language

once more with neutrons

Here's another entry taken from the archives of my previous weblog, The Palinode, from the mists of 2003, when cars were powered by coal and the ipods were known as 'stereos'. The meds, they make sustained effort and concentration tough, so here you go.

Recently [or if you like, a long time ago] Mimi Smartypants pointed the way to Multibabel, a site that hijacks the good intentions of Babel Fish by translating a phrase back and forth from language to language, until the original English has been twisted into an unrecognizable syntactic shape. The translation daisy chain goes as follows: English-French, English-German, English-Italian, English-Portuguese, English-Spanish and back to English. Best of all, you can run the resultant phrase through the process again, like feeding mangled metal fragments into a broken machine. It's fun if you're wearing gloves.

Eventually the phrase will stabilize, achieving a consensus between languages. Unfortunately, the consensus does not lead towards universally agreed-upon sense, but towards a Point Of Mutually Assured Nonsense (POMAN). With extremely simple single-clause phrases it takes about three or four cycles (30-40 passes) to hit POMAN. Given something more complicated, when will POMAN be achieved? Because I am who I am, I tried out the gramatically ugly but chart-topping sentence "I'm just burning, doing the neutron dance" (see last entry). It produced unexpected results, which I've taken the time to track for you. Here are the highlights of 250 kicks at the Pointers Sisters can. I've omitted the translations into non-English languages, and wherever possible I've avoided linguistic explanations in favour of more imaginative ones.

1. (original) I'm just burning, doing the neutron dance.

3. (from French) I am burn right, making the dance of neutron.

Two translations in and already Babel Fish has made a conceptual error, confusing the English "just" (as in "only") with the French "juste" (as in "correct"). Babel Fish also neglected to properly translate the continuous form of "I'm... burning". It must be the "just" that's causing the problem, but already the notion of correctness has been introduced. Also, I'm no longer dancing but making a dance, which is, you know, kudos to me.

6. (from Italian) They are the right of the fire and I form the dance of the neutron.

Just a few translations and already things have gotten pretty hairy, not to mention a bit Fascist sounding. I've been taken off burning duty and assigned to a subcommittee charged with administering the neutrons. "They" are a group that somehow embodies the correctness or the claim to the liberty of fire, whereas I'm somewhere else taking care of the dancing neutron. Two passes later and the line reads "I give form to the dance of the neutron," which is even cooler. I picture myself in some kind of metaphysical conservatory, sculpting a dance in the studio for subatomic particles while fiery incarnations proclaim their rights in the lecture hall.

10. (from Spanish) The correct one of the fire and I give the form to the dance of the neutron.

The first translation cycle has been run through, and far from reaching POMAN, the results have produced an unexpected richness. One of the fire-rights creatures has been appointed to join me in directing the neutron dance. Am I jealous, aloof or standoffish? Of course not! I'm honoured to share choreography duties with the correct one of the fire.

16. (from Italian) The corrected one of the fire and of that it gives the shape for the dance of the neutron.

Well this sucks. Obviously something's gotten screwed up, because I've been kicked out of my position as co-choreographer and the fire guy is no longer "correct" but "corrected". Why? What mistake did it make? Was it a crime to fraternize with me? Those "right-of-the-fire" types are just jerks.

24. (from German) Behobenes fire and of this gives it the form for the dance of the neutron.

What? Who the hell is 'Behobenes' and what business does he have with our neutron dance? Where's the corrected one? Where am I? This is nothing but a corrupt bureaucracy at work.

26. (from Italian) The fire of Behobenes and this gives the shape to it for the dance of the neutron.

Whoah... fire of Behobenes. I've got to admit, that sounds kind of cool. I can see why they brought this Behobenes guy in.

30. (from Spanish) The fire of Behobenes and this one gives to the form he to him stops the dance of the neutron.

Oh, great. Thanks, Behobenes. Mad props to you and your fire. Don't come calling when you want your neutron dance started up again, because I was doing just fine. Just fine.

