Archive for the ‘language’ Tag

This is your senator on Twitter

In a column last weekend Matt Bai argued that Capitol Hill’s growing infatuation with the micro-blogging service is the last thing D.C. needs. His analysis in terms of the political culture is persuasive. But poke around on a few politicians’ Twitter pages and there’s a simple reason the trend deserves to be voted down posthaste: Washington’s minute-by-minute musings are, for the most part, epically dull.

mccaskill mccain issa twitterbird palin

A universe more than 140 characters has been typed about the greater Twitter phenomenon. At this late date the triviality of bazillions of “tweets” is no secret. But additionally there’s even something micro-insulting about the daily minutiae dispatched by elected officials. It purports to be about transparency, or even intimacy, but essentially it’s a ceaseless stream of micro-campaigning. Even if it’s utterly uninteresting:

Sen. Chris Dodd:
Holding an Executive Session in the Banking Committee to vote on a few HUD, Treasury, and Export-Import Bank nominations.
7:17 AM Apr 28th from txt

Sen. Chuck Grassley:
4hr healthcare mtg turned into 6 hr mtg. Took up all day. Watch my cable show tonight on mediacom. 630pm CST. U can ask questions.
3:50 PM Apr 29th from txt

Rep. Steve Israel:
Heading to DC. This week’s legislative schedule: hate crimes bill and credit card consumer protections.
12:17 PM Apr 27th from twitterrific

Rep. Darrell Issa:
On the way home to San Diego sunshine (fingers crossed…but we need the rain!)
about 3 hours ago from TweetDeck

As a member of the opposition party, at least Issa is willing to add a tad of zing:
Had fun watching the staff photoshop. Let’s just say Obama could’ve saved us a cool million using that instead of buzzing manhattan in AF1!
2:42 PM Apr 28th from TweetDeck

There is indeed a certain awkwardness to some of it given the pretense of informal and personal. See John McCain, in an oddly self-aggrandizing moment:
Sec. Napolitano confirmed Swine Flu has spread to 4 new states including AZ. I call on the Admin to do more to prevent further outbreaks!
08:42 AM Apr 29

Of course, staffers are probably behind much of the messaging. Though apparently not in Claire McCaskill’s case:
I have strict policy. I write every tweet and tumblr blog. These are my thoughts and my words. Really. For good or for bad……
5:06 AM Apr 28th from web

For good or for bad, or, as Bai noted, for her fast food faves:
I get old style crunchy taco, and a chicken burrito supreme & Diet Coke at Taco Bell. Miss those tostados.
2:06 PM Mar 12th from web

snoopIt seems Twitter functions much more effectively as a portal into the world of celebrity entertainment. There must be a good reason that CNN is locked in a popularity showdown with Ashton Kutcher. Or that Snoop Dogg has 195,862 followers:

been 4 dayz since been of here. Happy 420 ma twizzles may all your smokn dreams come true!! yeezzzziiirr!!
1:25 PM Apr 20th from web

Fa shizzle.

At times Twitter has proven strikingly useful as a tool for disseminating information; its profile shot up per a role in covering major news events such as when terrorists struck in Mumbai and when a jetliner ditched into the Hudson River. As an additional tool for journalists — or for anyone seeking to report or share information quickly — its potential is undeniable.

If you’re at a loss, though, to find much that’s culturally meaningful about the Tweet-geist at this point — I confess that I am, still preferring my short-form poetry on the page or in person — New York Magazine appears eager to help with its freshly posted Twitter Approval Matrix. Apparently not many pols have made the cut. Meanwhile, you’d think that someone commanding as much attention as Sarah Palin — who just jumped into the Twitter fray this week — might give the lot a boost. As of this post, her first six tweets aren’t even interestingly banal enough to quote.

You can find your favorite lawmaker’s latest by way of Tweet Congress.
Don’t all click at once.

