Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Stop and Smell the Asphalt

In my life as a computer programmer people would often come up to me, usually with a kind of scary smile that one associates with an impending car crash, and ask me what I studied in college. "Music" I would reply innocently, waiting for the inevitable response, "Oh yeah! Programming must have some connection with music. There's a lot of music majors who are programmers", which provided the perfect opening for my stock reply, "Yeah, the connection is that we are all poor". I structured my response this way in an attempt not to exact pity, but to forestall the inevitable nonsense about programming and music being both fundamentally 'mathematical' activities. What exactly this mysterious 'mathematical' component in either programming or music I must have somehow failed to grasp over the last twenty years. I think what they mean to say is that they are both somehow abstract, which is far more believable and accurate (but then again why be either one of those).

What music and programming do have in common is that they are both made up languages; entirely human inventions with arbitrarily constructed grammars. In both, one must follow the rules to a 't' or the entire effectiveness will be entirely lost. This of course is in direct contrast to normal language which was evolved rather than being intentionally constructed (like Esperanto) and which consequently permits all kinds of liberties with no fundamental harm to the underlying meaning.

Lest one leap to a conclusion, because a language is made up however, does not necessarily mean that it is abstract. The language which is used to describe wine is also an entirely made up language, but a language almost entirely constructed of metaphor, that is, it uses concrete objects to describe an abstract experience (this is, when you come to think of it, the exact opposite of abstraction). We have an unbalanced vocabulary when it comes to describing wine; the few non-metaphors (acidic, tannic, sweet, soft etc.) and then an extensive vocabulary of metaphors (cherry, peppery, herbaceous, black currant, vanilla and on an on), in fact, reading a wine list in almost any winery can almost immediately induce a state of metaphor fatigue (in engineering known as 'metal fatigue', in music as 'heavy metal fatigue', and in programming as a 'coffee break').

The sad truth is that smell and taste are the gangsters of the senses. One can peacefully coexist with an unsightly mess (witness my office) but an offensive smell or taste, once they've got you, they've got you by the short hairs (forgive the crudeness of the metaphor, but it is especially apt). They are the least prone to abstraction and not susceptible to negotiation (I'm gonna make you an odor you can't refuse). Neither is sight, for example, as indelibly wedded, or 'fixated' to specific objects. We do not generally call the color black, 'night' or the color red, 'apple' (orange is the exception) but the point is we have abstractions of color that serve us fairly well. The same is not true for aroma or taste. If we want to convey how something tastes or smells we generally have to link it to a concrete object (via metaphor not handcuffs). 'It smells like hibiscus', has meaning, saying
'it smells like spring' is virtually useless (unless you are a mattress salesman).

The explanation I have seen for this is that language is fundamentally a left brain activity while smell and taste is processed in the right brain. I am not too sure about this. What about if I turn around? (blonde joke here).

Anyway, by far the most interesting reaction I have gotten in my own tasting room was to my use of the term 'asphalt' to convey an aromatic component of my Cabernet blend. This invoked suppressed laughter and the accompanying suggestion that perhaps the grapes had fallen off the back of a truck while they were being delivered. I would like to reply here in that I have looked it up and 'tar' is in fact a member in good standing in most most wine descriptive lexicons. It's dues are paid up to date. It's funny you know that when you come to think of it there's a lot of musicians who make wine, I think it's because, you know, 'guitar', it has 'tar' right there in it!

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