On Tourist Towns

Featured image source: Junji Ito’s horror manga  “Army of One.”

My hometown is a tacky tourist town, and as such, has always prided itself on its tacky public art installations. They’re usually nothing particularly terrible. Oftentimes, they take the form of things like stone statues of people sitting down looking at a small obelisk on the ground. They cheapen the town’s atmosphere, but aren’t exactly eyesores worth complaining about. Anyone with an inkling of artistic taste would just groan and move on.

The latest schlock shoveled out by this city’s council of old fogeys, though, surpasses mere kitsch. It’s dreadful. It’s monstrous. It’s even disgusting. And it’s right outside where I work.

Let’s back up a bit.

So the place where I work is a jewelry store. The landmark we use to help people find our store is a K6 red telephone box, the kind that you’d see in London about 80 years ago. Not content with leaving an out-of-place phonebooth in peace, the city council here has bastardized this poor thing for various public art projects for as long as I can remember. The previous inhabitant of the phone booth was a grey steel tumor in the shape of a faceless man, who had been hanging off the side of the phone booth’s door. He was perpetually in the act of trying his hardest to pry the door open, leaving a small crack into which tourists often tossed their trash (despite there being a trash can ten feet away). I imagine this didn’t sit well with the city, because one day, I noticed that my flat bendy friend was gone.

Several days later, I came to work and saw a public servant shoving what appeared to be wooden boards into the phone booth. Upon closer inspection, I came to a blood-chilling realization: these boards were covered with pulsating, fleshy, hairy masses.

Okay, so they don’t pulsate. But they are fleshy, and they are hairy, and they do wear swimsuits. They’re made of some kind of foam or rubber which has already begun decaying, giving some of the bodies inside a zombie-like appearance. Basically, three of these boards are pressed up against the poor phone booth’s windows to give the impression that the booth is completely filled with beachgoers. You can see butts, legs, boobs, nipples, armpits, and hair crammed against the glass. But you can’t see faces. That would just be too much, apparently.

You see, my town is a beach town. And… yeah, that’s as far as the line of thinking behind this monstrosity goes. This is the kind of dreck this city cooks up on Tuesday nights, just so geezers with nothing better to do at 11:00 PM can kvetch during the City Council meetings.

So now I’m stuck with an eldritch horror living outside of my storefront. What’s worse is that the city put this thing inside the phone booth right before the heaviest rains we had gotten in the past ten years. When I came back to work the next week, I found mold growing on some of the bodies. The phone booth had essentially become a petri dish.

My friends and I all think this is the worst thing to ever happen to this town. So what do the tourists think of this abomination? Their reactions range from tickled amusement (old ladies; I’m really curious to find out just why this aberration makes them titter, and whether they’re diseased in the head or not), to pure horror (small children), to disgust (teenage girls), to bemusement (Chinese tourists), to utter confusion (everyone else).

This monstrosity is slated to fester in its current location for at least two more years. My friend invited me to go to the council meeting tonight to protest the heap of flesh, but I’m not sure whether I’m more content with sitting on the Internet complaining about it instead. Then again, the only way to get what you want is to speak out, so…

Anyway. Without further ado, I present to you:

Junji Ito’s “Phonebooth”



Reminder that someone got paid to make this, and then spent many hours actually constructing it.

Queriable Quandaries in Constructing Digital Dictionaries

Short article today.

I was reading an interesting article this morning in the New York Times that discussed the limitations of traditional dictionaries when it comes to staying up-to-date on the latest slang. You can read it here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/04/technology/scouring-the-web-to-make-new-words-lookupable.html

Now, the purpose of apps like Wordnik is to identify words use on the Internet as “lookupable.” That is, these apps define a given word’s relevancy in everyday speech and log it as something that could be used by others on a broader scale. While Ms. McKean’s effort to unearth English’s “missing words” is certainly valiant, I’m going to be blunt and say that I feel it’s a bit of a futile quest due to the pace of our rapidly mutating languages. Moreover, the volatile nature of online languages makes me question whether Ms. McKean and Wordnik are really focusing on ‘the right thing.’ There’s little point in hunting down vagabond words and tossing them into the dictionary if their progenitors are sure to rise moments later as an endgame pursuit. But what we can focus on, using the data we gather on “lookupable” words, is the structure that emerging terms share.

Let’s use Ms McKean’s example of “roomnesia.” The article defines this word as “a condition in which people forget why they walked into a room,” its power deriving from the fact that it is a clever portmanteau of ‘room’ and ‘amnesia.’ Perhaps I am being too closed-minded at the moment, but most of the words that qualify for possible inclusion in Wordnik are portmeanteaus. In fact, the article lists a slurry of clumsy portmanteaus before examining roomnesia. In this case, it seems more appropriate to document the mechanical structure of these hybrids rather than the meaning of the word itself. Following the logic of roomnesia, anything can be a -nesia. It seems we would gain a greater understanding of this word and its brethren if we could look up roomnesia on Wordnik and learn that tacking a -nesia onto the end of an existing word (a state of being or, in this case,a  simple noun) creates a portmanteau that implies forgetfulness in a certain situation.

Such an approach would free us from the confines of strict definitions when it comes to trendy terms that populate social media circles, because it implies that language on the Internet is highly mutable. But there is, of course, an issue of artistic flair when it comes to creating these new words. We all know the feeling of wondering where our sunglasses are when they’re actually on top of our head, but saying “sunglassesnesia” or “shadesnesia” just doesn’t roll off the tongue like roomnesia does. How, then, would we create a new word that encapsulates this feeling of sunglasses dysphoria? Maybe Wordnik can help us out, if it devotes its energies to dissecting the mechanical bases and creation of the -nesia family.

Again, my thoughts aren’t meant to downplay Ms. McKean’s work (or Wordnik’s, if we want to give credit to our machine companions). But can Big Data alone, touted by businessmen and laymen alike as the divining rod that will draw up useful assets from the digital morass like potable water, grant us full insight into what people do and why they do it? It can pinpoint trends and trend words, but it’s up to linguists themselves to make the judgment calls. They can identify what the roomnesias and dronevertisings of the future embody – and they can predict how they will morph to suit new social contexts and influence the creation of new words through their mechanical components. We have to help our mechanical friends, after all, just as much as they help us. And through this union, we can at least begin to grasp at the multiplicity of being human.

I’m sure most of Big Data’s proponents realize this, by the way. It’s just easy to lose sight of how we collaborate with our machines as they become more human-like.