Do You Darmok?

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.


While I grew up with the original Star Trek series, and will always love it, I came to appreciate its second incarnation, The Next Generation, even more.

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).

Human Captain Picard and Tamarian Captain Dathon.

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.

Pooh is a spirit animal, and I love Trek, so this is delightful!

The Beach

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.

The Castle

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 Pyramid

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!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

9 responses to “Do You Darmok?

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    On TOS and TNG, I’m a strong fan of both, but my emotional connection to TOS is stronger, just because it’s tangled up in my earliest memories. I actually have a stronger affinity for DS9. But it is interesting how well TNG has aged. I recall finding it very liberal in the late 80s (annoyingly so at the time), but today it’s attitudes seem pretty contemporary. Definitely ahead of its time.

    One of things interesting about Darmok is it acknowledges just how difficult communication might be with an alien species. In that sense, it’s a consciousness raising episode. But like Arrival, the simplest solutions seem to get ignored, such as just drawing pictures for each other, or finding some other sensory modality to communicate with. That said, I recognize it’s a hard idea to cover and make interesting in a 43 minute episode. TV has lots of challenges, so compromises have to be made. So still one of the best of TNG.

    I suspect if we ever do encounter an alien race, even the words will be enormously challenging. Their language will likely have symbols for sensory and affective experiences we have no correlates for. For example, if they sense magnetic fields, they’d probably have words / symbols for it that we’d find incomprehensible. That means their metaphors would just add whole other layers of incomprehension.

    But as Seth Shostak pointed out, we’d still live in the same universe. There would have to be some basis we could use to communicate. If vision isn’t their thing, we could fall back to statues presented in a certain order to communicate ideas, at least to bootstrap things.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I was in high school and had TOS love pretty bad (but, as pointed out recently, I was a Trekker, not a Trekkie). I used to use my dad’s old reel-to-reel tape deck to record the TOS episode each week (just putting the mike in front of the speaker). Then I could listen to the episode several times during the week while waiting for next week’s.

      There was a time I could quote entire episodes and identify an episode after seeing just a few moments of any part of it. It’s as close to fannish as I ever got. I even did buy some junk. (I think I still have my IDIC emblem.)

      (I don’t know if you ever saw my old Captain Shatner post. Talk about revisiting old topics, I have a note about a possible post that would pick up after that one leaves off. The (to me) surprising thing is that, despite how strong that Kirk-Shatner connection is for me, I actually love his Denny Crane role in Boston Legal even more. Denny Crane is a great character, and he played it to the hilt. And with James Spader to co-star with!)

      The key reason I like Darmok so much is, exactly as you say, it raises the issue of communication between significantly different worldviews. I agree it ignores what seem simple solutions, but sometimes that’s necessary to tell the intended story. Even so, as much as I like the episode, it’s clearly over-amplified.

      (It’s the shit-covered raisins analysis. In this case, plump juicy raisins and not too much shit.)

      ((Damn. I should have included that metaphor in this post. Although, I’ve been thinking about a post just on that. We’re eating far too much shit these days for raisins that aren’t that great.))

      You’ve probably read the short story Arrival is based on. Conceptually, it’s much better than the movie (although I really like the movie). The short story makes the communication difference much more apparent. It’s maybe the best example I know of genuine inter-species communication differences based on radically different worldviews. Those aliens live in, and perceive, the block universe!

      What I love about the story is how well Chang explores that idea. What consciousness might be like if you know everything that’s going to happen. The performance then becomes everything. (A trait we see in little children who thrive on seeing the same movie over and over until their parents go crazy. Or, for that matter, in ages old, hearing their parents tell the same bedtime story over and over. It’s all about the moment.)

      That said, block universe perceiving aliens aside, I tend to agree with Shostak.

      The example of magnetic field sensing aliens. If they’re technological, they will almost certainly have discovered photons and EM. We know about magnetic fields, so there are many points of connection. More fundamental things, such as object persistence, or the isotropy of space, also seem necessary touchstones. As you say, it always seems there are ways of connecting commonalities.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I was born in September, 1966, so while I was exposed to TOS as an infant, most of my conscious memory of it comes from the early syndication in the years after its cancellation. I didn’t have access to any recording equipment, but if I had, TOS and Lost in Space probably would have been the shows my 5-6 year old self would have wanted to record.

        I actually haven’t read Ted Chiang’s original story. All I know of it is the movie. But I was blown away when I saw it. I did a post quibbling with some aspects of it, but only after praising it for its intelligence. I’m sure the story is more robust.

        Now that I think of it, if the aliens have a consciousness that spans time, then you could say we effectively don’t live in the same universe. That said, while I’m agnostic on the block universe, the idea that a consciousness, a time bound collection of processes, could span time in that manner, doesn’t strike me as coherent, although maybe I’d feel different if I read Chiang’s story.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “I actually haven’t read Ted Chiang’s original story.”

        D’oh! I should call him Ted, since I always misspell his last name. (He probably wouldn’t let me call him Ted, since I always misspell his last name. 😮 ) No excuse, as I visited the Wiki page to get that link. 😮

        The story is more focused on how Louise, in learning the alien language, gains the ability to see the block. It’s much more oriented on Louise’s daughter and the implications of knowing what’s coming.