Google, Kindle and The Library of Babel

Technological innovation seems almost strangely commonplace these days, from say, contact lenses that could layer data directly onto your view of the world to robots fighting far-flung wars to computer systems perhaps smart enough to compete on “Jeopardy!” All astonishing developments in their own right, and yet the most profound change of our times may yet be purely informative in nature: The digitization of all that we read.

At the University of San Francisco on Sunday I participated in a symposium on “Life after the MFA” for students graduating the writing program. Unsurprisingly, the technological upending of books, magazines and newspapers was a particular focus. Fellow panelist Patrick Dunagan, a poet who works as a specialist at the USF library, spoke with some alarm about the rate at which books and print periodicals there are going the way of the dodo. The idea is that many are being replaced digitally. I expressed a bit of surprise to him about this afterward, whereby he asked me when I last conducted any research in a library. Point taken. If only Borges were still hanging around and could rejoin the discussion.


One theme I hoped to suggest in my part of the talk was that print vs. digital isn’t a zero-sum equation. We can still love books and newspapers while getting charged about the possibilities of digital publishing. In many ways the latter remains a Wild West — and without a doubt has blown holes in some old ways of doing business. But in my view the rising digital infosphere is far more expansive and generative than it is destructive.

In a recent essay published in the Wall Street Journal, author Steven Johnson explores both the thrill and potential chill of electronic books, a fast-growing realm thanks to Amazon’s innovative e-book reader, the Kindle, and Google’s Book Search service, home to approximately 10 million scanned titles and counting. One exciting aspect Johnson flags with regard to ideas and research:

Before too long, you’ll be able to create a kind of shadow version of your entire library, including every book you’ve ever read — as a child, as a teenager, as a college student, as an adult. Every word in that library will be searchable. It is hard to overstate the impact that this kind of shift will have on scholarship. Entirely new forms of discovery will be possible. Imagine a software tool that scans through the bibliographies of the 20 books you’ve read on a specific topic, and comes up with the most-cited work in those bibliographies that you haven’t encountered yet.

But there will be pitfalls, too, especially with respect to evolving market forces. The all-powerful search engine that is Google, and the ways in which it guides users to digital content of all sorts, could impact how books actually get written:

Writers and publishers will begin to think about how individual pages or chapters might rank in Google’s results, crafting sections explicitly in the hopes that they will draw in that steady stream of search visitors.

Individual paragraphs will be accompanied by descriptive tags to orient potential searchers; chapter titles will be tested to determine how well they rank. Just as Web sites try to adjust their content to move as high as possible on the Google search results, so will authors and publishers try to adjust their books to move up the list.

What will this mean for the books themselves? Perhaps nothing more than a few strategically placed words or paragraphs. Perhaps entire books written with search engines in mind. We’ll have to see.

A strength of Johnson’s essay is that he doesn’t pass judgment on these possibilities; he concentrates on laying out in lucid terms what he sees coming. (Another recent piece of his, on how the web’s information ecosystem changes how we get our news, is also well worth reading.)

The latter segment above, under the subhead “Writing for Google,” got me thinking about a worn adage heard in MFA programs everywhere: “Write what you know.” If that advice translates fundamentally to writing from a place of experience and passion, it could take on fresh meaning in the digital future — when the suggestion to “Write what you can search engine optimize” may well become a growing temptation.

UPDATE: Some wonder if Google already has too much sway with its Book Search service, including the U.S. Department of Justice.

This is David Foster Wallace

On Tuesday, Little, Brown and Company publishes a book version of “This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life,” the celebrated commencement speech David Foster Wallace gave to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College. The pocket-sized book breaks up the nearly 4,000-word speech into digestible pieces on the page, some as brief as a single phrase. It’s an intriguing approach: In one sense, practical to publishing the essay in book form while drawing out its epigrammatic layers. At the same time, it seems rather un-DFW — contrary to the hyper-digressive, cascading prose for which he is so well-known.

Wallace giving a reading in 2006 in San Francisco. (Wikimedia Commons.)

Wallace giving a reading in 2006 in San Francisco. (Wikimedia Commons.)

