Saturday, April 19, 2014

Swahili Proverbs

What makes Swahili proverbs stand our it their musicality. Many of the proverbs convey the same message as our English counterparts, but they do so in delightfully rhythmic, often rhetorically balanced, and sometimes rhyming fashion.

Haraka haraka haina baraka.
Quick quick is without blessing.
English counterpart (also rhyming): Haste makes waste.

Hasira hasara.
Anger loss.
English counterpart: An angry man stirs up strife, and  hot-tempered man abounds in transgression. --Proverbs 29:22

Abufaaye kwa dhiki ndiye rafiki.
One who profits you in times of need is a true friend.
English counterpart:  A friend in need is a friend indeed.

Polepole ndiyo mwendo.
Slowly is the way to go.
English counterpart: Slow and steady wins the race.

Mganga hajigangi.
A doctor doesn't heal himself.
English counterpart: A doctor who treats himself has a fool for a patient.

Proverbs encapsulate the core truths of human nature, which is the same throughout every culture. They provide food for thought and anchor points for decision making.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Why Fear of Failure Is the Same as Fear of Success

"This doesn't work. It's broken, and no one knows how to fix it."
"Let me take a look at it."
"Do you know how to fix it?"
"Not at all. Never seen it before."
"Do you know what you're doing?"
"Then just what are you going to do?"
"I don't know. Try something."
"But what if you make a mistake?"
"Oh, I'm sure I'll make a lot of mistakes."
"You're planning to fail?"
"Of course. By learning what doesn't work, I hope I can get some insight into what will work."
"So your method of problem solving is based on vague hope and certain failure."
"That's right. That's the pavement on every heuristic road to success."

Thursday, April 17, 2014

That's Redundant, and You Already Said It

Writing teachers are quick to slash through repetitive, redundant language in their students' essays, and (except in marketing) so are business people.

However, we live in an attention economy, where getting people to focus on a message long enough to comprehend it provides a major challenge. To get someone's attention, the message has to be repeated many times. For example, did you ever count the number of times the radio ad repeats the phone number of the sponsor? Often, it's five times during a 30-second spot.

Redundancy can be even more useful than repetition, because it provides both an extended length of time to allow the message to sink in and alternate language that may get through when the original phrasing did not: "Room and Board included. We will provide a comfortable place to stay and all your meals."

Redundancy goes large when the message is critical: "Warning of fatal shock! You could be killed! Danger of electrocution! Keep ladder well away from overhead power lines. If ladder touches overhead wires, you could receive a fatal electric shock and die." Quibblers will scoff and ask, "So, um, could you receive "a fatal electric shock" and NOT die?" But the lawyers who work for the ladder company will not be budged. (By the way, did you ever count the warning labels on a ladder? One of my ladders has 11 warnings on it.)

Redundancy and/or repetition can be desirable when the information is very important or when the target audience needs reassurance about the fact. So we need to think of the emotional as well as the intellectual needs of the reader.

Finally, thee is the Coca Cola Rule. Why does Coke advertise? Is it to get new customers who have never heard of Coca Cola? "Coke, eh? Hmm. I'll have to try that sometime." Coke's constant repetition, like that of any aggressive brand, is not to provide new information ("Coke? Never heard of it.), but to maintain presence in the overflowing information economy--to reset attention, to remind you. ("Coke? Of course. Haven't had one for a few days. Let's go get a float.")

At a recent visit to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Samsung was all over the place continuing to build its brand image and awareness. The company had painted the entire side of a building with a huge Samsung logo on it, put up banners, attached signs to buses and taxis, printed various cards and brochures, put ads in the show publications, and, of course, had a large booth in the exhibit area.

Finally, in the attention economy, repetition is designed to make familiar the unfamiliar or even the unknown. That's why candidates for office put up signs everywhere with little other than their name on them: "Joe Freen for Congress." If nothing else, they will have name recognition on the ballot when voting time arrives. And we nearly always prefer the familiar or known to the unfamiliar or unknown.

Purposeful redundancy can be a positive practice.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Seek First to Understand

One of the things that irritates me substantially is the news or panel-style program where three or four people do nothing but interrupt and talk over each other, jumping on half a sentence spoken by someone they disagree with. A similar kind of disrespectful, instant judgment behavior is increasingly common in our ordinary social interactions.

Suppose we are in a small group and someone says, "Confucius made a significant contribution to Western civilization." Someone else in the group is likely to smirk and step in immediately with, "You mean Eastern civilization. Confucius was Chinese." Or perhaps simply, "Hellooo! Confucius was Chinese you know. From the East, not the West."

A polite audience would have simply waited for elaboration, or perhaps prompted, "In what way?" And here the answer could have been that the speaker thought the Latin translation of the Analects that was introduced into Europe in 1687 was influential for its views about the desired behavior of the gentleman.

Too often we jump all over someone's statement before we even know what they are talking about, but based on our assumptions about what we think they mean. It's also interesting that, since criticism is valued above agreement (because it supposedly shows better analysis or keener insight), hardly anyone interrupts with, "That's very true," or "I really agree." Instead, it's, "That's wrong," or "You don't know what you're talking about."

