Friday, May 30, 2008

Poetry as Math -- Sines, Cosines and Tangents Included

I wanted to elaborate on my post from the other day about math and language. Re-reading it, I realized I didn't talk much about how they are similar, but more about how the two disciplines (math and writing) have different expectations.


What first reminded me of the similarity were some short poems I wrote last semester. Coaxing my thoughts into tight lines and short words, and wrangling those tight lines and short words into a form, felt like my days of stuggling with trigonometry in my senior year of high school. My soul-wrenching fight against unneeded words was reminiscent of my brain-wrenching fight against all those extra numbers that I could never seem to get to go away. It was one of the most exhausting experiences I've had.

When I looked at my completed poems, the brief, rectangular forms that barely spanned the width of a page margin felt like the little compact squares of "sincostan" sitting on a line, on top of some other combination of "sincostan," running down the page (or pages) as I vainly attempted to simlify the form or to solve for x. The satisfaction of "solving" the poems was as great as my satisfaction with solving those equations. Perhaps greater, because I knew my answers, the finished poems, were "correct." The deep seated fear of simplicity must have held on a bit, however, because it was with bated breath that I picked up my graded poetry portfolio on the last day of the semester.

Defining (and Proving) a Sestina

I want to thank my extremely intelligent friend Henry for finding this sestina about math. Actually it's more like a sestina about the mathematical qualities of sestinas. There is an undocumented (?) theory that the sestina's form came from a spiral graph, but that may be hooey.

Unfortunately this poem doesn't fully satisfy my curiosity about what's been done to explore the math/poetry connection. It was obviously written by a math major; it's on the math department's pages, and the language doesn't do anything poetic except match the form's requirements. Kudos to Caleb for being interested enough to undertake a poem. His use of "Definition," "Proof," etc. in the margin is ingenious. Here it is:

S{e,s,t,i,n,a} by Caleb Emmons

Sets of Words and Numbers

Is Caleb Emmons saying something about set theory with the formatting of the title of his sestina? There's a whole new can of worms for the language/math comparison. Words fit into sets as much as numbers. As a wordsmith I would argue that words are harder to categorize because they can be grouped by meaning, by origin, by sounds, etc. and all these methods would produce very different sets. But a math major may argue that numbers have just as many shades of meaning as words and can be defined in as many ways as language can be defined!

Of course, I will have to come back to this.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Language as Math -- Tangents Included

I recently watched the movie Proof and it made me want to write. In the film, Anthony Hopkins, having given up eating young women, spent hours a day filling notebooks with mathematical gibberish. A "graphomaniac" they called him. I have bouts of graphomania, especially when traveling. I have notebooks full of airport observations, risque thoughts that pop up while supping at unfamiliar sidewalk cafes, and bedtime musings from the comfort (or discomfort) of strange beds.

The film also made me think about poetry, which is essentially language math. So is any kind of writing where words are attacked like problems and functions that need to be solved or plugged in at the right point in the text. The elegance of a proof is a virtue, as is elegance in writing.

However, writers of complex sentences who fail to spare their audience multiple clauses and multi-syllabic words that may or may not be in the abridged dictionary would probably argue that elegance in writing does not depend on clarity or simplicity. Literary critics, which are the focus of my summer reading, are the best example of elegance in its hardest-to-read form.

In math, clarity and simplicity are requirements. Being simplified, having both sides balance, making all signs pointing to ONE single solution - all these things are necessary in math. But in language, ambiguity and complexity in some cases can add to the elegance of a sentence rather than distract from it, or make it somehow "incorrect."

In fact, some thinkers like Barthes and Lacan would say that extremely clear language must have an agenda -- that it is the "language of persuasion and autocracy." Ambiguity lets the reader work with the author to uncover meaning instead of the author merely "handing down to us from on high his firm doctrine."

