Published April 11, 2015
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Hey everybody, it’s your pal, your confidant, your main man, mjp AKA Michael Phillips, and yet again, THIS IS NOT A TEST. Yeah yeah yeah, yeah yeah yeah. So remember I mentioned that we got a new heating and air conditioning system installed recently? Well the city came by for an inspection and failed the installation miserably. The inspector said we probably shouldn’t turn on the air conditioning since the way it sits right now it’s pulling in air from under the house, and under the house is a bunch of asbestos insulation. So basically, when the heat or air conditioning has been running in the weeks between installation and inspection, asbestos has been blowing into the house.
Now I know he has to say that – you know, Don’t turn it on! – because he can’t say, “Aaahhhh – don’t worry about it.” Even though that’s probably what he thinks. Old asbestos insulation isn’t really an airborne danger unless you disturb it or break it up. That’s why an inspector will always tell you not to tear out the old asbestos covered chimney pipe in your attic. because tearing it out causes a lot more problems than just leaving it the hell alone. so I’m not worried about being in an asbestos cloud over here, but Carol doesn’t want to run the system anyway, which is fine, since the weather’s been pretty much perfect for just throwing open the windows and taking it easy. Besides, I think my crib was made of asbestos when I was a baby. I’m pretty sure all of my Halloween costumes were. and probably all the ceiling tiles in my schools. If asbestos wants to kill me it’ll have to get in line behind half a dozen other things that are trying every day.
Last time I was talking about conferences and trade shows and mentioned that most of these things refer to what you and I might call topics as “tracks,” and that got me thinking about how we name things. I suspect that something like tracks is taken from the business world, which is riddled with fancy, unnecessary language to describe everyday things and concepts.
I read an article recently where the CEO of Pizza Hut characterized some new flavors they introduced as “a diverse flavor platform that better connects with millennials and provides the brand a leveragable point of differentiation.” What he’s saying there is “We think kids will like it. And if they do, we’ll call the other brands ‘pizza for old people’ so that the kids will come back and give us more of their money.” But he couldn’t just say that, because it’s business and Pizza Hut probably has investors, and those investors want the people who control their money to be smarter than they are. Or they want them to at least appear to be smarter. And apparently speaking like an accounting robot makes you sound smart.
There have always been people who use language as a weapon, or as some sort of indicator of intelligence or class differentiation. At least in their eyes. They speak the way they do to make you feel lesser, because that makes them feel superior. But those types are easy to identify and ignore. As you should. But the rest of us, as normal people…so much of how we speak is influenced by how those around us speak. And since we started listening to the radio almost a hundred years ago, and then later took to watching television, linguistic patterns and habits and fads have spread a lot further a lot more quickly. And now with the Internet, that spread is pretty much instant. So we’re kind of awash in new words and phrases and terminology every day. Since there’s so much of it now, it stands to reason that a lot of it is going to be stupid.
Like when those new phrases in our language are technically wrong or redundant or pointless, and they stick out like the proverbial sore thumb – which, by the way, is something we’ve been saying since the 1920s apparently, but no one seems to know why. But by redundant phrases I mean things like exact opposite, active shooter or for me, personally. If you say “for me” I get that it’s personal. You don’t have to say it. And opposite implies exact, doesn’t it. And active shooter — is there such a thing as a passive shooter? I suppose there could be. But “shooter” gets the message across without the unnecessary padding of the extra adjective. If you tell me “THERE’S A SHOOTER IN THE LUNCHROOM, STAY AWAY!” I’m not going to ask, “IS THE SHOOTER ACTIVE?”