If we were really curious in conversation rather than interested only in "talking for victory," we would encourage those talking to elaborate, specify, exemplify, and delineate their views instead of cutting them off before we know what their views really are. We would seek first to understand.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Hunger for Truth

Blaise Pascal says that "man wants to be happy and to be assured of some truth" (Lafuma 123). Strange thing about that. It's true even in today's relativistic, postmodern world.

Note how people who argue that there is no such thing as truth (or Truth), that there are many "truths," that our minds cannot know truth but only the epiphenomena of our brain chemistry--all are adamant, even outrageously aggressive--to support and defend the truth of those philosophies. Of course, such positions are embarrassed by self-referential absurdity--self contradiction--but nevertheless it's telling how earnestly and  how strongly committed so many of these people are.

But Pascal is right. We want assurance of some truth. This explains why so many try so hard to locate evidence for the rightness of their beliefs, whether social, moral, scientific, philosophical, or religious.

"We have no free will or free thought," someone says. "Everything we say or do or think is predetermined."
"So, then, why are you telling me this?"
"To convince you."
"But if all our thoughts and ideas are predetermined, there can be no such thing as a change of mind independent of predetermined changes. Argument, reason, and conviction are illusions. But I guess your need to try to convince me is predetermined, so you can't help yourself. And unfortunately, I'm predetermined not to believe you."

The same comments could be made about man's search for meaning. Some people argue that life has no meaning, and they are earnest to convince everyone else that such is the truth. But if life has no meaning, why bother? Why care? Nor does it help much to say, "Well, we as individuals or societies construct socially agreed upon meanings." Doesn't that sound a bit arbitrary? As the saying is, In a land without steak, cardboard is steak. If the real thing is denied or missing, a counterfeit will be invented.

What Should We Value in Life?

Suppose I show you some object and say, "This is a flurnitron. Isn't it perfect?" What would you answer?

That's right, you'd ask, "What does it do?" or more skeptically, "What is it supposed to do?" But in either case, you want to know its purpose, because you cannot tell whether something is good or bad until you know its purpose and how well it fulfills that purpose.

Thus, your first question about the flurnitron would not be, "How much electricity does it use?" or "Is it made of steel?" or the like. Until you know what it was designed to do, those questions are irrelevant. What we value in an object is not what it's made of or how it's powered--until we understand the relevance of those answers.

So, when we think about our own lives, before we can answer, "Am I a good person living a worthwhile life?" we have to determine the purpose for which we exist. For if everything exists to fulfill its purpose, we can evaluate everything based on the extent each thing fulfills its purpose.

If, as the marketers seem to imply, our purpose is to consume products and spend money, then many of us do that really well. If we have no purpose, then it doesn't matter what we do, and there is no estimation of fitness to purpose possible. But if we do have a purpose--to serve God who created us and to be his hands in serving his children--our fellow human beings--then we can adjust our lives to align ever more closely with that purpose. That purpose, to steal a few words from Shakespeare, "is the star to every wandering bark," providing a fixed focal point for our behavior.

Therefore, we can see that finding the best steak in town or memorizing the names of all the players on a favorite professional sports team or driving the fanciest car on the block are activities that do not really speak to our purpose. I myself am rather embarrassed to think of the highly tangential nature of many of my own pursuits. These comments, then, are addressed to me.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Everyone Knows That

Some people object to being reminded of "obvious" truths, such as are found in proverbs: "A house is turned into a home one kind word at a time." But consider. First, we live in such an overwhelming information tsunami that unless we repeat common truths, they will sink into oblivion under the wash of everything else.

And often that everything else includes misinformation, disinformation, lies, half truths, urban legends, myths, conspiracy theories, ideological fabrications, spin doctor treatments, invented narratives, and  misunderstandings, not to mention simple errors, superfluities, and data smog.

In a word, lies are repeated endlessly and constantly. Lies are shouted from the housetops and pronounced solemnly by pundits and academics with many letters after their names. Lies drone on and on--wasn't it Hitler himself who said something to the effect that a lie repeated often enough will be believed?

So, if we don't repeat truth, it has no possibility of overcoming the lies. Error will reign and people will congratulate each other that "the controversy has finally been settled" because no one now opposes the ever-repeated wrong conclusion.

Online Address Forms Pet Peeve

Maybe I need to get a life if this is the biggest thing I can complain of, but here it is, anyway.

Whenever I have to fill out an address online, it usually goes like this:

Name: Blah Blah

Country: Here, I usually find a drop down list of countries, even on a site like Sally's Local Cupcakes. The United States half the time is listed near the bottom (alphabetical order, you know), so a huge scroll down is needed. A few sites have listed the source of 99% of their business (US, UK, Canada) at the top before the alphabetical list begins.

Street Address: Blah Blah

City: fill in

State: fill in

Zip Code: fill in

And that's exactly my peeve. Hello!!! If the site asked for the zip code right after the street address, then the Country, City, and State names could be autopopulated through a zip code/post code lookup. Is that so hard?

