Why You Should Not Take the Alphabet For Granted.

Why You Should Not Take the Alphabet For Granted.

Humanity's salvation just might lie in a single letter.

What's in a word?

A literal response to this almost obscure question would be letters. Letters make up words just as words make up these sentences. Now imagine a world where only one singular letter exists. Think for a moment. How would that affect one's interaction with the world, with society, and with themselves (besides a potentially limited ability to communicate effectively and efficiently)?

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending the Black Maria Film Festival here at Princeton - an event kindly sponsored by the Lewis Center for the Arts. Consisting of various short form documentaries and experimental short films, this festival's aim was to "celebrate the short form in all its permutations for its artistic challenges, aesthetics, and substance." From a funereal-like procession through the post-Soviet streets of a Bulgarian village to a marvelously made visual rendition of Cortney Lamar Charleston 's poem "How Do You Raise A Black Child?", Black Maria tapped into fundamental and very real and chilling human experiences. In celebrating the unlimited creativity of the filmmaker, the festival celebrated humanity (the individual and collective experiences). These films raised questions, challenged pre-conceived ideas, reasoned towards truth, and, ultimately, conversed openly with the audience.

One film, appropriately titled "A", was not only experimental in style but fearless in its claim. I couldn't help but feel unsettled. As soon as the film ended and the credits started rolling, I could not figure out exactly why I felt this way. After discussing its premise and quite startling ending with my uncle (who actually came down for the festival and had invited me to accompany him), I was able to piece the puzzle together. Note: I give credit to my uncle for providing further insight into this film. The analysis that follows is a combination of his insight/interpretation and my extension/refinement of this insight. I would be remiss not to acknowledge my uncle for planting the seed to this article.


"A" by Ecuadorian filmmaker Joseph Houlberg is a monochromatic film that seeks to explore (though briefly) a world defined by a single letter - the eponymous A. The narration immediately introduces us to the protagonist: a seemingly simple dispassionate mailman. Simple he may be, he seems to have in his possession an artifact that undoubtedly exudes wonder and - perhaps - harnessed power. Less than five minutes into the film, the camera draws our attention to a pyramid that he removes from his mailbag. He examines it for a bit, turning it over and over in his hand, and we are given a brief opportunity to find comfort in our confusion. Perhaps this one item will drive the entire plot? Perhaps we will soon discover its importance? The rest of the film follows the man's routes from house to bar to house to deliver letters; the various addresses have different rotated orientations of the letter A. What is established at the outset of this film is the overt lack of dialogue. Not a single word is spoken. Communication occurs through grunting, laughing, facial expressiveness, and actions.The film and characters don't draw attention to that "quirk", however. We - the audience - accept it is as natural and forgivable.

While the mailman delivers his letters to their respective owners, a shady man stalks him not too far behind, hiding behind corners and lampposts at each opportunity. In the culminating scene, the protagonist leaves his mailbag and bike outside as he enters one of the houses. (I mean, if the owner of the house doesn't respond to my knocks, I totally think it's a wonderful and perfectly acceptable idea to enter, especially if the door is unlocked). To his horror, he catches his once beloved wife having intercourse with another man. He runs outside, struck with utter dismay, only to be drenched by a sudden downpour (talk about pathetic fallacy). He attempts to mount his bike and take off but fails - the tires have been punctured. Suddenly, the shady man runs into him, steals the pyramid-like artifact from his, and darts off in the opposite direction. Your classic chase scene ensues - they run down the street, through a church, and into an alleyway, where they finally face off. In his built-up distress and anger, the protagonist kicks the shady man in the crotch, takes the artifact, and escapes. At the end of the film, we find him sitting on a stoop, closely examining the pyramid-artifact. He shakes it: A sound. He shakes it harder: It grows louder. Then...he opens it. A bright light emmits form its depths, and we are shown its contents: letters. Ts and Is and Us and Bs. The sounds turn into voices - the voices of the letters. It's almost as if they're singing; it's certainly melodic. Before the credits roll, the man smiles gleefully and attempts to sound out the letter "I" (It's a Spanish film, so it's more like the long "e" sound; i.e. beet). Then we understand.


Analysis time:

I had said before that the film establishes a lack of dialogue will be consistent throughout the rest of the film. It's not that this is a silent film - or that the characters see no need to express themselves through words - it is not that at all. They can speak; and in fact, they do speak. They communicate through the only way know how to: with the letter A. In anger and frustration, the protagonist screams (Aaaaaaa!). In the church, a choir passionately sings (AaaaaaaaaaAAAAaaaaaAAaaaa). In the bar, men laugh (Ha! Ha! Ha! minus the H). To us, it's just the letter A. To them, it's their language. That is all they know. They express themselves - their whole range of emotions: their anger, their agony, their amusement, their love, their praises - through the single letter A. Through this letter, they communicate their thoughts and navigate the world.... through this letter, they exist. What do I mean by that?

