Wednesday, 12 August 2009

This does, of course, assume that all alien civilisations are familiar with the ASCII character set.

While browsing the internet today at lunchtime (yes, it was at work, but if they're going to give me an hour to eat lunch and also give me an unrestricted internet connection, the two are going to intersect sometimes), I came across Hello From Earth. This is a project that aims to send a whole lot of messages out to the nearest Earth-like planet we've yet found in the Galaxy, Gliese 581d. (Shame they couldn't come up with a snappier name.)

It's referred to as "Earth-like" because it's in the so-called "Goldilocks zone" of its parent star, Gliese 581. That means that it's neither too hot nor too cold, but the right temperature for liquid water to exist. Perhaps, then, we might find the much-vaunted "life as we know it" there. That is quite a large assumption — after all, we probably wouldn't notice if someone speculatively sent a burst of radio waves at our planet from squillions of miles away. Assuming, therefore, that it'll work at Gliese 581d, if there is indeed water there, and if there is indeed life, and if that life is advanced enough to detect radio, and if it happens to be listening at the time, and if it can decode our messages in any meaningful way, seems to be a bit of a tall order.

Not that it matters, really. Obviously it would be cool if someone did turn out to be listening, but the real value here is in seeing the kinds of things that people want to send out to the cosmos. Some of them go with general friendly greetings; Katrina from California, for example, will send the following:

Hello from Earth ! We come in peace. I look up at the universe every night wondering what magnificent things are out there, this could be one of those things.
Very nice, but perhaps not very informative. Other people have gone down the "dire warnings to the aliens" route, like CruelAngel from Budapest:
For your own safety... You should NOT land on our planet. It stinks.
A little pessimistic, perhaps.

There's plenty of vague platitudes, messages directed more at the people reading the site than at any hypothetical aliens, and (this being the internet) attempts to slag off everyone else using the site, although the fact that all messages must be verified and approved has kept the spam to a minimum. There are some funnier ones that I do like, though:
If you plan to study our species, please don't start with our television broadcasts. They require a lot of explanation.
Eric Zak
Phoenix, United States

To the owner of a red Porsche 944, your lights are on.
Wichita Falls, United States

Hello from Earth, please visit. We have cookies.
Chris Hully
Ottawa, Canada

Xenu, save us!
Tom Cruise
LA, United States
And lastly we have the people who are determined to demonstrate that the Earth holds advanced civilisations, and that we know stuff. I particularly liked this one from Luiz in São Paulo:
3,14159265358979323846 ***, * **** * ***** ********* ** ****** ***** *** ***** ******** ********* ******* ********* *** ** *** ******** **** ******
Simple and elegant.

So what, I hear you ask, did I decide to send? Well, I managed to up my geek points considerably by transmitting the following out into the Galaxy.
. . .. ... ..... ........ ............. ..................... .................................. .......................................................
Yes, with all the vistas of human knowledge open before me, I opted to send them the Fibonacci sequence expressed in full stops. I hope they're grateful for it when it turns up in December 2029.

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Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Typing this up was not as cathartic as I'd hoped.

Time for a quick warning before we get into this post — it will be about swearing and bad language in general. Given that I don't normally swear at all, either in text or in speech, that's going to present some problems. My general position is that I want the front page at least to be entirely suitable for all ages, so I could simply avoid saying anything throughout the post that might be offensive. However, it's going to get really confusing if I start using constructions like "that word that starts with an 'f' and is very offensive", and I consider it an intellectual cop-out of the highest order to blank out words with asterisks. Anyone who reads the post is going to be entirely aware of which words I'm actually talking about, so I'm not going to insult your intelligence by pretending that blanking it out is any better.

So, the only real solution is to quote these more objectionable words in full, and to hide the rest of the post behind a cut. So here's the warning: The rest of this blog post will contain extremely strong language that you may find offensive. If you're the kind to be offended by it and would rather not read the rest, then feel free to go on your way. Please accept my apologies, and enjoy this video of adorable kittens instead. (For those on the RSS feed or reading this post anywhere but the blog's front page: the cut will not work for you, so anything after the video is unsafe.)

Awww. How sweet. OK, those of you who are still with me, and haven't been completely overwhelmed with kitteny joy (and if not, go and take a look at Cute Overload), let's get into it.

Certain parts of language have been deemed unacceptable for polite society for thousands of years, probably since the first caveman's wife threw the first caveman out his cave for saying "oog" too many times. Shakespeare was sailing pretty close to the wind with some of his language — "zounds" appears rather a lot (source) and is short for "by God's wounds"; "gadzooks" means "God's hooks". Both are references to the Crucifixion, and in a very Christian society (like the one in which Shakespeare lived), both of those words were very offensive. Go back further to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and you'll see the same thing, as the Parson scolds the Man of Law for using expressions like "for Goddes bones" and "by Goddes dignitee".

As you can see, religion has long been a source for swearing. That must go back at least to the Ten Commandments, the third of which forbids misusing God's name. Even so, faith-based swearing (to coin a phrase) is clearly not the only way that people could swear in Biblical times. The book of James goes on at some considerable length about how words can be harmful ("out of the same mouth comes praise and cursing", for example), and Paul had similar things to say in Ephesians 5:4: "Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving."

