“corie did not simply learn etuë; she changed it.”

Resolved: Two nerds fall in love at a constructed language conference, develop their own private language, then bear and raise its only native speaker. It is going somewhere, and I know roughly where, but I’m not totally sure how to get it there yet. It seems to involve staring at a glowing rectangle of light, then pressing many of the buttons below it in certain mystical sequences. For a very long time.

Corie did not simply learn Etuë; she changed it.

This was true, first, in the sense that she motivated top-down changes. The finely tuned system of affixes denoting intent was immediately vexed by the unknowable motivations of babies; at first, Noah and Dorcas used the system they had developed to describe random events, then the acts of the insane, but neither sat right with Corie’s mix of fierce intentionality and incomprehensible fixations. (The marriage went through a troubled period immediately after Dorcas finalized the morphology of baby-intent, because neither Dorcas nor Noah could resist using it to describe the other’s actions; after three days on the brink of separation, they imposed a strict taboo on derisive use of Etuë’s semantic richness. Forthright insult and invective were still permitted.) Corie learned to use the new affixes to describe other children her age, but she always rendered her own intentions with the rational adult construction except, occasionally, in knowing play.

Her influence was subtler than that, though. She soon grew able to speak faster than Noah, and to correct his errors—of which, it emerged, he made spectacularly many, and Dorcas even more, since she did not speak it every day. When Corie started day care, Dorcas switched to Etuë at home for practice. More, though, she expanded the language’s use. Dorcas and Noah enjoyed constructing brief one- or two-word declarative statements, similar to Noah’s “Etualoïn.” Corie, full of ideas, was not content with such simplicity. She fixated early on the adjectivizing affix “do,” an easy way to apply an idea of considerable precision to a person or thing; her toys developed highly articulated personalities, perhaps best exemplified by Akaïjado Jo, the barking-but-not-with-sincere-intent-to-harm dog. It took Noah and Dorcas minutes to figure out, one night, the subject of a sentence, which turned out to be friends of hers who didn’t like the kids some of whom intentionally and some unintentionally tore the ear from Akaïjado Jo.


Every time I come back from Taipei, I resolve to study up on my Chinese. In an effort to actually roll that ball a little this time, I signed up for yet another account on my friend Greg’s startup, Memrise, a few days ago. I’m plugging it now because the service has improved to the point that I think I might use it enough to make some real progress. Practice sessions are low-stress and bite-sized enough to do as a break at work in lieu of, e.g., checking Facebook, and they’re online, which means I don’t have to drag my Rosetta Stone CD to work or buy a CD drive for my laptop. I think they’ve bought into the Farmville game just enough to keep users motivated—the governing metaphor for your knowledge is now a “greenhouse,” where you sprout seedlings (e.g. recently learned meanings of Chinese characters), and a “garden” where you maintain them after they’ve sprouted (i.e. you’ve practiced them enough to solidify them somewhat in your brain). You’re informed when a piece of knowledge is solid enough to be moved to the garden, and if the site’s practice schedule determines that you aren’t practicing an item in a way that best solidifies it, you’re warned that it’s “wilting.” There is a social aspect to the site, which I haven’t used yet.

I’m also appreciating some aspects of the Chinese relative to the year I took at Princeton. There was a lot that was good about the Princeton method, but the one thing it left me weak in despite copious practice was characters. Princeton’s approach, like most language courses, starts out training you in phrases you’d be likely to speak, e.g., “I am an American,” the first five characters I learned in Chinese 101 at Princeton. Memrise’s approach to Chinese seems a bit weird by contrast because you’re learning things like “fetus” and “ladle” and “field,” all of which seem entirely crackers unlikely to arise in casual conversation. But those characters form the roots of more complex characters that go into words like “dumpling” and “old” and “fish”—the sorts of things you might be likely to read on signs or menus. And it is a lot easier to remember “earth + ladle = old” than it is to remember the character holistically. Your eventual goal is holistic memory, of course, but in the near term what you want is just to be able to recognize the characters, and being able to combine them out of their elements this way is incredibly useful even when the combination doesn’t make sense (and it rarely does). In fact, it’s so useful that I understand why people who really get it can delude themselves into thinking it does make sense.