        I do agree the idea verges into fantasy to make its point. That the aliens effectively come from a different universe is a good way to put it. One analogy is to watching a movie you’ve seen many times. For one thing, no one sees everything the first time around. Imagine being able to “live” an event over and over and really study it. Plays are another good analogy. Actors perform the same story night after night, but the best find a wellspring of freshness each time (in part because the audience is new and their collective responses will be slightly different).

        “…the idea that a consciousness, a time bound collection of processes,…”

        What if consciousness is not actually time-bound? What if it can be free to roam? What if we’re just too primitive to be free of our mental nursery? That’s the story’s proposition.

        The only thing that makes it not sheer fantasy (like that movie About Time), is that causality has light cone limits and a block universe is obviously fully determined. Knowing the future grants no power to change it, which is especially poignant given how Chiang frames the story.

        It’s a powerful evocative story. You might well feel differently after reading it. (Or not. The idea is certainly not without its problems.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I suspect I’d enjoy the story regardless. A good story allows you to suspend disbelief. I was able to do it for the movie. (It reminds me that the latest book of The Expanse implies a theory I don’t buy, but it ends up neatly explaining a lot of the mythology of the series, so even though I don’t buy it, I still enjoy how it works in that universe.)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        That’s kind of my relation to Greg Egan’s work in a nutshell. 😀

        One definitely doesn’t have to accept the premise to enjoy the story and think about the ideas presented. I see art as always an inkblot and seed for one’s own thinking.

        I’ve got the first Expanse book in my library Save queue. I almost checked it out earlier this week, but a book I had on Hold came available unexpectedly (one has only three days before it’s made generally available again), so I had to put off The Expanse. Maybe next week, though.

  • Christina Schmidt, MA

    “At this point it’s like a lazy twenty-year-old who won’t move outta the house.” If that isn’t THE best way to describe those old and troublesome pieces, I don’t know what is.

    I grew up in a Roddenberry household and you absolutely nailed the Star Trek vs Next Generation concept – not really a “vs,” as you pointed out, each had their respective approaches and resulting audiences – I think that’s a great way to relay the experience though, favorite toy as a child then later as an adult. Tastes change and expand as they ought to. “Next” decidedly contains more lasting substance. Although I know some folks who would throw down for Kirk anytime.

    I like the flow of your thoughts. The Castle in particular I resonate with the most. It’s damned hard opening those doors. We all want to be loved, true. But what many do not say (perhaps do not know how to say) we all want to be accepted. It seems to me the more you’ve lived life on your terms the more prone to another’s judgement you become, however, your ability to care goes down as you’ve dared to live whereas most cannot imagine. Talk about yin-yang. Or I’m doing that thing where I ramble like “something versus something something.” That cracked me up because it is such a shower moment.

    Anyway, another thought provoking post! Love it!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Well, thank you!

      “I grew up in a Roddenberry household…”

      You’re a member of the club; very cool! (One more point of commonality!)

      “Although I know some folks who would throw down for Kirk anytime.”

      Definitely would have been me back then. I’d throw down for Shatner, maybe, now. There’s a whole circle thing for me regarding him.

      “I like the flow of your thoughts.”

      Thank you! (Very much likewise, by the way.)

      Opening those Castle doors can be downright scary. Especially if others have fled their sight. Finding someone with the right “oh, that; whatever” attitude is a blessing.

      The “Oh, that” is such an important concept in human acceptance of each other. It’s an idea I got from a relative who, fairly young, reached rock bottom and got into AA, and has successfully been in recovery ever since. The idea is that people who’ve sunk into what they perceive as uniquely shocking depravity, upon opening up (which AA requires), find the response is a universal, “Oh, that. Yeah. We know all about that. Been there; done that; bought tee-shirts.” Realizing one walks a shared path lifts an enormous personal burden. (Strength from numbers.)

      The same can apply to our fearful dark Castle rooms. Sometimes, and this is the blessing, the response is, “Oh, that.” The relief can make one weep.

      Exactly as you say, acceptance is perhaps what we crave even more than love. The concomitant idea is learning to accept others with all their warts. People don’t get that love has to be a decision, not a reaction. (It starts that way, but it only lasts if you decide to take that plane flight.)

      I think you’re right that choosing one’s own path can take one away from those who want a merged path. One can be judged for not playing ball. (Most of the fictional Private Eyes I follow suffer from that in spades. Loners to the last.) But, as you say, if one has expanded beyond their boundaries, it’s hard to be small again.

      The last few years I’ve come to realize I’ve largely lived that famous Sinatra song, I’ve largely done it my way, with all the consequences that incurs. Totally a Yin-Yang in that it’s been a lone life, no picket fence or 2.3 kids, but damn have I had some fun. Not sure I’d choose differently if I could.

      “That cracked me up because it is such a shower moment.”

      I keep hoping the word “succinct” will trigger a memory, but so far nada. I think it’s lost forever.

      Or, if I do think of it, it’ll be in the shower again, and it’ll once again vanish with the soap suds. Gotta get me one of those waterproof note boards scuba divers use.

  • Window with a Worldview | Logos con carne

    […] a year ago I wrote about metaphor as a tool for understanding the world around us. Our metaphors are part of the intuitive window […]

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