A single letter shapes their existence, their experiences, their perceptions. The letter A is the lens through which humanity sees out of. The protagonist finds his wife committing an act of adultery (Spanish: adulterio); he finds himself an adversary (adversario) in the shady thief or stalker (acosador), the pyramid mimics the shape of the A. In essence, this is a film about the power of language (How many times have you heard that argument before?) Going further, one of the main concerns of the film is how much/and to what degree are our lives shaped by language. If a language only had one letter, how would our perceptions change? This is a question of linguistics. The classic problem of linguistic relativity vs. linguistic determinism. How much does language shape or affect our understanding of the world? I believe this film explores an extreme case of linguistic determinism, which asserts language determines how one thinks and approaches the world.

There are indeed flaws to this view, however. If there exists only one letter - namely the letter A - then how could one understand the world "adultery" if it is clearly spelled with other letters in the alphabet? How could one conceptualize multiple ideas with one letter? Although there is no simple answer to those questions - after all, there exists no such language with only one letter or sign (please correct me if I'm wrong). This is an idea we cannot fathom. That does not matter, though. We don't have to fathom it, but the inhabitants of Houlberg's world certainly do. They live it. They breathe it. The exist in it. "A" defines their world.

Now, why should we care? What implications do these questions or insights have on our world? If we're looking at this from a linguistical standpoint, then it's important to consider how we fit in. After all, we all speak some type of language, don't we? As aforementioned, language may, in fact, affect how one sees the world. Yes, we're all human. We all have shared experiences, emotions, understandings, etc., but our native language may indeed play a role in how we deal with these experiences, emotions, understandings, etc. This is also true on a societal level. Depending on the rhetoric and language we grow up around, our views on the same matters may vary slightly or differently altogether. Sometimes it feels like we're speaking many different one-letter languages. If A defines my world and my approach to it, and B defines your world and your approach to it, then we have a problem. There is no way of understanding each other. I'm not saying differences in opinion and viewpoints should be discouraged. In fact, that's one of the most beautiful aspects of the human experience. I'm just saying that it may help to gather up the rest of the letters - to seek out the pyramid-artifact of talking-singing letters - so we can all piece together a common language for effective communication. Even with a common complete language, there will always be disagreement. At least with a full alphabet, we can make progress towards understanding and secure a safer and better future.

Language is beautiful, it is not monochromatic. It has the potential to express the totality of the human experience. It shapes us, it allows us to shape others. It lets us form bonds, it is the fundamental tool for learning, broadening our horizons, expanding our view of the world. If all you know and understand is "adultery" and "adversary," then it would do you good to learn the rest of the alphabet. For your sake. For the sake of future generations. A life defined by one letter is a life troubled and incomplete.


Cover Image Credit: Magictorch.com

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What YouTube Needs To Keep In Mind

Pointed lyrics are harmless in comparison to the showcasing of a suicide.

YouTube has changed over the past number of years. A website once used for watching cat videos and known for carrying trends such as the Harlem Shake, or moments such as "Charlie Bit My Finger" which are recognizable to anyone who had access to the Internet in 2009, has become a place where thousands on content creators seek the next big moment to bring millions of viewers to their comment, like, and subscribe buttons.

In my last article, I discussed Logan Paul's video from his trip in Japan. As the news has circulated its course and I dissected the event in-depth in my article, I will not talk about it here. However, since I wrote the article, YouTube released an open letter on Twitter in acknowledgment of Logan Paul's video.

The tweets, in short, are formal and brief, but get to the point: YouTube acknowledges that the video went against their rules, and adjustments are in the works in order to take precautions against an incident happening again. However, along with several issues involving the actual apology contained within the letter - while YouTube claims that it is "genuinely upset," there is no mention of the victim or his family - another comment was raised by Matthew Patrick of the Game Theorists in a recent video.

Patrick discusses the issue of what he refers to as the "Logan Loophole," and brings up how the algorithm organizing YouTube videos encourages the behavior displayed by both Logan and Jake Paul as a way to increase their views, and hints at what making headlines and trending videos will mean for their Internet future.

Personally, I do not know exactly how to fix the issue - in his video, Patrick suggests his own solutions - but instead I seek to draw attention to what the culture on YouTube encourages. Creators, instead of earning ad revenue and subscribers for their quality content that is entertaining, find that those such as Logan Paul make waves on YouTube for drawing attention to themselves.

As Patrick says, they create controversy in order to gain views. As the idea stands, it makes sense. Over the past year alone, songs mocking and calling out other creators swarmed the trending pages, such as Jake Paul's track "It's Everyday Bro," and the subsequent "It's Everynight Sis" by Ricegum and Logan's Paul's "The Second Verse." Pointed lyrics, while little more than a way to bring viewers to all involved channels and increase traffic to their videos, are harmless in comparison to the showcasing of a suicide.

