that? f–k you lady, why don’t you try loving your children instead (yelled I at the television screen, much to the long-suffering chagrin of my lady love). There were ads flogging drugs for conditions I haven’t even heard of, ads with happy grinning families running across manicured green parkland with their lassie-like dogs, free of the ravages of anal warts or whatever the hell had been plaguing them before Smithcline-Beecham showed up on the scene.
Now, I’m not one to claim, ever, that drugs in and of themselves are a bad thing. Better living through chemistry, say I. But I’ve always been more inclined to think that the body should be allowed to deal with minor illnesses on its own, and that drugs are better employed in the context of recreation than medication. Indefensible position perhaps, but I don’t really give a sh-t. Unless I’ve got Ex-lax™ to ease the way, of course!
I also have a strong tendency to think that the habit of medicating for every minor complaint is a sign of weakness, and creates and fosters weakness, and weakness is bad. Weakness in mind or body invites the triumph of evil men, evil deeds and thoughts. But that’s a whole other rant, perhaps.
So, anyway, unprepared as I was for the constant deafening barrage of druggy blandishments on the TV, I was substantially less prepared for the fact that half the f–king people I know are apparently now on SSRI’s : you know, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Prozac™ and Zoloft™ and Paxil™ and I don’t know what-all else. When did this happen? When did all these people decide that they couldn’t handle their lives anymore without being constantly medicated? Or when did their drug company whore-doctors convince them of it?

“All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects.”
-Brave New World

Now, look, I know (based on extrapolation from what I’ve seen amongst friends and relatives recently) that probably half of the people reading this are on scrips for one of these drugs, too, and I don’t want to antagonize or insult unduly. There are, certainly, some people for whom these ‘miracle drugs’ (given us by the gods) are a means by which they can live a normal life, overcome the ravages of aberrant brain chemistry, fight clinical depression.
But I’ve got to think that there are way too many folks out there who are just too goddamn lazy and irresponsible to take responsibility for their own mental states, just like there are too many people who think of themselves as victims, who blame their parents or their spouse for their problems, who refuse to take responsibility for their actions, who don’t vote and then complain about the government they get (and so richly deserve), who drive an SUV because, hey, if I get into an accident, it’s the other guy who’ll get hurt, who dismiss concerns about environmental degradation with a wave of the hand and a demand for incontrovertible proof…
Sorry, I’m ranting again.
But hell, I’ve taken just about everything there is to take at one time or another, and I didn’t do it to escape, I did it to explore. Hooray for me, right? Well, sure, why the hell not? I reckon that if your life is bad enough that you have to stay perpetually medicated, you need to change your life, change your doctor, get off the SSRIs, and get the hell out of the house. Find some people to drink a beer (yes, I see the irony) with and dance in the rain on a beach somewhere. Find someone new to have sex with, if that’s your thing. Climb a mountain, sail a boat, or if you’re too fat or lazy or poor to do that, find someone who loves doing it, and ask them about it, and watch their eyes as they describe the joy it gives them, and find something that makes you feel that joy too. Something other than chemicals.
You know, unless you really are f–ked up. In which case, pop those puppies like gummy bears, I say.

The Tension

It’s all about the hopeful hymn-humming tension between the Two Things, life is, so often. Suspension, floating as long as possible, in that sweet gravitationally anomalous spot between bum and wage slave, between drunkard and saint, between drop-out and rebel, between breather-of-mountain-air and dead-eyed technophile. ‘Course, it may just seem that way after a couple of beers. f–ked if I know.
See, I’ve been a geek, biting the heads off digital chickens, from way back when. I’d spend endless hours at the age of 14 or so, back in 1980, tweaking the math and the BASIC code to make prettier shimmering patterns on the 147×47 pixel black and white monitor of my TRS-80 Model III. Only 16K RAM and 16K ROM on that sucker, with a tape drive for saving my handiwork, a tape deck that I played audio on – Life of Brian taped by leaning it up against the speaker on my little B&W TV and pressing the Play and Record buttons at the same time and being very very quiet – while trying to figure out by trial and error how subroutines were supposed to work. Hours, days, weeks alone upstairs in my lair, hunched over, in the dark.
I hated that machine and loved it in equal measure. It captivated me, hypnotised me. Red-eyed monomania, as the hours died overhead and dropped their dust in my hair. It almost ate my life, that f–king machine, before I discovered booze and women and dancing on the beach with a bottle in my hand and a song in my throat. Before the world opened its legs to me.
The monster is back, and it’s trying to eat my soul this time. I don’t quite know what to do about that.

Sad, Strange

It tastes like one of those sad strange stories that one stumbles across occasionally on the web, and in real life too, by golly. Definitely the sort of thing that you’d research and write a long article about for some reputable magazine if you were so inclined, but since you’re a blogger with an attention span of approximately six seconds (and unless you’re Mike Golby and core dump tens of thousands of words a day) you don’t.


