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Archive for November, 2014

Ancient peoples gave us many gifts, the first of which was the Agricultural Revolution, leading to civilization itself. Among the latter’s boons–or possibly its cause–was alcohol, used as a means of preserving food in the days before refrigeration, but also as a way to sterilize contaminated water. But as always, time allows some things to ferment into greater potency, while leaving other things to rot. Language too often takes advantage of time to decay.

One example of this is the way many attach -ology to Modern English words. Best practice is to take -ology, a suffix formed from the ancient Greek word, λόγος (logos), meaning, word or more broadly, reasoning. Best practice is to find a Greek noun for the subject that is to be studied when forming a new word. Unfortunately, too many would-be coiners of terms are lazy and just slap -ology to modern words.

The case I have in mind today is “mixology,” supposedly the study of mixing drinks. But “mix” is the modern form, and it derives from a verb that didn’t involve what Jeopardy refers to a potent potables. The correct verb here is κεράννυμι (kerannymi), which referred to mixing wine with water–recall the purpose of sterilization–in vessels like this:

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called a krater. Our word, crater, merely changes the first letter. Now the ancients had some form of distillation way back when, but distilled spirits date from the high Middle Ages at the earliest. Still (if you’ll excuse the pun), the verb whose root is kera relates to alcoholic beverages and thus is accurate in spirit (I can’t help myself). Therefore, the study of mixing drinks is kerology.

Of course, I prefer my drinks neat.

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Slàinte!

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Winston Churchill once said that jaw-jaw is better than war-war.

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He’s famous for leading Britain in the world’s most recent global war, among other things, and his comment came in 1954, after he had written his history of World War II, but presumably it recognizes the superiority of talking to physical fighting.  More recently, the Dalai Lama, speaking of his nation’s occupation by the Chinese, expressed the idea that dialogue is the only way to solve human problems.

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Not that dialogue has done anything to free Tibet, but he’s sticking to his verbal guns.

These statements do raise the question of whether discussion solves any problem.  How often have we heard people insisting that we just need dialogue, that we just need to listen to each other?  And yet, anyone who’s been in an argument with a family member or followed politics or engaged in a conversation on Twitter should know that talking so often doesn’t reach agreement or cooperation on matters that people hold deeply.

As regular readers of my weblogs know, I support both gun rights and gay rights.  I also accept the science of evolution and climate change.  These things make for some interesting discussions on Twitter in which I find myself supported by my fellow Twitterati on one subject, while being vehemently opposed by the same people in other areas.  It’s fascinating to watch someone make what looks like a good argument one day, then turn around and make a sloppy one the next.

Of course, it’s harder to spot the logical and factual errors on a position we support, since we tend to be much less critical of ourselves and our allies, and when given the choice to go after errors, it’s more comfortable to attack an opponent, rather than a supporter.  But of greater concern is the fact that so many people develop a conviction about a topic and then become impervious to facts and logic.

What are we to do about this?  One answer that I’ve addressed before is a slow but steady solution:  education.  The more ideas and information people are exposed to, the more open–it is to be hoped–they are to considering a variety of positions in a logical manner.  Note that this comes from what we call a liberal arts education.  The liberal arts are aimed at teaching the skills and knowledge a person needs to be a free person, rather than focusing on some specific requirement for a particular job.

But as I said, education is a slow process, and even educated people get caught up in the passion of belief.  This leaves us with the question of why we should bother to debate ideas at all.  I offer three answers:

1.  Not everyone is decided on every subject

We must remember that for every infuriating true believer out there, many more people will be undecided on the subject.  Make a good argument, don’t take crap tossed at you, and trust to the potential goodness in all of us.

2.  Support freedom of choice

These debates remain theoretical and intellectually interesting so long as we don’t rush off to pass laws.  This is the reason that I call myself an eleutherian.  Whenever possible, and it’s possible much more often than we’d like to believe, leave people free to act on their own beliefs while we act on our own.

3.  Consider the argument being made

That means keeping this open:

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and engaging this:

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Those, naturally, are the hardest part.

Crossposted on Greg Camp’s Weblog.

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Have you found yourself stating a fact in a conversation–say some arcane statistic from baseball, the conjugation of Lithuanian verbs, or the air speed velocity of an unladen African swallow–only to be asked how you knew such a thing?

The latter of that list illustrates the kind of exchange that often happens:

The question as to how someone knows a particular fact generally carries specific implications with it:

1. Is that in fact a fact?

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As the saying goes, 78.6% of all statistics are made up on the spot–including this one.  One reasonable implied challenge in the question above is in regard to the accuracy of the fact being cited.  Take the origin of the Guinness Book of World Records.  Said tome was marketed as a way of settling disputes in bars.  Today, with smartphones as ubiquitous as opinions, a world of information is available at our fingertips–or, at least, thumbtips.  Verifying a statement is easy, so long as we understand the difference between reliable sources and otherwise.  The person who can quote facts from memory is treated as something of a fossil, someone who wastes time and effort by storing knowledge in a biological hard drive.

What this postmodernist view fails to comprehend is that absorbed information becomes a part of the person holding it.  Who you are is a combination of your memories and your personality.  The more diverse and expansive the former is, the more the latter can make of itself.

2.  How is something learned?

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One method of learning is research, the act of combing through available sources to find the desired fact.

Another is that dreaded plague of childhood:

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practice.  Whether it’s threading a needle, producing pleasing sounds from a musical instrument, or hitting what you aim at, learning is often a process of doing the same damned thing over and over until the skill is mastered.

The other method, namely experimentation, is illustrated by the first image in this article.  Yoda’s claim that there is no try is silly pablum, evidence that George Lucas would have made a better film if he’d never heard of Eastern mysticism or Joseph Campbell.  There is indeed try.  Try is what we do to find out if a given notion is possible or practical.

But in all of these, the essence is work.  And that’s why some are astonished when a person comes out with some curious bit of lore.  It disturbs their settled laziness to find that someone else put forth such effort.

 3.  How do you know that?

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But the most common meaning of titular question is to express surprise that the person addressed has absorbed a particular piece of knowledge.  An example of this comes from my experience discussing Tarot cards with a writing acquaintance of mine.  She was shocked to learn that I know anything about a divination practice, since she held a view of me more suited to the fellow with the pointy ears.  And that’s the point here.  When we find that someone knows a fact that isn’t in keeping with our view of the person, we feel offended.  How dare a person not conform to our theoretical model of the person?

Instead, we recall Aristotle’s opening to the Metaphysics that we all desire to know by nature.  While we may justifiably explore the path a person took to knowledge, ultimately, its possession should come as no surprise.  Learning is one part of the essence of being human.

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