Anyway, I don’t know to what extent the cognitive science behind the mnemonics and practice schedule represents an advance on, say, Rosetta Stone, but Greg assures me it’s a lot, and I think the motivational aspect is likely to be even more powerful. When I’m goofing off, the effort of digging out my Rosetta Stone CD and special headset and getting everything spun up is a big obstacle. Keeping a Memrise tab open in my browser is easy enough that I’ll click over to water my cute little knowledge garden in lieu of a Facebook break.

I definitely would not counsel anyone to rely on Memrise alone for Chinese pedagogy, or probably any other language pedagogy; I think grammar requires a different approach. But I think the Memrise approach is going to be very useful and powerful for vocabulary, which is an immense hurdle especially in character-based languages. For the first time in a while, I’m a little bit optimistic that I might pay my next visit to Taiwan as a semi-literate. That’s a sufficiently amazing prospect that I’m prepared to be preemptively grateful for it.

prolegomenon to “the american infant as manic pixie dream girl”

The title of this post presents a concept that I’ve been tossing around the last day or two. It feels like, if I’m going to bother at all, it ought to be in the context of a reasonably well-thought-out essay, rather than the off-the-cuff crap I usually post here. But, in tossing around the concept, I naturally consulted the repository of all human thought. Although the entry on “infants” contained no germane material, the entry on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl reproduces an interesting interview with Zoe Kazan on the topic:

Do you think of Ruby as a manic pixie dream girl?

[Makes a face.]

What? What do you think of that term?

Well, I am not a fan. Look, I don’t think of her as that; I hope other people don’t think of her as that. I think if they do they’re misunderstanding the movie. That term is a term that was invented by a blogger, and I think it’s more of a term that applies in critical use than it does in creative use. It’s a way of describing female characters that’s reductive and diminutive, and I think basically misogynist. I’m not saying that some of those characters that have been referred to as that don’t deserve it; I think sometimes filmmakers have not used their imagination in imbuing their female characters with real life. You know, they’ve let music tastes be a signifier of personality. But I just think the term really means nothing; it’s just a way of reducing people’s individuality down to a type, and I think that’s always a bad thing. And I think that’s part of what the movie is about, how dangerous it is to reduce a person down to an idea of a person.

Well, yeah, there’s a line in the movie that basically questions the idea of manic pixie dream girls: “The quirky, messy women whose problems make them appealing are not real.”

Sure. What bothers me about it is I think that women get described that way, but it’s really reflective of the man who is looking at them, and the way that they think about that girl. Not about who that girl really is or what her personality actually is. I think that to lump together all individual, original quirky women under that rubric is to erase all difference. Like, I’ve read pieces that describe Annie Hall as a manic pixie dream girl. Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. To me, those are fully fledged characters that are being played by really smart actresses. I just think it’s misogynist. I don’t want that term to survive. I want it to die.

It is perhaps obvious that I use the term “interesting” euphemistically, mostly.

I mean, I’m in sympathy with the idea that seeing the world through TVTropes-colored glasses is not always a good thing. But the whole thing is such a shambles that you can sort of only begin at the beginning.

“Look, I don’t think of her as that; I hope other people don’t think of her as that. I think if they do they’re misunderstanding the movie.”

Because the creator’s conscious motivations are the Rosetta Stone? Maybe you wrote her that way unintentionally. (Really, would anyone write a character that way intentionally?)

“That term is a term that was invented by a blogger…”

Objection: Relevance?

“… and I think it’s more of a term that applies in critical use than it does in creative use.”

Right. Noticing a trend that organizes lots of art is a critical act, not a creative one. Is this a problem?

“It’s a way of describing female characters that’s reductive and diminutive, and I think basically misogynist.”

This (skipping merrily past the questionable use of “diminutive”) is the grammatical Necker cube that buys Kazan the appearance of an argument. It is correct inasmuch as the MPDG archetype is an instance or possibly a consequence of (presumptively usually unconscious) misogyny. This sentence is constructed, perhaps also unconsciously, to deflect that misogyny onto anyone who deploys the concept. It’s easy to see how this ramifies later on.