Some of the more idiotic phrases that sound as if they were designed by congressional committees, like “active shooter,” have military roots. The military has a long and rich history of inventing clinical, over-descriptive words and phrases and making things purposely unfathomable to anyone outside the military. I don’t know if they use that kind of language because they think everyone in the military is stupid and they need to overdescribe everything from shoelaces to mortar shells, or if it’s just tradition. But I work with a guy who was in the military and quite often I’ll have to rewrite something he’s written quite often and I have to admit that it’s pretty damn impressive, the number of unnecessary words he can throw at an idea. Like: CLICK ON THE SAVE BUTTON BELOW THE LAST INPUT FIELD TO FINISH THE CURRENT STEP OF THE INSTALLATION AND THEN CLICK ON THE GREEN ‘NEXT’ BUTTON IN THE BOTTOM RIGHT HAND CORNER OF YOUR CUSTOMER CONTROL PANEL TO PROCEED TO THE NEXT STEP OF THE INSTALLATION. Which I’ll cut down to, “click save. click next.”
The news media also does a lot to spread dumb phrases like on the ground – phrases they get from law enforcement. Law enforcement uses military language because traditionally a lot of members of law enforcement came from the military, so it’s understandable that they’d rely a lot on military traditions. Anyway, the people reporting news are parrots for the most part, so they will repeat what they’re told over and over until it enters the lexicon, as they say. On the ground started as “boots on the ground,” which meant sending humans to a conflict area. But over time it morphed into general use and now I hear “on the ground” every day to describe…I’m not even sure what. It’s used in so many different contexts now it’s become meaningless. “Here on the ground,” well yeah, how else are you going to describe or experience something? From the air? Hovering above it like a Jesus ghost?
And for Christ’s sake people, calling appetizers apps. When you do that you don’t sound cool. You really don’t. If you want to sound cool start a trend among all of your friends, your crowd, your people. Be the first one to say and type entire words. Stop abbreviating everything. And stop typing prolly. That really makes you look like an idiot, and you’re only “saving” two keystrokes. Your dignity is worth more than two keystrokes, isn’t it? Think about it. Think about whether you want to trade your dignity for two god damn keystrokes. Maybe it’s worth it to you, I don’t know. But when you say or type prolly you sound like one of those adult babies. You know, the people who wear diapers and lay around in cribs even though they’re 47 years old? That’s what you sound like. One of them. Actually I have more respect for the 47 year old laying in a crib than I do for anyone who says or types prolly.
Okay, rewind, hold up. That got away from me for a second there. Now I’m reeling it back in. Imagine me miming a fishing rod…insert some fishing reel sounds…reeeeling it back in. Anyway, aside from every day speech, there are a lot of specialty niche cult type groups who employ their own language and phrases and descriptions for things that already have perfectly good phrases and descriptions that apply to them. You can find this in almost any group of people who are united around a given subject or thing.
Oh, speaking of specialty niche cult type groups, have you heard of ASMR (not to be confused with the Prince song DMSR). ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? Like something a Nobel prize winner discovered. Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response is a pretty fancy clinical term, so I’ll explain to you what it describes. Ready? A “tingly scalp.” I’m not kidding. There are a lot of people out there who experience this important clinical sensation when they watch YouTube videos of young women speaking in a whisper. Still not kidding. Sometimes the young women fondle different items that make crinkly sounds, or tap their fingernails on a cup. Now lest you think this sounds like just another weird Internet-fueled sexual fetish, like popping balloons with your boobs or dressing up like a raccoon, the ASMR enthusiasts want you to know that they vigorously deny that claim. Even though all of the women who make these videos – and there are a lot of them – sound like those old 976 sex line operators. No one is masturbating to ASMR videos! So just get that out of your filthy mind. Sure.