Despite the looser rules of language, I believe math and language are still analogous. Although, I imagine mathematicians who drool over the plainness, clarity, and certainty of their art would not like it to be compared to the art of writing. There may still be some math geniuses who are more interested in math for the fun of it, or in theories about math, and who would enjoy such a comparison.

Um, OK. Did we need to prove that?
From Russell and Whitehead's Principia

We writers and other humanities sorts are fully expected to look in enviously and respectfully on the world of math and marvel at their solutions. In films they are depicted as heroes standing at huge white boards or chalk boards drawing alien symbols in montage, as they rush to solve the big problems of the universe. The writer is not a hero -- he is a tortured and failed genius, an emotionally disturbed slacker. I do not think the math bunch are as expected to marvel at our verbal acrobatics or our insights into humanity as we writers are at their curly Greek letters and their associations with the cutting edge of everything.

Math is not superior to the humanities and other arts. Maybe only in its superlative abstraction. But some linguists would argue that language is equally abstract.

Don't get me wrong! I like math. Hey, I was student of the month (twice!) in tenth grade geometry. But once I got to college algebra I began to struggle, loved trig, but hit my wall at calculus. If I were better at math (the SAT shows I'm painfully average at the 55th percentile) I might write volumes on this subject, that is if I could find a way to make a valid comparison. I'll have to find a math genius who appreciates words, and see what he or she thinks of all this.

I hit my math peak at fifteen.

The phrases quoted on the virtues of complex language and the vices of clarity are from the introduction to Structuralism and Since, ed. John Sturrock, 1979, Oxford Press.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

On the Platform

A freight train came by -- short but tall. Pacer Stacktrain containers up to the sky. I felt my eyes widen themselves at the approach of the roaring grey engines and I wondered at their low diesel vibrations that reached down into my ribs, shaking every one with a different timbre like my chest was a makeshift xylophone.

Then the river of containers came. "Intermodal transport" they call it. I remembered explaining it to my son, Mikey, as he played with his wooden train set, complete with loading crane, barge, semi-truck, and yes, Pacer Stacktrains about the size of dominos. I always explain things more exhaustively than he cares to hear. It's my tactic to prevent an endless succession of "Why?" "Why?" "Why?" Midway through the lecture on shipping yards and containers, he had told me to stop talking.

I stepped closer to the edge of the platform, gazing at the tops of the moving cars, embracing the faint possibility that one of those fitted containers may come tumbling from its lofty riding place, and take out not only me but a good chunk of the station in its exciting descent. Things always look smaller when they're moving.

If Mikey were there I would have had to "hold him from the loud noises." I chuckled at this, and swayed a little in my stance. The yellow bumps on the painted platform fit nicely into the tred of my shoes, and I steadied myself as the single stacks gave way to more doubles. The whoosh of hot air that accompanied them flecked my face with warm bits of debris. I held my breath and watched the end of the train whip by. No caboose or any other kind of "finale" car like in the heyday of the train. The starkness of the empty space over the tracks after a train's exit is always more surprising than its deafening approach.

Somehow all this made me think of was how Mikey's opportunities are as enormous as this train, and its straining, uninterrupted journey is his time on earth, and the hugeness of it all made for a good feeling.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Me and the Modern Language Association

A nebula and protostars -- Easier to understand than APA.

Me and the MLA are buds. Well, it's more of a one-sided relationship. I take shelter from APA style writing by dropping MLA's name as often as possible when I'm out of my element in a science classroom. Despite my heroic (for me) math journey in astronomy class last year, at the end of which I was able to calculate apparent brightness and magnitude with the best of them, I still took home a B. Turns out my own apparent brightness was dimmed by my inability to conform to APA on the final paper. The same goes for my natural science requirements -- big fat Bs in both. I am "too argumentative." But I won't get into that today.