“I’m not saying that some of those characters that have been referred to as that don’t deserve it; I think sometimes filmmakers have not used their imagination in imbuing their female characters with real life. You know, they’ve let music tastes be a signifier of personality.”

Here she lets slip an understanding of the term’s actual etiology and use.

“But I just think the term really means nothing; it’s just a way of reducing people’s individuality down to a type, and I think that’s always a bad thing.”

Notice who’s being reduced. Not characters; people. Who are we talking about here?

“What bothers me about it is I think that women get described that way, but it’s really reflective of the man who is looking at them, and the way that they think about that girl. Not about who that girl really is or what her personality actually is. I think that to lump together all individual, original quirky women under that rubric is to erase all difference.”

The last sentence is plainly wrong; categorizing things doesn’t preclude acknowledging differences. But again we see it: “women” get described that way. It’s reflective of how a man thinks about “that girl,” not about who she “really” is. Kazan has taken a term explicitly defined to characterize some women in fiction and asserted that the term is pernicious because it diminishes women in reality. It goes bizarrely unacknowledged that anyone who thinks the MPDG archetype is useful would agree resoundingly that it doesn’t describe real people. The very reason to have a term for it is to make it easier to understand this particular, problematic way that fiction systematically deviates from reality.

I have no opinion about RUBY SPARKS, Katharine Hepburn in BRINGING UP BABY, or Diane Keaton in ANNIE HALL; Kazan may be more than justified in defending her movie and those actresses. But it is nothing short of fascinating to me that Kazan both wrote and played the very character who occasioned this rodomontade—and, more amazingly, that character is literally a fictional character made real. It is patently crackers and yet nearly unquestionable that this whole torrent of denial and self-contradiction is secondary to Kazan’s conflation of herself with Ruby Sparks. When Sparks is attacked, she feels attacked; when Sparks is stereotyped, she feels stereotyped.

And where I’m trying to go with this is there seems something strangely universal about it, and I’m struggling to articulate what. It’s something like: We are all romantic leads in our own movies, prey to an audience prone to “misunderstanding.” Sometimes they point out that our characters are adhering to some script that is insultingly worn-out or simplistic, so much so as to have a derogatory name affixed by a group of bronies and tentacle-porn connoisseurs. We’re insulted by this, because sometimes people really act that way or it’s subversive or if you knew what I knew you’d understand. Because we’re up to our ears in the motivation we’ve worked out in our heads, and we’ve conflated it with the script we’re reading.

But the RL Trope is one back from the TV Trope, of course. RL Tropes create TV Tropes. This is critical. The RL Trope is thinking of women as vessels of a particular kind of pleasure and redemption; the TV Trope is the MPDG. It is sexist to apply the TV Trope to a real person; to apply the RL Trope to a real person is to accuse that person of sexism, which may or may not be justified but is not of itself sexist.

But if you can’t tell the RL Trope from the TV Trope, you might think it was.

So this is where I am, some wibbly-wobbly idea that people think (e.g.) acknowledging racism promotes racism because of this confusion between script and character, essence and extension, the fundamental attribution error, something. Some idea that you can’t see fiction that way unless you see real people that way; you wouldn’t perceive these correlations if you didn’t at some level endorse them.

Which actually might arise from a certain childlike trust in the provenance of fiction.

Or maybe it’s just a backfilling Yalie phoning it in. I don’t know, and I’m up too late. But it feels like there’s something here, still waiting.

uses of language retrospectively revelatory anent the proclivities of renly baratheon [spoiler alert]

The first time through A Song of Ice and Fire, I totally didn’t catch Renly/Loras. The second time, having been forewarned, it was fairly clear from various only partially obfuscated bits of dialogue (“praying” in the tent before the battle with Stannis, “shove it up some place even Renly never found,” the non-consummation of his marriage to Margaery Tyrell, &c). The third time through, I’m noticing word choices in things totally unrelated to Renly/Loras, where I’m pretty sure GRRM is just being cheeky. Thus:

“Could it be that Lord Renly, who looked so like a young Robert, had conceived a passion for a girl he fancied to be a young Lyanna? That struck him as more than passing queer.” A GAME OF THRONES

“She heard Renly begin a jest, his shadow moving, lifting its sword, black on green, candles guttering, shivering, something was queer, wrong…” A CLASH OF KINGS

“‘Renly will scarce have unlimbered his siege engines before Father takes him in the rear.'” A CLASH OF KINGS

More on this, potentially, when the library’s copy of A STORM OF SWORDS comes off its hold, or when some kind soul lends it to me.

the family-jewel-hinged jaw

Speaking of Delany:

In DHALGREN, the protagonist, the Kid, publishes a chapbook of poetry titled BRASS ORCHIDS.