Whether Wallace would approve of the presentation we probably can’t know. But it highlights a radiant directness that was often in danger of obscuring beneath his towering intellect. (It’s worth noting that there are some subtle differences to be found in other versions of the commencement speech floating out there; I contacted the publisher seeking clarification on how the text was prepared, but a publicist responded that Wallace’s longtime editor, Michael Pietsch, was declining to be interviewed about the book.)

Wallace’s focus was on the far from easy task of living life consciously in the adult world. He begins with a “didactic little parable-ish story,” as he puts it, about young fish who are oblivious to the environs through which they swim. More than just challenging the conventions of the commencement genre, Wallace makes use of them with a fierce sincerity: “I submit that this is what the real, no-bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.”

Segments like these carry an added poignancy in the wake of Wallace’s death by suicide last fall at the age of 46. Rather than a matter of morality or religion or the afterlife, he went on to tell the young graduates, “the capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to thirty, or maybe even fifty, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head.”

More striking, though, is his evocative insight and humor. If the students really do learn how to think and pay attention in life, he tells them, “It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars — compassion, love, the subsurface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it.”

The pleasure of experiencing Wallace’s speech again underscored a realization I had when reading D.T. Max’s lengthy look back at Wallace’s life: The world deserves a published collection of David Foster Wallace’s correspondences, too. Various bits of it appearing in the recent New Yorker article — with fellow writer Jonathan Franzen, his literary agent Bonnie Nadell and others — cast additional light on Wallace’s humanity and highly emotive lexicon.

While I’ve admired some of his fiction, I’ve always thought Wallace was at his best with essays and literary journalism; as I wrote about here recently, gems found in his private correspondences show how the epistolary form (actual letters as well as email) brought out a more direct spirit of his, too.

The back cover of “This Is Water” asserts that the essay was Wallace’s answer to “the challenge of collecting all he believed about life and lasting fulfillment into a brief talk.” The inflated language of marketing copy, it would seem — Wallace’s prolific, restive consciousness probably could never be so perfectly distilled. A deeper look at his personal correspondences, meanwhile, could only add to the picture of a life and work tragically cut short and revered by so many.

Osama bin Laden’s “man-caused disaster”?

President Obama’s predecessor famously terrorized the English language. But lately, as the new, more fluent commander in chief and his team leave behind George W. Bush’s linguistic legacy on national security — jettisoning hard-line terminology such as “war on terrorism” and “enemy combatant” — they seem in danger of over-articulating.

In a recent interview with Der Spiegel, Janet Napolitano explained why, in her first testimony to Congress as Homeland Security chief, she used particular language to describe continuing perils. “In my speech, although I did not use the word ‘terrorism,’ I referred to ‘man-caused’ disasters,” she said. “That is perhaps only a nuance, but it demonstrates that we want to move away from the politics of fear toward a policy of being prepared for all risks that can occur.”

A worthy goal. But considering the mass casualties perpetrated in Manhattan or Madrid or London in recent years, is it really a good idea to deploy a phrase that’s in danger of suggesting accidental tragedy?

As Peter Baker reports in the New York Times, the Obama administration is opening itself to criticism that it doesn’t take the dangers of the world seriously enough. Says Shannen W. Coffin, who served as counsel to former Vice President Dick Cheney: “They seem more interested in the war on the English language than in what might be thought of as more pressing national security matters. An Orwellian euphemism or two will not change the fact that bad people want to kill us and destroy us as a free people.”

One can always count on a loaded partisan volley from the Cheney camp, but in this case one perhaps not easily deflected in the battle of political perception.

oblnycfbiAnother national security legacy of the Bush era, deeply troubling, lingers. An internal report from late 2008 assessing the state of the U.S. intelligence system, made public this week, found precious little progress since 9/11 in terms of fixing serious bureaucratic risks. That’s despite the greatest overhaul since World War II of the system, including the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to oversee America’s spy agencies.

