Sunday, April 7, 2013


What's the difference between convex and concave?  Mountain fold vs. Valley fold?  It's a matter of relativity - where we are when we look at it determines how it's described.  Sometimes we classify convex or concave based on a reference plane rather than our own position, but mostly it's about how we see stuff relative to where we are.

I was listening to NPR again and there was a fascinating talk on how our language influences how we think. (For the life of me, I can't find the link to the show which aired 2 hours ago, but this one will serve for now.)  From little to big, different languages make us relate to the world differently.  I think a large part of why we don't remember much from before we're 4 or 5 isn't because we don't remember.  It's because after that age, language overwhelmingly shapes our decisions and memories.  We stop using our previous memory pathways directly and overlay them with language.  Which makes us forget how to access those older memories because those memories can't be accessed with language skills.

But my point was rather different.  How we relate to the world is coded in our language.  In the last post, I mention an uncle.  All you know from that is that he was born a male sibling to one of my parents.  You don't know that he was my mom's brother or that he died.  In some other languages, you would have to know all that to be able to speak of him.  In yet other languages, you'd know even less - he might just go by the generic term "cousin" which describes all peripheral relatives.  Thinking about adding more detail or using less makes me feel vaguely uncomfortable. I imagine the people who use those other languages feel the same.

The bit I found most fascinating was the culture (Aboriginal Australian, I think) who uses fixed directions for all scales of direction.  The researcher pointed out that even greeting someone uses directions.  "Hello" for them is "where are you headed".  The response is something like "SSW for a long distance" with a gesture in that direction.  Or, if headed to, say, grandma's house, you'd point in the direction she's at.  This is fascinating to me for two reasons, both covered in the interview.
1) Relativism.  Their directions are relative to the earth, not relative to themselves.
2) Direction finding.  It has long been assumed that people lack the ability to direct themselves home like a homing pigeon.  Turns out that we can, if we have the language for it.

Before this talk, I hadn't really though about directions being anything other than relative.  A lot of people taught to read maps from a young age always orient the maps facing north, but the rest of us think more in terms of "in front of me" vs "behind me" or "take a right at the 4th Starbucks".  The directions center around us, not around the landscape.  Thinking about that makes it sound a little absurd, as if Mt. Greylock or Lake Tahoe cares where I am at any given time.

Speaking of time, it turns our our representations of time are factored into our language.  English readers figure time left to right.  Arabic readers figure time right to left.  Americans figure the future is ahead of us and the past behind us.  Some other cultures gesture forward to the past and the future is in the back - because we can see the past but we can't see the future.  Yet another always gestures from east to west, because that is how time moves. That last one is fascinating to me because it's new, but makes a lot of sense.  It even carries over into unrelated thing - when we lay out playing cards, we lay them left to right.  The do the same if they're facing south. Facing north, cards go right to left.  Facing east?  They get laid toward the body.

And that's because they use the landscape as the basis for location reference and we use ourselves.   I think each has its place, but which one makes you feel more significant in the world, I wonder?  I happen to live on the stretch of highway 101, a N/S road, where it goes almost perfectly E/W.  So all the signs say "Northbound 101" but usually just "North 101" as you head directly into the sunset. That direction accounts for the whole road, not just the section, but it is rather weird but there's sense to it somewhere. (Massachussetts has at least one road sign with 3 directions listed on it for similar reasons, although I can't argue for sense when it comes to MA roadsigns.)  On a smaller scale,  I truly cannot fathom laying out my floorboard North to South - I'd say, "make them parallel to the central wall".  I wonder if people who bow to Mecca are similarly attuned to directions during the day.  My beef with that practice has long been "who can bother to figure out East from everywhere?"  Turns out that if you do it reflexively, after long practice, it's just something you do.

Most of what I just said is things you can find elsewhere.  But I ponder relative references rather a lot - and have since I first learned that  the center of a graph's axes is "where we decide it needs to be". That rather blew my mind for a while.  Maybe I was concerned that it wouldn't make sense for the next problem in the set, but hey!  New graph!  Problem solved.  So I try to think of things like convex and concave and how I'd explain them to kids.

The part that comes from me, though, is how we think about newsworthy events.  Recently, every jackass seems to think that the way to get attention is to shoot up a school.  And whether they die in the attempt or not, they're right.  (Prior to that it was the post office.  Prior to that, I think people mostly took out their vague grievances on their darker skinned neighbors.)  It's not like someone couldn't drive a car quickly into the unloading zone of a school and do the same amount of damage in an equally short amount of time.  (Unless the school is wise and has the occasional barrier in place, and no place to work up a head of steam.)  Or crash a small aircraft into the kids a recess. (No fly zones over schools?)  Or just plain T-Bone a full school bus.  But people aren't focused on that, they're focused on the guns. Probably because people with vague but deeply felt grievances aren't looking to be unique, they're looking to be memorable and they get it.

More distressingly to me than focusing on the method of atrocity is having the News machine so focused on the perpetrator.  It's been said before me, and it'll be said again after me, but giving attention to the perpetrator makes them a celebrity. I could probably more easily identify the mass murderers of the last decade than my state's reps.  (The usual comparison is the supreme court, but I've got those mostly locked in these days.)  And Gabby Giffords is the only victim of a mass shooting (or in her case, assassination attempt) whose name I can come up with at the drop of a hat.  While I don't want to get all maudlin and in their business, wouldn't it be better if we knew the names of the victims and didn't get the names of their killers into our heads at all?  I don't want those shits taking up space in my brain pan, but I cannot get away from it without dropping out of society.

Yes, someone does need to know who the perpetrator is and figure out why they did what they did in order to seek justice and/or prevent future atrocities.  But the biggest thing we could do to prevent those atrocities?  Is ignore the asshat doing the damage.  Just refuse them credibility, refuse them celebrity, refuse even to utter  their names like an Amish shunning. If they're alive they'll be provided with food and shelter but they no longer get to interact in society and we, outside the small group who has to, hold no truck with them.

On that note, there are any number of crime shows on TV.  Bones, Law and Order, CSI, NCIS, and all the variants of "outside consultant helps the police solve mysteries with their special skills" like the Mentalist, Castle, Sherlock, Psych, Monk, Numbers, etc...  See, lots of them.  But I think I've figured out why I gravitate to Bones and Person of Interest.  Whose story do we hear, the victim's or the perpetrator's?  In those two, mostly we learn about the victim.  Sometimes that's heartwrenching - I can get upset over wasted potential in fictional characters too.  The focus on Bones is "who is this person and how did they get here?".  The focus in "Person of Interest" is "who is this person and how can we save them, or help them save themselves?"  As much as the new Hannibal looks like it could be cool, I don't need to spend 44 minutes every week figuring out how evil people think.  I'd rather watch someone be recreated in absentia, or saved.

Then, I'll go see how someone is living better because they have a better kitchen or bedroom design, can make a better dress, or find some better way to make food, make a duct tape bridge, or get grimy with folks doing their thang.  (respectively, all redesign shows on HGTV, Project Runway, Food Network, Mythbusters, and Dirty Jobs. )  Because there's only so much death and destruction I can take before I need to see something or someone put to rights.


farmwifetwo said...

My eldest has a GPS built into his brain. Been there once, never forgets. The youngest talks in direction and county. West to county, south to, east to.... ped's, store, grandma's but he never adds the where.

CrankyOtter said...

Cool! Anything you're doing to nurture that or is it pretty much self sustaining?

farmwifetwo said...

Can we switch to email?