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.


  1. My knowledge of rhetoric is rudimentary at best; it doesn't exceed the two or three courses I took at UCA. However, upon reading this, I might not rule it out as a grad school study area (assuming I ever make it out of the steppes and into another academic building).

  2. I don't know if you knew John Cline, but he took one of my Honors classes and is now getting his Ph.D. in rhetoric and comp. I hate to brag, but apparently I have that effect on people. Added bonus: you'll be required to take some linguistics courses, so you'll have that down pat.

    BTW, I can't always comment, but I love reading your poetry blog. I wish I were as dedicated a blogger as you.

  3. I knew who he was, but he graduated right before I become a WC tutor, so I never got to know him. That's awesome, though.

    And thanks, Jennifer! I'll keep blogging if you do. :-)

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