Many senior U.S. intelligence officials interviewed “were unable to articulate a clear understanding of the ODNI’s mission, roles, and responsibilities,” according to the report. U.S. spy agencies are still running “largely disconnected and incompatible” computer systems and have “no standard architecture supporting the storage and retrieval of sensitive intelligence.” And “intelligence information and reports are frequently not being disseminated in a timely manner.”

And while the concept of sharing information between agencies is “supported in principle” among some intelligence leaders, according to the report, “the culture of protecting ‘turf’ remains a problem, and there are few, if any, consequences for failure to collaborate.”

Hopefully the true consequences of such recent turf battles, and the excruciating story behind them, haven’t already gone forgotten.

Light in the darkness of David Foster Wallace

A prodigious amount has been written about David Foster Wallace since the heart-rending news of his suicide last September. The outpouring continues. This week, a humorous essay that keyed off Wallace’s hyper-baroque writing has seen a viral revival on the Web. Earlier this month, the New Yorker published a lengthy epilogue along with an excerpt from Wallace’s unfinished novel, “The Pale King.” His much-admired speech to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College in Ohio will come out in book form in April.

I finally had time to read the long New Yorker piece, and it made me realize that the world also deserves a published collection of Wallace’s correspondence, with fellow writer Jonathan Franzen, his literary agent Bonnie Nadell and others. The varied bits of it appearing in the New Yorker cast additional light on his humanity and highly emotive lexicon.

Steve Liss/Getty/Time Life

Steve Liss/Getty/Time Life

There is much insight and lyricism to be found in Wallace’s fiction, but it can be hard to track down and enjoy amid all the dense, cerebral text. He played language not as an instrument but as a postmodern orchestra, and it could get too cacophonous. (I remember when Bob Watts gave me his hardcover copy of “Oblivion,” barely cracked into. “Couldn’t really do it,” he said.) Although I much admired some of Wallace’s earlier short stories, I’ve always thought that he was at his best with essays and literary journalism. It seems the epistolary form (actual letters as well as email) brought out a more direct spirit of his, too, however painful. While in a deep rut in May 1990 he wrote to Franzen:

Right now, I am a pathetic and very confused young man, a failed writer at 28 who is so jealous, so sickly searingly envious of you and [William] Vollmann and Mark Leyner and even David fuckwad Leavitt and any young man who is right now producing pages with which he can live, and even approving them off some base clause of conviction about the enterprise’s meaning and end.

There was also a vivid kind of humor: In another correspondence with Franzen about 15 years later, this time regarding his struggles with “The Pale King,” Wallace wrote, “The whole thing is a tornado that won’t hold still long enough for me to see what’s useful and what isn’t … I’ve brooded and brooded about all this till my brooder is sore.”

One of his former editors recalls Wallace also comparing the writing of the novel with “trying to carry a sheet of plywood in a windstorm.”

For me, one of Wallace’s most memorable essays was published in August 2006 in the magazine Play, in which he profiled tennis titan Roger Federer.

A top athlete’s beauty is next to impossible to describe directly. Or to evoke. Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip, his backhand a one-hander that he can drive flat, load with topspin, or slice — the slice with such snap that the ball turns shapes in the air and skids on the grass to maybe ankle height. His serve has world-class pace and a degree of placement and variety no one else comes close to; the service motion is lithe and uneccentric, distinctive (on TV) only in a certain eel-like all-body snap at the moment of impact. His anticipation and court sense are otherworldly, and his footwork is the best in the game — as a child, he was also a soccer prodigy. All this is true, and yet none of it really explains anything or evokes the experience of watching this man play. Of witnessing, firsthand, the beauty and genius of his game. You more have to come at the aesthetic stuff obliquely, to talk around it, or — as Aquinas did with his own ineffable subject — to try to define it in terms of what it is not.

It remains a memorable passage because it illumes not only Wallace’s profound talent, but also, in some sense, the linguistic-spiritual puzzle he died still trying to solve. He tells you it can’t be done and then he nearly does it, brilliantly. A deeper look at his personal correspondences — when presumably he was writing more free of the crushing performance pressures he put on himself — could only add to the picture.

