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Saturday, March 15, 2008 -- 7:36 am

Reading a book on the history of Timbuktu, there's an intriguing story, perhaps embellished in the telling, about a Saharan desert guide who was able to direct a lost and stranded desert party to water, by radio, based on nothing more than a description of the horizon and of the sand along the way. It's said that not every desert guide has this level of skill, but that enough do that you don't embark on a trans-Saharan trek without one. Guides of this caliber seemingly achieve this clairvoyance through constant and careful observation of the finest details -- the texture, color, and smell of the sand, the subtle gradations of the horizon, the movement of stars and planets, the behavior of animals, the changing character of the winds, and so on. This reminded me of similar descriptions I've read about the ability of Arctic peoples to navigate the apparently featureless ice and tundra of the far north, and of course Hoeg's novel Smilla's Sense of Snow. You could also compare this to the ability of Polynesian argonauts to find tiny islands scattered across the Pacific for their regular Kula exchanges. Urban dwellers have apparently lost, through want of practice, these powers of observation and navigation, although I do take some small comfort in the fact that these agoraphiles are often at a loss among our skyscrapers.

It does make me wonder, though, whether there are any areas of knowledge where people nowadays could develop this kind of expertise. I've known (or known of) people who could diagnose and fix a heating, ventilation, or air conditioning unit over the phone, and people who could talk you through a procedure involving Microsoft Windows without seeing the screen. So I suppose it's possible, though it seems like it's much rarer to come across than before.

I was going to speculate that this might be because of the so-called information revolution, there's simply so much more information that one could have, and it's commonly remarked (though no more or less true for that) that the era when a single person could acquire all the knowledge of their time is long since past. But that seems to confuse different types (or at least sources) of knowledge. There is nothing whatsoever to prevent a person born today from observing the world as carefully, from childhood on, as a desert nomad or jungle dweller does to be able survive in their environment. But I get the impression that agricultural and industrial cultures neither explicitly encourage or discourage such an approach to the world. Instead, the emphasis is on a "formal" and "practical" education that supposedly equips a person, sometimes poorly, for civic participation and economic survival. It may be that the time spent on classroom education precludes the opportunity for constant, close observation of the world, but given the motivational speakers' assurance that a prudent investment of 10,000 hours of study can make you a world expert in any subject, I suspect that it's more of a cultural impediment than a practical one. I'm sure many people, presented with the naked choice, would prefer to have the nomad's caliber of expertise in one or more subjects. They may or may not be willing to invest the time and attention needed to acquire it. And I'm sure most parents, lacking such expertise themselves, either don't value their children having it or simply don't think of it at all.

So the next questions, as I see them, are as follows: are there any fields of expertise from which we're necessarily precluded from acquiring a desert-guide caliber of knowledge, starting either as a child or as an adult? Are there any that are particularly conducive or appropriate for this level of expertise? Are any of them strictly abstract and intellectual fields, such as law, or do they all require highly attuned sensory acuity? What fields fall into what categories? And how many of these can any one person become expert in, in a given lifetime?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008 -- 9:58 pm

Ever since I heard about voiceless vowels in a linguistics class in college, I've been curious to find a language that used them -- and I really mean use them in contrasting pairs, and not like the whispered initial syllables of particular and peculiar. I was erroneously told at some point that Cherokee was such a language, and that its poetry used contrasted voiced and whispered syllables for aesthetic effect. I've seen no evidence to support such a claim. I was more recently told, I believe in a Wikipedia article of dubious authority, that Totanac and Chatino were such languages. Again, skimming grammars of these languages, I see no evidence for that. Now I'm told that Mokilese is such a language. Naturally, I'm a bit skeptical.