Friday, March 27, 2009

Me or Not Me? That is the Question

The word “doppelganger” is a German term which has become part of the common vernacular. It is used to describe an exact duplicate or at least a look alike of someone. In most stories about “doppelgangers” the sighting of one portends bad luck or even death.

I’m not sure how I would react if I saw a replica of me walking down the street. Part of me would think, cool maybe I can talk him into going to work for me next week and I can sleep late and watch movies all day. The rest of me would be thinking, holy carbon copy, Batman, I have an evil twin. This is going to be like that episode of Knightrider, or was it The A-Team, or maybe, wait, it was Bewitched. Remember that mischievous Serena who was always making life harder for Samantha and Darrin, both Darrins– who, oddly enough, looked nothing alike.

I came across a new word the other day. A word related to doppelganger: “Googleganger”. This word refers to someone who has the same name you do who you find by typing your name into the box on the Google website.

Of course I had to do this. I found a few Chris Pyle’s out there in the world. There is a Chris Pyle who is an artist/illustrator from Indianapolis. He is described on one blog as having great style, full of color and whimsy. I have no idea what this Chris Pyle is like, but I know if my art was described as full of whimsy I’d want to slug the guy who said it. Whimsy has the artistic gravitas of cute or sweet. Kittens playing with a ball of yarn are whimsical. A toddler gleefully crawling on the floor with a passel of puppies is whimsical. Four years in art school, thousands of dollars in art supplies and eating ramen noodles for breakfast, lunch and dinner in order to put one’s life and soul into one’s art is as whimsical as using a ball peen hammer to carefully break each one of your own toes. Whimsy this, pal.

There is a filmmaker named Chris Pyle. Hey, I once wanted to be a filmmaker named Chris Pyle. This Chris makes documentaries, mostly about nature and wildlife. According to his company’s website he has worked on the ice pack of the Arctic Ocean, the deserts of California and the storm-tossed Sea of Japan. I have no desire to freeze my ear lobes off in the Arctic, sweat like a state’s witness testifying against guys named Vinnie “Ice Pick” Martino, Johnny Shiv, and Benny the Multi-Speed Blender in the California desert or toss my lunch further than a steroid pumped shot putter in the storm-tossed Sea of Japan. Okay, I’ll let him be the filmmaker Chris Pyle.

The guy mentioned most often in the search results is Christopher H. Pyle. This is a very accomplished man. He is a professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts specializing in constitutional law, civil liberties, and American political thought. He has published learned texts about political history and human rights. Books like “The President, Congress, and the Constitution: Power and Legitimacy in American Politics”, “Extradition, Politics and Human Rights” and “Getting Away with Torture: Secret Government, War Crimes and the Rule of Law.” I’m sure at least one of these books is one your nightstand right now. Not because it is a bestselling page-turner you can’t wait to sink you cerebral teeth into, but because seventeen words into it you are snoring faster than a bear in January on heavy doses of Nyquil.
“Extradition, Politics and Human Rights” is currently ranked 1,686,988 on the Amazon Books bestsellers list and you better get your order in soon because they say they only have two copies in stock. I shouldn’t make fun of Christopher H. Pyle. His books are for sale on and my writing is available if you steal my laptop and open the documents file.

I am mentioned seven times in the first five pages listed when you search my name on Google which seems to me pretty impressive. I decided to try the “googleganger” thing with the name of a friend. This friend lives in Dodge and works for the school district so there are similarities, but he is eleven years younger so surely he is less accomplished than I. I won’t rub it in when I find he is not as well represented in the cyber search engine world. So, I type his name in and on the first five pages he is mentioned, well, uh, forty-four times…darn.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Brackets and Hoops and Dunks, Oh My

Brackets throughout the land pit Louisville against North Carolina. Personally, I would love to see a championship game between Stephen F. Austin and Robert Morris, which sounds more like a couple of retired accountants in a gin rummy tournament at Boca Raton.

Explain this to me. Stephen F. Austin University is named after the man called the Father of Texas and the university is in Texas. That all makes sense. The sports teams there are nicknamed the Lumberjacks. Huh? I looked up Mr. Austin on the internet and couldn’t find a single picture of him holding one of those really long saws with a handle on each end. Was Texas once covered with vast forests requiring hordes of dedicated ax wielding arborists to come in and clear the land in order to create the vast nothingness which is now west Texas? Did the rag tag group of independent thinkers struggle for freedom against Santa Anna or spruce and elms? I’m confused.

As a diploma carrying graduate of the University of Kansas (actually I do not carry my diploma around with me, that would be pathetic, especially since my degree was in Film Studies which means I am qualified to work at any Blockbuster Video in the land) I had a wonderful time watching last year’s NCAA Tournament. For the first time in twenty years my bracket looked decent on the last weekend.

