Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Rant: Wherin I Link the Rubik's Cube, Deconstruction, the Palm Prē, and Word 2007

F-Bomb AlertTM: This post contains foul language.
This-Goes-Long AlertTM: This post goes on forever.

I have a student this semester who has what I consider to be a rather exotic and unusual hobby: he's solving the Rubik's Cube. If this were the early 80's, when everyone had a Cube—whether it was a miniature on a key chain or some variant in another three-dimensional shape—this wouldn't be so out of the ordinary. And I can tell this is not some kind of resurgent fad because it's obvious, from the wear and tear, that he got his puzzle second hand. I want to ask him all kinds of questions about it: "What possessed you to take over this object? Did you know it was a puzzle when you saw it?  How long did it take you to solve it? Why is it so important to remember the solution and repeat it ad infinitum? Did you pay for the Cube or inherit it?"

At any rate, this got me to thinking about deconstruction, which in turn got me to thinking about all that is so wrong with Word 2007.

I know, I know: "Sans, that's quite a leap." Not exactly. I'm reading Jacques Derrida's Of Grammatology at the same time I'm struggling to design my university's strategic planning document as part of the writing team that tries to craft it so it represents all our ideas—students, faculty, staff, administrators, and community—which is no short order. This morning I was about to fling my laptop across the room as I lost the changes I had made to the current version three times.  THREE.  At that point, there's nothing else one can do but turn to deconstruction for some kind of solace. It's like the Bible for the intellectual BDSM crowd (flagrant attempt to garner random search hits—you don't have to be here, you know).

When I taught for the Honors College, my courses asked students to don a rhetorical robe. Deconstruction happens to be an important movement within modern rhetoric. In fact, I consider it to be the reinvention of ancient Greek Sophistic rhetoric, which, in my mind, makes it extremely important, even if most others have abandoned it. On the first day that I went over deconstruction with my Honors students, I demonstrated it, simply, by taking apart and then solving a Japanese puzzle box. The thing about a puzzle box that fascinates me, and that I think perfectly (though perhaps a little facilely—good luck pronouncing that word) demonstrates deconstruction is that, unlike other types of puzzles (jigsaws, for example), the Japanese puzzle box always comes as a whole, never in pieces. With deconstruction, one takes something that is constructed, breaks it down, and then reconstructs it in a different way of seeing the thing as the thing itself (I can't believe I just said "the thing itself," but that's what the end of the semester does to a person). If it were in pieces to begin with (or, as in a jigsaw, without a picture to work from), putting it back together would be one hell of an enterprise. You might as well hire a million monkeys. It would, also, not be quite as useful because you would have never seen the thing prior to its destruction-before-reconstruction in the process. 

Of course, if it were as simple as taking something apart and putting it back together, everyone would still be doing The Deconstruction Hustle. So after performing my trick on the puzzle box, I added an extra layer to my demonstration by then working on a Japanese take-apart puzzle crafted in the shape of a ship (I guess you could say it's "shipshape"). And this is where the metaphor comes in. Varied metaphors are at the heart of deconstruction. The metaphor (anything from "He's an ass" to "That dog don't hunt") is a way of complementing understanding by comparing two "similar" things.  But it's also a way of saying that something is what it isn't and is not what it is, which has, not exactly the opposite effect, because nothing in deconstruction is black and white, but rather a kind of  palliative effect: it helps us forget what we don't want to remember: (yeah, I know another big leap, Sans) DEATH.

In the case of the take-apart puzzle, the shape represents something that the thing (in itself) actually isn't.  It's a puzzle. Not a ship. But it looks like a ship, somehow, even though it isn't made of the same materials and is quite small in comparison. Language, writing in particular, gives us the capacity to recognize the signifier (the puzzle in the shape of a ship) for the signified (the ship). At any rate, Derrida, like many before him, believed that the gift of language made metaphorical thinking possible. But he took the idea two steps further: 1) he said that writing was the mother of all metaphorical thought, and 2) he didn't just write about what he thought—he thought it as he thought, and, in that way, he gave us something to think about. Which is just another way of saying that deconstruction is like the Bible for the intellectual BDSM crowd (remember, you don't have to be here) and sounds like a really lame joke, but it's not a joke, so I'll translate and explain that huge leap:
  • writing is thought and thought is "represented" (is drafted repeatedly) over a period of time,
  • our ability to write puts everything we experience into the past tense immediately,
  • writing both represents and is reality,
  • writing pays homage to the distance between us of both time and space and is, therefore, a way to acknowledge our death at the same time that it denies it (I will write these words so that when I'm no longer around I can still be here).
As complex as that statement is it's still too simple because Derrida was a master of choosing metaphors that will make your brain hurt. 

