The Other End of Sunset

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Pistols are not as good as the Clash

Spend all your time waiting,
for that second chance.
The break that would make it ok.
There’s always one reason
To feel not good enough
--Sarah McLachlan

I’m fascinated by communication. Sometimes I’m good at it, many times not so great. But I am fascinated by the whole idea. Aren’t people fascinating? Two people can have the same interaction, the same conversation, be in the same place at the same time, and yet, experience totally different things.

I’m kind of impatient – my annual review showed that in remarkable clarity, if I didn’t already know. But I knew already! JR once said to me, in the middle of a fight, the funniest thing ever: “Why don’t you wait for me to actually say the words, before you decide what I said, ok?”

Heh. That is really funny. Particularly funny since she was right. One of my weaknesses is that I will decide what you are saying about halfway through the sentence.

It’s not that I don’t care what you have to say, it’s that I know myself. I have the attention span of a hummingbird in a rose garden. I’m going to get distracted, partway through our conversation, by the pattern I can see in the air conditioning duct. Or the noise the projector makes. Or wondering whether Scottie Pippin could have won if he’d had Steve Nash on his team, or whether he HAD to have Michael Jordan.

I mean, really, don’t you wonder that?

Anyway, that’s not really relevant. But kinda interesting, no?

My point is that I am thinking about communication. It’s a complex process, communicating. It’s hard to understand, because there is neither spoon nor “truth”. Communication has a sender, a receiver, and a channel.

The sender has content they are attempting to convey, but has to stuff the content into an imprecise language.

The receiver decides how to interpret the imprecise language back into content.

The channel will, inherently, bias the content. The channel is usually not a sentient being, so it biases due to its makeup. For example, a verbal channel can’t convey an image, or a pictorial channel doesn’t carry smells very well. Regardless, all channels bias to some extent.

There was a dude named Grice who was interested in the pragmatics of natural language – the rules by which we are able to stuff content into language and extract it afterwards. You can read his four maxims here if you want. I find that many of the miscommunications in my life can be recast as violations of one, or several, of Grice’s four maxims. Technically, his rules are probably about human decisions relating to what we hear, not what we express, but they work well for a user’s guide as well.

My personal favorite? Maxim of Quantity. Be as brief as you can be, but not MORE brief than that. I usually read this one as being about context – you need to share context with a listener in order to stuff your content down the channel. But if you share too much context, you will lose some of the content in that context. Just enough and no more.

There is an entire science of the mathematics of communication – Information Theory. Claude Shannon talked about entropy, and thereby created a lot of communication gear. On the way by, he created the mathematical basis for today’s encryption – carrying us from the thing that is tattooed on my back (basically a code) to computer based useful encryption (ciphers).

He also taught me the words to use to describe Maxim of Quantity correctly – the result of the signal level divided by the noise level has to be large enough for someone to detect the signal. This is called the signal to noise ratio.

Generally, a smart dude, Claude. Too bad he couldn’t have taught me how to listen better.

What do you think the future of communication is? I find myself using the phone less and less. I use email, and IM, and, I guess, blogger more.

Remember when phones were the default infrastructure? Now my phone rings so infrequently that I don’t even answer it when it does. Unlike the main character in Failsafe, I can, in fact, FIND my phone, but I also ignore it when it rings.

I do, however, use my phone to get directions and to SMS people. And as an alarm clock.

Quite a change, eh? From primary method of connecting, to an alarm clock. Much like the transformations that happened to banks – “bank” is now as much a verb as it is a noun. Speaking of which, I went to a bank today, to find an ATM. They had a drive through – one of those with the little tubes that suck the capsules from next to your car over to the tellers. But they didn’t have an ATM. I had to go inside. This seems wrong, in some deep, fundamental sense. The last time I was in a bank was when JR added me to her bank accounts in preparation for her death.

Yes, I was sad, and a little creeped out, when I went into the bank. But that is, what it is.

But back to communication – what do banks have to do with it? Nothing, true.

I have a hard time talking to people. So I talk here, in this blog. I talk to many people at once, to address my shortcomings in communicating to one person at a time. This one-to-many communication can’t replace one-to-one, but it can create interesting niche groups.