The rapid escalation from point A to point B should be a concern for viewers and content creators alike. Content creators looking to create their own following will be drowned out for those who will go to any length to make headlines and achieve their next million subscribers, while viewers will have to sift through video upon video of diss tracks, risky thumbnails, and suggestive content before they can find anything tasteful that they want to watch. All the while, those such as Logan and Jake Paul continue to be a force to be reckoned with, their own followings growing exponentially by the day.

Dear YouTube, whatever your method of adjustment is, please do it well.

Cover Image Credit: Unsplash

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5 Must Hear Albums From 2017

2017 was filled with good music, but for me these five albums stood out.

2017 was filled with really good music. The year saw some great emerging talent as well as some veterans returning to reinvigorate their genre. I am a lover and follower of music – strictly for entertainment, please don’t expect a full analysis of the albums I’m about to discuss – so I was very pleased by the releases in 2017. Here are the five albums that I felt were the best of 2017.

1. Kendrick Lamar - DAMN.

Artist: Kendrick Lamar

Album: Damn.

Release: April 14, 2017

Favorite Song: XXX, featuring U2

If you are a fan of Kendrick Lamar, you know he was severely snubbed at the Grammy awards when his album "Good Kid M. A. A. D City" lost to Macklemore’s "The Heist", for Best Rap Album. Kendrick should have won, hands down. This year he has been nominated for six Grammy awards with his album and singles from "Damn". His single "HUMBLE." set the tone for his album and the rest of his song did not disappoint. The album ran the gamut of topics; from politics to other rappers, and even love. Kendrick’s album is a robust telling of his life and unlike some other rappers, he is not afraid to incorporate politics into his music. Kendrick is certainly one of the best – if not the best – rappers of our generation.

2. Khalid - American Teen

Artist: Khalid

Album: American Teen

Release: March 3, 2017

Favorite Song: Cold Blooded

Khalid makes you wish you were a teenager again; so you won’t feel so out-of-sorts singing along to songs explicitly about being in high school. Thankfully Khalid is graduated now and his next album should be a little more relatable to a slightly older generation. Despite the homage to high school, his album was amazing. His songs perfectly sum up what it’s like to feel like you’re in love only to have that emotion ripped away from you. He is young but he understands the human condition and how to condense it into a three-minute song.

His song "Cold Blooded", my favorite from the album, describes what it’s like to love someone even when they’re not great for you – and how hard it is to deal with their insecurities. He has been nominated for five Grammy awards. One of those – Song of the Year – is for "1-800-273-8255", a song he collaborated on with Logic and Alessia Cara.

3. MUNA - About U

Artist: MUNA

Album: About U

Release: February 3, 2017

Favorite Song: Do U Love Me Now?

MUNA is a girl band comprised of three members: Katie Gavin, Josette Maskin, and Naomi McPherson. They opened for Harry Styles on his first solo tour. Their music is probably best described as alternative-pop. The songs are lyrically brilliant and beautifully composed. The three members wanted to create songs that were relatable to the current societal climate. "Loudspeaker" is a strong tune that makes sure the audience knows MUNA isn’t apologizing for anything.

They’ll feel and act how they want. The song "So Special" discusses the consequences of slut shaming and the ridiculous standards we put on women to be “pure.” "I Know a Place" was played as a rallying cry after the terrorist attack in Orlando that killed many members of the LGBTQ community. MUNA is empathetic and unafraid to speak out against the political injustices of our time. I expect their next album to be just as relevant.

Side note: I got to meet this band when I attended a Harry Styles concert in October. They were extremely nice and humble and I am rooting for them.

4. Harry Styles - Harry Styles

Artist: Harry Styles

Album: Harry Styles

Release: May 12, 2017

Favorite Song: Ever Since New York

Harry Styles – yes, from One Direction – released his debut solo album in 2017 and it was really good. Styles went for a slightly different sound than what his fans had grown to expect. His self-titled album went across the board; it featured pop, rock, and even some country sounds. "Sign of the Times" his first single, was an alternative-rock anthem that sounded like it should have been played at a festival in the 70’s.

Styles really experimented with his sound and his creativity with his first album; like he was trying to test everything to see what stuck. For his sophomore album, I hope he nails down his sound and takes a few more risks lyrically.

5. SZA - CTRL

Artist: SZA

Album: Ctrl

Release: June 9, 2017

Favorite Song: Drew Barrymore

SZA, Solána Imani Rowe, is a talented singer and songwriter. Her album perfectly encapsulates what it is like to fall in and out of love in the current dating atmosphere. Ctrl garnered a lot of praise, along with a few Grammy nominations, after its release this past summer. "Love Galore" featuring Travis Scott, fit perfectly into the summer atmosphere and went platinum in the US.

Her album is vulnerable and enlightened; her song "Supermodel" discusses the artist’s insecurities. SZA is not afraid to be honest or controversial; "The Weekend" tells the story of sleeping with an already taken man. SZA has produced songs with Grammy winner Chance the Rapper and Grammy nominee, Kendrick Lamar.

Cover Image Credit: Malte Wingen

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