What we talk about when we talk about what we talk about

It seems that everyone’s favourite hip formula for a title is “What we talk about when we talk about X”. It certainly caught my attention that there were two books by prominent fiction writers with titles of this form, Haruki Marukami’s memoir What I Talk about when I Talk About Running, and Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. I take these to be derived from Raymond Carver’s celebrated story What we Talk about When We Talk about Love, though I can’t be sure the phrase didn’t exist in some form before.

But it’s definitely taken on a life of its own. I was inspired to write this post by an article in The Atlantic titled What We Talk About When We Talk About Privacy. A recent book on the future of books included a chapter titled What We Talk About When We Talk About Metadata (which is somewhat ironic, because what we talk about has changed radically in the past few months, as metadata have gone from being a niche concern of bibliographers to a main topic in the discussion of domestic espionage). A quick Google Book search turns up books from the last few years: What We Talk About When We Talk About GodThe Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop, as well as WWTAWWTA  VisionEmotionError, Revolution, and Ralph Sampson.

So, why the swelling concern with talking about what we talk about when we talk about things? Obviously, it’s a great phrase, conveying both intense focus and ironic detachment. It promises to lift the lid on the “real story”, to get behind all the “talk”, while still sounding itself kind of chatty. To move to talking about what we talk about, you must have already mastered all the things people talk about on the relevant topic. Continue reading “What we talk about when we talk about what we talk about”

If you don’t have anything to hide, why don’t you speak English?

The NSA documents that have gotten the most attention in the German press are the ones that divide the world into 3 categories of reliability (and hence relative freedom from US espionage). Class 1 is the US itself (though the Snowden affair should lead them to question their own reliability). Class 2 comprises the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Class 3, subject to presumably no restrictions and given no trust, includes everyone else.

Naturally, the Europeans are offended to be in the same category as the Chinese and Iranians, but really, you have to wonder why they’re encoding all their communications in these weird non-English forms of communication. Trustworthy partners speak plain English!

Third most popular

Being a fan of the Dvorak keyboard layout, I was intrigued to learn that there is another QWERTY competitor, called Colemak. On the official Colemak web site one learns that

Colemak is now the 3rd most popular keyboard layout for touch typing in English, after QWERTY and Dvorak.

That formulation could be effective in other contexts. For example,

Standing up is now the 3rd most popular posture for sleeping, after lying down and sitting.

Or a political version:

Congress is now the 3rd most respected branch of the US government, after the executive and the judiciary.

Not going anywhere

Is it a good thing to be “not going anywhere”? I thought about this when I read President Obama’s comment that “Planned Parenthood is not going anywhere”. As with many things in life, it depends on what the alternative is. It could mean “not going someplace good”. In Obama’s phrase, where it’s not going is presumably “away”, or into the dustbin of history. Or going downhill.

It’s another example of a self-negation, an expression that can mean two exact opposites. If Planned Parenthood is “going downhill”, we mean the future looks bleak. If it’s “all downhill from here for PP”, the future looks pretty good. The difference in metaphorical emphasis between these two is subtle. In “going downhill” we emphasise that up is good and down is bad, and don’t explicitly mention the relative difficulty of going up and down. In “all downhill from here” we think about the difficulty of going up relative to down, and ignore the question of whether it’s better to be up or down. The attention is focused on some sort of forward motion that presumably has been impeded by the uphill slog. So if PP isn’t going anywhere, it’s not going downhill. If it is going somewhere, it’s because it’s all downhill from here.

Unterwegs mit Mum

According to the NY Times, “The Guilt Trip” is a “mild-mannered dud” of a comedy, in which Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand play son and mother on a road trip together for some not very interesting reason. But I’m amused by the German version of the title, above, which translates to “Travelling with Mum”. It has many of the classic qualities of German film titles that I catalogued in “What’s German for G.I. Joe?“: The modest wordplay of the original title has been stripped out, replaced by a straight three-word description of the plot. But then, you wouldn’t want the audience to fail to notice that the film is a foreign import, so the English “Mum” has to be in there. Except, the film American, so it really should have been “Mom”, but who knows the difference?

Of course, a really classic German film title would have played the description out longer, something like “A Totally Crazy Week in the Car Travelling Across America with Mum” (on the model of “The Unbelievable Trip in a Wacky Airplane” — “Airplane” in the original — since it helps to be sure the audience knows it’s a comedy).

Bad apples

I remember being mystified back when President Bush defended his administrations stewardship of the Iraqi penal system by saying that the torture enhanced interrogation torture (I guess it was officially, since people got prosecuted for it) at Abu Ghraib was the work of “a few bad apples”. I guess that phrase had been going around for a while, and now it’s certainly common. (For example, here is the assertion that “a few bad apples” are responsible for most complaints about doctors.)

But back in 2003 I was confused by this expression. Bush seemed to be using it to mean that the US occupation of Iraq, and the US military and antiterror policies more generally, were sound, and that the crimes were the isolated work of individuals with no broader implications. But why apples? Why not “a few bad people”? The reference is clearly to the phrase “one rotten apple spoils the barrel”. But that expression has exactly the opposite implication: Rottenness is not isolated. If you’ve found “a few bad apples”, you must expect that the rot is widespread. Now, there’s nothing compulsory about that metaphor — you may not think that one bad individual casts suspicion on the rest — but why are apples being gratuitously referred to when the desired implication is exactly the opposite? How did this adage get turned into its converse? Or is the referent actually something else?

Without a net

One linguistic phenomenon that fascinates me more than it probably should is when a word or phrase can have opposite meanings in different contexts. Like the English word cleave (e.g. Genesis 2:24 “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife”, as opposed to a meat cleaver.)

I recently watched Ken Burns’s controversial 15-hour documentary Jazz. One segment, focusing on Miles Davis’s turn to fusion and electronica, was titled “Tennis Without a Net”. This quotes the critic Gerald Early, who appears in the segment, but of course refers back to Robert Frost’s bon mot about free verse (“tennis with the net down”). The implication is that music is a game, whose spectators are judging above all the players’ adroitness in accomplishing inherently simple things under complicated artificial constraints. Free jazz has also been tagged with this undead witticism.

So playing “without a net” means making things too easy, too safe, since no one can say if you’ve gotten it wrong. But “performing without a net” can also mean taking exceptional risks, as in the title of the Grateful Dead’s 1990 album “Without a Net”. There the metaphor is the circus acrobat’s net, and the implication is that the band’s free improvisation is particularly risky, since they are performing live without the support of a predetermined musical structure.

And this reminds me again of Natalia Cecire’s fascinating attack on statistics as an “inherently puerile discipline”, because its highest priority is “commitment to the rules of the game”. (I should make clear, as I argued before, I disagree with Cecire’s opinion of statistics, but I find the framework she lays on it both creative and useful.) Are statisticians making their research too safe by performing with the net of mathematical methodology, or are humanists like Cecire setting themselves a too-easy task by playing with the net of rigorous quantitative analysis down?