36. (from Italian) The fire of Behobenes and this of gives to the famous shape ch' to it the dance of the neutron.

At this point I'm not sure what's going on, but it looks like they're trying to fix the situation by bringing in the famous shape ch'. I've never heard of that particular shape, but I don't think it's wise to bring in a ringer and hope that all their problems will just go away. I don't care how famous ch' is. If you want a good dance, get a dancer, not a shape.

42. (from French) The fire of Behobenes and that of gives to the form celebrates CH ', this dances it neutron.

See, this is exactly what I feared. Everyone's capitulated to fame and started celebrating "CH '" instead of paying attention to what really matters. If I were on the job you'd get a first class neutron dance every time, not this ridiculous pandering to celebrity. Notice the capitalization now? Gimme a break.

50. (from Spanish) The fire of Behobenes and of gives the form commemorates the CH,', that to the neutron this one dances.

Total sellout. Let's all bow down to CH and forget about the neutrons. Let's just flock to the concerts and watch CH do a tribute dance to neutrons or something, while those hard-working little particles never even make an appearance. Also, notice that than an apostrophe gets its own clause. I think they've brought in a !Kung as a consultant. Well, good luck to them. I've started up an improv troupe with a handful of Higg's bosons and strange quarks.

how to sleep

Palinode's lecture on How To Sleep originally appeared in June 2003 in some old blog, with time off for good behaviour. Updated and reformatted, with a smart jacket and waxed moustache, for the volcano gods of NaBloPoMo.

If you've slept before this should be a nobrainer, but for those of you new to sleeping you will find this guide refreshing, helpful, endorsed by billions, good. First you need eyes. Find a pair of eyes. Any eyes will do. Good. Got your eyes? Get your mind from where you keep it: a picnic basket, a safety deposit box, a sock in the back of the drawer, thank you. You're welcome! Sleeping yet? No, not if you're paying attention. If you're sleeping now you're cheating and cheaters never wake up refreshed. Neither do drug users, unless the drugs are sleeping pills, but that's for later, that's for advanced sleeping. Remember: Winners don't experiment with advanced sleeping techniques. That's for later.

Next you need a mouth. Everybody has a mouth. If you don't have a mouth I can't help you, because there are no spare mouths left. If you have no mouth you cannot sleep. Don't complain to me. Now that you've got your eyes and your mind and your mouth you need to connect them, and that will take the necessary skills to buy wire. Go and learn how to buy wire now. Hardware stores have self-instructive behaviour sets that will teach you how to buy wire. Buy thin wire. Go now and take your money. I'll wait here. Waiting.

Okay. Connect your eyes, mind and mouth to a small generator. If you do not have a small generator then simply connect eyes and mouth to mind. For proper instructions on how to connect consult your dictionary. Here is a sample. The sample is both example and instruction. You haven't missed the sample; I'm just delaying it. I'm taking my time. Here is the sample:

con·nect v. con·nect·ed, con·nect·ing, con·nects
v. tr.
1. To join or fasten together.
2. To associate or consider as related ("no reason to connect the two events".)
3. To join to or by means of a communications circuit ("Please connect me to the number in San Diego";"Her computer is connected to the Internet".)
4. To plug in an electrical cord or device to an outlet.
[Middle English connecten, from Latin cnectere, connectere : c-, com-, com- + nectere, to bind; see ned- in Indo-European Roots.]
That was refeshing. By now you should have used the wire, the thin wire, to connect everything together. You now have the necessary components for a good night's sleep.

Oh yes, you also need night. If you do shift work you will sleep on the job. So don't sleep if you do shift work, because I will not be held responsible for your failed life and all the coworkers you kill when you fall asleep and let go of the girder or weld your buddies to a ship's hull or whatever. Let's get that straight. Go to work now and never sleep. Okay? Okay. Everybody left still with me? Okay. In order to sleep you must keep your eyes in the closed position and your mouth hanging open. Your mind controls the position of these switches. I lost the diagram but you get the idea. You have a mind now, so you get the idea.

