Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Context is meaningless; Or, have I already written about this before? (15,842 New Words Word 3)

When I originally started this series of posts, I was going to look in a dictionary from time to time and find the next word, going alphabetically, that I didn't know.

But recently, reading Nick Harkaway's The Gone-Away World (which instantly made it into my Top 5 books EVER as a book that was so awesome [as my review pointed out] that it made me laugh out loud with how great it was) and I had to stop occasionally and look up a word that I didn't know --

-- which, by the way,  people including Grant Snider, who is a person, is one reason why e-readers are superior to books.

Grant Snider recently drew this:

which is from his site and also which bemoans the loss of "books," which is kind of ridiculous, to me, because 99% of books are about the content, not the packaging, which although nice sometimes (I am actually planning on when I get around to it repackaging some of my ebooks into a large bound volume like a desktop book) isn't the book, it'sjust what the book came in, and old-style paper books cannot compete with new-style ebooks, which not only get delivered instantly even if you are sitting in a doctor's office waiting for a stress test and knowing you're going to be there all day, but which also let you look up words instantly just by tapping them, so that you need not rely solely on figuring out a word from the context.

I think I forgot I was in a parentheses again. Here we go:)

Anyway, figuring out a word from the context is all well and good -- or at least one of those -- but it's not always perfect.  Also, I'm pretty sure it's not even a thing any more. I'm about 91% sure they don't teach phonics or figuring things out from the context anymore in schools, probably because of communism or something, but that's okay because even though I am supposed to say that however I learned things was the best way to learn things, it pretty obviously wasn't the best way, or at least wasn't automatically the best way.

The point is to me that education is supposed to teach you how to think about things, and how to reason out or find the answer.  My rule, for example, for people who want to ask me questions at work are that they are to have thought up an answer first, before they ask me the question.  Very often, people will forget that and they will come and ask me a question, and I will respond to them with my own question.

"What do you think we should do about " some problem, they will ask me, and I ask them right back what they suggest I do about it.

There are various reasons why I do that, the number one reason being that I don't want people who simply push their problems onto someone else, and especially not to push them on to me.  If you have a problem and you simply ask me how to solve it, you've just made your problem into my problem, and not only does that create more trouble for me, but it doesn't help you become a better problem-solver.

You know the old saying: Give a man a fish, and he will ask you why we can't have hamburger for dinner instead because fish is gross; teach a man to fish, and he will wonder why anyone would do this as a hobby.  I mean, it requires that you sit on the side of a lake, or river, and wait and wait and wait and nothing ever happens, really, but then when something does happen, it's over in minutes and then you've got this slimy fish, and what are you going to do with that? Eat it? I don't think so. So you're just going to throw it back? Why bother catching it in the first place, then?  Fishing is dumb.

That old saying.

"Figuring things out from the context" is only one way to think about things or solve problems, and often not the best way. Take, for example, today's new word, which is what this post was about (remember?) now that I'm doing these posts about words I come across in my reading and don't know.

Here's the quote from which I took today's word:

The car is not a street racer...It is a muted maroon colour, and it is as dignified as it is powerful.   It looks distinctly bulletproof and the glass windows are smoked, but even so, it's possible to see that this car has curtains. It also has a silver angel on the front end and the kind of engine they used to put in small planes.  Quite possibly it will catch up with the front runners before it has to change gear.  It is unmistakably a Rolls-Royce, but it is a Rolls-Royce the way Koh-i-noor is a diamond.

So, going from context I can tell... that the Koh-i-noor is a diamond. Some kind of spectacular diamond,  I suppose, but you can't always tell, with diamonds, which sounds stupid to say, but have you ever seen the Hope Diamond? I have.  Or maybe I haven't.  I'm not entirely sure that I was looking at the Hope Diamond in the Smithsonian.

I did see the Hope Diamond, I think, but I'm not sure, as I sit here today, because I saw (I think) the Hope Diamond back in 1994, but years later when I wrote about seeing the Hope Diamond I realized that maybe my memory was not as great as it should be. Or perhaps I had been the victim of a ruse, the way I suspected I was recently when Sweetie and the boys and I were driving down to State Street on Sunday to visit "The Castle," a university building Mr Bunches likes because it looks exactly like a castle, and to eat lunch, and we got to this part of University Drive that was down to one, rather than 2, lanes, and we had this conversation:

ME:  What is this?

SWEETIE:  What is what?

ME: This. This lane closing. When did this happen?

SWEETIE:  This has been this way all summer.  We have driven through it at least five times.  You always complain about it.

