“The World Is But a Word”

Howard-TimonAct4I thought I’d talk a little about the quote that inspired the name of, and my approach to, this blog.

The quote is from William Shakespeare’s “Timon of Athens”, which tells the tale of a kind and generous aristocrat.  He’s generous to the point of being reckless with his fortune and eventually falls deep into debt.  At that point all his friends and those who benefited from his generosity refuse to help in his time of need.  Eventually the Senate decrees that the poor Timon be sentenced to death for not paying his debts.

This leads the once gentle and kindly Timon to turn bitter and angry, rejecting his city and his former life and exhorting a soldier he once helped to turn his army on Athens and burn the city down.  Timon dies off stage, a hermit descended into rage and madness.

In the scene from which this blog title is taken, Timon is finally coming to realize how dire his situation is in a conversation with his faithful steward Flavius, who has tried and failed repeatedly to warn Timon about his carelessness.

Flavius tells Timon that his fortune is gone.  Timon tells him to sell off his lands, but Flavius says that what lands and wealth he still has aren’t enough to pay even half of his debts – “and what remains will hardly stop the mouth of present dues”.

Timon is shocked, saying that his lands were once widespread and extensive.  Flavius responds:

“O my good lord, the world is but a word:

Were it all yours to give it in a breath,

How quickly were it gone!”

If the world was just a word, Timon would speak carelessly and throw it away.

But the world is just a word, isn’t it?  The world of digital communications and social media certainly is.  Look past the Facebook friends, social media networks, Twitter followers and blog posts, and you’ll find a world of just words.

“Just words”… but it’s never just words, is it?  Your words explain to those around you who you are.  What you choose to say, and what you leave out, are important.

I’m not anti-social media – this is not me moving to a dirt hole in the forest two trees down from Timon.  Look at how Twitter was instrumental in the Arab Spring, or how Facebook lets you keep in touch with your grandmother more actively now, or how LinkedIn has helped your former cubicle neighbour land that dream job.  That’s people putting their online fortunes and resources to better use than Timon used his.

If Timon were here today, he’d be the guy posting and tweeting like mad and utterly shocked that his online behaviour has cratered his business and his personal life.  You read about a Timon every day, it seems.  Political and professional careers have been ruined – or saved – by a tweet: “feast won, fast lost” as Flavius says.  Employers, political opponents, spurned lovers all study your online persona.

Twitter and blogs and Facebook and WhatsApp don’t have an agenda, they’re not here to ruin our lives.  They’re tools, nothing more and nothing less.  It’s how we use them that matters.  “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” says Hamlet elsewhere.  Timon doesn’t start out a villain, but becomes one when his trust – foolish as it is – is broken.  He justifies himself in saying “Unwisely, not ignobly, have I given.”  The ignobility comes when he suffers the consequences.

So how do you use these amazingly powerful tools of communication?  How much are you, or I, like Timon?

There aren’t any easy answers to these questions, and to other questions that arise about privacy, personal expression, rules of etiquette, humour, what counts as TMI, celebrity, and what happens to the world when so many people have platforms from which to speak.

There are so many more words out there now.  So many more worlds.  How we navigate them, which ones we pay attention to, and which words we use in response help define not only ourselves to the world, but the world itself as we interact with it.

The world is but a word.

Isn’t it?


Text in a Video Age

According to a study commissioned for the Interactive Advertising Bureau of Canada (IAB Canada), Internet video accounts for the largest use of the Internet and it’s growing – this is a significant recent development.  “Pureplay” media sites – that is, content providers that are online only, such as the Huffington Post and YouTube – account for about 50% of all Internet usage.

So it seems we’re transitioning from a text-based Internet to a more video- and visual-based Internet.  And yet, in reality, text itself is a visual medium for communications.  Will it transition from a programming code that translates shapes on a page into images and words in our minds, to becoming those images themselves?

You might find the answer in karaoke bar-inspired lyric videos and Disney’s Winnie the Pooh.

In these fascinating examples, you’ll see not only the story the words tell, but the words themselves, become a part of how that story is told.

First, stretching back in time to when the music video wasn’t even a “music video”, is Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”:

Fast forward through the decades to 1990, when one of the biggest pop stars on Earth, George Michael, refused to do a traditional music video for “Praying for Time,” the lead single from his album Listen Without Prejudice.  Instead, we got arguably the first real lyric video, simple and powerful:

Today, the lyric video has become pervasive, and some of these videos are more inventive and more artistic than the ‘official’ traditional music videos released by the artists.

In “Feel Right” by Mark RonsonFt. Mystikal, the letters are percussive, pumping and bouncing along with the beat and Mystikal’s lyric cadence:

Sia’s “Alive” features a difficult childhood told in graffiti that comes alive as it’s being sprayed on bleak urban walls:

In “Sorry” by Justin Bieber his words become objects manipulated, discarded and washed away by his unforgiving lover:

And in the video for “I Won’t Give Up” by Jason Mraz, a man’s letters to a distant girlfriend tell his feelings until he meets up with her again – when text will no longer be needed to tell her what she means to him:

Finally, as promised, Disney’s film adaptation of Winnie the Pooh (and its many spinoffs and repackagings), where the text of the book helps poor Tigger out of a tough spot in the movie:

One final note: for a mind-bending exploration of the power of text as a programming language, and indeed as a virus, (along with virtual reality, hacking into peoples’ brains, sword fights, nations as franchises, and a guy named Hiro Protagonist) read Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.

With the increasing shift to video, it’ll be interesting to see how the text-based Internet we’re used to will respond.

Twitter and Haikus

tree cherry blossom
Courtesy of giphy.com

Not a new thought,

But Twitter is natural

For writing haikus.