For my own reasons, I just checked the etymology of “orchid.” It comes from the Latin “orchis,” referring to a specific type of orchid. This arises from the Greek “orkhis,” which means “testicle.”

So the chapbook might as well be called BRASS BALLS.

I cannot believe this was an accident.

(I’m sure I’m not the first one to discover this. But Delany-as-Steiner, for all his/her willingness to conduct some pretty detailed dissection of Delany’s animating metaphors, didn’t bother to point it out. I guess she/he’s willing to leave him/her[self] a few secrets after all.)

notes on a blissed-out metagraphial interval

I spend something like 98% of my writing time thinking that what I’m doing is no good or, at best, workmanlike. It’s probably been worse these days because I do a lot of it in 45-minute increments on the train, which is barely enough to upload enough information to do any of the high-level edits that need to happen. But today I spent three hours revising and extending what can’t be more than two pages of prose, and it was narcotic. I wouldn’t call it a flow state — it didn’t feel effortless — but I had a depth of concentration and grain of resolution that were just light-years better than any mental work I’ve done in a long time. I’ve been riding that high all evening. I’d post the results here, but they’re emotional scenes and key plot points and would probably make yet less sense out of context than most of the other gobbledygook I put up here, which would be an achievement.

Anyway, I suppose this is of interest to those people (of doubtful existential status, except for me) who wonder why I write. I do it because I can’t do anything else that well. I don’t often get that thrill of mastery when I do it, and it probably isn’t justified when I do — but it doesn’t really matter. John Scalzi has a sobering post, which I cannot unearth, that mentions a few best-selling novels near the turn of the century, and they ring no bells; the Oscars are likewise famous for valorizing the forgettable. The book, if it ever becomes a book, cannot be counted on to matter, although of course it will be the only thing that has a chance to matter to anyone other than me. To me, though, what’s important — not by ideology or stipulation, but by sheer ungainsayable force of impact — is the work. The lessons in balance and rhythm and image and detail. The vestibular shifts and lily-pad node-jumps in semantic space. The worm’s-eye view of language’s associative panorama, ungodly vast and yet so starkly steadily insufficient, the essence of what’s really meant when we are told that deserts, too, are full of life. The hard, gemlike flame.

Likely related: I’ve been reading Delany on his own writing, via his critical alter ego, K. Leslie Steiner (collected in THE STRAITS OF MESSINA, a “first printing O.P.” of which I purchased from Labyrinth Books in Princeton for $30, which must have been a steal for either them or me). It’s humbling — not so much the analysis, which is typically preoccupied with the dynamics of various strongly reified critical concepts that I don’t really understand, but the quotations from his fiction. It’s also exhausting, particularly “Some notes toward a reading of DHALGREN,” so today I picked up Michael Chabon on writing in general (MAPS AND LEGENDS: WRITING ALONG THE BORDERLANDS). And there I find a comment on this passage of Conan Doyle, where Holmes critiques Watson’s rendering of “A Study in Scarlet”:

Honestly, I cannot congratulate you upon it. Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science, and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid.

Holmes may or may not be right concerning Watson, but it’s an interesting take on Delany. He’s unbelievable with language, and better in fiction than in criticism, but the metaphysics of criticism remain the preoccupation of his fiction; that’s what he focuses on in his disguised self-analysis, and it certainly explains some of his novels’ cool and distance to assume that he wants them read primarily as reports of interactions among critical objects.

(The point, such as it is, ends here, but for context, here’s Chabon’s response to the Conan Doyle text he’s quoted:)

Some of us feel, of course, that the fifth proposition of Euclid would only be improved by a nice juicy elopement. This is a typical bit of good-humored self-mockery, with Conan Doyle displaying the sly with for which he is too rarely, even by his most ardent supporters, given credit.

