Archive for the ‘Commentary’ Category

Bookstore Nook

The bookstore, such a wonderful place for browsing, perusing and discovering books you want to read and add to your personal library. Brick-and-mortar bookstores may be in trouble, due to declining sales, but think about this: What will happen to online and ebook sales when customers can no longer linger among stacks of books, thumbing through pages, flitting from book to book, each more inviting and enticing than the last? Are online sales driven in (perhaps large) part by our ability to walk into a real bookstore and sample the wares? (Click image for credit and source)

How many wonderful books have you stumbled upon while browsing in your favorite bookstore?

Books you decided you couldn’t live without.

Books you would never have found if you hadn’t been able to roam and wander and poke about among the overflowing tables, bins, stacks, bookcases and displays.

Books that attracted your attention because of their cover, or a chapter title, or a blurb on the inside jacket flap.

Look around the aisles and alcoves and cozy nooks of your local bookstore. The books stand there, waiting for you, promising knowledge, entertainment, connection, enlightenment, pleasure and joy. A book is a journey.

As you look around, how many people do you see reading? Moving from one volume to another? Pausing to lean over and pluck from the stacks a book that has caught their eye?

And how many people do you see actually buying a book?

Cozy Bookstore Corner with Chair

A cozy corner in a bookstore invites reading. How many new books have you discovered in bookstores? Do you buy your books in the store, or online? Do you think it is fair to use bookstores only to shop, but then buy the books you want online? (Click image for credit and source)

The Borders bookstore chain declared bankruptcy recently and is now selling off its assets. In another few months it will shutter its stores for good.

Where once communities had easy access to books and a destination in which to meet and connect over new ideas and literary finds, there will be only empty shelves and dust.

Another outpost of civilization will have gone dark.

Kindle Ebook Reader

Do you buy print books and ebooks on the web? Do you shop for your books on the web as well, or do you go to a bookstore? (Click image for credit and source)

One reason Borders is closing its doors is that apparently more people were shoppers than buyers.

In the many reports I’ve read about Borders’ bankruptcy, one feature really jumped out at me: many of the staff and analysts interviewed said that for some time they had noticed a new pattern taking shape in the book-selling business: people shopped the bookstores, found what they wanted to buy, and then went online to make their purchases.

A number of shoppers who were interviewed admitted they were guilty of “mooching” – browsing at their bookstore, but then buying online.

Borders is one casualty of that trend.

Some trade analysts have speculated that online and ebook sales might actually decrease as a result of physical bookstores closing. Their thinking is that as more and more brick-and-mortar bookstores go out of business, people will have no place to browse and pick up a book to explore it.

Hmm, does this book appeal to me? Do I need to buy this and read it? Oh … maybe that one instead.

Many industry observers have opined that bookstores are the vehicle of book discovery, and that without thousands of actual books all around them and knowledgeable, professional staff ready to offer help and suggestions, most consumers will remain unaware of what is available in the literary marketplace.

What will that do to online and ebook sales of books?

Is there some way to develop a hybrid store that combines physical books, print-on-demand machines, and the on-site ability to buy ebooks (with the bookstore getting a commission on the sale price)?

Could those hybrid stores also offer multimedia viewing kiosks for titles that are only in ebook format?

As the publishing and book-selling business continues to transform, new models are emerging for getting books in many formats into the hands of readers.

We’re approaching a critical juncture, in my opinion, and this important topic deserves some serious thinking and entrepreneurial inventiveness.

What are your ideas for the bookstores of the future?

Now it’s your turn: What do you think of consumers who shop bookstores, but buy online? Do you think brick-and-mortar bookstores will eventually disappear? Do you support your local independent and chain bookstores by actually purchasing books there? How do you feel about the closing of Borders? Join the conversation by leaving a comment – thanks!      Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

Metaphor: The Open Road

Can we imagine any part of our life without using a metaphor? Do we need metaphors to create meaning? (Click image for credit and source)


All is connected, all is real, and all is metaphor.

Do you think this statement is true?

Recently I ran across a website of metaphor examples. According to its author, the site is based on the idea that metaphorical relationships can be considered to be “universal” in scope: a sort of Rosetta Stone between disciplines, if you will.