Blogs are, indeed, an interesting communication methodology. I write, blathering about my life and times, and inspire connection. But what biases are introduced by the channel here? Clearly, you can’t smell me – which might be a good thing – and I assume that most of you couldn’t pick me out of a lineup – blogs aren’t good for pictures either.

So, indeed, what content are they good for? Well, I have met a few people through the blog.

Some new people: EZ, who wrote to tell me about his lovely daughter (read more here). EZ wanted me to know how she got her special name, and its connection to a departed loved one. It’s a wonderful story, and Lila is adorable; my writing about JR reminded EZ of how he felt about his friend. He wrote me a beautiful note thanking me for helping him spend some time with his friend.

Some already loosely connected to me: A coworker, who was recently diagnosed with Celiac, found my blog. Or rather, I think, his wife did. I assume they found it by doing a search for Celiac? (Man, web search is amazing. When did I write that post?) We had a good chat about how to find food, especially when traveling, and how I figured out what to do, etc. It’s strange to advise someone else; it feels like I was just diagnosed an hour ago. But I guess a few years are worth a lot sometimes.

Some old friends, reconnecting. One pointed out that I am terrible at keeping in touch, but that she can hear my voice in my posts, and she feels like she gets to talk to me. But she can’t answer, so it’s a one-sided conversation. However, a few left comments, and a few left me emails. I usually answer the email, but I rarely answer the comments.

Should I answer my comments? Yes, Tina, I saved her blanket. Yes, Anonymous, I will post pictures of my tattoos, publicly, soon.

Yes, other Anonymous, I will still talk about JR. She is still in my life, and one talks about people in one’s life.

But, dear OtherEnders, let’s have a vote – should I answer you when you comment, or should I rather just let the responses hang in the air like the lonely cry of a wolf in winter, carrying over snow covered fields and the ghosts of oak trees.

I made a promise
Said it everyday
Now I’m reading romance novels
And dreaming of yesterday
This is home
--Sheryl Crow
But I don’t talk about everyone in my life. I never use my best friend’s name. I didn’t use JR’s name until I wrote her elegy. I read that post to her, and she started crying when I used her name. She was proud to be mentioned in my blog – she wasn’t always sure when I wrote about her, because my discussions were so elliptical. I knew they were about her, but she wasn’t always sure, and my using her name felt so much like love to her that she was overcome. That, and she knew that I used her name because she was dying. Strange how that might make one cry – it made me cry too.

I never understood how she could NOT know it was about her? But I now know that I am somehow secretive in my writing. Many people have been described in my blog and not known it. Many people have thought a story was about them… when it wasn’t.

I like to write stories that tell my secrets, but not others’. It’s somehow ok to tell JR stories – it’s not violating her privacy, it’s a deliberate attempt to get her out into the world. She was too wonderful to lose. No, that’s wrong. She IS too wonderful to lose.

But should I name the others? Should I tell stories that belong to the living, not the dead? Should you know with whom I struggle, and with whom I laugh? Should my stories use names, or not? I tried an experiment with my Celiac post – I named two people – did you notice? Was it stupid?

Sometimes I get in arguments with someone, and those arguments end up here. I’m usually wrong – oversensitive, under appreciative, and sharing insufficient context – and my writing about them makes things clearer to me. But I don’t want the people involved to feel that I have revealed them unfairly.

One of my friends described my blog as “multi-leveled, painfully personal and revealing while at the same time obscure and ritualistic”. Good description.

I got an idea for movie
It’s about this guy
Who wished and wished ‘til it came true
And now this kid can fly
I forgot one thing about the guy
Who gained the ability to fly
It was actually only for a foot or two
And only an inch or so high.
--The Vandals

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about greatness. Americans have mixed feelings about great people – on the one hand we revere them to some ridiculous extent, but on the other we tear them down. We delight in saints and schadenfreude, royalty and ruination.

But people can’t be just great, we toss greatness aside in favor of the flavor of the week, or to put people in their place.

I think my next post will be about greatness, and the awful things we do to people who are great. So, this is another experiment. Foreshadowing.

What do you think my point will be in the next posting?

I’ll tell you, as soon as the hamsters tell me. Until then, give Lila a kiss, hug your best friend, and kiss the person who makes you smile. Try to communicate a bit more clearly, and completely. Try to be weaker, and, at the same time, stronger. Try to give your context, and your heart, to those around you.