You are currently browsing the monthly archive for June 2009.

An excerpt from Brian Murphy’s 2005 book The Root of Wild Madder, an exploration of the majestic, sometimes Delphic, and always offbeat world of Persian rugs:

The challenges of taking literature across languages are huge and thoroughly discussed. Poetry takes the chore to a higher level.

First, let me say that this statement can be generalized beyond its application to literature. It pertains, in fact, to all language, beyond that of prose or the written form. This means it applies just as well to spoken verse, which is, after all, contemporary poetry’s origin, though much popular poetry was originally based on spoken verse– think Sappho. Second, the statement seems intuitive, but is worth a little bit of discussion. I think a common statement of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle applies well:

The measurement of position necessarily disturbs a particle’s momentum, and vice versa.

Or, in terms of language:

The measurement of expression necessarily disturbs a statement’s meaning, and vice versa.

Scientific treatises are rarely translated because the specificity of the terms usually leaves very little ambiguity and only exist in one language (English). There’s no problem in measuring expression because the meaning usually speaks for itself. But words used in poetry are often far more ambiguous and we praise the form for its ability to prod, poke, provoke, and elicit from seemingly humble expressions. The more energy spent on translating, that is, measuring the expression, the more the actual meaning in fact changes. The closer we come to a precise measurement of electron positions in orbitals, the more the position is disturbed, meaning we will lose other types of information. We are trading one for another. In the translation of language, poetry being the hardest, the more precise measurement we obtain of the statement, binding words from one language to words of another, the more the new expression through translation necessarily differs from the other in meaning.

Of course, some translations of poetry are still wildly successful or evocative. But they are not and can never be the same, leaving alone for the time being the differences in interpretation caused by different neural structures arising from different language structures! As I mentioned in my post on Anne Carson’s book of Sappho’s poetry:

Carson uses words such as sweetbitter, honeyvoiced, mythweaver, songdelighting. These are not words that we really have in English, but their composition follows standard rules for word formation and seem to be quite intelligible. Translators should never shirk from creating new words in order to translate. We need some frame of reference to understand these terms, after all. And if these new words help us see things we already understood in new ways, like a metaphor might, then these truly expand our power of comprehension, opening our minds to possibilities that we had never before considered.

Adding new words in English is exactly what we do when there’s something new to be described that another language does better, or if the word has some sort of economy. I applaud translators capable of this feat, for word creation is the best weapon short of borrowing (which defeats the purpose of translation) for defeating the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in language.


We were together
Only a little while,
And we believed our love
Would last a thousand years.

~Otomo no Yakamochi

Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek and his name is still found at the beginning of every episode or movie created either by fans or Paramount, including the latest (excellent) movie directed by JJ Abrams.  Roddenberry’s life ended in 1991, just prior to the public release of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, but not prior to the conclusion of Yvonne Fern’s work on Gene Roddenberry: The Last Conversation.

Though the title was certainly posthumous, she obtained an enormous corpus of material from Roddenberry, asking questions that he had never been asked before. The book is utterly engrossing reading, in part because Roddenberry reveals a narcissism not entirely uncommon to science fiction progenitors. Many answers are contrived by Roddenberry to seem profound, as when he argues that he created Kirk and Spock as two halves of the same person. In the best case scenario, he’s implying that he created them having the next 3 seasons and several movies in mind when he made them. But he never did. That’s quite silly, and I don’t want to get into all the reasons why because they’re too arcane and Trek-oteric, but much more powerful arguments have been made that, if anything, he unconsciously developed Kirk as a virtually archetypically superego, Spock as ego, and McCoy as id.

Even worse, Roddenberry keeps invoking the word humanity for so many weird reasons. You can tell he’s grasping at his own greatness and not quite getting there. I am sure that the author must have realized this, but perhaps only after the fact. It is clear that Roddenberry bought into his own myth: that he was a visionary. Many Star Trek fans adulated him, so it’s not a mystery as to how or why. It also explains part, though not all, of the comments about money being obsolete in the future — statements that would involve destruction common sense (see this excellent explanation of the glory of currency by Murray Rothbard) to say nothing of human nature. Ironic, since in “What are Little Girls Made of?”, an original series episode, Kirk argues with Dr. Roger Corby over his achievement of creating robots that feel no hate, jealous, or anger, saying that they will also never know love, tenderness, and sentiment.

