Friday, February 21, 2014

If You Aren't Interested In Language, Thou Wilt Not Enjoy This Joke

Is this the kind of thing that only I find funny?

Pronouns are surprisingly fundamental to most languages, but surprisingly quirky as well. For instance, in English both the first and third person pronouns have singular and plural forms (I and we, he/she/it and they), while the word you is both singular and plural. Of course, that wasn't always true. Originally, thou was the second person singular and ye was the second person plural (kind of like you and you all - more on that later). The word you was the oblique form of ye, similar to me or them. So one might say, "If thou singest to me, I will sing to thee," with one person, or, "If ye sing to me, I will sing to you," with a group.

Everyone was addressed with those pronouns, regardless of relationship or station. This is in contrast to Latin-based languages, in which there is a distinction between a familiar relationship and a formal relationship. This is referred to as the T-V Distinction by sociolinguists (all seven of them), based on the distinction between tu (a friend, close family member or inferior) and vos (someone to whom respect was due, whether as high as a king or as close as a father). For whatever reason (those crazy Romans), the word vos also served as the second person plural pronoun. So if one were wont to replace the second person pronouns in the example above: "If tu singest to me, I will sing to tu," with one friend, or, "If vos sing to me, I will sing to vos," with a group of friends... or with your boss.

Still with me? I realize it hasn't gotten funny yet.

Anyway, English had no such distinction until 1066 or so, after which the language was heavily influenced by that of the Norman conquerors. Having Latin roots, French also distinguished between T and V pronouns, and as in Latin the plural form was generally used to address a respected person. Since they were now the rulers of the English-speakers, they demanded to be addressed with respect, but even then it was impossible to get English-speakers to learn proper French ("Mon Dieu! An abomination to my ears!"). The best they could do was to claim the plural pronouns as their own; this is the origin of "the royal we". It is also where the usage of you becomes fodder for humor; while in a tavern one could hear, "Pierre, thou art a cheese-eating surrender monkey," at court it would more likely sound like, "Pierre, you are a brie aficionado who lulls us into a false sense of security in a simian fashion."

As time passed and society grew more polite, it became more and more common to address others with the respect formerly reserved for kings when speaking directly to them. Eventually, thou was reserved for very close friends, and to a stranger it could be considered insulting. This was the state of usage during Shakespeare's time, which makes me want to go back and re-read some Shakespeare to see which was chosen in various scenes. Of course, in modern common usage thou has almost entirely vanished, excepting religion, a few dialects and writing that is intentionally archaic.

Unfortunately, many of those writers are actually just comedians trying to make their late-night TV skit seem old-timey, and they liberally sprinkle thous all over the place in their confusion over its original usage. Because of the historical significance of royalty and the inherent comedic possibilities in conversation between people with diverse socioeconomic status, these archaic pronouns are certain to be used out of context.

Are you ready? This is where it gets funny... well, funny to me, at least.

I fell down that rabbit hold earlier (while wondering, for obscure reasons lost even to me, if, "Avast, ye scurvy dogs!" is grammatically correct - it is, by the way), and because I'm a grammar geek I found it fascinating. I wanted to drop the words into my vocabulary immediately, because in my opinion the addition of both a plural and an informal form of you would vastly increase the utility of pronouns. Of course, this led me to ponder how my friends would react if I started addressing them as thou, but the irony is that it would have the reverse of the intended effect. Due to centuries of religion, and decades of scullery maids in improv sketches addressing royalty as thou, it has come to seem more formal rather than less.

Of course, there is still hope. We do have our very own American-made second person plural pronoun, and while it may be too late to appropriate it for formal usage it would still work as an informal variant to replace thou. I guess I'll just have to get over my knee-jerk reaction to my redneck roots and start using y'all again. Y'all will understand what I mean, right?

Thursday, September 15, 2011


I wrote this for a Facebook group honoring the memory of my friend Scott, who died earlier this year. I'm transferring it here because it elicited a powerful response from a lot of people, and because I want to be able to find it again later when I need some reassurance.

Temple of Transition
Every year at Burning Man they build a giant wooden temple - this year, it was the largest temporary wooden structure in the world, or so I was told - and at the end of the week they burn it to ashes. Participants are encouraged to write on the walls throughout the week; sometimes these messages are spiritual in nature, but most often they are messages to the departed.

