Overweening Generalist

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Words and Names and Their Not-Exactly-Rational Underpinnings

What the hey: quasi taking-up where I left off...

I've been trying to make sense of this recent article , which is a tad technical for me, so heavy sledding but very interesting. Just the sound of a word will influence what we think it means. The relative shortness of a noun will have our brains thinking of what that word stands for as concrete or abstract. Etc.

I remember an Aldous Huxley novel (I forget which; I used to read them one after another) in which a silly old woman was named Mrs. Mercaptan. I think her first name was Ethel. Now, novelists of ideas - and especially ones with a satirical bend - will do this all the time. Mercaptan is what the Brits call a sulfurous compound that smells like rotten eggs. Like flatulence. It's added to odorless natural gas so that, in case of leaks, everyone will know, and quickly. Ethyl used to be used for "gasoline." This kind of thing takes a certain base of knowledge in order to get in on Aldous's little joke. Otherwise, "Mercaptan" sounds sort of "official" to me. It has the word "captain" in its sound. It has a "serious" sound of /k/ then that crisp /p/ followed by /t/ sound. "Mercaptan" means business. But when she speaks, we hear her as an old bag of wind.

In another novel of Huxley's - maybe the same one? - one of his characters needs a carminative and waxes on the sound of the word itself: it sounds soothing to the character, who knows what it's for. And so we get a tad more fun irony.

Aldous was hyper-cognizant about how he was using words and what his better readers would glean from it. What I'm talking about is that aspect of a-rationality in some of our labels and names and words.

The great German psychologist of the gestalt persuasion, Wolfgang Kohler, in 1929 published Gestalt Psychology and in it he asks, Which of the two following shapes is "takete" and which one is "maluma"?

Both words are made-up, but even a non-native speaker knows the one on the right is "takete" and the other "maluma." Why? Because the sounds in "takete," when you say them (maybe even look at the word?) are abrupt, jagged, hard. "Maluma" sounds blob-like and meandering. If you don't think advertisers know this stuff you are one helluva Naif.

Ever wonder why Prozac or Seroquel are called those things? Oxycontin, Vicodin, Zoloft, Xanax? Well, the zed and the "q" and the vee and the big-time Xs mean business and effectiveness, on some sub-conscious level. (Or is it unconscious?) Those names - while confabulated using the sort of research done by the guys in the study I link to at the beginning of this article - connote seriousness. These drugs emanated from a highly technical world of rationality and expertise, or else why all the Xs? It seems it's right there - the High Technology of the drugs - in the sound and spelling of the names for those drugs. And it works for Big Pharma, in cash. For some "reason."(Some of those drugs even actually sorta "do" what they're advertised to do! May wonders never cease.)

If you're starting some high-tech firm that sells fiber optic whizbangs or nanotubular gizmos to labs that do who-knows-what, fer crissakes, name your company Zontec or Kiqvek. (I can do better. Get back to me later on those.) But you don't have to be a PhD in superfluids to know Bellsyloo is not a good name for a hi-tech firm. Neither is Melmu-Landa. I just made up those last two, but don't they sound like they'd make toys for children? They almost sound huggable. None of this makes sense, I know. But we're trying to bypass our critical modules and go right for...something emotional. Something non-rational.

HERE is lexicographer Robert Beard's 100 most beautiful words in English. Before I first read it, I knew two of my faves - redolent and mellifluous - would be there, and they were. "Dalliance" is on the list, too. Robert Anton Wilson thought it one of the most beautiful words also. Any one of us can quibble or protest with what Beard left out or included, but I just read the list and it feels like I'm reading poetry. Why? I don't know. I'm trying to figure it out, and "Arbitrary Symbolism In Natural Language Revisited: When Word Forms Carry Meaning" is part of my effort to figure it out.

Another list of "beautiful" and "ugly" words in English.

I just noted that "tintinnabulation" appears on Beard's list; the rhythm of that word sends me; I love it. Which reminds me of the psychedelic humor and wordplay of Robert Anton Wilson, who used a bit in his stand-up intellectual comedy act in the 1990s that revolved around the wife of the President. He said that when you say "Hillary Clinton" over and over, it sounds like a train approaching, but when you add her middle name and say "Hillary Rodham Clinton" over and over, it sounds like the train has passed you and it's receding into the distance.

Finally, Prof. Carlin said that certain word-sounds turned him off to certain foods. "Head cheese" just was not something he wanted to get into; similarly:"eggplant." Well, which is it? Sounds like you're being jerked-around; someone's sending mixed messages. It's a trap! (I agree that "head cheese" not only sounds unpleasant, but it almost stares at you and dares you to show us how fearless, open-minded and cosmopolitan you are by trying it.)

