Familiarity and subjective time

October 29, 2007

Why does the return trip seem to pass more quickly? Growing up, I noticed this on our weekend trips upstate. The trip home often seemed shorter than the trip out. Does anticipation stretch subjective time? Does familiarity with the route shrink it?

If familiarity with “the route” contracts subjective time, is this why each year seems to pass more quickly? Or are our minds – especially compared to those of children, the best learners – slowing down?



August 24, 2007

Recently while checking out IMDB’s list of the worst 100 movies of all time, I came across 1959’s Santa Claus, whose prosaic title obscures a feast of the absurd. In this account, you see, Satan dispatches one of his minion to wreak havoc on Christmas and bring down our Saint Nicholas — who lives in space and employs Merlin the magician. They are pretty serious about all of this.

Before someone screams sacrilege they should remember that the Bible itself is quite a colorful hodgepodge to begin with. Including The Book of Revelation in the New Testament is more of a juxtaposition than having Santa battle Satan. The new and old testaments are likewise quite different in tone and message. In many cases it seems arbitrary what was included in “the book” and what was consigned to the apocrypha, and the artifact-nature of the bible is of course not stressed among those who take it most seriously. Sometimes people don’t even know what they are looking at.

As a skeptic I wonder if the bible harbors any “tells” (in the poker sense) that have somehow been neglected to this point. For instance it would be a bit suspicious if Jesus went out of his way to fulfill messianic prophecy. Would the true Messiah care about messianic prophecy? (I mean if he were super-duper anointed and all.. it at least wouldn’t be a priority.) The example I had in mind is his Passover entry into Jerusalem through the Golden Gate. It had been prophesied that the Messiah would enter Jerusalem through this gate and Jesus was surely aware of this. Wouldn’t it be a bit funny then if Jesus had approached Jerusalem from the west and then circled the city in order to enter it from the Golden Gate in the east?

From what we can tell, and it’s all hopelessly buried anyway – we don’t know which gate he used nor how many times the authors edited their story – Jesus did actually approach from the east. Maybe there are similar close readings that can be applied to “The Book”. Or have its authors/editors thought of all that already?



August 18, 2007

If you haven’t seen these before..

The Shining as a romantic comedy
Taxi Driver as a romantic comedy
Mary Poppins (my new favorite)
Martin Scorsese’s Sesame Streets

Almost all humor seems to work by way of juxtaposition. The first two mash-ups take serious films and pull them in a light-hearted direction. The latter two take children’s themes and push them into the dark.

Mixing the epic with the mundane is another favorite type of juxtaposition. The “former roommate” scene in Spaceballs, the “poo-poo undies” scene in Young Frankenstein and the wicked queen scene in Annie Hall all come to mind. Such contrast is also part of the attraction of revisionist lit like Wicked.

Speaking of the Wizard of Oz, I guess we could also call Dark Side of the Rainbow a “mash-up”. The most striking part is 4:01 in, where  Dorothy falls into the pig pen — but you can find that sort of moment eventually with any combination of random video and sound. There is doubtless confirmation bias at work here, as we see sometimes in etymology..


Concerning the Etymology of “Jism”

August 11, 2007

It falls to The Tell to uncover this. We start with the origins of the word “jazz”, about which there has been a good amount of research. The earliest known references to jazz have nothing to do with music and appeared in West Coast sports pages. The earliest use in 1912 was discovered as late as 2003. In 1913, a journalist christened the “futurist word which has just joined the language” as meaning “something like life, vigor, energy, effervescence of spirit, joy, pep, magnetism, verve, virility ebulliency, courage, happiness–oh, what’s the use?–JAZZ.”

While there are a couple plausible alternatives, the most likely source of the word jazz is the slang word “jasm”, which dates from 1860 and precisely means energy, enthusiasm and drive. (an 1886 Harper’s Weekly includes the description: ‘Willin but hain’t no more jas’m than a dead cornstalk.’) The source of the word jasm is more murky. Some claim it is derives from the Mandingo “jasi” or Temne “yas”, but Daniel Cassidy argues that it is a Gaelic phrase “jass”, meaning heat and passion, and that this is a more plausible explanation given the word’s appearance in the relatively Irish Northeast and San Francisco. There is then a bit of a contest between various ethnicities to claim this “American” word, and Cassidy’s claims do seem aggressive at times, as when he claims “spiel” to derive from the Gaelic “speal” (satiric speech) while ignoring the German “spiel” (to play).

Cassidy also does not explain why “gism”, which also referred to spirit and energy, appeared in print in 1842, 18 years before “jasm”. Someone with more expertise in Linguistics might be able to better say how often an ɪ (soft “i”) mutates to an æ (hard “a”), but I would guess that it’s not common — and this suggests that multiple origins may have converged over time. Some think jism ultimately derives from the Latin “jacere” (to throw, as in “Alea Jacta Est!”). This is unlikely unless intermediate forms can be shown. Some refer to the English “chissom” (to bud, germinate). This sounds promising but there are few online references to this eighteenth century term. Others have noted the Ki-Kongo”dinza” (life force). This seems like a stretch linguistically, and I have no idea how prolific the Ki-Kongo were relative to all African tribes, nor how many African words there were that meant something like energy from which one which one could purposively choose those that sounded vaguely like jism or jasm.