Sleep and Wakeup are motivated by a change in state of the switches. But you don't know how the change in state is motivated. You don't know what's propulsive in this situation. What's propulsive in this situation is turkey. You need to eat a turkey to motivate the change in state from Wakeup to Sleep. In order to eat the turkey it must be dead. If the turkey is alive you must kill it first, and then you are a turkey murderer, but you live in a world of humans and you do not have to follow the rules of turkeys.

Thus, in the process of learning to sleep you understand the arbitrary nature of law. And thus you perceive that wisdom is a byproduct of of the collective human struggle to get some sleep. Is your turkey dead now? Good. Use the mouth. Have the mind instruct the mouth to eat. Use the eyes to locate the turkey for the mouth to eat and for the mind to be motivated to change its state. Turkey contains the amino acid tryptophan, an amino acid that produces niacin, a vitamin that promotes production of serotonin, a neurochemical that quiets turmoil and hurly-burly, but this sentence cannot be continued because hurly-burly does nothing further. Once there is no more hurly-burly the mind will switch states from Wakeup to Sleep, and that's how it's done.

'How to Sleep' is the first in a series of educational lectures from the Institute of How to Deliver Official Lectures. For a transcript of this lecture, please look at it again.

dictionary fixes

Although it's well known that I know every word worth knowing in the English language, it occurred to me that I may not know the words not worth knowing. That is, the worthless words. The following words are unnecessary and should be removed from the dictionary as soon as possible.

dictionary. How often do you use this word? How versatile is it? The only time you ever have call to say 'dictionary' is when you have to go use the dictionary. It's absolutely true - I can guarantee that you will never say the following phrases:

Hey baby, I've got an attractive antique dictionary.*
Don't bother with Wikipedia, we'll look it up in the dictionary.
Are you bleeding? Don't worry, we'll apply the dictionary.
Reese Witherspoon recently separated from her dictionary that ridiculous ponce.

From now on, when you need to use that book (see? It's a book. That's a nice short word.), just say, "I need to look that word up in this book. This... wordbook".

gouache. Why don't you know the meaning of this word? In the Oxford Wordbook, the entry reads as follows:

gouache(goo-osh). [Fr., ad. It. guazzo] Hah. Oh man. You actually looked this up, hey? We're caught. Hands down. We just made this up in like, 1550 or something. This book's full of made-up words. Like 'hobbit'. Please don't say anything.

elf. Not so much a word as a category that should be abolished and expunged from memory. Elf, Dwarf, Hobbit, Halfling, Orc, Ent, Uruk-buttfuck-hai. These words are heavy stones, hewn from the living rock of Balrogistan or whatever, that weigh down the souls of pre-teen boys.

matrix. In 1999, moviegoers wondered - What Is The Matrix? In 2003, The Matrix turned out to be a cruel joke on moviegoers. Not only did the Wachowskis introduce cheap post-structuralist philosophy and wire-fu to mainstream movies, they also polluted a serviceable word. Remember the good old days when The Matrix was a virtual world being fed to us by a race of machines using our slumbering bodies as a power source (somehow)? Those were good times. Simple times. Then it was a place where sentient software hid from The Source? And then it was - something else? And the whole thing ends with that smart-talking Colonel Sanders on a park bench? Why did I pay for that shit?

foodie. If we all hold hands, close our eyes and pray really hard, we can kick the hell out of anyone who self-describes with this word. We really can.

grille. So some people want to look like cars. So they have their mouths fitted with a crusty rack of metal. So they look like low-rent villains from your average post-apocalyptic eighties flick. Let them do what makes them happy. Just don't ever mention it.

