Everyday Semiotics

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Code switching

Very thoughtful discussion the other day on Tell Me More about "code switching," i.e., the ability or propensity to change the way one talks depending on one's audience. This came up in the context of Sen. Harry Reid's remarks about Barack Obama's relationship with the "Negro dialect."

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes: "code-switching is the standard M.O. for any African American with middle-class aspirations."

Quoth Obama: "There's a certain black idiom that it's hard not to slip into when you're talking to a black audience." Implying, of course, that there is a different idiom, or lack thereof, whose use is dictated by the fact of running for president.

In my line of work there's a form of code switching that comes naturally. The newsroom cant, laced with smarm and profanity, is set aside whenever the reporter picks up the phone to have a polite conversation with a source.

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Thursday, January 07, 2010


So someone has translated "The Big Lebowski" into iambic pentameter and retitled it "Two Gentlemen of Lebowski" (after Shakespeare's "Two Gentlemen of Verona").

Wherefore thou playest not at ninepins on Saturday, Sir Walter?

On our most holy Sabbath I am sworn
To keep tradition, form and ceremony.
The seventh and the last day rests the Jew;
I labour not, nor ride in chariot,
Nor handle gold, nor even play the cook,
And sure as Providence I do not roll.
Hath not a Jew rights? Hath not a Jew hands,
Organs, bowling-balls, Pomeranians?
If you schedule us, must you not do right?
If we step o’er the line, do we not mark it nought?
The Sabbath; I’ll roll not, God-a-mercy.

Which reminded me of such adaptations as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.

The recycling of old material to make new art is not new; and neither is the production of new art that resembles old art. This type of "mashup" is both of these things and something more. It is recycling and mimicry for comic effect yet done with estimable skill that reveres both of its sources while rendering both ridiculous.

Shakespeare certainly could have written a Lebowski story in his day. And Jane Austen, if she were writing today in the shadow of Stephenie Meyer, would no doubt be tempted to throw in a dash of the supernatural.

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Tuesday, January 05, 2010


Re: news aggregation, this snip from PBS's MediaShift:
Craig Kanalley, founder of Breaking Tweets and now with the Huffington Post: "My media wish for 2010 is for news companies of all kinds to put aside differences of the past, egotism and self interests to work together. News organizations in 2010 should link to each other (yes, the competition)..."
MassLive has already started doing this. The site affiliated with the Springfield Republican now routinely offers "AM News Links" and "PM News Links," leading predominantly to traditional media organizations' web sites, some blogs, and always a Twitter search of #westernma.

Frequently the links point to GazetteNET, which is surprising, because the Gazette is the Republican's main competition in Hampshire County. Both papers covered the recent arson fires extensively; but the Gazette, with more reporting staff to bring to bear in the city, simply published more about the incidents.

MassLive loses nothing by linking to the competition. It's created a recurring feature in a digest of news from outside sources, which probably increases its own web traffic. And it benefits the sites to which it points.

It may even be a boon for GazetteNET, which keeps most of its content behind a paywall. Who knows, maybe someone will be interested enough in a headline from MassLive to buy a $1.99 weeklong GazetteNET subscription, the next best thing to making a micropayment.

More likely, they'll surf somewhere else.

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Monday, January 04, 2010

Small town terror

It would be either crass or overwrought to liken the arson fires in Northampton to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Which is why no one has done it yet. Allow me.

Granted, no terrorist organization has claimed responsibility yet for setting fire or attempting to set fire to more than a dozen homes and vehicles around the city Dec. 27, 2009.

But there are plenty of similarities to be found in the reactions of anger, helplessness and a community uniting in both instances.

Uneasy speculation is another reaction to the fires. "Everybody's a suspect" is heard a lot in conversation and on the Facebook group.

The fires were an act of terror; their message still vague. They may well be the act of a compulsive personality, a prank by a thoughtless teenager or any number of other things.