Kitten Natividad appeared in such fine films as Tittilation, Tittilation 3, Big Busty 3, Bodacious Ta-Tas, Famous Ta-Tas, Best of Big Busty, Thanks for the Mammaries, Ten Years of Big Busts 2, Big Boob Lottery, Wild Wild Chest 3, The Double-D Avenger, and Fresh Tits of Bel-Air. One gets a sense of where she (or more convincingly the eeek! evil! Hollywood Movie Machine) perceived her primary talents to lie.
I see a long wistful but critical look, the magazine equivalent of Boogie Nights meets Almost Famous (isn’t that how you’re supposed to pitch stuff : “It’s like X meets Y, with Tom Cruise as the lead! Come on, you gotta love that!”), at the titty-film industry of the Seventies. We’re not talking gun-to-Linda’s head hardcore Deep Throat nastiness, here, we’re talking the campy (but equally reprehensible (or is it? you leave that to the reader, kimosabee!)) oeuvre of Russ Meyer and his brethren. Interviews with the aging thick-eyeglassed silk-kimono-clad Hugh Hefner wannabe lotharios, and some of the now-grandmothers who shook their moneymakers in blockbusters like Thanks for The Mammaries. A portrait of Kitten growing up in the fifties. Pop-psych pointers to the so-obvious traumas that led her to a life in the softcore industry.
Then, the kicker. After decades of paying the bills with her breasts, she undergoes a double mastectomy for treatment of breast cancer in October 1999. The piece is about surviving breast cancer, you see, and now it becomes clear that we’re talking about more than just titty-films here. This is a piece about the equality of women, about empowerment, about not letting the bastards grind you down, about triumph in the face of adversity and sisterhood and all that good stuff! The crowd goes wild!
Finally, the oddball, unexpected clincher, of the sort that life provides to the observant, making truth once more (and by now it should be predictably) stranger than fiction : in 2001, two years after her double mastectomy, she reappears on the silver screen (or silver disc, probably) in The Double-D Avenger.
You close out the piece with a wry observation from Kitten herself on the curves that life throws you, and fade to textual black.
[lifted from d/blog]

You must not attempt this

As Kent recently intuited, I’ve been rereading Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher and Bach recently, in part in hopes that a rereading will illuminate corners that I missed the last time through, and in part because good books in English are very difficult to find here, and prohibitively expensive when I do find them. There are no libraries of which I am aware within a two hour radius of my home, and even if there were, they would not have any books in English. This situation is particularly unhappy because I am and always have been a voracious reader, getting through an average of two or more books a week. Needless to say the tomes that comprise the meager collection I brought with me when we moved here from Sydney are well-thumbed and dog-eared by now.
Bitch, moan.
Anyway, this anecdote from GEB struck me, and I thought I’d share it with you.
Johann Bolyai and Nikolay Lobachevskiy independantly and to all appearances simultaneously discovered non-Euclidean geometry in 1823. Euclidean geometry, of course, is based on five postulates, four elegant and one perhaps a little less so, and had stood proudly for about two thousand years.
The first four postulates :
(1) A straight line segment can be drawn joining any two points.
(2) Any straight line segment can be extended indefinitely in a straight line.
(3) Given any straight line segment, a circle can be drawn having the segment as radius and one end point as center.
(4) All right angles are congruent.
and the fifth, which lacks a little of the concision and elegance of the first four
(5) If two lines are drawn which intersect a third in such a way that the sum of the inner angles on one side is less than two right angles, then the two lines must inevitably intersect each other on that side if extended far enough.
Over the intervening centuries, dozens of attempts had been made to prove that the fifth postulate was in fact part of ‘four-postulate geometry’, all unsuccessful.
One of the people who had attempted to do so was Bolyai’s father, Wolfgang, who was also a mathematician and a friend of Gauss (who is part of Graham’s mathematical family tree, synchronicitously enough). The elder Bolyai wrote to his son, in an attempt to steer him from the black sinkhole of depair that was Euclid and the Mathematical Life :

You must not attempt this approach to parallels. I know this way to its very end. I have traversed this bottomless night, which extinguished all light and joy of my life. I entreat you, leave the science of parallels alone…I thought I would sacrifice myself for the sake of the truth. I was ready to become a martyr who would remove the flaw from geometry and return it purified to mankind. I acoomplished monstrous, enormous labors; my creations are far better than those of others and yet I have not achieved complete satisfaction. For here it is true that si paullum a summo discessit, vergit ad imum. I turned back when I saw that no man can reach the bottom of this night. I turned back unconsoled, pitying myself and all mankind…. I have travelled past all reefs of this infernal Dead Sea and have always come back with broken mast and torn sail. The ruin of my disposition and my fall date back to this time. I thoughtlessly risked my life and happiness – aut Caesat aut nihil.

This passage astonishes me. Even allowing for floweriness of language, that a man could so deeply feel his life ruined and wasted as a result chasing a mathematical proof somehow sets me back in my seat, a-wondering about how we have changed, or if indeed we have. It may not have a similar effect on you, and if not, I beg your indulgence.