My idea was that gism/jism derived from the German “geist” (spirit, energy) via “gist”. Sadly gist turns out to be a thematically unrelated phrase of French lineage. Ultimately, the origin doesn’t matter especially since the word is not a vibrant part of “our” culture, but maybe if someone cared they could employ more probabilistic etymology.



August 8, 2007

I’ve always been fascinated by historical calamity. Thus a recent trip to Washington found me at Lincoln’s box in Ford’s Theater. Lincoln (who shares my birthday) had been seated in a rocking chair with his back to the door, which is now dutch-style and impassable to visitors. As I scanned the burgundy and gold carpet from the doorway, I noticed something funny: someone had placed a wedge under the front of Lincoln’s chair to keep it from rocking. The chair was not an original and so not in need of extraordinary preservative measures.. which is why I deem the placement of the wedge “unsporting”. I mean sporting in the sense of Roland Barthes’ take on professional wrestling — that people crave the image of the extreme even if know it’s not real.

I don’t believe in ghosts but I do become uneasy in some places. While apartment hunting in April 2001, one place on the corner of Greene and Washington Place came to my attention. Fascinated by historical calamity as I am, I immediately recognized that as the corner across from what had been the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. (The space occupied by the sweatshop is now a biochemistry lab at NYU, i think.) Anyway, even without ghosts, this wasn’t a corner that I would want to wake up to everyday. Ironically, I ended-up moving to an apartment three blocks from the base of the World Trade Center…. (I had been worried about moving there for exactly the right reason but, like Lincoln’s dream about his death, I don’t think that was anything especially prescient. Sometimes paranoia borders on clairvoyance.)


Things that scared me when I was very young

August 6, 2007

Spinning Wheels and Maleficent

The Attic

Wheelchairs (Yes, mostly because of The Changeling)

The deaf kid in kindergarten that shared my first name

My father’s face after shaving off his beard

Kiss album covers

The Happy Birthday to Me poster

The “A Morkyville Horror” episode of Mork & Mindy

The illustration of Rumpelstiltskin in the Gruelle edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales (which somehow menaced me at night from my closet shelf)

A stalagmite that i saw while visiting a cave on vacation in Colorado (which was said to be the outstretched hand of the spirit of a man who had been buried alive there by a cave-in)

The illustration of a dragon in a Sesame Street “Encyclopedia” that was sold at Pathmark

The trailer for The Shining
(From the book, is this the origin of “Redrum”?:

Mommy had scolded Daddy and asked what he was doing, reading a three-year-old baby something so horrible. The name of the story was Bluebeard. That was clear in his mind too, because he thought at first that Daddy was saying Bluebird, and there were no bluebirds in the story, or birds of any kind for that matter. Actually the story was about Bluebeard’s wife, a pretty lady that had corn-colored hair like Mommy. After Bluebeard married her, they lived in a big castle not unlike The Overlook. And every day Bluebeard went off to work and every day he would tell his pretty little wife not to look in a certain room, although the key to that room was hanging right on a hook, just like the passkey was hanging on the office wall downstairs. Bluebeard’s wife had gotten more and more curious about the locked room. She tried to peep through the keyhole the way Danny had tried to look through Room 217’s peephole with similar unsatisfying results. There was even a picture of her getting down and trying to look under the door, but the crack wasn’t wide enough. The door swung wide and …

The Old fairy tale had depicted the discovery in ghastly, loving detail. The image was burned on Danny’s mind. The severed heads of Bluebeard’s seven previous wives were in the room, each one on its own pedestal, the eyes turned up to the whites, the mouths unhinged and gaping in silent screams. They were somehow balanced on necks ragged from the broadsword’s decapitating swing, and there was blood running down the pedestals.


His hand reached out and stroked the room’s doorknob, almost furtively. He had no idea how long he had been here, standing hypnotized before the bland gray locked door.


But Mr. Hallorann — Dick — had also said he didn’t think these things could hurt you. They were like scary pictures in a book, that was all. And maybe he wouldn’t see anything. On the other hand…)


Memory machines

August 4, 2007

Retro Junk aptly proclaims itself as “Your Memory Machine”. This obsession with the “retro” is one of the defining cultural trends of the last 15 years, currently spearheaded by Youtube, Family Guy and Robot Chicken.

This wave of ’70s and ’80s nostalgia will likely roll forward in time with each generation, but the charm of, say, this CBS “Special” Ident, for me is the fact that it was completely lost though dimly remembered for many years:

No subsequent generation is likely to experience such a large, sudden cultural recovery. I thought I would probably never see the ident again, and finding it on Youtube was an experience somewhat like Proust’s tasting of the Madeleine — immediately I was back in December 1980, on an orange shag carpet, up past my 8pm bedtime for the Charlie Brown special. But again, the effectiveness of that clip as a memory machine depends on the fact that it was lost for so many years — otherwise it would have become spread thin over many different times and memories. Always having something at hand allows us to force new associations and obscure older ones, (re)appropriate bits of culture, even.

It’s not the soup can that matters but the world that is referred to by the image. If certain words or symbols are banned/repressed, this will tend to hold still the world that produced them.