January 28, 2008

Fxing Up a Place

"Bandaids no Solution to Low Income Housing" is the headline on a small story from the inside pages of a newspaper I remember from some time ago. I've never been able to guess, then or since, who ever imagined they would be a solution. In the first place you'd require an impractical number of them to make even the most rudimentary dwelling, in the second place unless they were stiffened in some way, they'd be far too flimsy--a moderate breezze would tear holes in the fabric of the walls. And why go to all the trouble of stiffening and reinforcing band aids, and making them a much larger size so they'd be usable for building, when sturdier materials are readily available? (How would you ever install electricity? and plumbing? one ill timed flush and a three bedroom unit could come down like an overpadded, majorly sticky house of cards.)

I can understand if it was a government sponsored feasibility study. The more impractical an idea, the better suited to study by dedicated committee, and the number of tests you'd need to run, simply to show willing, would be minimal. After that, gravy--collating the opinions, majority and dissenting, of experts analysing test data minutely. One or two grant extensions to handle cost overruns, and all concerned can bank a tidy sum. Apply that to your mortgage et voila! housing solution.

Amazing there was no study commissioned of bandaids for housing by FEMA, in the wake of its advance scouts Katrina and Rita. (Then again considering the number of black holes down which money swirled in course of that rescue effort cum Fortune 500 feeding trough, perhaps they did. And there's this to be said for a house made of bandaids--a mid-sized wolf could blow it right down, but it wouldn't stand day after day delivering toxic fumes to the lungs, skin tissue and other vital organs, as FEMA's trailers do to the people living in 'em--if nobody's taken to calling them gas chamber specials, it's past time somebody did.)

I ought to get in on this myself, if someone can point me the right direction to apply for funding. I'm thinking maybe. . . for condo highrises. . . surgical gauze? Practical? who knows? but picture it: you have to admit there's a certain poetry. . .

C 2007 Martin Heavisides

January 6, 2008

Two Thousand Eight

A New Year's letter to the Globe and Mail reads:

Why, oh why, do people say two thousand and eight?" Shouldn't it be called twenty-oh-eight," in the same way that we said "nineteen ninety eight", "eighteen ninety nine" etc. etc.?

I've never heard anyone say "nineteen hundred and forty two". Have you? Please explain.
Zelda Ruth Harris, Toronto

I think people say two thousand eight--generally discarding the 'and' as superfluous--for the same reason they say nineteen ninety eight--verbal fluency. Nineteen hundred ninety eight is cumbersome and takes too long to spit out. Twenty oh-eight takes no longer to say than two thousand eight, but I've never encountered an epiglottis that was comfortable with a three word phrase it's impossible to speak without a break between the first and second word. People will soon enough be saying twenty ten, but only those with a pedantic bent and a tin ear will ever say twenty oh-nine.

C 2007 Martin Heavisides

January 4, 2008

Some Assembly Required

" "

C 2007 Martin Heavisides

January 3, 2008

Shedding the Dead Skin of Language

Robert Fulford had a column [Nat Post Dec 31 '07] concerning the tendency for buzzwords to crowd into spoken and written language, pushing thought clear out of the picture. The main targets he had in his sights were 'carbon footprint' and 'paradigm shift', and I thought he was right about both. I liked the phrase 'paradigm shift' when I first heard it, because if you excavate far enough back to its earliest uses, it has a clear meaning that can't be expressed with equal succinctness otherwise. But when people start talking about the paradigm shift in their thinking that has led to buying coffee at Starbucks instead of Tim Horton's, or vice versa, it's time to call a halt. And if you've got a phrase like 'carbon footprint' that can be easily and righteously slotted into sentences because it's become ubiquitous, you tend to write sentences that much more mechanically. My only complaint with this part of his thesis is that he doesn't go far enough. I don't mean he doesn't comprehensively list the deadassed words and boxcar phrases that choke and clot commentary pieces of all descriptions--how could you list more than a small fraction of them in a column of only eight hundred words? But if we're going after ubiquitous expressions that convey a glow of unearned righteousness to a sentence while at the same time stifling the possibility that it might contain solid meaning, I can think of at least two, far more prevalent than 'carbon footprint' and 'paradigm shift' , that are equally worthy of ruthless excision. I'll come back to that in a moment.

Fulford concludes this piece by complaining about big words, which strikes me as off the point he's been making--neither 'carbon', 'footprint' nor 'shift' is a conspicuously big word, and 'paradigm' is only three syllables unless you pronounce it wrong. I also don't see where the use of small words invariably leads to clarity. There are no big words in the phrase 'do your own thing', but if it has ever been used to express a lucid notion, I can't recollect when that was.

Neither are big words invariably more obscure than the itsy bitsy ones. I'm pretty sure you could convey what's meant by translucent in words of one or two syllables--but such a lot of them! And odds are in the thicket of words you'd need to convey it, the meaning would not be clarified but considerably obscured. What chiefly makes for clear writing is thought, and it's easily possible to think very little and yet use very tiny words.

