Okay, here’s one that’s been sitting in my Drafts folder since 2012. The last time I even edited it was back in 2016. (Wow. Four years ago already?) The problem has been turning it into a post. At this point it’s like a lazy twenty-year-old who won’t move outta the house.
If you were a serious fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the post’s title might ring a bell. It involves an episode with a very interesting idea about a communication problem between different species despite a “universal translator” that makes the words clear.
It isn’t a matter of language, but of metaphor.
There’s a very good recent science fiction movie, Arrival, that also involves communication difficulties between forms of intelligence with very different perspectives of reality.
We’ve always figured mathematics would be a good basis for initial communication with alien intelligence. Vocabulary comes after that. But the point here is that even knowing the words may not provide the necessary ideas behind them.
But that’s a bit like trying to compare your favorite childhood toy with your favorite young adult one. The first show, even though it has a certain timelessness, was very much a product of its era. I realize that seems contradictory, but it’s just another Yin-Yang aspect of life.
The sensibilities, the costumes, the sets, the writing; they all place the show in the more innocent, hopeful, boastful 1960s. Kirk’s tendency to ignore the Prime Directive as often as not also reflects that time. (Compare it to Picard’s equally strong adherence just twenty-one years later.)
The Yang is that our optimism, our drive, and the ideas that science answers many questions while our hearts answer others; these are all timeless. So are the messages of fidelity, trust, and acceptance, that permeated the show’s view.
My point is that, even though it’s something of an apples and bagels comparison (both food, both round, but quite different), if I had to pick one to keep and the other to degauss forever from the tapes of history, I would have to pick Picard as the keeper. The stories there were richer and more interesting to me.
Some of them especially — we all have our favorites.
The seed for this post is one of my favorites: Darmok (S05E02).
The plot involves first contact with a new species. The problem is that, while the universal translator seems to work, the language content makes no sense to us. There is syntax and vocabulary, but no semantics, no apparent meaning.
The long and short is that this race speaks in metaphor. Which means their language is linked to cultural experience and history. The words mean nothing without the context.
It would be as if our speech contained nothing but references to old TV shows. To speak of love we might refer to Ross and Rachel. (“When Ross, at Rachel’s door did wait.”)
To some extent, this is always true — words always have acquired meanings behind them, but typically those meanings are more abstract and less referential. Usually just learning the vocabulary allows basic communication.
[Note that it’s common for social group lingo to become contextual and even metaphoric. Such lingo does become opaque to outsiders. Rap lyrics can be a good example of this.]
As an aside, because I just can’t throw away a good line, the punchline for the original opening paragraphs was:
Do I Darmok? Duh, definitely!
When I rewrote the intro, it changed completely, and there was nowhere for the orphaned line, so it gets a home here.
I’ve always loved metaphor and analogy. They can be instrumental in helping to visualize math and science. They’re also a lot more present in our language than one might realize.
It’s a part of our pattern recognition system. We see similarities in things and we assign a mental icon or meme to represent them.
The Yin-Yang is an ancient metaphor that speaks to opposing pairs. This not only reflects common experience but seems to match the modern information theory idea that all information reduces to 1s and 0s. The Yin-Yang principle is deeply embedded in all our computers.
If you’ve ever “stepped up to the plate” or “hit it out of the park” without actually playing baseball, you’ve used metaphor. If you’ve ever known a “Cassandra” or “Chicken Little” you’ve known a metaphor.
Author John McDonald’s has a very cool metaphor for life and death: The Sandbar (I love his image of Churchill, but the young ones washed away gets me every time.)
Rivers make good metaphors. I’ve long thought of the internet as a river, wide, deep, and fast. It streams past us at a furious pace; the water here today is long downstream by tomorrow. (The idea of a river recalls the famous John Naisbitt line about “drowning in information.”)
Anyway, since I never could turn this into a Darmok post, I thought I’d record some of my favorite metaphors from over the years.
