Tower of Babel to techno babble

Information, clarity, and understanding; these are valuable things if you want to make your way in our world. If you want to make good decisions and actually achieve something they are absolutely vital.

Unfortunately the things we need to know and understand can be lost or confounded by the manipulation and changing of language. If you want to disrupt or even cripple someone, one of the best ways to do so is to cut off their supply of information. One of the best ways to do that is to attack the meaning of words and language.

And yes dear reader there are those trying to do it to you!

It’s an old problem

One of the oldest stories/examples I know of is the story of the tower of Babel in the bible.

Basically the people got prideful and started doing things they shouldn’t have and as a result their language was corrupted. While the story of the tower of Babel is considered a story at this point (we don’t have sufficient facts to discuss any real details of what happened or even if the event actually happened) the story does serve as an example of how far back such concerns go.

If you want more ‘real world’ examples get a group of “English” speakers together for a conversation. For completeness sake please include speakers of ‘The queen’s English’, American English, Canadian English and Australian English. To really see the extent of the problem try including a back woods Florida alligator hunter, a Silicon Valley software engineer, a lawyer, a psychologist, and a politician (lawyer or no lawyer subtype it really doesn’t matter…).

What you will find is that there is a certain level of Jargon in specialties and areas of interest. There is also a level of ‘drift’ in meaning as groups grow farther apart. And yes dear reader these factors do work in concert, creating situations where you might need a translator even though everyone involved is speaking ‘English’.

The same issue happens with other languages. French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian all have Latin roots. And yet translating between them can be tricky. Further north in Europe you have German, Dutch, Swedish, Finnish, and Norwegian to cope with.

And if you manage to parse all of that out we still have a couple of other continents to deal with. Care to examine the origins Afrikaans? If you get that one worked out why not try finding the origins of modern ‘Chinese’ (as much respect as I have for my Chinese friends I am not trying to explain the challenges of that particular language without a large bottle of Ibuprophen…).

And it still goes on…

Language drifts and changes naturally. That’s why languages like English, Spanish, German, Japanese and Arabic are classified as living languages. The language shifts and changes as time goes on. It becomes difficult to understand the words of former days. It is somewhat natural to find that things like the U.S. Constitution are a bit harder to interpret than they were two hundred years ago.

But that sort of lingual drift isn’t the hardest part. That kind of lingual drift can be countered by study and education. There is a greater danger to our knowledge and understanding in the form of those who actively seek to change the meaning of language to fit their particular ends.

(Note that as we continue I am not taking sides on any of the particular terms mentioned in this post… Today we are talking about language and people changing language. If we want to talk about particular issues where this is occurring… That is a topic for another day.)

Have you heard the contention and disagreement around terms such as “assault rifle”, “gender”, “marriage”, “climate change”, or “the American dream”? There is a whole lot of venom and conflict there, and we haven’t even gotten to the deep philosophical ones like “truth” or “morality” yet. We also haven’t even scratched the surface of recently invented terms like “fake news”, or the never ending alphabet soup of acronyms (I personally know three meanings for PSI and that’s to say nothing of TLA, ETLA, EETLA, LGBT, LGBTQ, RSVP, LOL, ROTFLOL, BYB, BYOB, or BYOBS).

There are those out there who actively try to redefine words to suit their own ends. There are even more people out there willing to adopt a meaning of a word that they like or come from sources that sound credible. Often this is what leads to the sort of linguistic drift that makes talking to my wife’s teacher friends and my family’s military friends at the same time such a challenge.

If we blindly follow what others are saying and if we foolishly allow ourselves to assume everyone is using the same word for the same thing we can end up in real trouble. It is our own responsibility to navigate this mess of meanings and understand what’s going on around us. This is a responsibility we cannot hand off to anyone.

So how do we do that?

That’s a big topic, bigger than we can entirely cover in one blog post, but here are a couple of points. We will probably revisit this subject with more information as time goes on.

The biggest key is learning. Don’t just take someone’s word for it on what words mean. Do some study and find out for yourself.

The second key is awareness. Be aware that others might be using a different definition and how that may affect meaning (it might also be a good idea to figure out why the person is using the meaning he or she is…)

One of the best things you can do is strive to use a shared meaning. This means communicating about communicating and both parties need to have a genuine desire to communicate instead of just yelling at someone while trying to advocate for a position.

Language is a vital tool for thought and understanding. We as individuals need to learn and make sure we understand the language being used. It is a challenge, but it is one of the most important things to do if you want to succeed in communication and in life.

That’s it for this one dear reader. Until next time: Say what you mean, mean what you say, and I’ll see you next week.