Meanwhile, "guacamole" - to Carlin - just sounded hilarious and difficult to take seriously.

Speaking of food and Prof. Carlin the stand-up Sociolinguist: a 7 minute-long Public Service Announcement:

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Of Montaigne and Names

"Whatever variety of herbs there may be, the whole thing is included under the name of salad. Likewise, under the consideration of names, I am here going to whip up a hodgepodge of various items."
-Montaigne, "Of Names," Complete Works of Montaigne, trans. by Donald Frame

I'll take some of Montaigne's "items" and riff my own hodgepodge off of those. If you're gonna ride on another writer's coattails, you could do worse than ride on Montaigne's.

"Item, it is a trifling thing, but nevertheless worth remembering for its strangeness, and written down by an eyewitness, that Henry, duke of Normandy, son of Henry II, King of England, held a feast in France where the assembly of nobles was so great that when they divided up for sport into groups according to the similarity of names, in the first company, that of the Williams, there were seated at the table a hundred and ten knights bearing that name, without counting the ordinary gentlemen and servants."

Aye, and the Williams - in Unistat - are so very much with us. It comes in 4th, currently, among popular surnames. My own surname ranks just ahead of it. I have two very dear friends who live together and their last names are Williams and Brown. Oddly, there is no Smith that I can think of in our social circle, but no one's catching the Smiths in Unistat for awhile, as my surname, while doing pretty well in 2nd place, is still 500,000 behind the Smiths. You could empty New York, Los Angeles and Chicago (around 13 million people, according to a 2011 guess based on the 2010 census) and replace every citizen with only those people whose last names fit in Unistat's Top 10 (Smith, Johnson, Williams, Brown, Jones, Miller, Davis, Garcia, Rodriguez, and Wilson) and the number comes out to around 13 million.

                                                Robert Smith of The Cure

Now, I've always been envious of my friends with odd surnames, because my name has always felt too garden-variety. It's not a good writer's name. There were three of us with the same first and last name in my junior high school. Meanwhile, my best friend's last name was Hogshead, which really catches your eye, eh? Hogshead feels old-timey British and it's a unit of measurement: it's 63 gallons of wine, or 64 gallons of beer, which doesn't make sense to me, but there you go.

My name gets used in jokes as a stand-in for penis. "Richard Johnson" will receive gales of laughter from certain folk of adolescent mind. (I admit it: I laughed the first time too.) "Dick Johnson holds the best and biggest balls! Everyone wants to come." 

That kinda thing. 

Here's a short article on Big Data that deals with the current theme:

Back to Montaigne:

"Item, there is a saying that it is a good thing to have a good name, that is to say credit and reputation. But also, in truth, it is advantageous to have a handsome name and one that is easy to pronounce and maintain."

An article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, linked to in this Wired article, suggests we're subconsciously affected by first names in all sorts of non-logical ways. Our brains favor information that is easy to use ("fluency"), which reminded me of my studies of the quantifications of beauty: pretty faces are easier to process, because of their symmetry, and we've evolved to like that which is easy. So even though, as that very cool old Fleetwood Mac song said, "I can't sing/I ain't pretty/And my legs are thin...," I probably shouldn't complain too much about having a "boring" last name. Or a boring first one, for that matter.

(Adam Gopnik wittily writes about his "lowly" name.)

"I have observed that King Henry II could never call by his right name a gentleman from this part of Gascony; and to one of the queen's maids of honor he even proposed to give the general name of her family, because that of her father's house seemed to him too awkward." 

Freud had an ingenious (and probably over-complicated) theory about forgetting names. It's worth reading if only because of very recent neurobiological research on memory that suggests he may not have been that far off. But the best explanation I've seen about forgetting names is that we're just not paying attention. It's as if we don't care. People who are more interested in other people and relationships tend to not forget names as easily as most of us do. However, this business of meeting people at a party and instantly forgetting their names (and they yours) has always been a function - for me, at least - of information overload. I'm being introduced, hearing names but not listening because their faces or what they're wearing or the new social environment, the room, some painting, whatever...is capturing my attention. Information is flowing into me more strongly from those other sources than someone's name. Their immediate phenomenal presence/impression crowds out the name, all-too-often.

(David Carradine named his kid "I.P. Freely"? (Note 1) This somehow lends sense to the now-knowledge that Carradine was into autoerotic asphyxiation. What ever happened to "Grasshopper"? But I digress...)

Josh Foer in his book on becoming a memory champion, Moonwalking With Einstein, gives some hints about how to remember the names of an entire roomful of new people. It all starts with linking the name to something about the way the person looks.

Our good man Montaigne:
"And Socrates considers it worthy of a father's care to give his children attractive names."