There used to be a phrase, “Life’s a beach (and then you fry).” Maybe it was an L.A. thing.
In any event, I kinda liked the idea of life as literally a beach with billions of ordinary grains of sand. There are also pretty pebbles and rocks and even boulders. And there are cigarette butts and the occasional discarded used syringe or condom.
There are also monsters, like crabs. Vermin as well.
But make no mistake. It’s the sand — the ordinary sand — that defines the beach. The rest is just junk that can be raked away.
You know how the White House and many castles in Europe are open for tours? The thing about these places is that people actually live there; those public attractions with all their daily visitors are their homes.
Imagine the «self» as such a castle; a place where you exist. There are public rooms open to one and all. There are other rooms where only authorized people can go, but they are still outsiders who don’t live in the castle. Finally there are the private rooms where the castle inhabitant lives.
Getting to know someone is the process of exploring the rooms of their castle. Getting to be known by someone is the process of opening your private rooms.
Sometimes the doors are hard to open. Sometimes the rooms they conceal show aspects of ourselves we don’t willingly reveal. (Perhaps we need to dust much more often. Or hide the bodies better.)
The castle can be cast as a pyramid. When you first come to know someone, you only know the top block of the pyramid. The better (longer) you know them the more of the pyramid you see.
At first, the top block (and then the few blocks beneath it) dominate. Only if those very public blocks be very good or very bad is there really any call for determining what kind of a person this is.
In time, averages add up — extremes may be cancelled or reduced — and average people are finally determinable. But extreme people often declare themselves early in the process.
The Field of Grass
We sometimes think in terms of an “ideal” human, the “perfect man” or “perfect woman.” At the same time, we tend to celebrate the individuality of each human. We like to believe we’re as unique as snowflakes.
(Those two views form yet another Yin-Yang opposition; one that is definitely in tension!)
The effect is like a field of grass — each blade a person — with hills and valleys and one highest hill on which stand the highest (most “perfect”) blades of grass.
The trick is to understand that there are many hills of equal height. There are many ways to be perfect!
The Airplane Flight
I thought of a romantic relationships as a plane flight. Arriving at your destination equates to a lifelong successful relationship.
So far all my flights have crashed and burned. (Some got hijacked by terrorists.) I’ve come to recognize certain stages along the way…
First meeting someone is like waiting to board. Any number of things can delay or cancel the flight. You might even decide not to go. Actually boarding the plane is deciding to try for a successful flight. It symbolizes an agreement to try to reach the destination.
Lots of flights never leave the gate, for any number of reasons. And sometimes passengers need to be let off the plane. Lots of things can derail a relationship with no great harm or foul here. Just take a later flight.
Taxiing, things are getting serious. Exiting now is catastrophic, but it won’t kill anyone. Take off and climbing to altitude is the killer part. It’s where a lot of actual planes run into trouble and likewise relationships. This is the stress test of the relationship — trying to seek a working rhythm.
Cruising altitude and the pressure is off. (You’re still flying a freakin’ airplane, so don’t relax too much.) Relationships that have gotten to cruising altitude stand a good chance of going the distance.
Just don’t fuck up. (I repeat: flying a freakin’ airplane here.)
The metaphor breaks down when it comes to landing. Since all my flights have barely reached cruising altitude, I have no idea what landing amounts to.
The Tar Pit (also Swiss Cheese)
Increasingly good metaphors for my mind. Nuf sed.
(The one nice thing about the Tar Pit is that sometimes interesting things do bubble up. Far too many sink down out of sight. I thought of a great line in the shower the other day, but it sank into the darkness before I could write it down. Something about “succinct” something versus something something.)
((The Swiss Cheese, on the other hand,… well, let’s just say growing old sucks in all sorts of ways.))
I have met people who really don’t do metaphor. Their minds just don’t work that way. It is true that, to use a metaphor, one has to be able to count to meta three.
Stay metaphorical, my friends!