I'm not the most spiritual person, but I made the pilgrimage out to the temple in the middle of the Black Rock Desert this year. I scrawled a quick message to Scott on the bannister of the arch on the right of this picture. It was powerful, and somber, and sobering. I couldn't really talk about it for days afterwards.

On the way back from the temple, we were caught in a dust storm. It was the biggest we experienced all week: fifteen minutes of white-out conditions, sitting immobile in the middle of dessert, sand piling up in my ears. All I could think was, "I'm pretty sure even Scott would have been impressed."

We didn't stay to watch the temple burn; it's a long drive home, and I had to get back to work. I'm glad to know that it did, though. I guess I hope he got the message somehow, but I know it doesn't really matter. I can say that I'm glad I took the chance to send it. It's honestly the first time I've felt any peace while thinking about him.

Anyway, I figure even if he couldn't read the message, he sure would have been impressed by the fire.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Best Of The Decade

I spend too much time thinking about stuff. Pointless, meaningless stuff. Way too much time. Let me give you an example…

Sometime around Thanksgiving 2009, I spotted the first droplets heralding the deluge of "Best of the Decade" lists that was to come. I've always been fascinated by such lists, in particular the "Best X Songs of the Year/Decade/Millenium" lists that have been put together by Rolling Stone, Spin, Pitchfork, etc. I've always been something of a musical gourmand, and despite the arbitrary nature of picking a certain number of songs from within a certain time period, the mere fact that someone took the time to determine which songs were released during that period always left me both amused and amazed. Picking the top X favorites from within that time period struck me as the easiest part of the undertaking.

As much as I'd wanted to put together my own list, I had always been deterred by the mountain of research that stood between myself and the goal. Sometime in the last decade, however, a synergistic combination of iTunes, database technology and the internet have finally solved that problem for me. I had to spend a few hours populating the Year field in my iTunes library with the help of (currently the best discography source on the net, IMHO), but beyond that the heavy lifting all came down to decision-making. That's about when the hard work started.

Did I mention that I think too much about pointless, meaningless stuff? I did? Okay. As of December 1, 2009 I had all the data in front of me. I was resolved to complete the list by December 31, 2010 at 9pm so I could play it at our New Year's Eve party. By Christmas Day I had compiled a list of 350 candidates. And that's about when the hard work started.

I quickly decided to follow the Ancient Laws of Mix Tape Creation, which state clearly, “Yay though many songs by one band may express the feelings you wish to convey, still shall you use only one song, so that the listener may experience the maximum number of new artists. So mote it be.” Of course, picking the song which best represents Foo Fighters in the 21st century was not an easy matter, and I don't even want to think about how many times I listened to My Chemical Romance's “The Black Parade” trying to determine which song deserved inclusion, but in less than 24 hours I was down to only 250 tracks. I cut another 20 or so when I decided that cover versions simply confused the issue too much; I wasn't happy about the removal of “Comfortably Numb” by The Scissor Sisters, but it had to be done. And that's about when the hard work started.

What followed was five days of soul-searching, staring at my laptop, repeatedly listening to 30-second clips of songs, agonizingly editing and re-editing my spreadsheet, asking random passers-by if including Kanye West made me a bad person (I'm told that he's a gay fish), and just generally scratching my head wondering how I got myself into this. I had to kill bands I love. I cut Justin Timberlake, then brought sexy back... I dropped Snoop like he was hot, then picked him back up once I'd cooled off... I had 99 problems, and Jay-Z was one. But eventually, it was time; if it wasn't for the last minute, I'd never know when to finish anything. At 8pm on New Year's Eve, I finally settled on my list of the Best 100 Songs of the Decade.

And that's about when the hard work started.

On January 2, 2010, I discovered that one of the songs (“My Own Worst Enemy” by Lit) was actually released in 1999. After listening to the playlist alphabetically, I decided I just couldn't justify the exclusion of Blink 182 while Angels & Airwaves made the cut. I kicked myself back and forth before I replaced the incredibly popular “This Ain't A Scene...” by Fall Out Boy with the virtually unknown, but ultimately superior, “Hum Hallelujah” from the same album. I argued over whether I could forgive myself for allowing Coldplay in just because the album was produced by Brian Eno. And then came the issue of ordering. That's about when the hard work started.