In Of Grammatology, the pain is caused by the metaphor of the "exergue" (Windows doesn't even recognize this as a word—that's just how obscure it is). In order to wrap my head around this metaphor, I have to keep a penny taped inside the front cover of the book. An exergue is the space around the pictures and designs of a coin—often where the mint, date, etc., are stamped (I know because I looked it up). It sounds simple, but take a look at any coin, and it starts to get a lot more complicated, real quick.  The pictures and designs have all kinds of nooks and crannies.  So the question is when are the nooks and crannies part of the design? And when are they part of the exergue? And, boom, there's you're complicated, don't-you-dare-take-this-for-granted metaphor.

When my headache becomes migrainous (geez, another "word Word don't know"), I put the book down and palm my Palm Prē. Now here's a company that understands the power of a very simple metaphor. This device fits in my palm. It has this interesting technology that allows me to pull out several applications at once so I can flip through them at will. Each application I pull out becomes what the company refers to as a "card," which I can hold in my hand as if I were playing poker. As a matter of fact, the Prē has an automatic "five-card draw" known as the "quick launch." Every time I open my Prē, five cards are immediately available to me: my phone, my contacts, my calendar, my e-mail, and the launcher where I can access all my other applications. To learn to use it, seriously, all I needed was a small pamphlet. No 800+-page DOS manual.

That's what I call a royal flush. 



Microsoft, on the other hand, is not that kind of company. They are a bunch of Svejks. I can't decide if they're patent idiots who mess things up because they don't know any better or demonic geniuses who work 24/7 to figure out ways to make us pay more, more, more for products that do less, less, less.

At any rate, they decided to change the damn metaphor of only one, ONE, of their suite of Office programs, thereby making life harder for the other 6 billion inhabitants of Earth, minus the few Svejks who work for them. And for this reason, I think there should be a "stupid tax," a tax which would pay for everyone's health care forever, no need for debate, because it would be mostly at Microsoft's expense since they are way ahead of the stupid curve.

I refer to...as if you weren't expecting it...Word 2007.  Prior to its advent we had toolbars and toolboxes.  I liked that. It made me feel like I was grabbing my hammer and chisel to carve out some wicked-ass prose. But now we have "The Ribbon."

The "Ribbon."

What. the. ffffuuuck?

You tie a damn ribbon.  At most you type on a damn ribbon. There isn't much else you can do with a stupid strip of fabric.

Are you kidding me?

Try finding the functions you're familiar with.  Like "Find and Replace" which used to be under "Edit" (gone, vanished, kaput, and not mostly dead but positively dead), and which is now under the Home "tab." I get ribbons and tabs—we're talking cute little accouterments added to clothing here. Okay, fine. But how does "Find and Replace" fit with bold and italics? Am I searching around for my lost needle (if so, it's in a haystack) while I try to bejewel my latest corset? And, while we're on the subject of corsets, who sews these days and, thus, will get the metaphor, anyhow? Also, I still haven't figured out how one is supposed to configure bullets and numbering manually. When one right-clicks on a bullet list, one gets to choose...a bullet shape.  In the old days, one was given the opportunity to determine bullet shape, tab spacing, type of list, etc. upon right-clicking. Um, could I be respected enough to have some control over my document? Don't even get me started on what tracking changes and comments will do to the poor processor or the fact that the "Ribbon" is not customizable.

A beautiful metaphor, whether complex or simple, fits. In rhetoric and ancient Greek, that's known as kairos. Derrida purposely complicates metaphors; they're still fitting. Palm purposely simplifies metaphors; they're still fitting.

The ribbon metaphor is like the prom dress I wore in high school: I may be able to zip it up, but it's going to look really wrong in all the really right places (and women, you know what I'm talkin' about) as well as making me a really uncomfortable person to hang out with. And Microsoft really ought to be feeling like an 80's prom queen at her 25th reunion wearing her old prom dress.  Really.

Because the dress don't fit. And I shouldn't need a 1200-page online to make it so.

Sunday, April 25, 2010


It's official. I have an obsession with social media. 