Well then I'd hazard that Kim Kardashian and Kanye West - who reportedly want to name their forthcoming child "North" - haven't read Plato. But then Frank and Gail Zappa were no dummies and they (memorably?) named their kids Dweezil, Moon Unit, Ahmet Emuukha Rodan, and...just wow: "Diva Thin Muffin Pigeen." (Only Tom Robbins comes up with names like that, and they are for characters in his projected worlds.) David Bowie named a kid "Zowie." Googling this jit can land you links to all sorts of atrocities. Now, "experts" have said that naming your kids ultra-weirdly can harm them (even Ashley and Shannon for boys become a problem when adolescence hits).

I remember taking a Psychology class in college and the topic of names and how they affect people came up. With my faulty memory, I recall the Prof repeating what we now know to be an urban legend: that a family named Hogg had two daughters and named them Ima and Ura. Ima Hogg really existed (and she looks sorta hot in the pic that accompanies the Wiki), but there was no Ura.

However, there really is a Soleil Moon Frye, which conjurs up an image of the sun shooting out freakishly long tendrils of flares and scorching the moon (and I guess I'm watching it all from a spaceship). And my favorite NBA player's name, "Zaza Pachulia," actually exists.

Because my own name is easy and therefore pleasing, but dull and faceless to me, I think if I ever get published as a "real" writer (not some overweening dipshit blog-head), I might go with something really stand-out, like "Zaza Zappa Hogg."

                                     Dweezil Zappa, a fine guitar player in his own right

Addenda: Crapper and Titzling
Thomas Crapper did not invent the toilet, but he did exist and was a plumber and did help to popularize the toilet.

Otto Titzling, unfortunately, did not invent the bra and appears to have not even had existence. My mom told me Titzling invented the bra, and I believed her. Why? Because mom and dad together told me, laffingly, that Thomas Crapper invented the toilet and I didn't believe them, so I looked it up myself, age 12 or so. Danged if mom and dad weren't putting me on! (I found a dopey source that gave too much credit to Crapper.) So mom was probably telling me the truth - although laffing when she told me of Titzling - and I lazily accepted it for years. Why? It was a good little joke! It's too much fun to believe and it seems to do little harm to, when given the chance, promulgate the idea that a guy named "Titzling" invented the bra. At least it turns the conversation towards breasts; that's always fun. While it lasts. If you look at his first name - Otto - one of the "O" breasts is slightly bigger than the other, which is statistically normal for women. So you see, all in all, very convincing that "Otto Titzling" invented the bra.

Convincing if you're a 15 year old boy, maybe?

What's your favorite real or fake name?

Note 1: Better sources give his offspring's name as "Free" and not "I.P. Freely." Furthermore, Wikipedia tells me "Free" changed his name to "Tom." Free/Tom's mom is Barbara Hershey. Me suspects someone was being unkind to David, Free, or both with the "I.P." joke found on numerous websites.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

North Dakota's In The Stupidest State Race Now

Those of us who follow the awesome powers of idiotic backwardness in Unistat have long marveled at the doings of powerful wingnuts in places like Arizona, West Virginia, and especially those two perennial powerhouses of devolution, Mississippi and Alabama. But there's a new contender in town: North Dakota.

Right wingers in both houses of gummint there have passed a fertilized-egg-is-a-human-being bill. The Republican Governor Jack Dalrymple  hasn't said which way he swings here, but it looks like the good people of North Dakota will vote on whether a zygote is a person in November, 2014. And since I'm betting the voters will not be drawing so much on their knowledge of reproductive biology as what someone told them the Bible said, my heart goes out to the entirety of North Dakota's distaff side (minus those stalwart women who assert they should not have primary rights over what goes on in their own bodies, and that the State knows better).

I tar an entire Unistat state with the term "stupid" but of course I'm not applying this to those who agree with me: that women should have the right to choose as under the Roe decision. So please don't take this personally, North Dakotans who are progressive...all seven of you.

Oh, but let's not use such icky terms as "fertilize" and "egg" and "zygote": the North Dakotans like "personhood." It just feels right.

Doctors in North Dakota are already threatening to leave the state if the bill passes, and I can understand their trepidation: the bill - even though it violates Roe v. Wade - would make a doctor who accidentally damages an embryo or does IVF (in vitro fertilization) a murderer. Not to mention it outlaws abortion, of course.

[Prof. George Carlin on "pro-lifers": If you're a fetus you're fine, but once you're born, you're fucked: they don't give a shit about your life as a walking-around human trying to find love, shelter, clothing, food, a job, etc. Q: So what are these "pro-lifers" really about? A: controlling women. Women should function "as a brood mare for the State."]

