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, July 19, 2007 -- 10:50 pm

Knowing me, I'm probably the only native speaker of English that does this, but here goes. I think that I instinctively tend to analyze whether a consonantal stop is voiced or not by checking -- and only checking -- whether it's aspirated. Aspirated consonants I seem to interpret as unvoiced, and unaspirated as voiced. This is normally fine. But as everyone knows, there are some circumstances in English where p, t, and k are typically not aspirated -- such as when they follow an s.

Now, my typing is so ingrained that I give no conscious thought whatsoever to spelling or what fingers are pressing what keys -- and surprising homophones appear with remarkable frequency in my typing compared to writing by hand, especially when I'm distracted: "prince" for "prints", "All" for "I'll", and so on, which suggests to me that my typing is more closely tied to my auditory language skills than my visual ones.

Where this all comes together is that I think all of this amounts to something of a neurolinguistic explanation for a recurrent typo: "disgarded" instead of "discarded". Because I don't aspirate the c, I think of it as a voiced consonsant and reflexively type it as such.

Thursday, July 19, 2007 -- 8:49 pm

I've recently begun exploring North Indian Ragas. Part of me was wondering why I waited so long, especially wondering this after I had listened to an extremely interesting CD in one sitting. In retrospect, I'd heard plenty of ragas during live performances as I've dined in Indian restaurants. But I've realized that the difference is simply that between a great concert recording, and dinner music, and as in western music, much (though not all!) of the beauty lies in the deftness of the execution. The grand masters do not perform simply to prevent your small talk from being heard at the next table.

But another reason I've waited so long is that my ear has always preferred complex polyphonic harmonies. Bach, of course, is the ideal here. But polyphony, and especially instrumental polyphony, is primarily a western phenomenon, and is perhaps permanently wedded to the twelve-tone chromatic scale and binary (rarely trinary) divisions of time. North and South Indian music, by contrast, has a rich variety of microtonal scales and polyrhythms, but comparatively little harmony. Definitely worth exploring in its own right, as I must, but it would be deeply dissatisfying for some reason to conclude that polyphony, like so much else, was a primarily European invention supported by the economic growth and cultural impetus of the Renaissance. Why dissatisfying? I suppose one reason is that traditional indigenous societies will have already begun the selection process of discarding unsuccessful experiments in microtonal polyphony, and passing on works of beauty -- jump-starting the process, I think, but also helping to avoid the impression that microtonal harmony is simply a sterile exercise, hatched in someone's electric petri dish. An indigenous culture somewhere that practiced this would legitimize microtonal harmony as a natural human aesthetic, and rather than the auditory equivalent of an artificial sweetner.

I have been exploring, gradually, the complex vocal polyphony of African pygmies. (It's interesting but so far must be taken in small doses.) And it seems that every once in a while a used compact disk appears somewhere on the internet featuring the polyphony of some other little-studied people. I'll probably try to collect them all at some point, since musicology seems to dovetail nicely with ethnobotanical specimens and ethnography and recipes and the grammars of endangered languages. Why do I always pick the obscure hobbies?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007 -- 8:47 pm

I've commented before that the notion of "technology" seems, for anthropologists at least, to encompass more than physical artifacts for manipulating the world, such as the wheel, gunpowder, the telescope, and the combustion engine: it apparently applies to the invention of the alphabet, to mechanisms of dispute resolution, to hierarchies of social organization, financial institutions, concepts such as the corporation and the rule of law, constitutional government, division of labor, the market economy, the zero, fields of mathematics ranging from arithmetic to trigonometry, algebra, logarithms, calculus, and differential equations; the syllogism; symbolic logic; and indeed all manner of cultural tools and implements, whether tangible or not. Considering all of the social, political, and economic forces that can cause cultural institutions to fall into disfavor (or fail to catch on in the first place), perhaps it's less surprising than I once thought that supposedly effective marginal technologies such as sorcery and witchcraft would be abandoned over time. At the same time, numerous anthropologists have observed in corners of South America and Africa that modes of sorcery often rise to prominence precisely because of feelings of alienation and disempowerment that spring from colonial hegemony. Such methods are often violent, to be sure. And, especially as I'm becoming interested in the leopard societies of West Africa, it's becoming all the more apparent that, just as tangible technological development includes both penicillin and mustard gas, intangible technological development, in the guise of cultural institutions, can be both beneficial (the concept of one person, one vote) and sinister (e.g., leopard societies). Perhaps ancient methods of sorcery are not only discontinued but intentionally forgotten precisely because the knowledge itself is regarded as dangerous and corrupting: to know how to be an evil shaman is, in fact, to be one.