Distilling thoughts in

One hundred and forty bits

Really makes you think.


Twitter’s not only

To share you ate a sandwich:

It can be poignant.


In such a small space,

Each word is significant,

So dense in meaning!


What can I include?

And what must I then leave out?

Each word is a choice.


Grace under pressure,

Unless it goes to 10 k –

Then anything goes.


Does anyone else

Think that this can be new art,

Or is that a stretch?

Would An AI Understand You By Reading Your Blog?

I_Robot_-_RunaroundHave you ever participated in an online fiction writing forum, where you write a story and post it, and/or read the posts of other aspiring authors?

This article in the Globe and Mail reports on a project to use those online fiction communities to make artificial intelligence (AI) more ‘human’.

The researchers are attempting to use the stories on one particular platform, WattPad, to teach an AI how to navigate the world around them.

I used to write online fiction, a long time ago, joining a few groups where we’d write stories in a shared universe – usually the worlds created by more established writers or familiar settings like Star Trek.  I don’t think I want that AI to use the stories I wrote as an angsty twentysomething to navigate complicated human social interactions.  WattPad in particular seems to be geared to teen writers, and all the unfiltered drama that can rule a teen’s life.

It’s not to say that the experiences of those amateur writers don’t have any merit, it’s just that those writers probably don’t have the skill to translate those experiences into words that another person would understand.

I would say that an AI would be better served accessing a library of great literature than the writings of amateurs like me.  But the researchers already tried that, and found that it’s not focused enough on the modern world.  You may gain psychological insight from Dostoevsky but you won’t know how to use a smartphone.

This leads me to a question to fellow bloggers and ‘content creators’ out there: if your body of online work were to be used to train that AI, what kind of ‘person’ would the AI turn out to be?  Would it be a Data, a Roy Batty, a HAL 9000, or a TARS?

In other words, what kind of personality does your writing present? Do you come across as erudite clickbait, bland ad copy, or does your own character and personality come through?  Would an AI be able to grok you?

“His imagination must not be married to real power.”

romneytrumpnew-boston globeThe Republican who ran for President in 2012, Mitt Romney, strongly spoke out against the Republican who wants to run in 2016, Donald Trump.

Trump has been a fascinating, polarizing, and outrageous character in this election cycle.  Wildly popular with some, he’s equally unpopular with others.  I feel that polarization personally; there are things I do, and do not, like about him, and I feel both strongly.

But in his speech, Romney said one thing that distills and defines how I feel about Trump:

“His imagination must not be married to real power.”

This is an astounding phrase.  It’s elegant, clear, concise – and it encompasses all of the anxieties of his opponents and many bystanders.  It expresses in nine words the fear of what someone so unstable in speech and action might do with the power and authority of the Presidency.

Trump is indeed wildly imaginative – he’s a demagogue, a masterful manipulator of media and social media, outrageous, crude, and a ceaseless panderer to the many Americans angry at the politics of their country within and without the Republican Party itself.  He’s dishonest, inconsistent, contradictory, bullying, and he just makes stuff up on the fly.  The very things that inspire loyalty from his followers inspire fear and loathing from his opponents.

Will he use his executive power to expel entire demographics from the United States?  Unilaterally tear up treaties and trade agreements – the kind of actions that precipitate declarations of war?  Hire former The Apprentice contestants to Cabinet positions?

Do you want the guy who hints at his penis size during a nationally televised debate to have his finger on The Button?

“His imagination must not be married to real power.”

Many are criticizing Romney’s attacks on Trump – he is, after all, a leading member of the Republican establishment that has so angered and disillusioned its own supporters and has lost control of its own party with the rise of Trump.  I doubt his words will be effective in stopping The Donald’s momentum; if anything, such opposition from The Establishment will likely only increase his popularity.

But in that phrase, Romney spells out exactly why I felt such unease about Trump’s candidacy – and he did it better than I have been able to myself.  He didn’t change my mind.  He didn’t give me new information to mull over.  “He’s sayin’ what I’m thinkin’” – and better than I’ve thunk it.

That’s an indication of masterful communication: the ability to put someone else’s unspoken thoughts, concerns and opinions into words that the person may not have had before.

His imagination must not be married to real power.

What a statement.  It is very much in Romney’s voice and personality, too – it’s elegant but not flowery, plain-spoken, bereft of hyperbole, spoken with a gentle but resolute certainty.  This is how he usually speaks in public, and it makes me want to go back through his history to read his other speeches.  Whatever my opinion of Romney has been in the past, I have to reconsider it based on this phrase alone.

It remains to be seen whether his words, as powerful as they are, will have any real effect.  But no one who reads or hears it will misinterpret what Romney meant.  It’s the complete opposite to the obfuscation of Brother Lett in my previous post.

Speaking without Saying Anything: Jehovah’s Witnesses Edition

The subject of this post is a statement by one of the leaders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  The point of this post is not to get into the religion itself, which can be considered controversial, or its adherents and its opponents.  There are plenty of places on the Internet to read about both sides.  Here is the official website of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  And here is one of the leading sites that is critical of the organization.

Rather, this post will examine a single phrase.

But first, some history and context.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses are a Christian denomination of about 7 to 8 million members around the world.  They are led by a Governing Body of seven men in the religion’s headquarters in Brooklyn, New York.

The professional, personal and spiritual lives of Jehovah’s Witnesses are tightly regimented by church elders and the Governing Body.  That body – and by extension the Watchtower organization as a whole – considers itself to be God’s messenger and spokesperson on Earth, and faithful Witnesses share that opinion.

Continue reading “Speaking without Saying Anything: Jehovah’s Witnesses Edition”