Instead I wanted to post a link to an interesting column on the MLA site, by the president of the MLA, Gerald Graff. The article is about how first year composition is being compromised. In universities freshmen comp. (or just "comp" as most call it) is almost always taught by assistants or grad students, depending on the size of the school. There is a "two-track" system as Mr. Graff calls it, by which literature and the other humanities have been isolated from the courses that actually teach students how to complete their work in these disciplines.

Here it is: Bringing Writing In from the Cold

A few weeks ago I went to see my honors program advisor about grad school - I had no idea where to start and needed help. I noticed "comp" was on his schedule (the profs all post their schedules on the office doors). At first I offered my condolences that he had to teach "that" class, but by the end of our conversation I had a new respect for him and a different outlook. He is the head of the English department, and he teaches freshman comp. As did my creative writing teacher last semester, who is also a veteran. Granted, my school is very small (less than 2000 students) but it seems like they are doing something right. At least Gerald Graff would think so.

Anyhow, I hadn't been to the MLA site in a while and I was pleased to find excellent writing and interesting topics, and no strict adherence to a sixth grade writing level (the standard for the web). I copy write for the web at work, and I have to use every last Flesch-Kincaid tool to get my articles down to tenth grade level . . . I can't seem to get past the brick wall of tenth grade! Graff throws caution to the wind - he uses "solipsistic" and "obfuscation" like "bread" and "butter." My little trip into language land was refreshing. Now I think I might finally sign up for that MLA student membership I've been talking about since my freshman year.

Friday, May 23, 2008

In Memorium

In memory of my latest Moleskine, which has taken a back seat to this budding blog, I have transcribed an old leather-bound entry today. Actually, I'm just lazy because it's a holiday weekend.

"I was pondering writing last night and my mind was creating some incredible prose despite the lack of a writing implement or substrate in any tangible form. I thought about how I love to compose, and even though I can do so in my head quite successfully sometimes -- I've written many an essay in the shower on the morning it was due -- it does not provide the same satisfaction for me as physically recording the thoughts, either for posterity or for my own future embarrassment.

"I like to look back at the words as I write them, and get instantly inspired by the flow before the ink has even dried. One can only hold so many thoughts at once, especially if one wishes to lay them out and look at them. The paper looks back, but the active mind with no page to sully does not look back on itself, at least not efficiently.

"My airport writing is my best. I care not to speculate on why. It just is. I don't say much with the words I pen at airports, but I always manage to manipulate the language in new ways (new to me) and find the energy at a steady flow.

"A film-maker friend of mine carries his Moleskine everywhere. He stops mid-sentence to record thoughts that hit him like mosquito bites. Instead of slapping himself, his hand slaps down on the leather journal, waiting on the bar or the dinner table for its owner to get bit. Do the thoughts have to do with the conversation? Or are they just intruding, unrelated thoughts about his work or about life? Is he thinking about his words tucked away in the journal while pretending to have a conversation?

"As a woman I don't know if the Moleskine and I could have such an exclusive relationship. A certain amount of cordiality is expected of me in social settings. Young, dark men with wild hair and wilder eyes are expected to punctuate their social outings with creative burps. I feel I am not allowed such a public display of indulgence. The Moleskine and I will keep our private lives private. But I still like being seen with it."

--from the archives, sometime in 2006

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Smart. Sexy. Simple. Solutions.

I can't stand modern advertising-speak. Advertising has muddled the meaning of once weighty words like "sexy" and nearly erased the true meaning of important everyday words like "solution."

There have been volumes written (well, at least an article and a book chapter or two) on the modern abuse of the word "simple." To sum it up (or to put it simply), the word gets applied to things that really don't simplify anything. Real Simple magazine is a frequently used example of promised simplicity that turns out to be selling all the same gadgets, cosmetics, and money spending lifestyles as Cosmo or Better Homes and Gardens. I think you can find plenty on this in the book Paradox of Choice, by Barry Schwarz.