Now you might say that you could replace a mouthful like Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response with something everyone could understand, like “tingling,” or “good feeling.” But then it wouldn’t be a serious thing, would it? Saying “I enjoy Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response” just sounds a lot better than saying, “I jack off to those videos of the whispering girls.” Making something sound official rather than just gross is probably why scientists give bugs and animals Latin sounding names, or names rooted in Latin words. because halyomorpha halys sounds better than “Stink bug,” and, you know, it’s Latin. You speak Latin, right? You don’t? No one does? Hmm. Well that’s interesting. I like scientists, I think they’re weird and interesting, and I like the way they go around proving things. If they didn’t do that, right wing nut jobs like climate change deniers wouldn’t have anyone to argue with and look imbecilic next to. But science is just another language cult, with an agreed upon code. Which is usually okay, because most scientists will explain a concept to you in a way normal humans can comprehend. Like they say, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
But sadly that same courtesy doesn’t extend to a lot of other groups who speak secret languages. Like the people who have to try to describe sounds with words, or the sensations or differences in sound. That’s challenging, but it can be done. Since it is challenging though, most people who talk about sound – especially as it concerns music equipment or recorded music – rely on a stunning array of descriptive words that have nothing to do with music or sound. You know, I sympathize with those people. It must be difficult to write about sound equipment. They can’t just say, “This new model of the turntable sound better than the old model,” they have to use words like soundstage. Now every audiophile will tell you that they know what soundstage means, but it’s a completely arbitrary concept, and because it’s sound, everyone is going to talk about it or experience what they think it is differently.
See if you can guess what this audiophile is talking about. “The brittle bleached timbres were replaced with real color and density. While I know rotational speed was unchanged, the music sounded subjectively faster and more rhythmic. This had to do with increased transient speed and microdynamic detail as the LP was injected with an added dose of life.” Give up? Well, he’s describing his imagination is what he’s actually doing, but that excerpt is taken from a review of – a record cleaning device! A record cleaning device made out of white pvc plumbing pipe, you know, the kind that you buy at Home Depot. You hook it up to the faucet in your kitchen sink and use it to blast tap water at your records. Seriously. Now in all fairness, there is a magic solution that you put on the record after you wash it in the sink. But BLEACHED TIMBRES and MICRODYNAMIC DETAIL? You’re full of shit, yo, and using a bunch of quasi-technical made up words doesn’t deflect from that fact. I’m not saying that cleaning a record really well doesn’t make it sound better. It does. But it doesn’t change the tempo of the music on that record.
Which reminds me of something I was going to bring up during the Mat Gleason interview, and that is Dianetics. Yeah, the L. Ron Hubbard thing. When I moved out here to California my friend Jeff was already here, he had come out maybe a year before I did. Jeff is a sweet guy and he was a good drummer, but for some reason when I got here he had that god damn Dianetics book, and he told me that it was full of great ideas that were helping him with his life. I said, whatever – or whatever we said back then before we started saying whatever – but he kept on about it and eventually I said, “Jeff, please, if I read it will you stop telling me about it?” He said yes, so I started reading it.
Well I tried to read it. But in case you’ve never seen it, it doesn’t make a god damn lick of sense. I mean it is literally page after page of senseless gobbledygook. I stopped, I re-read, I went back a few pages – it didn’t matter what I did, the shit made no sense. Now this is the crossroads moment for a book or idea or conversation that doesn’t make any sense. You’re there at the crossroads. It’s occurred to you that maybe this thing doesn’t make sense, so you have to make a decision and you only have a couple of options. First, you can simply reject the senseless thing as senseless and forget about it. Second, you can assume that the ideas are so far over your head that you’re just too stupid to understand them so maybe you better try harder. You assign depth and meaning to the senseless and let it take you aboard its crazy train.
A lot of people take the second option. It’s understandable. I get it, I mean, I’m very much uneducated – I barely made it out of high school – so I know what kind of insecurity that can cause in different situations. Sometimes you do get involved in things or conversations or ideas that are legitimate, but still out of your depth, over your head, and that can leave you feeling like, “Well, that’s deep, I don’t get it.” Valid, understandable. The problem arises when you think that way about something that’s just pure bullshit, just because you don’t understand it and you think maybe it’s because you’re not smart enough to understand it. So it’s important to develop your bullshit detector, and then trust it. Otherwise you’ll end up watching Lars von Trier movies and going up the Scientology bridge to total freedom.
Anyway, that’s what the audiophiles are doing, they’re selling you nonsensical descriptions of things that could probably be described sensibly. Though again, that would take effort and a certain amount of skill and most people don’t have the skill and wouldn’t bother to put forth the effort. It’s a form of dazzle camouflage to hide laziness. Oh, and if you think you can hear the difference in transient speed between a clean record and an less clean record, you’re just flat out fucking insane. I want to state that for the record. No pun intended.