So what recurrent buzzwords would I retire, along with 'carbon footprint' and 'paradigm shift', at least until people are prepared to use them thoughtfully and honestly? 'Terrorist' and 'coward' (and all their variant forms). At the very least I'd insist people not lead with these, drop the 't' word, the 'c' word or the ever popular 'c-t' combination in the first sentence of a think piece to colour all that follows. Give us a little evidence first, to back up the clamouring insistence of your jerking knee. But if the evidence is there, what exactly do you gain by affixing the gummy label? Do you seriously think the average thoughtful person anywhere in the world is going to read an accurate account of a suicide bombing that claims from 12 to 72 lives and think this is a noble act if not rigorously prompted from the wings: "Hey! heads up there--cowardly terrorists." Do you seriously think anybody who does think it's a noble act is going to be suddenly stricken with conscience when attacked by the label? You know perfectly well it's far likelier they'll feel glamorized by the distinction (and snicker gleefully at the grotesque misuse of the word 'cowardly').

'Cowardly terrorist'--the only one-two rhetorical punch I can recall that matches this one was the phrase used by Communist and Trostkyist radicals in my university days over anything at all that got up their noses--'fascist, racist'. They were a little more single-minded--they never used one word without the other for reinforcement. I once helpfully suggested that they merge the two into one word, 'fracist'. The suggestion was not well received. Shall we update it? 'Cowartryst'? It's a thought.

Anyone who thinks 'cowartryst' is a less dangerous compound than 'carfonbootprint' ought, in conscience, to ask Maher Arar's opinion, or that of the likely hundred similar innocents still in the rendition cycle in Syria or points east. I suppose we can congratulate ourselves that we rescued him at last, after unconscionable delay--but if we hadn't shipped him off as a cowartryst on essentially no evidence, and ignored the evidence in his favour until it was possible to ignore it no longer, we would have saved ourselves the trouble of redeeming a great injustice by not committing it in the first place. It's amazing how wise a plan that seems in retrospect. The only reason it didn't at the time was that 'coward' and 'terrorist' lay over all our thought like a security blanket we could collectively shiver under. If we don't cower like rats in holes, fearful of shadows and the smoke in our minds of imaginary poisons, the nasty, ugly, cowardly terrorists will have won. Could we all just grow up a little please?

There's one very good reason to avoid buzzwords like 'cowartryst' and 'carfonbootprint' as far as humanly possible--they grossly impede our ability to think. There's a reason they recur with the frequency of addictions--they relieve us of the obligation to think. No committed democrat can have any excuse for succumbing to that addiction, because none of the world's tyrannies, the external forces we are constantly being urged to cower back from in terror, has anything like the force required to unseat any of the world's democracies. Tyrannical forces within democracy are powerful enough to unseat it, but only if we thoughtlessly succumb to their agendas. So let's try and do without the buzzwords that urge us to surrender our freedoms in exchange for the chatter of fear and trembling in the night--shall we?

C 2007 Martin Heavisides

What Do You Mean?

In a recent review of the film adapted from it, the Toronto film critic Rick Groen referred to The Kite Runner as "the kind of book that is read even by people who don't read books." This is the most recent citation I'm aware of, but as anyone who reads reviews will tell you, there are many books like this. So here's what I'm wondering: how many books can a nonbook reader read before ceasing to be a person who doesn't read books?

Form over content. A writer I quite like has a habit of marring three to five passages in each of his books because of his fetish for this phrase. Every time it comes up it sucks meaning out of the sentence and sometimes the whole paragraph it pops up in, because it's a phrase empty of any coherent meaning. Form can be deceptive if insufficiently studied, from too narrow a range of perspectives, but the idea that form and content are separable is a trick of oversphistication played by the mind on its very own self. Thoughts and feelings, as much as any physical entity, have detectable existence insofar, and only insofar, as you can discern in them a shape. Form isn't a transparency laid over content which can be stripped away to reveal content more fully, as a snake sheds its skin to reveal--well, another skin underneath, so it seems even a snake can't exist independent of the form its skinsack supplies. But if we're looking for analogies, form is at least as much the breath of content as its skin, and content is discoverable without form to the same degree life is discoverable without breath.

A film critic in our local alternative weekly writes of a colleague who recently died: "he wrote with absolute honesty." Maybe this is partly excused by deadline pressures, but how `can someone write nonsense like that and expect to be believed? Any of us might aim to write with absolute honesty, but if we're honest with ourselves we know that the best aim in the world isn't always true. Mailer may have been exaggerating in the opposite direction when he said "all writers are dishonest except when, bless us, we're honest for a minute or two--which are the moments that inspire us to go on writing," but it shows a far more nuanced understanding of what a difficult negotiation honesty actually is. Anybody who has the nerve to accuse me of absolute honesty after I'm gone had better hope I have no way of getting back from the beyond; it's not an insult I'd take lying down.

A blurb taken from a review by Henry Louis Gates Jr. refers to The Great Debate as "an intelligent masterpiece that must be seen". It might be worth hunting up the piece that quote comes from, since it sets up a distinction that hadn't occurred to me, and I'm curious whether he names any of the "unintelligent masterpieces" he's implicitly comparing this to, or just leaves us to presume there are a great many out there, and make our own lists.

C 2007 Martin Heavisides