Did I mention that I think too much about pointless, meaningless stuff? I did? Okay. You see, I loved listening to the list in shuffle mode, but I just couldn't put it in a definite order. I tried ranking the songs, listing them alphabetically and chronologically, breaking them up by genre... nothing seemed satisfying. Of course, it didn't matter to me, but I had promised to publish the list online, not to mention several people that wanted the list burned to audio CDs (seven discs in all), and I had to do something about the order.

It was my friend Mimi who eventually proposed the obvious solution to me. “If you like it on shuffle, why don't you just post it in a random order?” she asked. Hmm... well I suppose I could whip up a little JavaScript, but what about the CD's? “Just burn each person's copy in an order generated randomly uniquely for them,” she suggested. Hmm... neat! Why didn't I think of that?

And so, finally, here it is. If you're just viewing the list online and you don't like the order, hit refresh and it will change. If you're reading this through RSS and don't see the list at the end of the post, go view it on my actual blog; I have no confidence whatsoever that the JavaScript I wrote will actually execute in any sort of feed-reader. If you receive a data CD of MP3's from me (or if you download it, once I post the BitTorrent file), I may include a randomly ordered playlist, but I still recommend that you simply put your music player of choice on shuffle mode and let the electronics handle it for you. And if you receive (or burn) audio CDs, well, you're stuck with the order you get (unless you own a seven-disc changer, I suppose), but at least you'll know that it is unique to you.

I have a lot more to say on many of these songs, and a list of notes regarding why I included them, which I'll hopefully post once I've cleaned them up a bit. In general, my criteria for the list were that it be listenable, personal, cross-genre, exceptional, and finally that I wouldn't be embarrassed by it in 10 years. Of course, I expect disagreement on many of my selections, and I encourage comments about both the songs you think I unfairly passed over and the songs you think I'm an idiot for including. Dissent is educational, and while I don't guarantee that I'll change the list for you, I can't guarantee that I won't. In the end, this is the beauty of the internet; nothing is true, all is illusion, and any mistake can both be immediately corrected and never be erased.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Rock

I look back at who I was […] and it’s like, “Who are you?” … I recognize him like a stranger in a fog; no, he looks like an angry insomniac jogging in the middle of the street at 3:30am. It’s the mentality that doesn’t check out. Something was clearly wrong with me but my worldview didn’t permit me to see it. I wasn’t cracked-out, I was “working my ass off”. I wasn’t arrogant, I was “awesome”. I was peaking on a high I couldn’t imagine coming down from.

  —Jake Lodwick's Blog

As the days of unemployment tick past, I become more and more convinced that this description fits me, prior to the layoff, all too well. I was thoroughly convinced that I was accomplishing great things, both for myself and for the company. I worked long days, long weeks, long months; I sacrificed friends, family and free time. I did it all willingly, thinking I was actually moving forward. I added features, I fixed bugs, I structured the code, I improved performance. I was expanding my skills, building my resume, making up for lost time and earning more money than I'd ever thought possible.

"The rock is going to fall on us," he told the magistrate
"I believe that we can stop it, but the time is getting late.
You see, I've done all the research. My plans are all complete."
He was showing them contingencies when they showed him to the street.

  —"The Rock" by Harry Chapin

Of course I was enjoying myself. The constant mental challenges kept me so hyper-focused that I barely had time to notice stress, depression or illness. I felt nigh-invulnerable. I could accomplish anything, and they couldn't live without me.

I was high.

Now that I have nothing to do but sit around and think, I can see the problem with the mental frame in which I then existed. Four months later, I have nothing to show for all that effort but 25 lines on the first page of my resume. No money, no stock, no interviews and no respect. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, I accomplished nothing.

He went up on the mountain, beside the giant stone.
They knew he was insane, so they left him all alone.
He'd given up enlisting help, for there was no one else.
He spent his days devising ways to stop the rock himself.

One night while he was working, building bracers on the ledge,
The ground began to rumble, the rock trembled on the edge...