A related view is that metaphors provide a set of tools to compare two (seemingly) unlike things that are alike in at least one important way. Pick the tool of your choice – simile, analogy, personification, and others – and use it to explore and better understand the unknowns.

Then there’s this definition: “A metaphor is a literary figure of speech that uses an image, story or tangible thing to represent a less tangible thing or some intangible quality or idea … Metaphor may also be used for any rhetorical figures of speech that achieve their effects via association, comparison or resemblance.”

And what of visual metaphorsCognitive metaphors? Root metaphors?

If you follow some of the links in this post, you will see that metaphors of all kinds appear to be an indispensable key to understanding as well as creating our reality. They also allow us to connect to other forms of reality and to live beyond the boundaries of our own space.

Could we write, or communicate in any way, without metaphors?

Can you think of any aspect of your life that is metaphor-free?

If you were deprived of all metaphors, could you exist?

Do you think humans are responsible for creating metaphors, or do we just notice all the connections around us and attempt to describe their interfaces and correspondences?

In a recent post titled Language: The Government Wants Your Metaphors, I discussed IARPA’s Metaphor Program, which seeks to “exploit the fact that metaphors are pervasive in everyday talk and reveal the underlying beliefs and worldviews of members of a culture” in order to “characterize differing cultural perspectives associated with case studies of the types of interest to the Intelligence Community.”

Although analytically and intellectually admirable, at least as a mathematical construct, such a project may ultimately prove too daunting to be practicable, because what metaphors say is so complex, interlocking and interrelated that it seems quite a challenge to untangle all the possible meanings and connections. And never mind that all of those qualities are dynamic.

If, as some suggest, metaphors are the foundation of our conceptual systems, then apparently we require them in order to think and act.

And if we can only understand or experience one thing in terms of another, that is, by using metaphors, then what don’t metaphors say?

Now it’s your turn: Do you think metaphors are the engine of communication? Could language itself be construed as a form of metaphor for life? Without communication of all kinds would life exist? Thanks for leaving your comments!   Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

Make a Metaphor

Are metaphors cultural memes? Do they say something about your culture, or just you? (Click image for credit and source.)

Did you know your tax dollars will soon be hard at work mining massive amounts of text?

It seems that Uncle Sam’s spy researchers are building “software sieves” that will be able to parse automatically what English, Farsi, Russian and Spanish speakers say and write, and pluck out the metaphors lurking in their streams of words.

The Intelligence Advanced Projects Research Activity (IARPA) wants to analyze and evaluate how people use metaphors, and then map that usage to their worldview, beliefs and mindset.

IARPA describes the Metaphor Program this way in a synopsis on its website:

“The Metaphor Program will exploit the fact that metaphors are pervasive in everyday talk and reveal the underlying beliefs and worldviews of members of a culture … performers will develop automated tools and techniques for recognizing, defining and categorizing linguistic metaphors associated with target concepts and found in large amounts of native-language text … the program will characterize differing cultural perspectives associated with case studies of the types of interest to the Intelligence Community.”

One fascinating aspect of the project is that IARPA sees metaphors as representing a general cultural mindset or worldview, rather than merely an individual’s expression of personal beliefs or attitudes.

This is interesting, because although it might be true that metaphors can influence your beliefs or how you perceive other people, events and issues, it is no doubt equally true that the arrows of influence can fly in the opposite direction. Maybe, just maybe, you can change your culture, even if only a little, by how you use language. Creativity and originality, anyone?

At any given moment, does your use of metaphors represent you, the individual, engaged in expressing your own ideas, which might run counter to those dominant in your culture or group? Or you, the “member of a culture” who merely echoes the received thematic mindset and attitudes associated with your kind?

And how could an outsider, a third-party someone (or software application) truly make that distinction with any accuracy?

As Alexis Madrigal points out in his superb article in The Atlantic: “[T]his project wants to parse, say, all the pages in Farsi on the Internet looking for hidden levers into the consciousness of a people … The assumption is that common turns of phrase, dissected and reassembled through cognitive linguistics, could say something about the views of those citizens that they might not be able to say themselves. The language of a culture as reflected in a bunch of text on the Internet might hide secrets about the way people think.”