It's pretty clear from a Christian perspective, then, that despite swearing's long heritage, it's not necessarily a good thing to exercise one's entire vocabulary all the time (and whatever the circumstances, misusing God's name is right out). However, does that necessarily mean that there are no circumstances in which some forms of swearing may be acceptable? How about the place where it's most often controversial, in art and media? Let's take a look at a few case studies, to see how language tends to be used and what its impact is.

Stand-up comedy
I may as well come out and say right now that I'm a huge fan of Eddie Izzard, but if I'm going to do a post on swearing there's no way I'm going to avoid talking about him. Here's a clip from his show "Glorious".

In case you weren't counting, that clip contained 14 "fucks" or variations thereof, two "bastard"s, two "bloody"s, and a "Jesus Christ". And yet, I don't find Izzard remotely offensive. Obviously I'm not about to quote his work verbatim in mixed company (I tend to strategically miss out words, of which more later), but I'm more than happy to watch him for hours despite the near-constant barrage of four-letter words. I think the reason is that the swearing isn't the point of the joke. In the above clip, for example, it serves as little more than punctuation — his miming and observational humour is considerably funnier than the fact that he's saying "fuck" a lot, but the swearing does also help to give him a rhythm and a recognisable vocal persona.

Now, contrast that with Billy Connolly. (OK, this is a little unfair, as this clip is Connolly on the subject of swearing, but still.)

Don't get me wrong, that's still funny (and Connolly does make a good point, which we'll come back to in a bit). However, because the swearing is the point of the joke — note how everyone's in raucous laughter after the first bellowing "FUCK OFF!" — I don't find it nearly as entertaining, and I certainly wouldn't be happy showing it to anyone else. (Apart from all of you, of course.) When swearing gets you a laugh, regardless of what else you might be saying, it must be very tempting for comedians just to sprinkle a few swearwords in and leave it at that.

The first time I watched the classic The Silence of the Lambs, I don't think I knew what certificate it was. I wasn't left in any doubt, however, when about three minutes in, Miggs, one of the prisoners in Hannibal Lecter's cell block, snarled "I can smell your cunt!" at Clarice Starling. Bang, instant 18 certificate. Now, The Silence of the Lambs is not a nice film anyway, and the violence later on would push it well into 18 territory regardless of the language used. Nevertheless, the tone is set very early on. Having seen very little of the film, we're already aware of the kind of person that Miggs is, and (by extension) the kind of person that Lecter must also be, to be locked up with him. It's very clever writing, which works because of the choice of language rather than despite it.

On the other hand, we have films like Wanted, on which I made my opinions abundantly clear some time ago. A quick search of an early draft of the script reveals 25 uses of the word "fuck" (again including variants), 18 uses of "shit", and (somewhat surprisingly) only a single "dick". This is a film that is trying very, very hard to be edgy and controversial, but completely fails on every level by being utterly ridiculous. As such, the swearing doesn't add anything to it, and simply feels like it's overdoing it to no great effect. (And in case you were wondering, The Silence of the Lambs makes it to a comparatively clean eleven uses of "fuck".)

So far, then, it seems that swearing can be a valuable tool for creating an atmosphere, but because of its potency it requires good writing and acting to then back up that atmosphere with something more meaty. Get it wrong, and your atmosphere becomes a load of hot air, and becomes offensive not only for the swearing but only because you can't believe you just paid money to see something quite so poor.

As words are obviously the key medium for carrying information in books, far more than for any other medium, this is a pretty huge topic. As such, I'm not even going to try to cover the whole thing. Instead, let's look at just one example of how swearing can work with not swearing to create something very impressive.

The example I'm going to use is from Terry Pratchett, one of the authors I read more than anyone else when I was younger, and who still sits comfortably in my list of favourite writers. He has a real gift for language, but doesn't go in much for lyrical word-pictures. His speciality is more that he picks the right words for the task, and brings about the effect he wanted in just a few words. He also tends not to swear at all in his writing, and in fact turned that very fact into a joke in his novel The Truth, in which one of the characters constantly left gaps in his speech, such that the other characters kept remarking on what the word "___ing" could possibly mean. So it was quite a surprise to suddenly hit this near the end of the book Hogfather:

"Worlds of belief, she thought. Just like oysters. A little piece of shit gets in and then a pearl grows up around it."
That use of "shit" shocked me when I reached it, not because the word is inherently shocking, but because the whole book is about children and how their beliefs shape the world around them, and the language tends to match that. Having had nothing that could be remotely construed as offensive for page after page, that one word was a jolt, and one that gave the metaphor being used a lot more potency.

Perhaps more importantly, there is no word that could have been used in that metaphor that would have had quite the same impact. Evoking an extreme of distaste shortly before swinging it back to beauty with the word "pearl" is a very clever construction, and serves to turn something that was horrible into something wonderful.