*Actually, I have a kick-ass Compact OED with the magnifying glass in its sliding cardboard compartment, and I think I've impressed a few women with it. A few.

in that blissful state of pre-awareness

Of all the limp, meaning-free words that marketing has given us, 'pre-awareness' may be the lamest of all. It means so close to nothing in particular that it's barely there, like a flattened figure that vanishes when viewed sidelong.

Actually, 'pre-awareness does have a meaning, but I'm selfish and I dont want the word to exist. The term shows up in planning documents and is purported to mean 'background knowledge' in some contexts and 'a state preceding awareness of a given issue or phenomenon' in others, which would seem to be closer to the sense of the word. In Hollywood, it appears to mean the public's awareness of the characters or scenario of a film project. The easiest way for a project to have this valuable 'pre-awareness' is to make it a sequel. A remake. A bold reimagining. A crappy ripoff. Whatever. Anyone who goes to movies these days knows how prevalent this is. Of the ten movies playing at my nearest CosmiPlex Cinexperience right now, one is a TV remake, three are sequels, and the rest are stupid (actually, of the remaining movies, most are so generic that they're meant to remind people only of movies they've already paid good money to see - two are animated children's rip-offs, one a highschool comedy, and two others are mediocre comedies starring the Owen and Luke Wilson, respectively. The one original piece is by M. Night Shyamalan, which is what passes for auteur these days).

You know, that's a crap sample. Usually there are more remakes and sequels on the marquee. Anyway, it appears that we've lived so long now under these pre-aware circumstances that a new standard has been set. In today's Globe & Mail, an article on the lid-bangin' good box office returns on the Miami Vice movie featured the following snippet:

"It's what our expectations were," [Nikki Rocco, president of distribution at Universal Pictures] said. "We tried to do something different. There has been a lot of criticism regarding unoriginal product. We took a TV series and made it very different."


Okay then. Putting a different wardrobe on Crockett and Tubbs constitutes originality. Take away the Ferrari and the loafers, let a hyper-masculine Colin Farrell moustache his way through the script instead of pink-shirted Don Johnson, and wham! New product somehow! I think it's time we updated Gilligan's Island, with all the characters ridiculously hot, and a monster in the jungle and a hatch and - never mind. Some days I wish I were pre-aware.

*Note: Like everyone who keeps a weblog, I am a comment whore. But please don't write to point out that works of art always rip off earlier works, or that Shakespeare did it, or that Hollywood is simply giving people what they want. Because that? Argh and bored.

today's outstanding word

Okay, don't read this one. Skip to the next entry down.

Today's outstanding word comes from the 1971 OED: Immane, a rarely used word meaning "Monstrous in size or strength; huge, vast, enormous, tremendous" or "Monstrous in character; inhumanely cruel or savage". Sentences such as "The immane terrorists immanely displayed their immanity by running immane planes into immane buildings" successfully expoit the play of duality inherent in the term - how, for example, are the buildings and planes immane? Are they just big? Or savage somehow? Similarly, are the terrorists really cruel? Or are they an NBA team? Unrelated but adjacent to immane is immanacle: to handcuff; to fetter; to put manacles on. Sentences such as "Immanely the immane police immanacled the already immanacled immane main man Vern" successfully remind us that Rain Man possesses significant cultural force that even now, eighteen years after its release, we are still moved by the thought of main man Vern being doubly and immanely immanacled. We are also a little shocked by the prospect of Vern's immanity; is he huge or cruel? Surely Rain Man's Main Man can't be cruel or savage; maybe he's just a big guy. But you don't remember him being all that big - just his soothing presence, his kind smile and generosity with the high fives. Plus that double immanacalization - it seems a bit much to me.

Study section (5-10 points)

1. Why did I write this?

a) I am immane.
b) I am immane, but not in the same sense as a).
c) I am immane and immane, and I am ashamed of one sort of immanity but proud of the other, and I'm not telling you which.
d) I am wasting your time.
e) This is pretty edifying.