"The rock is gonna fall on us! Run or you'll all be crushed!"
And indeed the rock was moving, crumbling all the dust.
He ran under it with one last hope that he could add a prop,
And as he disappeared, the rock came to a stop.

The people ran into the street, but by then all was still.
The rock seemed where it always was, or where it always will be.
When someone asked where he had gone, they said, "Oh he was daft,
Who cares about that crazy fool," and then they'd start to laugh.

But high up on the mountain, when the wind is hitting it,
If you're watching very closely, the rock... slips... a little... bit.

  —"The Rock" by Harry Chapin

If I was supposed to learn a lesson from all this, I still haven't found it. Could I have done something different to keep my job? I have no idea. Is there some way I could have ensured my future employment? Um... like what? Would I do it all again in the same circumstances. Hmm... yeah, probably so.

As useless as it all was, I'm still proud of what I did. Not because of what I accomplished, but because I refused to give up. I'd rather give everything I have and fail then do a half-assed job and succeed. That may be short-sighted, but it beats hell out of losing what little self-respect I have. Was it worth it? Pfft. I'm not even sure I understand the question.

Slartibartfast: "Perhaps I'm old and tired, but I think that the chances of finding out what's actually going on are so absurdly remote that the only thing to do is to say, 'Hang the sense of it,' and keep yourself busy. I'd much rather be happy than right any day."
Arthur: "And are you?"
Slartibartfast: "Ah, no. (laughs) Well, that's where it all falls down, of course."

  —The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Monday, May 25, 2009

Declaration of Intent

A few weeks ago I completed an absolutely ruthless culling of my Google Reader subscribed feeds list; now following 82 feeds, down from a lifetime max of 803. Last weekend I caught up on the remaining 450+ unread items from the feeds that made the cut, mostly belonging to friends, coworkers, and local acquaintances. Earlier this week, I used Nest.Unclutterer to screen my follows and followers; yesterday I broke Twitter silence for the first time in six months. I've budgeted an hour a day to deal with my primary GMail account, all of which is currently directed towards an Inbox Zero system that works for me. I even dragged the Tumblr bookmarklet back onto the Firefox toolbar so I could post some links and ditch the associated emails once and for all.

Consider yourself warned, internet. I've spent too long staring at source code, letting your pathways become overgrown while a feral glint creeps into the eyes of your denizens. Perhaps my metaphors have even become brittle and strained, with descriptions both baroque and byzantine.

I had a nice little online life set up for myself once upon a time, but I let it all slip away while in the grip of a horrible addiction to work. I'm not going to claim that I no longer have a problem; I expect I'll be fighting this particular addiction for the rest of my life. (Like my oxygen addiction, it can be dangerous to avoid the source of the dependency too completely.) I'm still having difficulty making the tough decisions that must be made on the way to Inbox Zero, and I can't even think about Facebook without pangs of guilt for the messages from old friends and high school classmates that remain unanswered. Every site I have needs a facelift, or at least some botox for the CSS. I have an entire Google Notebook specifically for sites and projects I'm unlikely to ever reclaim.

I'm not going to let it overwhelm me any more, though. I'm taking it back ("Net Monkey 4 Life?") one site at a time. We will fight them in the feed readers! We will fight them in the social networks! We will fight them in the blogs and sharing sites. Let the cry be, "No surrender!"

Or, um, something like that. We now return you to your regularly scheduled lack of programming, already in progress.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

We've Got Nothing Better To Do...

Shooting the picture myself from the other side does little to disguise the fact that I spend far too much time sitting in this same chair, in front of the same notebook, with the same things on TV night after night. However, like drinking, spelunking and philosophical conversations, it's really only troublesome from a behavioral psychology perspective if one does it alone.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


I feel a bit ridiculous posting this late, but I couldn't get to sleep feeling like I'd already given up. The picture kind of mirrors the way I feel about this project at the moment... no pun intended, of course. So far I'm not thrilled with the results. It's self-reflective, sure, but it's off-center, out of focus and ultimately the only thing that matters seems to be the camera. Hell, I can't even look myself in the eye. I feel as if I'm standing next to the shower curain of pointlessness.

Er, sorry. Metaphors seem stretchier at this time of night. I didn't mean to break it, really. It was an accident. Jeez. Forget it, I'm going to bed.