As you can see, although I haven’t laid eyes on this book in probably five years, the book definitely messed with my head. I am someone for whom Star Trek can be said to be a religion. I don’t wear it on my sleeve, like some, but it comes out in many conversations, my nickname, all sorts of ways. Gene Roddenberry was demolished by this book. I can’t imagine that the late Majel Roddenberry, who was a gifted and charismatic keeper of the flame, would have been pleased with this. His sometimes extraordinary and cruel vice, which will not be mentioned further here, were not actually balanced by all the humanity hogwash. If anything, they were exacerbated by the delusions of godhood. I was really, really, really disappointed. Star Trek has inspired millions and will continue to do so — and Roddenberry deserves an enormous amount of credit for that — but it goes only so far. It turns out that Bob Justman, Gene Coon, Herb Solow, and many others deserve almost equal credit.

Nothing wrong with that.

In any case, as I read the book, I took a few notes on passages that seemed interesting. My favorite is an exchange on “leadership.” Gene says, my emphasis:

You see, Captain Kirk is a good man. And he is also an excellent man—well trained, experienced. But he is a man who was born to be a leader. And whatever that is, it is what makes him capable of convincing others who are less experienced, less able, to allow him to lead. In his leadership, he gives others the opportunity to grow. He isn’t so in love with leading that he forgets his duty. His duty is to seek out life—and that also means the lives in his care—to bring them along, to see that they have the opportunity to learn and grow to their fullest. Their fullest may not be a quarter of what Kirk’s is, but it’s theirs and they have a right to it.

This is the best explication of great leadership that I have yet encountered. In order to be a great military commander, you probably need to be terrific at training troops, understanding logistics, and possessing keen strategical insight. Someone who fits that bill is General Douglas MacArthur. In order to be a great politician, you need to have a sense of people, vision, and drama (poise, theater, timing). Someone who fits that bill might be Margaret Thatcher. In order to be a great team captain, you are going to need will power, demanding requirements, and respect of others. I can think of several in basketball: Michael Jordan and Tim Duncan come to mind. In order to be a great fashion model, in order to separate from the pack, you need an engaging personality, an entrepreneurial command, not to mention tenacious will. Heidi Klum comes to mind. But what do all of these people have in common? They all have the ability to, as Roddenberry put it, coax everyone’s full potential.

Kirk did it on an episode-by-episode basis, demanding brilliance from his chief engineer, results from his first officer, instant vaccines from his chief medical officer. He expects genius first, but he’s not disappointed or vindictive when they do not come through because he knows that it is simply not possible. MacArthur is often considered to be one of the greatest commanders of men the world has ever known — his ability to train troops was unsurpassed, and many of the greats, including Eisenhower, came through his command. Thatcher sapped every bit of strength and potential the Conservative Party had in order to revolutionize and revive the United Kingdom. Before she took over, it was the poorest Western European democracy. When she left, it was the richest. Michael Jordan learned in part from Phil Jackson how to respect his teammates and to will a team to victory — two sets of back-to-back-to-back championships. Many of his teammates overachieved and never did so well again on any other team. Heidi Klum has encouraged and allowed Tim Gunn’s peculiar genius for leadership to bloom, so much so that he probably overshadows her in terms of love from Project Runway fans.

So this is all to say that I think Roddenberry’s statement is a necessary condition for great leadership. It may not be sufficient, the exact conditions for that changing based on situation, context, or industry. I think that one of the enduring mysteries for me is how he might have unwittingly said these words, but done so poorly at executing them in his many years involved in Star Trek. Even after he had long been removed from day-to-day running of TOS or TNG, he seemed to rarely if ever express any humility, any mention of others at all. Indeed, it must be said to helping others to fulfill their potential has to be more than asking them to do it in your own name.

Sigh, I can’t end this post having written all this negative stuff about the creator of Star Trek. His contribution to the world is far beyond what most of us mortals ever get to do. Kirk lives on today as an example of leadership. Spock lives on, if not as President Obama (contrary to the MSM’s belief, he is much more a TNG than a TOS character), then as a courageous, selfless, and devoted friend. McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu, Chekov — they’re all there too, to say nothing of Picard, Riker, Data, Troi, Crusher, Worf, and LaForge. These are all his children. They’ve inspired so many firsts. Interracial couples, interracial children, dozens of astronauts, writers, teachers, actors, mothers, fathers, children, challenged persons, businesspersons, just all kinds of people. And it is the thing that, thank God, will not die. It will keep going and going, forever. And all this… from Roddenberry? The answer to the question is that it seems like it’s one of those paradoxes that mostly come from human perception. We’re not all light and we’re not all dark. Maybe Herbert Muller writes it best when he discusses the Hagia Sophia:

Only, my reflections failed to produce a neat theory of history, or any simple, wholesome moral. Hagia Sophia, or the ‘Holy Wisdom,’ gave me instead a fuller sense of the complexities, ambiguities, and paradoxes of human history. Nevertheless, I propose to dwell on these messy meanings. They may be, after all, the most wholesome meanings for us today; or so I finally concluded.