Sweetie maintains that's the truth, even now, three days later, when it would be easy enough for her to admit she was just having some fun with me because the alternative is that an entire section of my memory -- albeit a small section, maybe? -- is gone, the part that holds onto the memory that University Drive is one lane has disappeared, and while that's not alarming (I don't drive it every day) on it's own, it is alarming because if that just up and disappeared:

1.  What else might have disappeared, too? Recipes? Song lyrics? The meeting I'm supposed to have today that I won't remember? My PIN number for my ATM card? No, that's still there. and

2.  Why? Why did it go?

(In retrospect, #2 is probably more important.)

So maybe one time I knew what the Koh-i-noor was? I doubt it.  But I do now, because "Koh-i-noor" became the first of my new method of learning 15,842 new words, and the 3rd on that list, and here's what I know about it now:

"Koh-i-noor" is the name of a 186 1/6 carat diamond that is currently part of the "Crown Jewels," held by Queen of England; she got it when the British East India Company stole it from the previous owner when India came under British rule.   Since its discovery in 1526 (or earlier) it has been stolen,  seized, and coveted by a variety of rulers.  While it's valued in carats, now, it was once valued in this colorful way:

The valuation of the Koh-i Noor is given in the legend that one of Nādir Shāh's consorts supposedly said, "If a strong man should take five stones, and throw one north, one south, one east, and one west, and the last straight up into the air, and the space between filled with gold and gems, that would equal the value of the Koh-i Noor." 

The diamond was demanded not as a gift, but a spoil of war, for symbolic purposes after England seized India, and the Koh-i-noor comes with a curse:

He who owns this diamond will own the world, but will also know all its misfortunes. Only God, or a woman, can wear it with impunity.
Knowing all that, as opposed to what I could figure out from the context is like... well, it's like knowing the difference between a diamond and the Koh-i-noor.  When I read the book, I was able to deduce that the Koh-i-noor is some kind of fabulous diamond, which in my mind I equated with the Hope Diamond (which of course I do not equate with fabulousity at all, but rather with disappointment and possible memory troubles, but that's just me), only it's not like the Hope Diamond because this is a diamond that is a spoil of war, that has a long and tortured history,  and which promises that it's owner will "own the world" but "will also know its misfortunes," which in the context of the owner of that Rolls-Royce in the book actually makes perfect sense, because that is almost exactly what happens to the man who turns out to own that Rolls-Royce.

PS: I have long had a debate running about whether "looking something up" is as good as "knowing something," and while I take the stance that nothing is either always good or always better than something else, this is a strong argument in favor of looking something up taking this round.


Pat Dilloway said...

Wow and I learned something. But I'll probably forget it five minutes from now.

Maybe the fact I can't smell is why I don't give a damn about not having physical books. Or maybe it's just that when you move like four times in 5 years you get sick of lugging heavy boxes of books around. I mean guys like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman can pay someone to cart their vast libraries around whenever they want but for someone of limited means it's a literal pain.

Andrew Leon said...

I'm a strong believer in looking things up, because that's how you get to know things. It's not like we came with a bunch of stuff already programmed into our heads or anything.

Maurice Mitchell said...

Physical books will always be important. We can't know everything, but knowing where to look is a great skill.

Andrew Leon said...

@Maurice: I will not be surprised if my grandkids don't have any real idea of what a physical book is in much the same way that kids today don't have any real idea what a turn table is.

Briane P said...


I'm supposing you mean that in the future post-apocalyptic world we'll all need almanacs and blueprints to help us determine how to rebuild liquid crystal displays, etc., but what makes you suppose that we'll be able to decode those books and/or that they would be preserved. I'm not sure that would be the case but we could at least read the books without electricity if we could find them and understand them, so you've hit on the SOLE reason that books might still be necessary, but none of that means that the next JK Rowling pseudonymous thriller needs to be printed on paper, as I'm reasonably sure that we will be able to fend off monsters/rebuild civilization without knowing how JK Rowling's hero figured out the mystery.


You can't smell? How'd that happen?


Me, too. I'm a believer in (A) learning how to think/figure things out, and (B) knowing where to look for information that's already been figured out. There's no reason to keep reinventing the wheel, and if we all subcontract out our memories, like the way I have completely lost the ability to remember my way around town without GPS, that will leave more room in our brains for figuring things out, like the day I realized that you could make snow cones with FLAVORED ICE, and SYRUP, thereby avoiding that thing that happens where there's no syrup and you're left with just ice shavings that have been died strawberry color.