Disclaimer: The views expressed here are mine alone, and not necessarily those of my employer or any organization with which I am affiliated. These views are not intended to advertise or offer legal services to the reader, or to be relied on as practical advice in any respect. Apparent statement of facts may or may not have been specifically researched beforehand. Unless I expressly indicate to the contrary, the material appearing here is original work, subject to copyright protection. Any reference in the text to specific individuals or companies who are not explicitly named is unintended and purely coincidental.
Comments? You can (try to) contact me at admin (at) limitsofknowledge (dot) com. Keep in mind that I'm still learning the technical aspects of blogging, and do have a demanding job, so don't be offended if it takes me a while to respond.

Thursday, April 23, 2009 -- 9:37 pm

Yesterday I sketched some of the difficulties -- futilities -- of trying to capture or describe a single human being -- even one you might think you knew from birth. It was, of course, nothing more than a sketch. But as I'm distracted by a couple of (unrelated) topics today, the Salish language family, and the anthropology of human sacrifice, I'm inclined to think about how that futility magnifies when we think about the infinite variety of human experience we have to choose from, and the paucity of the material we have to work with. The archaeological record for most of the world's cultures is simply non-existent. And the lenses through which I most easily approach just a handful of these cultures -- language, music, food, sometimes a smattering of history or ethnography, sometimes some science or natural history -- seems completely inadequate to the task.

It stands to reason that it would be impossible to recreate a mind from another culture -- especially an extinct culture. For one thing, we cannot ourselves unlearn the basic knowledge of the world we ourselves have acquired, but indelibly affects our perspective and which such an individual would never have. And even if we were resorting to artificial intelligence, and generic personality subroutines such as they so glibly toss around in science fiction shows, we get back to problems very similar to those we encountered when recreating the individual -- we have a few data points, fixed in time, but much we have to guess at, and we have little or no concept of the individual's potential for change, growth, or metamorphosis. I suspect what's almost inevitable in such a situation is that we fill in the gaps according to our own prejudices, and thereby learn almost nothing from the experience, just as every culture tends to domesticate foreign culinary dishes to make them more congenial to the palate of its members, rather than actually challenging the palate to grow and change. And what's true of a culture as a whole, is probably also true of its language.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009 -- 9:33 pm

It's dangerous for a new parent to have a digital camera -- especially one with moviemaking features. There's a compulsive need to document the child, every day, and a reluctance to delete even the pictures that are somewhat blurry (and there are many). Such efforts have sentimental value, certainly, but beyond that I have to ask myself what it accomplishes. It's almost as if I were using it as an insurance policy, a way of recreating a life from a partial collection of all its facets glinting through time and space.

But we already know that such an enterprise, like the genealogist's or the biographer's, can only meet with partial success. No matter how well- documented, how well-photographed or -recorded the life may have been, there will always be gaps that can only be filled by speculation (read: projection; denial; fantasy), and paradoxes that are unresolved. A person is an entity always in flux, hopefully always in growth, and we love a person not for their past deeds or accomplishments but (at best perhaps -- I'm making this up on the spot so it's probably all wrong) for our mental construct of their potential future acts -- their application of past experiences, knowledge, abilities, and preferences to respond to a present situation, generally in a way that is only partially deterministic. Their behavior is not completely random, nor is it completely predictable or determined, and in very general terms I suspect that we regard an object of affection in much the same way as we do a beautiful object or work of art -- as something that enraptures us precisely because it plays with our senses of expectation and surprise, as I have elaborated elsewhere in these pages.

I'm reminded of Mozart's unfinished Requiem. More than one scholar has tried to complete the work based studies of the piece itself, Mozart's techniques, and so on. But this is all speculation and educated inferences, and allows very little room for innovation by Mozart himself: if we are using what we know of him to complete the work, then we are confessing as well that, for purposes of this reconstruction, he is incapable of surprising us. By the same token, reconstructing a life from its detritus may provide us with a shell, or an automaton, but if we ever found a way to breathe life into the thing, I suspect that for all practical purposes this would be a different life, rather than a continuation of the one we knew. With all the guesswork involved, it would have to be -- and for that matter, we would simply have no way of knowing whether the life we knew would have grown and changed in the same ways that our reconstruction did.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009 -- 9:04 pm

It's been reported that the Chinese government has announced a policy to limit, for bureaucratic reasons, the choices of characters from which people can be named -- a reduction from roughly 50,000 to 8,000 in a society where entire cities could already be populated solely with individuals with precisely the same name. People whose names do not fit into the bureaucratic mold are simply being required to change their names.

There are interesting points to cover regarding the human rights issues this implicates, as well as the understandably policy considerations of needing to digitize records for efficient administration. But it seems to me that the government's approach is fundamentally misguided from a practical standpoint. Even if the government can enforce on a standardized list of characters on government-issue documents, it's not as if it can enforce such rules on all signatures, all handwriting, Unicode, scholarship regarding classical literature, personal diaries, and so forth. One can even imagine scenarios where dissidents would adopt nicknames for themselves for the precise reason that the characters chosen couldn't be recorded in government documents. And it is also my understanding that the non-standard languages of China, including especially Cantonese but also Wu, have been developing colloquial written forms that are not necessarily intelligible to a speaker of Mandarin and sometimes embrace non-standard characters. I suspect that the government simply doesn't have the resources to purge all these characters completely from public and private life. This isn't to say that the government has this specific agenda in mind -- but, human nature being what it is, it is likely that whatever is not officially sanctioned will before long be regarded as socially unacceptable. But like unilateral disarmament, it may find itself at a disadvantage if it abandons certain characters while its citizens do not.