I know what you're thinking: "You? No. Really? You micro-blogged all the way from Little Rock to Lake Charles and back, and you think you might be obsessed with social media?  You solipsistic little moron." And you would not be remiss in calling me a moron. Or solipsistic, for that matter.

The fact is I don't really know how I got sucked into the vortex that is social networking.  I started blogging back in 2004—about two months before Meriam-Webster declared "blog" The Word of the Year. I had read an article about the phenomenon in The New York Times, liked the idea, and decided to give it the old college try.  Since my defunct Web site was sitting over at Tripod doing nothing (I had used it to post my course materials back in 2001—before my university gave us WebCT), I dusted it off, converted it, and Viola, I've been keeping up with it, off and on, ever since.  In fact, you can still view the old one at http://tripod.sanslenom.com.

A few years later, my students talked me into registering with Facebook back in the days when you had to have a university e-mail address to use it. I really didn't "get" it and rarely logged in. Then, my colleagues started friending me, the status updates got more mature (or immature, depending on how dim your view of our silly puns, double entendres, purposeful malapropisms) therefore, more interesting, and I was hooked. And I know what you're thinking: "Is it time to call an intervention?" 

Things might have been just fine had they stopped there. But, oh, no, Twitter just had to come along.  Again, I was an early adopter who mostly just logged in, stared at the screen, wondered how in the heck this thing worked, hit the side of my monitor a couple times to see if that would do anything, and then logged back out.  It wasn't until I understood that Twitter was a combination of Facebook status updates and blogging (in 140 characters or less) but with total strangers and that I had to start collecting total strangers to follow me in order to maximize my potential that I "got" it.  And, now, you can't shut me up.  To make matters worse, I figured out how to connect Twitter to Facebook, bought a smart phone, and have started tweeting from everywhere.

-->Begin slight digression: You know how far things have come when Windows no longer underscores "tweeting" with a red squiggly line.<--End slight digression.

My heart skips a beat every time the phone tells me something has come through e-mail or these other two social media. And maybe that's the source of my obsession. I just know that the more I post, the more other people comment, write on my wall, retweet, or reply.  It's a lot like the pen pals I had when I was growing up—if I wanted a letter, I had to send one—and how dearly I wanted to get letters. There was something so much more powerful about the written word over the spoken one.  And I got really good at keeping lists of things I could write about in my next letter.  I was probably just as exhausting a pen pal as I am a Facebook Friend or Twitter Follow.  

However, everyone has a limit. I just read an article about Foursquare posted by one of my tweeple, jeanlucr (yes, I'm now so obsessed that I read about my obsession and use lame words like "tweeple"). And I realized that this is the "game" another one of my tweeple is "playing" when he says, "I just became the mayor of Palm Beach!" Well, I couldn't pass up this opportunity, right? No way! So I went over to Foursquare.com and got an account, mainly to see if any of my Facebook friends or tweeple from Conwag are on it (uh, that would be no), poked at it a little to see if it would move, and thought about the implications: "Wow, this social network uses the location services of my smart phone to tell people where I am so we can arrange chance meetings! The more I post about where I am in Conwag, the more points I could get! Even possibly becoming honorary mayor!"  I, then, remembered squealing out loud as I was speeding down a rather busy freeway when my Palm Prē notified me I had just crossed state and time lines and that it had adjusted itself accordingly. I'll admit I was Gollum with My Precious (hmmm, maybe that's where they picked up the name?) when I first got the thing.

And don't get me wrong. I still loves it.

But the idea of me metaphorically stalking myself all around Conwag and proclaiming myself its mayor plunges from mere solipsism to downright perversity, possibly even psychosis, but maybe I'm being paranoid...or grandiose?

At any rate, the bigger problem is that it does, in fact, give someone, not that anyone would want to, ample opportunity to literally stalk me—albeit, they would be stalkers of my own choosing and whom I've carefully instructed on how to find my exact location from My Prec...the phone that is constantly tracking me.

Still, I can see this quickly going awry: "Hey, I'm out on the walking trail at Bell Slough all by myself—all 103 pounds of me. Meet me at the photo blind! And while we're at it, here is my latitude and longitude, within 25 feet. Really enjoying the sunshine, solitude, and beautiful scenery, which, by the way, is also a great place to dump a body."  

No, this is too much information. Information I obviously can't be trusted with (note to self: don't mention current location in blog). So I think I'll stay off the Foursquare bandwagon.

Well, you know, until all this social networking makes me even more moronic than I already am.