Alright, then. What do the following metaphors say about Americans – not you as “an American,” mind you, but “Americans”? Because one implication (or perhaps, better: assumption) of the project appears to be that we are each more or less cultural cogs than we are individuals and, therefore, our use of metaphors shows “the consciousness of a people,” which tidily presumes we all agree on what a given metaphor means and only apply it to agreed-upon contexts and situations. Some American metaphors for your consideration:

That’s as American as motherhood and apple pie.

Saddle up.

Let’s roll.

It’s not over ‘til the fat lady sings.

The best defense is a good offense.

He’s wearing cement booties and sleeping with the fishes.

A stitch in time saves nine.

He made it by the skin of his teeth.

May the force be with you.

Beam me up, Scotty.

Sow the seeds of progress.

They’re in default mode.

And those examples represent just “we the people” inventing and using common, every-day metaphors. What of those created by great writers, poets, scientists and thinkers?

Read any of Shakespeare’s works, say, or Pablo Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. What do the metaphors in those works say about their authors and their respective cultures?

For example, should the meaning(s) of Neruda’s metaphors be understood as saying something about the consciousness of the culture to which he belongs? And what, exactly, would that be? Do Neruda’s readers interpret his metaphors in the same way he does? If they repeat one of his metaphors, do they merely pass along the original (Neruda’s) meaning, or modify it, re-shape it, alter it and re-cast it to fit their own thinking, experiences and intent?

Let me tangentially note that many writers and editors (and readers, too) would call cultural metaphors, such as the examples in the list above, boring and unimaginative platitudes, or tired figures of speech, or hackneyed phrases, and frown on using them. Cultural metaphors are not, by definition, very original.

But do they capture the consciousness of an entire people? The truth of an entire culture?

Do they show how we understand ourselves, each other, and the world?

I think even attempting to build such a cultural-linguistic knowledge database that possesses the slimmest margin of accuracy will prove to be an extraordinarily challenging, complex, very long-term undertaking. The research will have to focus, in part, on word relationships, frames, logics, structures, processing rules, cognitive linguistics, syntactics, pragmatics, semantics, morphologies of various sorts, linguistic biases, permutations and combinations, probabilities, literal versus figurative speech, and … on and on it goes.

Language is a living substance. It is one of the outward expressions of the functioning brain. In essence, this project seeks to build a sort of linguistic Fast Fourier Transform to ingest the metaphorical statements of hundreds of millions of functioning brains and convert them into patterns that show the worldview, the consciousness, and the beliefs of their respective cultures.

What are the odds of such a project producing anything coherent, much less generating accurate, usable, actionable intelligence or insight?

If you view metaphors as cultural memes, you would do well to remember that a culture is a living organism, a society of minds in which ideas and thoughts constantly arise, emerge, evolve, transform, grow, replicate, mutate, decline, and die. Although the metaphors of any given time might mirror something about an individual as well as societal life, and vice versa, what is it?

The Metaphor Program promises to be great fun. This is one of the yummiest projects I’ve heard of in a long time.

What do you think of it? Do you feel like circling the wagons and hunkering down, or are you raring to saddle up and head out to join the effort and offer your metaphors to your country?

To help you decide, you might find it useful to read: What Do Metaphors Say?

Now it’s your turn: What do you think about the government poking around in your metaphors? Do you think such a project can capture the ceaseless realtime exchange of information between individuals and their culture, decode the meanings encrypted in metaphors, and interpret them in accurate and useful ways? Do you even like metaphors? Do you use them?  Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

U.S. Department of State and Unencrypted Diplomatic Cables

The U.S. Department of State is currently managing the fallout from the unauthorized release of a slew of unencrypted diplomatic cables. All political considerations aside, this post looks at the use of language in diplomacy.

From the sampling I’ve read and heard, the unencrypted diplomatic cables now being splashed onto the world stage seem to cover a rather wide range of topics, from the trivial to the important. Some give first-person accounts of meetings, others offer candid views of allies and world leaders. Some are lighthearted and amusing, others serious and filled with official acronyms, diplo-speak and numbing amounts of often arcane detail.

But let’s leave aside for the moment all political and moral questions involved in the unauthorized release of the cables, as well as any consideration of potential fallout, international distress, or issues of national interest.

Important as those things are, the cables also reveal something else that captured my attention.

As I listened and read, a pattern began to emerge. A common thread seems to run through the cables that are the most interesting from a writing perspective, and that is story.