So, was Billy Connolly right? Are there situations where you just don't get the right effect unless you're swearing? I would suggest so. One of my favourite musicians, Mark "E" Everett of American rock band Eels, penned a song that illustrates this perfectly. Do me a favour — hover your mouse over this link, close your eyes so that you can't see the title of the song (the link takes you to Youtube), and click. Listen through the beautiful piano-and-strings introduction, and pay attention to the lurch that the opening line of singing produces. Go ahead, I'll wait.

For those who didn't follow those instructions, I'll just plough ahead anyway. I'm entirely aware that the word "motherfucker" is extremely unpleasant. The word doesn't even sound nice, even if you don't pay attention to its connotations. And yet, E has used it brilliantly here. He's taken the depth of feeling that the word evokes (and it's pretty deep), but instead of directing it into anger, he's made it melancholy. The overall effect is one of incredible sadness, giving us a feeling of great loss and tragedy, and he's done that in hardly any words. Once you take into account that E has had a very difficult life (and he wrote that song mere months after his mother died of cancer, practically in his arms), you begin to feel that (to quote E way out of context) "if anyone knew that it is, indeed, a motherfucker", it's him.

The same effect is present on other songs, too. Radiohead's "Creep" is a prime example; when Thom Yorke sneers "I wish I was special / You're so fuckin' special", it turns what could be an expression of admiration into a sarcastic dismissal. Other words don't quite cut it — the radio-friendly version replaces "fuckin'" with "very", which still kind of works, but doesn't have the same bite to it. Conversely, I almost always skip over REM's "Star Me Kitten" if it comes up on shuffle, because of the chorus:
You, me, we used to be on fire
If keys are all that stand between,
Can I throw in the ring?
No gasoline
Just fuck me kitten
You are wild and I'm in your possession
Nothing's free so, fuck me kitten
I can't pretend to completely understand Michael Stipe's lyrics (in any of his music, come to think of it), but this seems like a very bleak song. I can't detect any love in what's being said, and the use of "fuck" here just seems cold and empty. It's unnecessary, and adds nothing to the song, which allows its inherent offensiveness to take over again.

The mention of "Creep" above takes us into the final thing I want to talk about, which is censorship of swearing. Because it has been decided that certain words are not for young ears (a concept that seems fine in principle, but leads to some strange effects in practice), music producers have come up with a number of ways of making sure that young people can still buy their songs. The first is simply to blank out swear words, either by beeps, or by cutting the volume of the vocal track at that point, or even by playing the swearword backwards. I have very little time for this tactic — as I said in the introduction to this post, anyone who hears a bleep is certain to be able to work out from context what the word actually was, and therefore has experienced the swearing just as much as someone who hears the unbleeped version. Worse than that, even if the bleeped word was actually not that offensive, they're now imagining the worst. If you don't believe me, have a look at this, and see what your brain fills in.

Alternatively, artists sometimes record a completely different version. We've covered "Creep" already, which at least doesn't do too much damage to the song; it can, however, get ridiculous. The worst offender I've seen recently was Katy Perry's "Hot and Cold". The song itself isn't bad, as songs go — fairly chirpy dancy pop, with pretty funny lyrics and a good hook. However, a couple of lines in the first verse caused trouble with the censors:
"You change your mind
Like a girl changes clothes,
And you PMS
Like a bitch - I should know..."
Not even that offensive, really. Perry gets away with making a PMS joke by virtue of, well, being a girl, and also because she does so in a self-deprecating way. The meaning she's going for is "you act like a cranky bitch, and as I'm a cranky bitch myself, you'd better believe me."

Once the censors got their hands on it, though, the word "bitch" was replaced with "girl". Suddenly, not only does it become way more offensive, implying that all girls are cranky and irritable, but it also makes absolutely no sense. "You act like a cranky girl. I'm a girl too." Yes, Katy, we had noticed. You're wearing a dress. It was fairly obvious, really.

So, after nearly 2,500 words, we come to the conclusion. Unfortunately, I don't know what it is. Is swearing something we should probably try to cut out of everyday language? Yeah, I think it probably is — for the most part, it doesn't really do a whole lot of good. Are there times when it is necessary? Also yes. Now and again, a swearword is the only one that could possibly fit with the concept you're trying to evoke (Margaret Atwood makes a very good case for her use of "fuck" in The Handmaid's Tale, for example). And can you frequently get into difficulties when trying to remove bad language from art? Most definitely.

So how do we reconcile those ideas? Probably not with hard and fast rules. What's offensive for one person may not be for others (I'm guessing that if you're still here and didn't abandon ship shortly after the kittens, you're not easily offended), so give and take is definitely going to be required. And this is the important part — give and take doesn't mean that one side only gives and the other only takes. If you're not comfortable with swearing in media, that's fine, but please understand that there are those of us who don't mind it and think it can be useful without being offensive. Likewise, if you swear like a longshoreman, be aware that someone who doesn't like hearing certain words is not actually trying to infringe upon your human rights.

You know, I wish my posts didn't end so frequently with the equivalent of "so basically we should all be nicer to each other," but seriously people, isn't it a message worth hearing?

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