Term Papers for Algernon

I have just finished writing my first paper for an online psychology class I’m taking, and I’ve had a couple of rather unsettling realizations. The assignment was to pick a topic from current events and then relate it back to some concept from psychology. I ended up writing my paper about the kerfuffle that happened after the Microsoft presentation at the E3 conference, relating it to concepts of mimicry and conformity. In the interest of staying on-topic, I’ll spare you the contents of my paper and get to why I found this assignment a little more daunting than a page-long paper for an online, non-credited, if-you-fail-this-it-totally-doesn’t-matter class really ought to be.

Current Events?
I am a bad American. I don’t watch the news regularly or read the paper. Granted, I have subscriptions to both The Atlantic and Psychology Today, but The Atlantic is largely geared toward shit-stirring issues like gender equality or neo-conservativism and Psychology Today consists mainly of puffy pop-psychology about how to spot a sociopath or toxic friend. Legitimate science : Vogue :: Psychology Today : Cosmo.

I used to listen to NPR’s hourly newscasts, but those quickly because incredibly depressing. It seems like everybody (NPR not included) is either sexing up the news to make it more entertaining or participating in not-so-subtle axe grinding. Thus, I walk away, figuring that the really big stories will show up in conversation or Facebook feeds. Hell, at least I found out about the tornadoes in Oklahoma. It’s not that I don’t read; it’s just that I prefer to spend my reading time reading books about psychology. That is, whenever I’m not being expected to read a textbook about C# or Oracle. Look, at least I’m not on the treadmill reading about Kardashians or looking through magazines for things I can want to buy. Right?

Combining Ideas?
I think working online is breaking my brain, and being a web developer isn’t helping too much, either. When this assignment asked me to take one idea (the current event) and apply other ideas to it (the psychology concepts), my brain locked up for a while. It felt like I was asking it to do something that I hadn’t done since 2000, and that may be true. Sure, I’ve been in school almost non-stop since I graduated with that business degree in 2000, but it’s been a different KIND of school. Art school rarely requires paper writing and, when it does, the bar is set pretty low. You’re not asked to come up with scholarly English, you’re asked to come up with something remotely coherent. The bar in web development school is even lower: the two papers I’ve been asked to write in the entire Associate Degree program have both been a page or less (double spaced!) and the expectation has been to simply say anything that makes any sort of sense and is at least spelled like English 90% of the time.

Fancy talky words?
In daily life, I write a lot. I type A LOT. But almost every bit of that writing consists of email, IMs or instructional training blogs. That is to say, almost everything that I ever write is presented in the plainest, basest form possible. Fancy words and metaphors wouldn’t suit me in most cases. In most cases, I’m sending someone a numbered list of steps on how to do something. Click here, right-click here. It puts forth an idea, but everything is stated as simply as possible. Complex ideas are presented WITH PICTURES. Have I resorted to the 21st century equivalent of cave painting?

I think this may be why I haven’t been writing as much lately, and this is probably exactly why I need to be writing more. I’m losing the ability to explain complex thoughts through English. The idea I’m trying to convey is right there in front of me, yet I can’t find the words to express it. It makes me feel like Charlie from Flowers for Algernon, witnessing a slow decline before attempting to return to my job as a janitor. There are parts of me that are scared of going to grad school because I have forgotten how to combine complex ideas into term papers. I fear that I would be there, surrounded by scholarly types, and all I would be able to muster would be bulleted lists and paragraphs that fell short of making any kind of sense or point. An oral exam would degenerate into arm waving and multiple uses of the phrase “ya know?” (Not that I’m going to grad school any time soon, but it’s still on the table somewhere underneath the more urgent tasks of bill paying, lawn mowing and showing up to work each day.)

So, here I am, telling you that I’m going to try and write more, if only for my own sake. I can’t go back to being a janitor.