I'm not saying I endorse that outlook; at least some people, I think, are in a position to record, preserve, study, and perpetuate knowledge without needing to perpetrate the crimes such knowledge would tend to facilitiate. On the other hand, we know all too well from the history of the world's religions how easy it is for sterile, unimplemented knowledge to become garbled over time, and an interdiction on experimentation will not only prevent people from possessing the true knowledge that comes from practice and experience, but eliminate much of the motivation for its study.

I'm of the view, after all, that passive learning is often little more than the illusion of knowledge. You can memorize a corpus of vocabulary and a collection of grammatical rules, but that doesn't make you fluent in the language -- that requires practice listening, pronouncing, choosing and interpreting words, selecting the appropriate sentence structure, and making lots and lots of mistakes. Likewise, how credible is an asserted grasp of music theory if you can't write a symphony, or a knowledge of computer science if you can't debug a program? So perhaps people who choose to abandon knowledge, for example upon conversion to Christianity, are failing to record or implement what they know because, in light of their conversion, they can imagine no legitimate application for the knowledge in their possession. They therefore regard any record of what they know as a prescription for evil.

Such a view, I suspect, is misguided, although anyone reading this would likely not need persuasion. The most obvious reason it's misguided is that moral conduct is never subject to such black and white characterizations, and almost any practical knowledge or technique is bound to have both legitimate and illegitimate applications. Knowledge of mycological poisons, for example, can be used to educate people to pick mushrooms responsibly; more controversial examples certainly abound. And a Mayan shaman's reputed power to become a jaguar doubtless has positive applications of its own.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007 -- 9:14 pm

One of the reasons I find the study of ancient languages so interesting is because their principal difficulties are not primarily grammatical, so much as interpretive. It's simply difficult in these languages to be sure what the authors intended to express by a string of words that individually seem to be interpretable, in a way that just isn't so when I'm trying to parse contemporary languages, no matter how foreign. An ancient Greek or ancient Egyptian translation of mine is occasionally so far off the mark as to be ludicrous -- but in a modern language as apparently remote from English as Yup'ik Eskimo, I seem to be more or less on the mark once I've consulted the dictionary. (Tibetan may be an exception here, but I haven't tackled it in a while.) This suggests to me that written language contains far more contextual references than we typically notice, at least as adults. (I remember as a child and adolescent being utterly baffled by the hidden implications of modern texts that others found transparent -- presumably because I've always taken fewer assumptions as granted than others.)

I'm not one to argue strenuously that all activities need to be productive. But it seems to me that the conceptual gymnastics involved in struggling to unearth the meaning, and therefore the world-outlook, of a radically different civilization can only serve to challenge and sharpen the intellect in interesting ways.

Monday, July 16, 2007 -- 10:41 pm

An article in tomorrow's NY Times suggests that we may have already entered the second half of the space program, and that chances are it won't last more than another 46 years. There's something glib and suspect about the logic, based as it is on nothing more than the age of space exploration to date, and the assumption that there's nothing particularly special about this particular moment in time. But then I've always been baffled by probabilities: we're told by smug schoolteachers that the fact that you happen to have flipped a coin 19 times in a row and had heads come up 19 times, has no impact whatsoever on the probabilities associated with the next coin toss. So your run of 19 heads could end with the next toss, with a probability of 50%, or continue for another 19 tosses, with a probability of somewhere around 1/219. Yet the reasoning touted in the article suggests that there's a 50% chance that our run of head-tosses will continue for another 19 rounds, i.e., there's a 50% chance that we're halfway through the run, and a 5% chance that we're already in the last round. In my ignorance, I smell a fallacy. Something tells me that in the 14 years since this savant first promulgated his theory, he has failed to make a fortune applying it to the stock market.

On the other hand, if people are willing to accept this mode of reasoning as plausible without requiring a causal explanation, then there's no reason for them not to accept astrology as plausible as well.

Sunday, July 15, 2007 -- 7:39 am

A little dabbling in Nunggubuyu today, trying to assemble more of the basic sentences for my syntactic template, and starting to add a bibliography.