The possible uses and meanings of word "sexy" are complicated and tricky. I am glad that it can be used in a looser fashion than say, forty years ago (was it even a word then?), because if you take it literally it woud mean "like sex." And that's just a little too intense for everyday use. So it's come to mean a sophisicated kind of "cool" or an edgy kind of "sensual." It's even come to mean "something that piques people's interest." I think I am okay with that. So I guess I am only complaining about it because it's overused rather than misused. I'm afraid we'll get to the point where newcasters and blenders are considered as sexy as cars and bras.

"Smart" causes me more anguish than "sexy." Everything is smart today, except for maybe the people that buy the smart things. Do they need a smart car, printer, camera, phone, water, whatever because they aren't very smart themselves? Or are the products called smart because they're for smart consumers? We can't be sure. Advertisers offer the smart consumer a backhanded compliment. I think I might actually try the "SmarteCarte" at the airpoirt if it didn't claim to be so smart, while misspelling its own name. The big problem here is almost none of the things we describe as smart actually have any intelligence. They have simple computers or mechanisms that are nothing near being "AI," and they were designed by human beings (except for the smart water). They should be named after the person who made them, or named after what they do. They are objects after all. They should learn their place.

Finally the most anguishing of all the words mentioned in the title is "solutions." Unless you have just solve a math problem or some other query or riddle, I never want to hear or see this word again. It has gotten wrapped up in the sick world of corporate-speak, and everyone who offers any service of any kind has the "solution." To what? The "I need some envelopes" problem? It's not really a problem. It's a circumstance or a need, that gets taken care of on a regular basis by a company that provides a service. What happened to "service"? Or "product"?

Ack! It's a double whammy!

"We offer a complete solution driven approach" -- In other words, we do the service the name of our business suggests we do? This is "solutions" as word fluff. The sentence doesn't really say anything.

"Uncompromised Check Solutions" -- In other words, safer checks? This is "solutions" trying to sound fancy or professional.


On another note, you'll notice the overuse of periods in my title. This is my last gripe for the day: Single. Words. Do. Not. Need. Periods. This kind of slogan or tagline writing just goes to show the lack of creativity and intelligence on the part of the copywriters and advertisers involved.

There's kind of an unwritten rule that signs and slogans don't need proper punctuation, which is okay with me. Signs and slogans usually use sentence fragments, so they can just leave them open, or end with an exclamation. "Inquire Within" and "BIG SALE" don't need periods. Adding periods to phrases like these is slightly obnoxious, but usually not that noticeable.

However, when all a firm can think up is three words (it's always three words) that describe their client's company or product (or solution!), and they make no attempt to construct a short effective sentence using those words, they fail miserably. Then we get overused words, overpunctuated.

Last week I had a bottle of water that said "Replenish. Rehydrate. Refresh." Thanks for the tips. Or are they commands?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Listen to the Lyrics

This morning as I rocked out to Joe Cocker and his lovely backup singers doing "Feelin' Alright" I was reminded of a dastardly (or at least irresponsible) practice. I'm talking about advertising companies destroying the meaning of songs by removing them from their contexts, placing them all over television and radio, and using them to sell jeans and computers and plasma TVs.

Ok I know song lyrics aren't exactly literary, but there are some damn good lyric writers out there. And when you pair good lyrics with soulful tunes, you get that combination of head and heart that makes just about everyone in their right mind like music. That said, I find myself infuriated by the commercial use of songs to advertise products and ideals that have no relevance to the meaning of the song.

"Feelin' Alright" -- A Chicago area medical group created a series of radio ads that use their own recording of the song. They took out the "You're" which comes before the "feelin' alright" and they just sing "feelin' alright." I guess they didn't want to go as far as changing it to "I'm feelin' alright." The commercial talks about how the great medical care enhances patients' "wellness." The song is actually about feeling crappy. A guy is sitting at home thinking about missed opportunities in his love live, while his former lover lives it up. Hence, "You're feelin' alright -- I'm not feelin' too good myself."

