Mar 26, 2010

Innovation in Language and the Implication of Data Structures in Digital Communications

Deconstruction and creation of language is important to our ability to create new forms and ideas of thought. the rise of a codified, regulated standard for language, while increasingly facilitating the transmission of pre-codified (ie agreed upon) messages, does nothing but stifle the innovation of new forms of thought and expressions of meaning.

Language was, first and foremost, a verbal mechanism designed to transmit thought. Codification and standardization are necessary (and inherent) to the creation of a language, in that it must be understood across a normative common to all speakers. However, in order for new ideas to be expressed (outside of the normative common, as a manner of expanding this so called 'norm') a language must be flexible enough to encompass the creation of new words and turns of phrase.

It should be possible, therefore, to trace innovation through language and the emergence of terms associated with a new concept. One such example of this would be the rise of the term Passive - Aggressive as an aspect of self-consciousness and self-identification (or identification in general of others) via the use of the term. Previous to the coinage of such a phrase, a person would not be able to express the concept or idea of being "passive-aggressive" because such a concept did not exist, neither in our vocabulary nor in our social collective of "norms" (accepting the definition of a language being a verbal and written codification of normatized collective thought). Passive-aggression as an interpretation of human behavior is thus the innovation of psychology, adapted and transmitted through language, and finally used contextually to shape our personal and collective understanding of ourselves and each other.

I should probably note that my use of the words "passive-aggressive", is in and of itself an interpretation of the idea. In this discussion, I am more referring to the colloquial use of the word to describe a person or the actions of a person, usually in reference to something that this person has done or what how they are thinking towards another. In all actuality, I have little to no idea how the term originated (Wikipedia tells me that it was coined in or around the 1950s), but am merely reporting back from my experiences with the word, both personally as I have applied to to myself and through relations of others to convey the idea or thought of how another person defines their own actions. To stretch to the realms of ethonography, I would relate the story of sometime during my freshman or sophomore year in college (by years, not hours), when I first came across the term. A friend used it to describe the way that she interacted with others, in that she was not very good at being able to be openly aggressive towards others, but instead allowed a sort of repressed anger to be expressed not through physical or verbal means, but instead via subversive actions meant to humiliate or in some other manner humiliate the object of this "passive" aggression. Since this explanation, I did no personal research on the term, but have since been personally responsible for propagating this concept using the term as I have such understood it.

Without the adoption of a term to illustrate this phenomenon (the act of being or feeling passive aggressive), we (a collective here meaning the English speaking population) would not have the tools necessary to define or describe this particular aspect of action or thought.

Examples of how language innovation can lead to a new understanding or identification aside, an interesting application of this understanding of the flexibility of language can be drawn to the transmission and use of data structures in the digital realm. Specifically, early data structures (specifically HTML), had problems with their flexibility because of the vast amount of codification (or specifications... I think technically these are called RFC or Requests For Comments and are nothing more than a "grammar book" of an internet 'language' or standard for a particular method of expression. In the case of HTML, this is an 'expression' of web pages) required in order to express or pass new information.

I feel that a brief explanation of the entire ML or "markup language" is in order. In a ML, concepts are digitally understood (digitally here meaning by a machine and not human recipient) via the use of "tags", a demarcation surrounding a body of text. The language is entirely text based, with these tags marking how each piece or body of text should be interpreted. For example, BOLD would create a bolded piece of text. In fact, just in the attempt to create an example, my word has been bolded thanks to the machine reader. Here's a spaced out attempt (hark! digital subterfuge!) < b >BOLD< / b >.

HTML was wildly and widely accepted and is still the defacto language for creating and sharing content via the 'webpage' format. However, the use of HTML for the transmission of other types and forms of language was and is impeded by the strict codification required to express changes. If I created a new way of highlighting text, for example, one that was more impactful and better conveyed my message than a simple bolding, I would need to also create a new set of tags that could then be used to surround the text that I wanted to appear with this new "highlight" method. Of course, as in other languages in both the digital and spoken world, it's possible to patch together various means to highlight words, however, there is no simple and straightforward tag that could be used to do so. The language is not flexible enough to allow this.

Enter XML, or eXtensible Markup Language. Now, admittedly, I would not profess to being proficient at the use and exact 'data structures' that XML schema and the like employ, however, my understanding of them is that XML has a flexible schema that allows you to create and publish a new language "norm" any time that you want. Instead of having to change the well codified and vetted "norm" that governs HTML, you only have to change your own personal standard. New tags can be created at whim, innovation is allowed to flourish throughout the internets!

I'm leaving this discussion for now, but not without giving mention to the fact that XML has, of course, given rise to new "languages" that used by various industries and organizations on the internet in order to share data by a common standard, where tags are standardized for a given set of information, for example airline flight information. Thus a airline can publish information digitally that can be read and retrieved by various online ticket search engines, travel agents, competing flights, their own internal systems, etc. But the sheer flexibility (by variable tagging and nesting, which was not mentioned in this post) of XML has allowed for it to become the "lingua franca" of machine to machine communication.