Xi, Axe and Jib

There are two kinds of Scrabble players in the world: the “if” people and the “is” people. The “if” people stare angrily at their letters, thinking of 7-letter words they could spell if they just had I-N-G. The “is” people do their best with the letters they’ve got, getting by on the crafty use of 3-letter words and multiplier squares.

I learned a little something about Scrabble during the time I spent working at Vanderbilt. The place was a huge machine, where it took five powerful people getting in the same room to fire a person. As a result, I spent five years at a job that I, with my German sense of efficiency, boiled down to one hour out of eight. What did I do with the extra seven hours of my day? I played a lot of Scrabble.

Unfortunately, the same five powerful people decided when to give raises. In the way that they could never agree that I was pointless, they could also never agree to give me more money. Even I didn’t have the balls to ask for a raise. It’s hard to feel entitled when a skit about your at-work backgammon habit is performed at the office Christmas party.

As a result of my years at Vanderbilt, I am now a person who doesn’t play Scrabble with friends. I play Scrabble with people who have pissed me off. I’m an “is” player. I’ll xi, axe, and jib your ass to death.

What I’m getting at is that, while it’s all well and good to be able to lay down “slaying” or “jazzed,” the game of Scrabble isn’t about what you could spell. It’s about what you can spell.

This came up years ago when record companies were approaching new media by suing the hell out of college kids. Now, as magazines and newspapers are soiling themselves and going out of business because of bloggers, paper costs and current lack of ad sales, we’re all running around like chickens, praying to jump onto the Next Big Thing before it’s over. I call this “MySpacing.” It’s cool for a while, but the party can only be so big and so fun before somebody invites some douchebags who come and puke into your return air vent. In the case of MySpace, it got overrun by friend requests from bands (are you also being stalked by Ligion?), corporations and people who over-customized their pages so hard that viewing the page crashes the browser. (PS: we hate you, we don’t want to watch all those damn videos, and you definitely shouldn’t have set them all to auto-play.)

Magazine industry, take a lesson. Suing people and whining isn’t going to change a market that has already changed without you. Hire some people who are entertaining and informative (or keep the ones you have), build a user-friendly site, and put all the crap that anyone would want to know in one place. Then encourage linking. Don’t hoard your stuff. It’s pointless anyway, because your kids are probably more computer-literate than you. Make it easy for people to link you and give you credit. If you really want to get crazy, hire someone to track the trackbacks, and have that tracker give props to everybody who gave you props. Hey, if there’s anything bloggers love more than making fun of Speidi, it’s validation. I know, this will mean validating people you not-so-secretly hate and mock. Suck it up.

You’ll have to pay developers and maybe designers (but you’ll probably just hire developers who THINK they’re designers…no one’s bitter), but you won’t have to pay for paper or shipping. From the looks of the graphic design industry, you’re all starting to get wise to this, because you’re firing all of my friends.

As for me, I am done shaking my fist at people who think that web development and web design are the same discipline (aside from the bitchy comment in that last paragraph). I can point out the douchiness of the “design is development” assumption all day, and it’s not going to change the market. The market wants what it wants. So, in the vein of music and magazines, I’m going to evolve. I’m going to become a developer.

I’m going to xi, axe and jib your ass to death.

Unless, of course, you hire me. That alone will save you 😉

The Fastest Way to My Heart is English

My copious Twittering has resulted in an extension of a problem that I’ve had since nine years ago, when I stumbled onto the blog of one Opus Moreschi and developed my first blog-inspired internet crush. He wrote this poem about considering what he’d wear when he killed himself. It made me cry. I read on, only to find out that he was hyper-literate and funny. He reeled me in with words. He blogged without kid gloves. He got me started. My near-decade of word vomit is partly his fault.

A well-written blog is such a turn-on. You let me into your life, sharing your brain matter, expressing yourselves. Men honestly expressing themselves to women’s faces doesn’t happen a hell of a lot. I blame boobs. Guys get distracted, befuddled, or are too afraid of saying the wrong thing to say anything at all. They end up being grayed out, bland versions of themselves, especially the gooey, sensitive guys. Around girls, all those guys who weren’t very cool in high school clam up and freak out on the inside. Tip: letting a girl (or at least this girl) inside your squishy brains is exactly what will get you boob access.