Each year I do my own version of the Dick Vitale/Nostradamus thing by filling out a bracket laying out who will win each and every game of the tournament. There was a time in my life when I spent a lot of time watching college basketball games and watched hour after hour of ESPN talking heads dissecting every team. Telling me statistically which team had the best point guard in regards to assists to turnover ratio, three point shooting percentage and grade point average in one of those useless degree programs many athletes pursue in college (like Film Studies). My home is now a cable free environment so I do not have access to all this information. Ergo my bracket predicts games at the exact same level of success. Go figure.
Growing up in Hutchinson also meant tournament time was happening right down the road. My dad took me to many,many NJCAA games. Looking at the bracket for this year I do not see the usual suspects from my years of going to games. There is no Mercer (didn’t they when like eight championships in a row with a coach named Howie), no Vincennes (they were always here), no Southern Idaho (I seem to remember them having some sharp-shooter kid who shut his hand in a car door and still lit up the joint). I remember Independence winning back-to-back. I remember Spud Webb.

For the uninitiated in the lore of Spud, he was a five feet six inches tall guard. You know how they adjust for inflation and say fifty bucks in 1924 is worth a couple of grand in today’s dollars, well, if you adjust Spud’s height into basketball player inches he is roughly the height of a fire hydrant. He was a hero of the common man. He looked like one of the mere mortals sitting in the stands. That was until he got ahead of the pack and had a breakaway lay-up opportunity. Little dude could dunk.

Every regular guy sports fan on the planet has a dream that he can turn on a Nolan Ryan fastball, do a Barry Sanders spin move juking a linebacker out of his cleats, or rise up off the floor like a pogo stick powered with nitrous oxide and jam a basketball through a hoop. Spud Webb gave us regular guy sports fans hope.

That hope was ludicrous. Sure he was shorter than every basketball player we’d seen. Sure he was shorter than the average guy on the street. Sure he had a 42 inch vertical leap. (Sound of tires squealing as the brakes are applied with force) This is where the regular guy sports fan’s hope comes crashing down, like a Darryl Dawkins influenced backboard. A 42 inch vertical leap! That is jumping three and half feet into the air. Sure, I can jump three and half feet into the air, but only under certain circumstances. Circumstance One: You allow me to jump eleven times and add up the inches jumped each time. Circumstance Two: You suddenly reveal a large snake directly below me.

Christopher Pyle hopes you enjoy whatever tournament you watch and would like to start a petition to have Cape Fear Community College change their nickname from the Sea Devils to the Fightin’ DeNiros. You can sign the petition by contacting Chris at

Friday, March 13, 2009

Easy for you to say, for now

Language is a living thing. It grows and changes. It interacts with its surroundings. It ingests material for sustenance and, uh, leaves behind material it can’t use. It is also predatory. The biggest and baddest languages are stalking, pouncing upon and devouring the lesser ones.
I heard about a linguist adventurer who goes around the world studying languages in their death throes. He’s sort of Noam Chomsky crossed with Frank Buck (there’s two references to send many a reader to Wikipedia). He goes to exotic places finding the last speakers of these disappearing tongues.
In an interview I listened to via an iTunes podcast this Indiana Jones language guy, Dr. David Harrison, states there are approximately seven thousand languages in the world today and something like half of them are endangered. These languages are another causality of the globalization of society as a whole. Because technology has made it possible to talk to people all over the world in an instantaneous manner we have to have words the guy in Dongguan, China can understand to send through the fiber-optic doohickey connecting us. To that end, the big languages are killing off the local ones. Like a verbose Wal-Mart destroying locally owned grocery stores.
Dr. Harrison believes a language becomes extinct every two weeks when the last speaker dies, se muere, muore, dobbelstenen, or iesda. The reason these languages die with the last fluent speaker is the majority of languages do not have written versions.
The reasons scientists care about learning about lingo on life support is we can learn how languages work and how people interact with each other. These dying languages also show us how language must have been in the beginning for even our bully language beating up these 98 pound weakling languages.
Learning about these indigenous tongues can also give useful insight into the region and what is important to the people in it. You’ve probably heard the old story that some Eskimo languages have dozens upon dozens of words for snow. Each word is created to describe a different kind of snow because to a person who lives constantly surrounded by the stuff the nuances differentiating the various kinds of snow are much more noticeable and important. For instance we just say, “My car is stuck in the snow” because we don’t see the need for describing it in any more detail. On the other hand a person living in the arctic needs to be more specific, i.e. “My sled is stuck in a fine powdery snow which means I can dig it out with a plastic spoon I got with my bucket of extra crispy antlers from Saskatoon Fried Reindeer in about three minutes” or “My sled is stuck in a snow so compacted each flake is fused together at a molecular level which would require a laser beam and a team of ninjas to separate a single flake from its no-two-are-just-alike brethren.”
Something I found interesting about these very regional languages is they tend to be more poetic than our behemoth tongue (behemoth tongue…that sounds like a good nickname for Rush Limbaugh). For instance Dr. Harrison spoke a phrase from one of these arcane languages (which of course I can’t put on paper because there are no letters to represent it) and said it was what they used in order to transmit the same image we create in our head when we hear the word “sun”. If you took the phrase apart it was saying “eye of the sky.” Now that is just cooler and more musical than just saying sun. We could say the eye of the sky is hot today, but unfortunately the “eye in the sky” phrase brings to our modernistic technological minds the spy satellites which are at this moment peering into your living room and watching you scratch a rather private area while singing your favorite ABBA song and consuming mass quantities of a cheese food substance directly from its aerosol can dispenser. Maybe that’s just me?
I look at the early stages of language represented by these disappearing ones and I see the growth cycle English probably went through. It started as an infant spoken-only language. It then grew into a teenager as a written language. The language matured to real adulthood when grammar and spelling rules gave it consistent form. Now it is deteriorating into senility as texters destroy spelling and grammar and many speakers have the same breadth of vocabulary as a twelve year old found in a forest who was raised by wolves and an FM radio.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