Leave Out the Politics

By far the most infuriating abuse of songs happens when war-protest, anti-government, or any other type of song that takes up a 1960s kind of cause is used to suggest patriotism and Americana! This flows over onto radio stations actually playing the songs thinking they're patriotic. At a Fourth of July picnic I overheard a country-ish station play both "Fortunate Son" and "Keep on Rockin' in the Free World."

"Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival -- This song is a war protest song. The lyrics "Some folks are born made to wave the flag -- Oooh that red white and blue..." are most often taken out of context, and dubbed over an image of the American flag. One commercial from a few years ago shows teens in GAP jeans jumping out from behind an American flag and rocking out to Creedence. How is it that such blatantly ironic lyrics don't set off anyone's political correctness alarms? Not that I'm into political correctness, I just don't believe that these advertisers would use the kinds of songs they use if they sat down and listened to them all the way through. I highly doubt that GAP Jeans was trying to protest anything.

"Keep on Rockin' in the Free World" by Neil Young -- This is just an "anti-shitty-things-happening-in-America" song. Neil (my friends and I call him by his first name as we've had a big crush on him for awhile) straddles the line between folk and rock, and many of his songs are not exactly advertising friendly. He is a "causes" guy. That's why we love him. I really can't remember what the commercial was where I heard this song, but I know they just used the title lyrics, which actually sound very optimistic if you take them out of context. "Keep on Rockin' in the Free World" could suggest, "Keep your chin up, roll with the punches, 'cause we live in a great free land." But that is not at all what it's about. This song has everything from a girl putting her newborn baby in a garbage can to a cry for help for homeless people to, of course, a war protest. Advertisers, back off! I don't think there's any way you can save this one and turn it around to represent happy suburbanites getting a free coffee or something.

The Exception

Finally, there is the less abusive brand of rock music in advertising that doesn't piss me off so much, but it still irks me because it's effective and makes me want to buy crap. Songs that are about nonsense rock subjects like hot chicks or dresing up to go out, etc (typical tasteless rock fodder) are good for commercials, because they aim at the right age bracket -- the newly successful baby boomers. Another advantage of using radio-friendly rock music is the advertisers have a huge wealth of songs to draw on that already have built in taglines. The monkeys don't even need to think up their own slogans!

These guys could sell me anything.

Boston's "Peace of Mind" says it all for the indestructible computer, AC/DC's "Back in Black" gracefully touts the simplicity and sex appeal of the black Razor phone (it made me buy one -- crap!), and the Cars' "Just What I Needed" sums up what the fat guy on the couch in the Circuit City commercial really does need - a plasma TV - if he wishes to keep his current body type. The jury is still out on whether I can tolerate Electric Light Orchestra's "Hold On Tight To Your Dream" in a Honda commercial. I mean, they sing in French in that song! Too fancy for advertising.

Like any kind of art that was not originally intended to be commercial, I don't think angry, artsy, or politically charged rock lyrics should be taken out of context and used to sell things. As for the light-hearted songs that sell phones and cars, well, I guess they make the commercial breaks seem shorter.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Birth of a Blog

It took me a long time to even consider jumping into the world of "Web 2.0." I am a writer, almost compulsively sometimes, but my materials have always been pens and spiral notebooks, moleskines, or even the margins of a catalog when I run out of lined paper. So here I am, backlit for the first time, and on display.

This blog is not intended to be scholarly in any way. In fact I don't outline, draft, or revise any of my entries (except this one, which changes as the blog changes). So there may be incomplete thoughts, poor typing, and even contradictions within an entry. I am using it for practice.

The topics I write on are still somewhat disjointed, but I'd like to think that they are all in some format or include enough information and insight that they could each be an article in a magazine. Different magazines for different entries of course. But that is my goal for now. To create article-quality writing or better, to get myself into a constant writing mode, and to throw out and write about ideas I'd like to explore for my thesis. I hope at some point this can be something of a portfolio.

At some point.