This rambling post is all about messy meanings, but they are undoubtedly the most wholesome meanings for us today.

On Google Reader, we are able to share posts quickly for commentary with our friends even easier than on blogs. Soon, Google Wave will alter this by synchronizing our sharing on Reader with our blogs, which means they’re going to get synergy from their purchase of blogger. One of my friends, a graphics artist at Dreamworks, says Google Wave is what email would be like if it was invented today. I tend to agree. ( To learn more about Google Wave, watch Google’s debut of it. )

Can we say the same about today’s architecture? Is there much revolutionary going on? If there is, is it rooted in some school or thinker of the past, or is it completely anew? First, I should make plain here that I am distinguishing between the architecture practiced on widespread commercial scales for suburban development from the more distinguished and idiosyncratic architecture likely to occur in Architectural Digest or featured in an architecture class in Harvard — not Cincinnati, however, for their students are more practical, yet no less intelligent (or such is my belief).

And so, I think it would be a stretch to call this latter form revolutionary, but we could definitely call it rectilinear. In some respects, this harkens to the Modernist constructions of the past, the rectilinear meme for which we continuously taught in architecture programs and highlighting as a glorious echo in history. What art history or architecture student does not know the name Le Corbusier? Or the modernist Bauhaus movement, from which the wave of “cubist” “open floor plan” designs exploded? So to tie this all back to my original point, my friends and I have been discussing the architecture on a blog we read, called freshome: Interior Design & Architecture, through Google Reader. The best thing about it? The wonderful pictures. Lots of em. Reading the blog is like reading a big architecture magazine and being able to imagine yourself inhabiting the homes it features. freshome often posts pictures of spacious, open homes with long blue pools under clear blue skies surrounded by deep green prairies. They’re not all strictly rectilinear, meaning “a polygon all of whose edges meet at right angles. Thus the interior angle at each vertex is either 90° or 270°.” Some of the homes shoot into the sky, even a few have curves! But it seems like most are rectilinear to an extreme. Here are some examples:

This is the House of Vision by Kouichi Kimura, discussed in a post here. It’s really worth looking into because it’s really beautiful inside, but even moreso because the rectilinear fashion becomes a fetish there. Hey, if that’s your thing……..

The Los Andes House by Juan Carlos Doblado, written up here. Very open, windows spanning the length(s) of the house, complemented by… you guessed it… a long one lane pool and prairies! There are many others: Casa Gutierrez by P&P Architects, the majestic Hilltop House by Safdie Rabines, etc.

I have two points to make on this subject. One: this is not so different from most architecture in Western history, though you’ll find some rather astonishing forms in other cultures as the norm. Gives you some food for thought on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Two: I actually think that an example from Star Trek history, yes STAR TREK, explains it much more eloquently than I. Recently Doug Drexler, a long-time art everyman for the Star Trek franchise (most recently Visual Effects CG Supervisor for Battlestar Galactica — a not insubstantial job one would think), posted somewhat of a memorial to Robert Justman, one of his predecessors as a Trek everyman, who was instrumental to keeping the dream of Trek alive for years. Justman as a producer for Trek had to be a master of cost control or the whole show would come apart. Drexler explains this mastery thusly (emphasis mine):

1986 – Since you are a professional… Bob reaches inside a file drawer… stops and looks up at me wryly… you ARE a professional? Yes sir, I think so, I reply. Bob removes a small box from the cabinet and sets it on his desk. I watch him remove something from it with the same sense of awe I had when I watched Reger uncover a self powered lighting panel in “Return of the Archons”. From the cardboard box he withdraws a five inch hand modeled prototype of the Enterprise D with pencil drawn windows on it. Bob smiles at my slack jawed reaction… Greg Jein built it for us… not a straight line on it… he says proudly. I smile, because I know that in producer-speak, that means “expensive”.

And so ends the mystery of the fetish of the rectilinear.

Blog Stats

  • 42,122 hits