Sunday, January 03, 2010


From an Ars Technica report on the Dec. 1-2, 2009, Federal Trade Commission summit:

Danny Sullivan of blog Search Engine Land "came close to making the larger point that even 'real' journalists are parasites, relying almost totally on unpaid sources who contribute information to the 'aggregator' (the reporter), who eventually earns a paycheck based on information gleaned freely from elsewhere."

Without having been there it's hard to envision how someone could have "come close" to making this point. But that's irrelevant because the point is quite true, regardless of who uttered it. With the exception of the compensated confessional interview (which, for example, Tiger Woods must inevitably give) or the cash-lubricated exclusive a la State of Play, the bulk of hard news reporting relies on the free exchange of information.

Sometimes there is a non-monetary quid pro quo, where the source gains something (perhaps notoriety, perhaps revenge) by providing information. This may be the analog to a blogger linking to the original reportage. The unspecified, hoped for, contingent compensation there is web traffic.


Saturday, January 02, 2010

Pynchonian names in real life

Here's a list I've been compiling over the last year of real people's names that could have been found in The Crying of Lot 49.

Mort Fallick
, 1950s-era film producer/director/editor
Brian Crummy, founder of flowerpetal.com
Peter Elbow, UMass English professor and viola player
Suzanne M. Bump, secretary of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development
Tertia Downer, lawsuit defendant
Morton Manus, author of How to Play Ukulele
Joe Panik, St. John's University infielder
Jodi Weed, charged with giving her daughter marijuana in Albuquerque, N.M.
Special Harris, tormented middle schooler in Tampa, Fla.
Ho Suk Kim, prostitute in Tampa, Fla.
Robyn Thunderchild, resident of Worthington, Mass.
Gordon Yell, Daily Hampshire Gazette reader
Grantly Dick-Read, English obstetrician
Steve Butt, Swindon (UK) Advertiser sports reporter
Farhat Nazi, Amherst resident
John Lepper, Massachusetts state rep. (R-Attleboro)
Heather Lusty, Joycean, University of Nevada-Las Vegas, author of “Caught in the Act!: Sexual Transgressions in the Social Sphere as Political Exposition in Barnes and Joyce”
Augusta 'Gusty' Hornblower, state rep. from Groton, Mass. (d. 1994)
Master Sgt. Reggie Godbolt, Westover Air Force reservist
William Sink, resident of Ware, Mass.
Bucky Sparkle, yoga instructor

Another repository of funny names, most of them made up: Funny Names.


Friday, January 01, 2010

2009 in sum

Books I read
- Sterling, The Caryatids
- Gaiman, Neverwhere
- Asimov, Foundation trilogy
- Moore/Gibbons, Watchmen
- Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow (for the 2nd time)
- Shakespeare, Henry IV, part 1 (2nd time)
- Strugatsky bros., Roadside Picnic
- Pynchon, Inherent Vice
- Hosseni, The Kite Runner (on tape)
- Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
- Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
- Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle
- C. Doctorow, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (on tape)
- Sawyer, Teutonic Legends
- Sadowski, Supermen!
- Keith, The Vegetarian Myth

Movies I saw
- Slumdog Millionaire
- Let the Right One In
- The Last King of Scotland
- V for Vendetta
- Super Troopers
- District 9
- The Postman Always Rings Twice
- Sicko
- Into the Wild
- Team America: World Police
- The Party
- Milk

Live music I saw
- Pioneer Valley Symphony, Feb. 28, Debussy's "Danses sacree et profane"
- Carrie Ferguson's pre-CD-release party, May 2
- Span of Sunshine @ PACE, Sept. 12
- Springfield Symphony, Oct. 3, Liszt's "Faust Symphony" and "Mephisto Waltz"
- Bunny's a Swine CD release party, Dec. 17
- Velvety Visions @ the Voo, Dec. 18

Recorded music I added to my collection
- Field Music, self titled; Tones of Town; Write Your Own History
- The Week that Was
- Bunny's a Swine, Nothing Bad Will Happen
- Daniel Hales and the Frost Heaves, Frost Heaves; Frost Haven
- Span of Sunshine, Piece Together Peace Together
- Moving Pictures, Age of Reason; When Ears Ring in Tune

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