Yes, it appears (to me at least) that a first-rate diplomatic cable tells a good story.

Grab Attention with a Strong Lead

The most engaging and memorable cables open with a strong lead sentence. They grab the reader’s attention by making a strong point right up front.

A good opening lead shows the writer comprehends the issue at hand, has a purpose in mind, knows who the audience is, and understands how to write for that audience.

Tell the Story

In the well-written cables, the author then proceeds to elaborate on the initial idea in the lead sentence by telling a lively and vivid story. The best of these are fairly short, punchy and use memorable, descriptive language to get the point across.

Once the writer has established the subject in the lead sentence, everything in the story must support and explain it. You can spot a lack of unity by looking for information that is not relevant to the lead sentence.

Wrap It Up

The author closes by stating any supporting details, data or technical information.

In some cases, there may be a call to action or a formal concluding statement.


Now, if the government had stored those cables in encrypted form, writers the world over would never have had the chance to appreciate how nicely written many of them are.

Before you leave … share your thoughts in a comment. Have you read any of the diplomatic cables? Did you notice anything about the writing, or how they were constructed? What is your opinion?  Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

The "At" Symbol

The "At" Symbol

How many times a day do you see or use the @ symbol? Think of all the emails you send and receive each day. If you are on social websites such as Twitter, how often do you use an @ symbol to link to or refer to another user?

Each day, millions of people directly or indirectly use the @ symbol on the Internet and in emails. The @ symbol has become one of the icons of our age.

How did this symbol achieve such importance?

Just as all words have a past, symbols do too. Their origins may be murky or fully verifiable. Their path from the past to our time may be a pure, clean arc of a single meaning or usage or, instead, perhaps a meandering, sketchy tale of multiple meanings and dodgy stopovers in many countries, fields and professions. Rare is the word or symbol that arrives on our doorstep without baggage.

And so it is with the @ symbol. Where exactly did it originate? And why?  It seems to be of deliciously obscure provenance. Although no one has entirely solved the “whodunit” or offered proof beyond all doubt, there are several contenders. Here are two.

It Was the Scribes, They Claim

In one camp, there are those linguists who argue that it all started with Latin scribes around the 6th or 7th centuries CE. It seems those scribes might have intended to create a shortcut for the Latin word ad, which means at or to, in order to decrease their number of pen strokes.

Combining the two letters in such an elegant way, with the upstroke of the “d” curving gracefully up to the left and then all the way around the plump little apple-shaped body of the “a,” satisfied the scribes’ requirements in one pen stroke and in a visually appealing manner.

Now, it might seem odd to us today to shorten such a small word, but in fact the Latin word ad was very frequently used in manuscripts, just as its English counterpart is widely used today in various media. So while ad is a short word, its rate of usage apparently made it a candidate for compression (nor, by the way, was it the only word shortened into a symbol).

And note the words scribe and manuscript. The few people who were literate and could write at that time used quill pens, or something similar, which they had to dip often into a well of ink. Write, dip, drip, fix. Try repeating that eight or more hours a day.

Since the printing press would not be invented for many centuries yet, the scribes had to painstakingly hand-write every letter of every word in every document, which would have given new meaning to the concept of “production” when someone wanted to publish a book: “You want how many copies!??”

If you had been one of those scribes, laboriously copying out manuscripts, wouldn’t you also have wanted to find a way to reduce the number of pen strokes per word? Especially for common, frequently used words?

No, No, It Was All About Commerce

Another top theory of origin among linguists is that traders, merchants and others involved in commerce in the 18th century CE developed the @ symbol to denote price per unit.

For example, if you saw a sign that read Apples @ 10¢, it meant the apples were 10¢ each. So if you bought eight apples, the total bill would be 80¢.

But not so fast. In 2000, a professor of the history of science at La Sapienza University (Italy), named Giorgio Stabile, apparently discovered 14th-century documents that used the @ symbol to denote a measure of quantity, the amphora, a word of Greek origin meaning jar. Merchants of the day used the amphora, a standard-size container, to carry wine and grain. According to professor Stabile, the form of the symbol derived from the uppercase “A” embellished with the florid Florentine script, and the meaning of “at the price of” stemmed from its association with the amphora. In this scenario, the @ nicely conflates the “a” at the beginning of amphora and the idea of the price of a standard measure.