United States zipcodes, such as 98765 are quite different from UK codes, such as AB12 3CD and those differ from Canadian post codes such as T4B 1M5. So the country look up should work for the major players. At the minimum, go ahead and ask the country first and then the post code.

Come to think of it, any smart Web site can look back at the originating IP address of the browser, at least to the country level, and likely to the local POP (point of presence). When I used to use a VPN connection while working from home, I could browse over to Home Depot and see how much cheaper items were in Minnesota, where the company's servers connected to the Net.

Ok. Enough whining.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Old and Not So Old Books

"The only palliative [to the blindness of shared assumptions in the modern world] is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books." --C. S. Lewis

"Truth that triumphs over all things . . . seems to remain more usefully and to fructify to greater profit in books. For the meaning of the voice perishes with the sound; truth latent in the mind is wisdom that s hid and treasure that is not seen; but truth which shines forth in books desires to manifest itself to every impressionable sense". --Richard de Bury, Philobiblon, circa 1345

Lewis was thinking about really old books, such as those of the ancient Greek philosophers, or even somewhat old books, such as Philobiblon, quoted above, but even slightly non-contemporary books can sometimes shed light on the blindness of groupthink that seems to possess every era to some extent. I have in my library an introduction to American literature textbook from the early twentieth century, listing Herman Melville in an appendix as an "also wrote," while featuring now-neglected writers such as Booth Tarkington.

An interesting example of a not-so-old book about the sources of modern and postmodern times is The Revolt Against Reason by Arnold Lunn. It was published in England in 1950 and by Sheed and Ward in New York in 1951. (You can still get copies, though. Just google the author and title.)  Here is some food for thought drawn from Mr. Lunn.

"[T]he success and enduring influence of a systematic construction of falsehood depends very largely on inexact terminology" (3). Consider how squishy and inexact are many of the terms over which bitter debates are fought: climate change, evolution, social justice, reason and faith, knowledge versus belief, what is fair, legislating morality. And of course we won't even go to love, need, fairness, and so on. When you can use a term, knowing that your definition is different from that of your hearer or reader, but allowing them to assume that their definition is yours too, then all kinds of manipulation are possible.

Thinking about the anti-rationalism of postmodernism and what I have called Type 2 people, we can find a relevant remark in Lunn: "The revolt against reason is in its ultimate essence the revolt of unbridled individualism against an external and objective code" (50). Reason favors objective measurements, which rely on a code of values and truth, which implies accountability external to oneself. The revolt against reason produces subjectivity of measurement, an existentialist operating method, and a solipsistic view of living for oneself.

But I should let Lunn continue: "The great leaders of this revolt have all been wishful thinkers who contrived to believe that reality could be forced to conform to the pattern shaped by their ambition or by their lust" (59). Doesn't that nicely describe the utopianism of so many of our elites?


Worldviews 101, Part 4

Continuing our differentiation between Type 1 and Type 2 people (which I realize is very general and subject to much qualification and many exceptions and variations),

Type 1 people tend to be more willing to submit to authority, even to the point of mistaking an equation between legality and morality.
Type 2 people tend to resist authority, and many times confuse the difference between authority and authoritarianism.

Type 1 people sing "Humble Yourself in the Sight of the Lord" when they drive to work.
Type 2 people sing "I Did It My Way" when they drive to work.

Type 1 people often keep their opinions to themselves, because Type 2 people are often so much more aggressive and vocal about their views.

Type 1 people believe that language, as imprecise as it is, is an ordering and structuring tool, a tool for understanding. Without this use of abstract symbols, we would find it almost impossible to share our beliefs about the structure of the universe, to analyze our perceptions of the external world, and to draw conclusions about the reality beneath it all.

Type 2 people, especially the postmodernists among them,  reject "totalizing narratives" (claims of absolute truth and objective reality), just as they dismiss reason and "privileged interpretations" of texts.

So. to an extent, the so-called culture wars represent a battle between authority and the self, or in starkest relief, between pride and humility, where humility is defined as the recognition of a higher authority than oneself. The message of classical Western philosophy is that happiness comes through the submission of personal desire and appetite to reason, a reason informed by transcendent, objective reality and absolute truth. In other words, self control for the sake of personal happiness and the social contract is the path to the Good.

Familiarity Trumps Accuracy

Why is it that whenever an airliner crashes, the media announce that investigators are searching for the "black boxes" to help them determine the cause of the crash--this, when the "black boxes" have been painted orange for, what, maybe 50 years? Why don't the media simply say that investigators are searching for the "data and voice recorders" to help them determine the cause of the crash?

Similarly, since the Richter scale was replaced by the Moment Magnitude scale in the 1970s, why do the media still refer to the Richter scale whenever we have an earthquake?

Someone opined that people are comfortable with familiar concepts. The logical conclusion to be drawn from that is that the news should tell people something they already know. That's an odd view of the news. Nevertheless, many journalists seem to write stories from templates, making the new details conform to the familiar script.

If a story is written as it is, rather than forced to grow on the trellis of stereotype, will the readers or viewers have to learn something new?

Is the news consuming public really like junior high school students who stop reading something just because they came up on a word they don't know?