Threadneedle Musings

I posted this over here a few days ago, to resounding silence, which could be due to the fact that a) it’s bollocks, b) no one cares, c) no one read it or d) a combination of the three. But since I’m nothing if not pigheaded, and it gelled a couple of things for me in my mind about both the questions of identity that were doing the rounds recently and the cross-blog conversations idea that I’ve gone on about before, I’m going to cross-post it here. Because I can, and because I like feedback, even though I am a little gunshy tiptoeing through the backdoor back into Smart Person Land. Still, forward!
I’d add to what Shelley and David have said about ThreadNeedle and blogs, just off the top of my head, my take on it : that in the online ‘asynchronous discussion communities’ that Dan mentioned below in /m106, you have represented yourself through the things you say and have said in that community. There may have been an additional body of work, but this was secondary to the text-representation of yourself that accreted, word by word, as a result of your participation. My personal example of this would be my participation at Metafilter over the last couple of years.
This is a trivial observation, I know. But your avatar was effectively yourself as you chose to represent yourself via your comments and conversations.
When we talk about a weblog, though, I think it’s profitable to talk about two separate entities created as an adjunct of our online presence, at least the one that derives from the weblog itself : the (for lack of a better word) publication and the person.
Now certainly, the ‘publication’ is a mirror, to whatever extent, of the person writing it. We see many weblogs that stop here at this point, that have no commenting systems enabled, or that pay little attention the ‘community’, that are traditional web logs (ie collections of links with minimal commentary) or diaries or photoblogs or warblogs or god knows what…but that are intended less as manifestations of the person behind them than publications about that person or their interests.
Another dimension, though, comes in with weblogs that have comment threads, that encourage and participate in conversations with other weblogs/webloggers. In this situation, the weblog not only becomes a publication about something (which might, in the case of more diarist-type blogs, be the person who is writing it) but a representation, an avatar of that person. The weblog itself becomes an active extension of the weblogger’s identity (I wish I’d thought about this during the recent conversations around the blogs about ‘identity’. Ah well.) The weblog is something that is carried with them (or is an extension of their identity online…? I’m not sure about this bit at all), and the cross-blog conversations that occur as a result of this, in posts and their comment threads, are in a way a new and larger version of the sort of discussion types we’re historically used to, that Dan mentioned in his earlier post. A version that carries a body of work, a more deliberate one, along with the community member.
Does this make sense? I’m riffing here, and I have to admit that I haven’t read David’s book yet, so the sort of thing I’m trying to get a handle on (and communicate at the same time) might be old news.
Anyway (*takes a breath*) – I see these weblogs, the blogs that are not only ‘publications’ about something but also representations of the personality behind the words (and are this way because the weblogger has comments threads and/or engages in cross-blog conversations in their main posts and/or blogrolls people (the use of the word ‘people’ here is deliberate) as an acknowledgment of community), avatars that engage in conversation, to be the audience at which Shelley‘s ThreadNeedle is aimed. And I think (hope) that the service might be a major step forward, if it reaches critical mass.
(Also, don’t forget to add your two bits to the conversation about Threadneedle still going on here.)


You’ve probably heard of Epimenides’ Paradox. Epimenides was a Cretan, and the paradox that bears his name goes like so :

“All Cretans are liars.”

Of course, if the statement is true, then Epimenides is a liar, and thus the statement is false. If it’s false…well you can see where that one’s going. The same paradox is manifest if you say “I am lying” or “This statement is false”.
This is simpleminded stuff, the kind of thing that was intellectually thrilling when we were ten years old. I know. The self-referential frisson. Bear with me.
Let’s stretch out old Epimenides a bit into something that’s also very familiar :

The following sentence is false.
The preceding sentence is true.

Taken separately, each of these sentences is perfectly fine, potentially useful, unremarkable. Taken as a unit, though, we’re back at the bar with old Epimenides, swilling wine and scratching at our verminous beards in bemusement, back in Paradox City, Arizona.
It would be possible, of course, to build a group of 3 or 4 or more sentences, each of which in isolation is perfectly acceptable, but which as a group leads us into botheration again. The way in which these sentences point to one another spawns the whirling core of chaos from which the paradox emerges. The way in which they refer to one another generates all the heat.
There’s a quote, or just a bit of homespun wisdom, I’m not sure which, that surfaces from time to time, one that I seem to recall deploying here sometime in the last year or so, in relation to something or other. It’s also something most of us have experienced at least once, which is why it’s juicy. It goes like so :

If you point at something, a dog will look at your finger, rather than the thing at which you’re pointing.

I used this, as I think most do, to poke fun at people who ‘can’t see the forest for the trees’ or ‘can’t see past their own noses’, or just to make myself feel clever. I don’t recall, exactly.
But I’ve been thinking this morning about Epimenides, and my growing dissatisfaction with a whole range of things in my life, and I realized that I’ve been completely wrong all this time.
You see, the dog is right.
It’s the act of pointing that deserves the attention. The actor, who by pointing, attaches significance to that at which he points. It’s the relationship between the pointer and the pointee, if you will, and the fact that the pointee is frequently pointing back – this is where the Good Stuff comes from.
Now that I’ve gotten out of the bathtub and written this down, I realize that what I’ve been saying here applies in good measure to this weblogging stuff as well.
I really was only thinking about my own life, as I tend to do. Your results may vary.