Now: even voters in Mississippi have rejected a similar bill. Colorado voters have rejected bills like this three times. And, even though I'd say to my fellow bloggers: start your satirical engines! and begin to make fun of North Dakota!, there are signs that the extreme far, far Right is going to lose this one. For one: Republican pro-lifers in ND think this is too extreme, and will join pro-choicers in activist movements against it. One pro-lifer in ND remarked that they don't even have a mandatory seatbelt law yet, but they want to declare a zygote a human? It was too much, even for her.

Roe allows states to decide about abortions after the 22nd-24th week (roughly 154-168 days into known pregnancy). The second trimester ends at around 180 days. There's one (ONE) (1) place in the state to obtain an abortion, or even if you're having complications with your pregnancy that could kill you: the Red River Women's Clinic in Fargo, which wouldn't have much of a function if the bill passes, would it?

Many forms of birth control would be outlawed by this bill too, but what really sets me to wondering: how would these amateur theologists know when a sperm successfully ensconced itself in the egg? I think if they're really serious about zygotic personhood they need to train hundreds of thousands of microbiologists/amateur gynecologists, who can enter a dwelling without a warrant, at any time, when they suspect two people have been fucking "in there." They can also be given full State power to order to woman to strip, spread her legs, pee on a stick, and (I don't know, bite on a bullet or something?) endure some scraping or ultrasound or whatever is necessary in order to determine whether a sperm had made that treacherous, against-all-odds journey towards the Mighty Ovum, and...crashed through, blastocyst immanent. (These same Far Right wingers no doubt would also agree that "The government should get off our backs.")

I mean, put your Xtian Ideals on the line here. If you're serious about a zygote being a person, like 'Lil Wayne or Donald Trump or your mother's best friend's second cousin or Queen Noor of Jordan or Aunt Ethel, you need to do this. Don't go this far only to shut down the Red River Baby Killing Clinic; go all the way with your "convictions!"; how could a Good Christian expect anything less?

A spokesman for Personhood USA applauds the good folk of North Dakota, and hopes the bill passes. He says it's a "human rights" issue. (Did the OG make up "Personhood USA"? Gosh, I dunno...Google or Bing it?)

                              A sperm that's made it to the outside of the Ovum, image
                              electron microscope by David Phillips of Visuals Unlimited.
                              Can't you see the person here? (Or will it "be" one in 20
                              minutes from the time this pic was taken?)

Sundry Notes: No Need to Read This Crap
1.) The very idea of zygotic personhood seems a recent concept. Even Aristotle and medieval  Catholicism thought there wasn't a "person" in there until 40 days after fertilization (which explains why the Far Right in ND has been referring to St. Thomas Aquinas as "that socialist progressive"), or, because you can never tell if any of your "boys" successfully swam to the Big Prize: that night after Dad bought mom some flowers and took here out to dinner, and later, after something that passes for "passion," Dad slumped off Mom, slid over, and lit up a Kool. THAT may have been the time to start the possible personhood clock.

How did Arry and the medieval Schoolmen arrive at the nice round number of 40? There are all sorts of obscure reasonings and legitimations if you delve (Which I do not recommend at this time; not with the latest news about the Consumer Price Index. Get out and enjoy life!), but the short answer: they pulled it out of their asses. Domine adiuva me: aye. They did.

2.) The great comedian Bill Hicks once pondered the 18th century idea of preformationism and noted the corollary: that when he was masturbating and ejaculated all over his stomach and/or chest, he was, in effect, "wiping out an entire village." Akin to the My Lai Massacre. Or Newtown, CT. (Actually, a LOT of sperm get spent in one garden-variety ejaculation, so it's more like Pol Pot's "killing fields," but who's counting? Anyway, an interesting idea. Kinda makes ya think, eh? Don't answer that.)

3.) Some comedian or comedians in the late 1970s or early 80s joked about the Moral Majority's stand on abortion (they seem like liberals compared to what we have now, in pockets, all over Unistat) and, using the classic "slippery slope" avenue, wondered how far this can go: "These Moral Majoritarians are so radical that they say life begins at conception! What's next? Life begins at 'Let me slip into something a little more comfortable'?" Aye...(Bang! Zoom!)

4.) Laurence Sterne, the greatest digressionist in all of what Ezra Pound called "licherchoor," in his novel The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767), wants to tell us about his life, but he needs to begin at the beginning and he takes half of the book up before he's finally born. Sterne plays on the 18th century idea of preformationism, in which he's a little homunculi (a very very tiny version of his grow-up self, inside a sperm). Gawd! What a funny book! Joyce liked it too. Here, on topic: skip down and check out the paragraph beginning with, "The Homunculus, Sir, in however low and ludicrous a light he may appear..."