Knowledge to do good enough

In Antifragile, Nassim Taleb distinguishes “nerdified” classroom learning from the kind done in the real world. So-called nerdified learning leans the learner toward perceiving the world as more stable than it really is, and seeking academic perfection versus success in the more complex real world.

In one or two paragraphs, he talks about how this relates to learning languages. Does he learn from a program or textbook, by learning the rules and then attempting to apply them? No, he learns by trial and error.

Thus it was that when I walked into a store this morning, I was thrilled to (mostly) understand what the clerks were saying in Spanish. I was disappointed in myself for not trying to interject, but reassured myself there’s only so much that can be learned from 32 half-hour Pimsleur lessons on disc.

Outside, an old lady sat in a wheelchair. She didn’t have a sign, so I walked right past her. A few feet past her, I paused and backtracked.

“Do you need money?” I asked.

“Habla espanol?” she asked in turn.

“Solo un poco,” I replied.

“Poquito!” she said with a smile.

“Si, un poquito.”

She said something really fast. I replayed it in my brain to see if I could make sense of it.

I couldn’t. “No entiendo.” I paused, trying to remember the right verb form, before continuing, “necessita dinero?”

“Poquito,” she replied.

I handed her a couple of dollars. She thanked me, to which I replied, “De nada! Buenos dias!”

As I got back in my car, I was fairly well beaming. I hadn’t said much, and I’d probably made mistakes anyway, but I’d had a conversation that couldn’t have happened in English. Did I need to use the right verb forms this conversation to get the point across? Not so much.

I’ll aim for getting it right, to be sure. I just won’t let fear of not getting it right stop me when I have enough knowledge to do good enough.

🙂

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The Language of Politics

Have you ever listened to a politician speak and wondered, “What are you even saying?” or “Why are you even talking, since you’re not actually communicating anything?” I have, and often. In fact, there’s an almost 100% overlap between my hearing a politician talk and asking myself these questions.

Until now, I’ve assumed this as a universal, historical given. Reading Geoffrey Wagner’s essay “The Language of Politics” in Language in America (1969), I was astonished to see laid bare the chasm between what is (ambiguous nonsense presented with gusto) and what could be (practical, clear statements of intention and planned action).

Now, in the rare case where I DO bother listening to American politicians speak (generally a waste of time; see first paragraph), I’ll listen carefully for answers to questions like:

  • When you say you’re “bringing democracy,” what exactly do you mean by “democracy”?
  • What are the specific actions you’re planning on taking?
  • What are the estimated dates for these actions?
  • Do you have the consent of a majority of those who’ll be most impacted by these actions?
  • What specific assessments went into establishing these?
  • What does the best case scenario look like?
  • What is the worst case scenario?

Unless any politician answers questions with specifics and then routinely (1) publicly follows up with specific facts capable of independent verification and (2) commits to being held accountable for deviant outcomes, they’re not worth the time of listening. They’re speaking with the intent of avoiding accountability.

American politicians’ track record stretching at least decades back is far too abysmal to trust without verification. Most have routinely, tactically used language to create illusions of trustworthiness via language ambiguous enough to be interpreted many ways. Indeed, it “is because political utterances about democracy and so forth demands to be translated that politicians choose wooly language, on a high level of abstraction, behind which they may maneuver.”

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QUOTES TO PONDER:

  • “Orwell condensed this well: ‘In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.’”
  • “The word peace is totally fractured when it is forced to contain within itself children and old people horribly burned and maimed.”
  • “The nicety of being anointed with incendigel rather than napalm must seem to an Asiatic peasant the luxury of a very rich society, indeed. He has still been burnt raw by gelled gasoline fluid.”
  • “Pentagonese is an insulating attempt to create another form of language” (its euphemisms protect its agents, and no one else)
  • “Used as they have been in the past decade, words like democracy and freedomend up as no more or less significant than so many street cries, or the sounds of engines.”

This 4/9/17 post transferred from L2SP 7/15/17