Precisely the poet we needed

Kay Ryan was in town for a reading on Friday night at the San Francisco Center for the Book. It was packed. It occurred to me it was absolutely right she’d become our U.S. Poet Laureate in a time of so much turmoil near and far. The universe has a way of balancing itself, even when it seems barely to be standing on one foot. Some comic concision to cut through all the gloomy cacophony—just the thing.

jamjarI’ve been an admirer for years of Ryan’s pithy assessments. They seem even more necessary right now, and not just for their luminous resuscitation of dead language and reanimation of cliché. As she put it on Friday, one of her interests has been considering extremity and trying to “cool things down” a bit. Claims found in “Ripley’s Believe it or Not!” became the source for her latest collection The Jam Jar Lifeboat & Other Novelties Exposed. The poem “Murder at Midnight” departs from Ripley’s assertion that “If everyone who was told about it told two other people within 12 minutes, everybody on earth would know about it before morning.” Determines Ryan:

But people would begin getting it
a little bit wrong. Long before daylight,
the ‘murder at midnight’ would be
‘sugar stolen outright.’ The fate
of the dead man would not extend
beyond his gate. Only those
right now missing his little habits,
his footfall, his sleeping noises,
will know, and they can’t really tell;
news doesn’t really travel very well.

Whether Ripley’s math quite holds up under scrutiny I can’t say, but no matter. This morning a friend from a group of old high school buddies emailed to suggest that we all start using the trendy messaging service Twitter to banter and keep in touch on a more frequent basis. With three email accounts, IM, Facebook and a blog already running me apace on the digital information wheel, I’m thinking I’ll gently decline for now, and refer him to Sasha Cagen’s fine essay posted yesterday, This Is Your Brain on Twitter.

Nothing to fear but everything itself?

With the stock market sitting at half the level it did a decade ago, and with new surveys showing carnage in consumer confidence and housing, I’m struck by the saturated language of the national nightmare. (It’s not just the apocalyptic headlines driving us to despair.) This story from the Associated Press today gathers the poetry of the pain — after its lead sentence announcing that American confidence went into “free fall” in February, the relatively short dispatch uses each of the following terms at least twice:

fear (2)homer_thescream
decline (2)
plummet (2)
plunge (2)
collapse (2)
severe (2)
slash (2)
shrinking (2)
battered (2)
suffer (3)
drop (4)
sink/sank (4)
worried (4)
low (6)

Superlative phrases in the story include “massive job cuts,” “driven to their lowest level ever” (consumer expectations) and “the largest drop in its 21-year history” (a national home price index).

Recently a friend sent me an email wondering why President Obama hasn’t done more to talk up confidence as he’s traveled around promoting his economic recovery plan. The answer probably lies most in the calculus of Capitol Hill, and the political pressure apparently needed to pass his legislative agenda. There’s also Obama’s admirable position that he won’t sugarcoat the truth about our troubles the way the administration before him did to such disastrous effect.

But it’s a daunting balancing act with perception at this point. You don’t have to be an economist to sense how the downward spiral of fear could itself become deeply damaging. (If it hasn’t already — as Robert Shiller warned in a recent column, a Great Depression narrative “could easily end up as a self-fulfilling prophecy.”) And Obama’s political opponents increasingly are able to agitate using raw emotional appeal: Last night CNN’s in-house ideologue Lou Dobbs hammered at Obama’s “fear mongering” and accused him of repeatedly talking down the markets and economy. In the New York Times today David Brooks feigns sympathy for the president while suggesting that Team Obama is in way over its head. (“I hope the president succeeds even though he probably won’t!” is the message.)

Many will be watching intently tonight when Obama addresses a joint session of Congress for the first time. The only positive polling in sight shows that he’s still got the thumbs-up on job approval from a decisive majority of the public. It’s a remarkable measure of confidence floating on a tide of ugly numbers — Americans believe Obama will sail us in the right direction, even with no horizon in view.