And the reason I was going to bring this up with Mat is because the Dianetics effect also applies to art and artist’s statements. If you walk into a gallery and see a big canvas or board or wall with 30 horizontal stripes of different colors across it, what you’re looking at are a bunch of colored stripes. It doesn’t matter what the gallery owner says about it, or that the artist’s statement claims that it’s an exploration of the lifecycle of transgender armadillos and how society marginalizes them. It’s stripes. You don’t need to stand there with your chin in your hand trying to find the metaphor and the meaning. It means stripes. If you look at the stripes and they are pleasing to you or make you feel good, the art is successful. If you don’t particularly enjoy the stripes, walk away and find another stripe artist whose work appeals to you. Don’t waste your time on things that don’t speak to you. Life is too short.
So why do we do these things with language? Why do we do these things to language? I should make it clear that I’m not just a grouch who wants everyone to speak plainly – I mean, I am that, but that’s not all I am. I love language. I love elaborate language that evokes emotion or place or tells a story. That’s why I’ve always loved reading Mark Twain. And it’s a big part of the reason I loved that show Deadwood, because those guys would insult each other in ways that made the most vile insult sound as if they were addressing congress in a top hat and tails, or having tea with the Queen. It was wonderful to hear. So it’s not like I’m against anything that isn’t common, simple language. I suppose what I am against is people who purposely avoid common, simple language in an attempt to seem better than the people they’re speaking to. It flies in the face of what language is for, which is communication.
I know why people do it in the business world. It’s a shared language that people learn in schools. Using the language lets everyone know that you went to school too…you speak the language so you belong. Much of the specialized language that we use has the same basic purpose: to identify us as a member of the clan.
But the unintentional – or maybe intentional – consequence of using language that way, is you exclude anyone who isn’t familiar with your lingo. I can see why, you know, a cult would want to do that, or some sort of secret society of Volvo worshippers or something, but I think it’s actually kind of damaging to do it in an office context – where people may not want to ask, “What the hell did you just say?” because they don’t want to seem stupid. Seeming stupid can really hurt your cred in the business world. Even though you’re probably not the only one in the room wondering what the hell the person just said. That’s one of the many backward things about some businesses, the discouraging of questioning. Of clarifying. Of communicating.
You know, we’ve always created new bits to add to our existing languages. There’s always been slang and terminology and some of it, if it sticks around long enough, becomes part of the language at large. But something’s happened in the past 30 or 40 years, and we’ve started churning out mountains of useless jargon that just makes us sound like robots or Germans. There’s no reason to expect it to stop or slow down any time soon, so I guess I’m just going to have to get over it. Like a lot of things.
Are you part of a group that uses special, specific language that anyone outside the group probably wouldn’t understand? You probably are. We all probably are. Every one of us excluding each other. Pretty soon no one will be able to talk to anyone else because we’ll have all created our own languages. That’s when dogs will finally take over and rule the earth with an iron paw. Or cats? Ugh. I could live with dog overlords, but not cats. No. I will not take orders from a cat! They’ll have to lock me up in one of the prisons they build in the shape of a giant pet crate. They’re going to lock us up in there and laugh and laugh. Or just lay there and stare at us.
Okay cats and kittens, I’m off to Las Vegas for the media expo thingy and the podcasting awards. But don’t think that because you know I’m out of town you can just meaner over and break in to my house to steal all my shoes. Carol’s still going to be here, and she’s heavily armed at all times. Plus she has a vicious guard dog that is never more than a few feet away from her. So you might get into the house, but you probably won’t get out. You couldn’t carry all my shoes anyway. You’d need a trailer, or at least a pickup truck. Though I suppose if you were going someplace to do a burglary, you’d probably bring a truck anyway, because what’s the point of going to tall the trouble of burgling a place then only getting away with what you can carry?
Okay, sweet dreams, keep on bubblin’