Other theories about commercial origins abound, some placing the invention of @ in the Italian Renaissance, or giving credit to the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Arabs, the Greeks, or the Norman French.

Naturally, there are those who say that this commercial usage of the symbol is all well and good, whenever it actually began, but that business was just borrowing, updating and recycling what the Latin scribes had created.

In any case, the symbol’s place in commerce and business was solidified when it appeared as a standard key on typewriters of the 1880s.

The Rise to Email Phenomenon

When Ray Tomlinson developed the first electronic mail system in 1972, he needed a way to separate the user’s name from the machine and domain names. Because the character could not appear in any name, he could not select a letter or a number. And if the character could also indicate the user’s location, wouldn’t that be optimal?

Legend has it that Mr. Tomlinson perused his keyboard, a Model 33 Teletype. In a stroke of insight and perhaps genius, he decided to go with the @ symbol, which duly appeared in the first electronic mail message he sent.

In that first, single message address, the idea of “user name at location name,” encoded by Mr. Tomlinson as “username@locationname,” became established as the standard for electronic mail.

As email and Internet systems developed, the fortunes of the @ symbol rose along with them. Today, although the symbol is known by many names around the world, it stands as the most recognized emblem of email systems and social media, worldwide.

Want More Information about the @ Symbol?

If you are intrigued by the history of the @ symbol and would like to know more, be sure to check out these sites: Webopedia, Wikipedia and AtSymbol.

To listen to a fascinating podcast about the @ symbol, originally broadcast by Studio 360 on August 13, 2010, on National Public Radio, go to Studio 360 episodes for August 13 and scroll down the page to the title Design for the Real World: @Elizabeth Lexleigh   LexPower  The Write Ideas

The deep-water oil-well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico continues to blast out miles-long plumes of unmitigated disaster. Slimes of black and rusty oil, toxic bursts of methane and jets of volatile organics geyser outward, exploding, spurting, surging, leaping from the wellhead.

This defective, uncontrollable wellhead spews a cataclysmic onslaught that befouls the sea, the land, the air, and an entire way of life for generations to come. Up to 60,000 barrels a day for more than a month now. No end in sight. The misguided use of underwater dispersants increases the scope of the problem and makes cleanup unbearably arduous and maybe futile.

How to describe the genesis of this wellhead run amok? Was it due to carelessness? Stupidity? A gluttonous, one-quarter worldview that places profits before conscience? A freak accident? A fool’s notion of self-interest that blew up in everyone’s face? Whatever the pathetic and wretched misdeeds, the lazy missteps and pitiful intentions, our world is now sorely afflicted.

What do we want to know about pelican chicks crushed in their nests, their fluffy down tousled by hydrocarbon-laced sea breezes, because those who were placing booms did not know or care enough to avoid nesting sites?

What do we say to the Louisiana pancake batfish, which lives 1,500 feet below the surface, as its insides burn and dissolve from ingesting an oil-coated meal?

How should we talk about the numb, grief-stricken look in an oysterman’s eyes, the weary slump of his shoulders, as he stares out toward the Gulf, his mind whirring with memories, aware that 100 years of a family business are dying along with the oyster beds?

What words can we offer to help comfort the residents of the Gulf Coast states?  Caring … moral support … financial reimbursement … volunteer … tourist … we stand with you. Do these suffice? What else?

How can we express our own feelings about the catastrophe? Rage. Bitterness. Anger. Bravery. Fear. Horror. Compassion. Grief. Patience. Shock. Steadfastness. Hatred. Anxiety. Dread. Fury. Courage. Hmm, courage? What else do we have to muster in order to move forward?

And what abject apologies do we beg Mother Nature to accept? “Sorry” just does not cut it. What about “We promise to do better next time, Ma’am”? Or perhaps “If we grovel, would you please, pretty please, let us off the hook on this one”? Maybe “Just make it all go away”? Nah. Our only realistic option is to start screaming “Mommy, help us!!”

Still we keep right on drilling and pumping, don’t we, even in the most tenuous and risky environments. All things considered, then, we’d better start polishing our words, better start honing our descriptions, better start buffing our phrases to a lustrous shine. Because it looks like we’re going to need a lot of them in the years ahead.  Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

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