The internet makes people ballsy. People will say things with their fingers that they would never say to your face. Sometimes this is bad. Sometimes, though, those sensitive guys accidentally tell you what’s in those lovely heads of theirs. They give you an all access pass, not realizing (or caring) that the walls have ears. Guys, I know why you do it because I do it, too. I wasn’t cool in high school, either. My present coolness is also debateable. Guys scare me. If I like a guy, I’ll talk to everybody in the room BUT him. See? I’ve got your number because it’s been mine since puberty. 555-spaz.

So there we are. I read blogs. I fall in like with strangers. I fall in like with people whose usernames I know but whose real names I don’t know. If someone amuses me or seems worth knowing, I just walk up and start typing to them. I would never do this in real life, especially to a guy. In real life, things always end up getting all weird. You can’t hold hands cause you’re not the same size, he comes to a party and can’t mingle properly, he accompanies you to goth night and takes off his shirt.

At the end of the day, I’ll take a good conversation over dinner and a movie. I’ve never said “wow, I really feel like I learned something about you by sitting silently next to you for two hours.” Fuck that. Tell me who you voted for and why. Tell me about the most painful thing that ever happened to you. Tell me how you got that scar across your hand. Tell me about the album that changed your life. Speak to me in metaphors and pop culture. Talk with your hands. Crack your skull open and see what falls out. Not literally.

So, whatever happened to (evil)’s first internet blog crush? He writes for Colbert now. Let the record show that my internet taste is impeccable.

Drawls in Print

I was watching a Tivoed show last night in which these two linguist dudes go to far away places to document dying languages. You see, linguists like to look at how languages mix and intermingle, how they evolve through various colonizations and wars.

I’ve thought about all this before, but not as it pertains to some tribe living in Siberia. I’ve thought about this in terms of the English language that we speak everyday. I’m endlessly fascinated by little variances that happen between regions. I’m even more fascinated by the effect that the internet and text messaging are having on us. Am I about to indict everyone who abbreviates “wtf?” No.

John McWhorter made an excellent point is his book, Doing Our Own Thing. Little changes in English are natural progressions that happen in a living language. Am I OK with people not knowing the difference between “your” and “you’re?” Hell to the no, but I think that the inventions that we’ve come up with out of necessity are still interesting.

With the growing popularity of Twitter and text messaging, does this mean that we’re going to come up with increasingly less-charactered ways of talking to each other? The people on Twitter have found ways to abbreviate a lot of stuff because of Twitter’s 140-character limit. I even had to look up “fml” on urbandictionary.com (“fuck my life”). Will the increasing popularity of the internet slowly merge all languages into one language? It would certainly simplify things, even if it would homogenize us a lot. Will the internet cause us to lose regional slang? Will people ever agree on a way to pronounce “syrup” and “pecan?” For example…

I follow the tweets of someone who tends to greet us with “what’s good?” I finally broke down and asked him if said question was rhetorical. He’s pretty much using it like “what’s up,” but I had never heard this expression before. He only lives 8 hours away.

There was recently a big to-do about a contestant on American Idol telling judges “be careful” as he was leaving the room. Those of us in the south know that he meant it like “drive safely” or “take care,” but the Idol judges took it as some kind of threat. Idol eventually issued an apology, worded in such a way as to imply that Kentucky (home of said contestant) was some other planet.

I’m still a grammar nazi at heart, but I also really enjoy slang. It’s a little snapshot of the time where we live. “Rad” screams 1980s, and “sweet” says 2000s. If you know what a grizzy is, you’re either from the hood or listening to rap music. If you’ve ever spoken the phrase “handstapleforehead,” you’re probably goth. The way we speak says a lot about where we’re from, but the way we type does, too. In a world where we type as much as we talk, it may pay for us to learn to hear an accent in type.