Mar 23, 2010

Advice from a friend

biggest advice: give and expect nothing in return, reciprocate joy at meeting people, share anecdotes and experiences not generalities, go nuts pull up your sleeves and learn something.

Mar 6, 2010

sexual parity, Tucker Max and the deconstruction of the social myth

i have recently become mildly obsessed with gender roles and sexuality. my favorite book to date on the issue: tucker max's i hope they serve beer in hell. definitely a great first-hand account of the male perspective of sexual relationships in the twenty first century.

some explanation of the tucker max character is in order. tucker max bangs chicks. tucker max does not bang the most beautiful chicks (or usually not, from what i can tell). tucker max tries, at all costs, to avoid 'ugly' chicks. tucker max gets drunk a lot. tucker max is known by his friends for his comedic aptitude, typically which is created by being the loudest, most aggressive person involved in a conversation. or yelling match, take your pick. tucker max considers himself to pertain to the top 5% of intellectuals. in the book, no exact numbers are given, but tucker max thinks that tucker max is one smart cookie. (note: this commentary on tucker max's intellectual prowess is not intended to make a judgement or assessment of the actual intellect of tucker max, in fact i would argue that actual intellect is of far less import than the perception of our own intelligence that we hold. merely, i hope only to illustrate the 'mental model', so to speak, of the Mr. Max persona, specifically as he views himself.) from what i can gather, tucker max has a retinue of girls who consider him to be available for 'sexual' adventures whenever.

tucker max would call himself a macho. mysogynist, i don't know. nor do i really care. point is, tucker max is a male who enjoys sex with women.

so it's funny, when he comes to the realization at one point that one of the girls from his regular 'retinue' (my word, not his), could in fact be doing the same thing he does with girls. what does he do when discovers the potential for double dealing with women? what tucker max does: gets drunk. but the drunk mess that tucker max describes in this passage is not the tucker max of reckless abandon, but a man who is struggling to deal with the implications of gender equity. women may use men as much as they use us. it's a fair trade. and this realization, for tucker max, renders him incapable of enjoying it. to quote the man himself: "My worldview was immediately and permanently altered. It was like the first time you turn on a black light in a hotel room and see cum stains covering every surface: for better or for worse, your world is never the same."

this experience officially, from my analysis, marks the creation a jaded being. meaning, specifically, that the pleasure and excitement tucker found in conquering the unknown women he met in bars became less of a pleasure and more of a self-serving habit. not that his previous actions were not in the least self-serving, but they weren't a habit. they were an adventure, a tryst. "[W]omen were doing the same thing to me that I was doing to them, except I didn't even know they were doing it. For the entirety of my life up to that point I thought I had the upper hand, that I was the player and not the playee when in fact, I was possibly just another chump. The illusion of control was shattered." Knowing that he was just in actor in a game, being acted upon as well as acting upon others, took away the mystery of the hunt.

feminine equality destroys the myth of the chase. and as tucker max can attest to, the loss of that "illusion of control" is devastating to the male psyche, at least in matters of sexual games.

is there a road out of this world of equity that is equitable? can we reinstate mystery without reinstating gender roles? were gender roles ever such a thing to be banished in the first place, or was it necessary to deconstruct them before we could have mutual respect at a societal level? or is what tucker max experienced something that every man and woman will eventually have to come to accept?

tucker doesn't seem to think that it should. in the post script to his realization, he urges his fellow male readers not to dwell on this. "Don't think about this for too long fellas. ... Just move on." Not that Tucker can return to his innocence, but he wishes that he can bury it under the rug. [One could argue with Tucker as to the wisdom of sharing this revelation with his readers (why destroy the illusion of others?), but concealing this story would stray from tucker max's tell all philosophy of revealing the gritty details of his life to his audience.] To hear him tell it, it seems that he is recommending we all return to the state of ignorant bliss. But can we ever really return back to a point of unknowing?

the conclusion that i draw from tucker max's experience is that the sexual freedom of women has, via the destruction of the masculine myth of control, increased the occurrence of jadedness in our culture.

we know what pleasure is. we are aware of pain. we are aware that we are only one out of millions, that the women that we pursue (or men) are using us as much as we are using them. thanks to the internet, advances in microbiology, neuroscience, and physics, and the increasing permissiveness of our society, we are slowly destroying the mystery that remains for us to uncover. our destruction of myths, not only in the realms of gender, but in all aspects of our construction of reality.

i keep flashing back to a book i read while in 7th grade about a young brain damaged girl that is transferred into the body of a monkey. (i can't find it on google). rendered a spectator to the fate of her species, she watches as human civilization breaks down and destroys itself. in final acts of desperation, droves of humans would link hands and walk into the sea. eventually, the protagonist's mother joins one of these sea-faring expeditions.

is jaded merely the first stop on our train to societal despair? what kind of extremism becomes permissible when the mystery is gone? what is our quest to destroy mystery and myths doing to our psyche? how does this affect our ability to find satisfaction in our daily lives?

sound reflecions: observations from SF MOMA's Soundtracks exhibit

karthik and i went to the SF MOMA today to check out the last few bits of the soundtracks exhibit. we saw this great video work that i can&...