(Euclid’s fifth proposition is the parallel postulate, which concerns a triangle, so there’s at least a little bit of sly wit going on.)

president allstate and the non-independence error

Dennis Haysbert, who played President David Palmer on 24, says that customers who switch from Geico to Allstate save an extra several hundred dollars.

Let’s grant his claim. Quick, true or false: Customers who switch from Allstate to Geico also save an extra several hundred dollars?

I have no idea, which is the point: The answer isn’t “false.” However, I can tell you one thing: Customers who switch from Allstate to Geico definitely save money. How do I come by this oracular certainty?

Because otherwise, they wouldn’t switch.

Most of you get where this is going, but if you’re not following, let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s pretend Geico and Allstate assign premiums at random with the same mean and variability — on average, customers are assigned the same premium, but any given customer will get two different premiums on one or the other side of that. Let’s say you’re a Geico customer. If your randomly assigned premium at Allstate is lower, you’ll switch, confirming President Allstate’s claim. If it’s higher, you won’t switch — which doesn’t have any effect on his claim at all. And if you’re a Geico customer considering an offer from Allstate, the only way you can affect his claim is by switching, against rationality, when the premium is higher.

I’m banging on this rather anodyne point because it’s actually astonishing how vacuous the claim is when you give it just a little thought. The only thing you’ve learned from President Allstate’s endorsement is that people who switch to Allstate from Geico usually don’t end up paying more money. Which amounts to saying that, on average, they’re rational.

What’s interesting to me about this claim is that it’s an instance of the non-independence error — selecting a subset of cases based on whether they show an effect, then calculating the effect size in those cases. This is, of course, a badly biased estimator of the effect size in the population; colleagues of mine have used it (not in published papers) to classify what word a subject was viewing based on the hemodynamic signal of a carefully chosen subset of the surrounding air (note that this sort of stunt is not quite in the spirit of identifying neural correlates of perspective-taking in dead fish, whose point is multiple comparisons correction, not non-independence.) Anyway, this is a problem that’s recently been made much of in the realms of neuroimaging and single-unit neurophysiology; Ed Vul’s web page provides links to many of the signal articles on the topic, most of which I haven’t read. So it was a bit of a shock to see it in a TV commercial. And it makes me wonder how much decision-making is happening on the basis of too-cleverly chosen samples.

Just as an illustration, here are a few things President Allstate could have said that I’d have viewed as better endorsements of his company:

“Geico customers switching to Allstate save more than Allstate customers switching to Geico.” (This at least implies that the expected value of switching one way is greater than the expected value of saving the other way, although there are some obvious scenarios in which that’s irrelevant to most people — maybe a few rare people save a lot and most people don’t save much. Also, if neither population saves much, maybe you don’t care that Allstate has the advantage.)

“Geico customers switching to Allstate are more likely to save money than Allstate customers switching to Geico.” (Again, this implies a genuine advantage, although not necessarily at a scale that you care about — imagine it’s 2% versus 1%.)

“Geico customers are more likely than not to save money by switching to Allstate.” (This is what he actually wants to say. Why didn’t he say it? It’s not just because the amount of money saved is quantifiable — so is the likelihood of saving.)

glorious lymanisms

The writers on THE WEST WING 6.3, “Third-Day Story,” were obviously having a field day with Josh’s lines. Here are the highlights, all regarding (a) Turkmenistan or (b) a bet with CJ that he can’t survive without snacking on pastries until the end of the week:

“This is some nutbag dictator of the week begging for surplus rutabagas.”

“It’s a nation of Labradors run by Zeppo Marx!”

“Belly up to the griddle, Griselda.”

“C.J.’s trying to trap me and she’s going down like a cheap pair of salad tongs.”

“You can throw me in a vat of custard with a chocolate-covered snorkel. It’s going to be you and me this weekend, and you are wearing a floppy hat!”

“We need a coalition. We’re being mugged by a melon-worshipper!”

“It’s like a torture chamber designed by renegade Keebler elves.”

(Thanks to twiztv.com for absolving me from rewinding the DVD over and over and over again, and apologies to Turkmenistan)