What's new to you?

The typical signs a person has lived a while are gray hair, wrinkles, an ever-expanding waist size and the increasingly frequent occasions when you can’t remember where you put your car keys, or even where you put the entire car. If you’ve reached a certain age you have to admit there are times you walk out of the store and have no idea where you parked. So you sally forth hoping nobody is watching as you wander the asphalt wasteland surrounding Wal-mart like a Bedouin riding a drunken camel.
The best indicator of years on the planet is not the change to one’s physical appearance or the cognitive decline but rather the number of technological advances one can enumerate to the younger generation, and there is nothing kids like better than listening to you describe the changes you’ve witnessed because it segues so neatly into the reasons why they are ungrateful slackers who just don’t appreciate how easy they have it.
Why, back when I was kid I had to get up off the couch, stand all the way up mind you, walk multiple steps and actually put my hand on the television to change the channel. But do you appreciate the remote control? No, you let it slid between the couch cushions like it’s just another lint covered breath mint falling out of your pocket rather than treat it like the miracle of science it truly is.
My generation did not make the same kind of leap as a previous generation who started out with horse and buggies and then watched a man walk on the moon. People of my age have witnessed massive changes in things like… the phone.
The first calls I made were probably to my best friend Rob (whose boyhood number I still remember even though he has not lived at that house since Ronald Reagan was President and T.J. Hooker was on television). I made those calls on a phone the size of a Toyota Prius. This phone was tethered to the wall, coal black, squarish, possessed a rotary dial, and the part you held in your hand was substantial enough to bludgeon marauding Cossacks into submission. The kicker to whole deal is the phone I used only made phone calls.
The phone my daughter uses to call her best friend is about the size of a deck of cards, completely wireless, makes phone calls, sends texts messages, takes pictures, reminds you of your appointments, wakes you up in the morning, figures your taxes and translates the works of Charles Dickens into Aramaic, but if you are confronted by marauding Cossacks you are out of luck.
I don’t really know why they’re called cell phones. There is one theory I am willing to float for public inspection. These devices so insidiously infiltrate the psyche of young people that they actually bond with their host at a cellular level not unlike nicotine, cocaine and caramel Girl Scout cookies.
A more recent invention is the Kindle. This doohickey downloads (downloads, there’s a word nobody used when I was a kid) entire books making it possible to read everything from the latest Stephen King novel to “Troilus and Cressida” with nothing more than a 10.2 ounce contraption in your hand. Now I am old school. I like the feel of paper and the smell of a brand new book. I love browsing through bookstores. I like the accoutrements of reading, book marks, book lights, bookcases, but I do not like the book hernia I get whenever I have to move. I box of books is heavier than two sumo wrestlers carrying Alex Karras. The lightness and mobility of the Kindle is attractive but on the other hand you can’t use a $359 gizmo to prop up the dining room table.
So my generation has gone from box phones and paper books to cell phone/camera/message sender/datebook/alarm clock/accountant/translators and a sliver of a device holding 1,500 books in one hand. What is my kid’s generation going to go to? Today’s cell phone becomes a device you place in your ear and it will transmit your thoughts and the images your eyes see to a receiver in somebody else’s ear. While being intensely cool you had better be very, very sure it is turned off before you go on a date or discuss your true feelings about your boss. The Kindle will evolve into a device which with a single bright flash implants all 4,178 pages of the Harry Potter books directly into your brain.