Advertisements

Adversity to opportunity

About a month before I wrote this post I decided to take a break from doing the blogs. It was actually kind of a hard decision. I like doing my blogs, but other parts of the whole writing thing, and the rest of my life in general needed to be brought back under control. So, I did the hard thing and set down the blogs and got everything relatively back in order. And now I’m back…

Some of what went on in that time is documented here in my Forever Mountain Publishing blog. Other things might end up there eventually, but there are definitely changes that will be reflected here… I have decided after serious consideration that I owe it to myself, my faith, and you, my dear reader, to be braver in what I say; to really stand up for truth and not be lukewarm in what I say and do.

This blog is named Words Mean Stuff. I named it that because I believe words and thoughts have meaning and I always need to be making mine better.

So what are you going to do?

Well, as I said, I’m going to be braver in standing up for truth. I am also going to endeavor to be more focused on meaning, understanding and the choices we make. I need to do this dear reader; because, the knowledge and understanding we acquire, and the choices we make, are the only things we really own. We have our understanding of things, our ability to learn, our divinely given right and ability to make choices; and we have the consequences of our choices. That is really about it for the things that really belong to us in this life. And these are the things I need to talk about.

And you know what…?

Sometimes the things that seem bad can really be good, if you use your intellect and choose to respond to them in the right way.

An example…

One of the areas I’ve been working on is videos for my YouTube channel. Several of those videos require the use of my good old hard working rock tumbler…

DSCN2233

Unfortunately I kind of put a hole in this cheap little nothing part that the machine just won’t work without….

At that moment the thought process went something like this:

Now I have to buy a new one, but the shipping is going to cost more than the part.

Can I find one on Amazon? If I can then maybe I can get free shipping… Yes, but there is still a time factor and I kind of want my machine back in action now…

Um, hey…! This thing is rubber kind of like the inner tubes on my bike. What if I used a patch kit to fix it?

I need to replace the patch kit for my bike too, so it’s still costing money.

Yes, but less than the new part and shipping. And it will probably get me running again until I can actually get the right part.

Hmm… The kit is available pretty close to me… I think I can do this!

And so… I chose to take the action that would get my shop running again and keep me moving. No, it isn’t a perfect solution, but it is definitely better than sitting around wailing and gnashing my teeth, or playing around with my tablet until a new part gets here (which probably wouldn’t happen at all if I was too busy messing around on the internet to order one…).

And then it hit me… I do shop experiments on the YouTube channel, it’s a lot of what I’m working on right now. What if I treat the patch plan as a shop experiment and make a video?

And there it was, the ‘show stopper’ problem with a ‘nothing’ part that was going to be more expensive to ship than to buy was actually a chance to learn and try something new, and an opportunity to add another video to my list (which was what the machine was helping me do in the first place!). Because I thought and sought to make the best decision I could I bought myself time to include the part in a larger order (which brings the individual shipping cost down); I got my shop running again faster (which means I get more done); and I found a new video to go up on the channel!

And… In the process of figuring out how to shoot that video I found a new setup that will help me do other videos better in the future!

So there you have it

Life happens dear reader. Good and bad things happen in our lives, but it is often the choices that we make and the knowledge we apply that determine whether an event is a show stopping problem or an exciting opportunity.

How we choose to interpret and react to the things in our lives; how we choose to use the things we know and learn in solving the problems we face; that is what this blog is about.

That’s it for this one dear reader. For now… Go, learn and do; and I’ll see you next week.

If it can happen once…

Several years ago I ran into the story of a soldier in the Vietnam War, a soldier who started as the classic last kid picked for the team, bottom of the barrel sort of person. It was entirely easy to label him as “the screw up” and send him away because nobody would want that guy on a mission. It could have ended there, with our soldier being the screw up no one wanted for time an all eternity; however, that’s not what happened.

The salvation of this man came through his own honest effort; a little instruction and assistance from a wise old sergeant; and… a cup of coffee.

The sergeant could see what was happening. He talked with his soldier and then made some changes. The sergeant took away all of the soldier’s previous duties and gave him one, just one, thing to do. The soldier would be attached to the company headquarters and was to make sure that the captain had a hot cup of coffee available at any time he wanted one. It was a little thing, a silly thing, but it was something the soldier could do if he put in the effort. And this simple act, this one duty, bore amazing fruit.

The soldier, the former ‘screw up’, did his one duty. The captain had a cup of hot coffee when and where ever he wanted. And, the soldier received two critical things: sure knowledge that he was not a complete screw up, he could do things if he tried; and the opportunity to observe and learn without undue stress and criticism.

The soldier took this opportunity to observe and learn, and then he stepped up to do. Our soldier was no great tactician or leader. He wasn’t a great fighter slaying the enemy with his M16 and bayonet. He wasn’t an engineer conjuring wondrous structures and impenetrable defenses with just his entrenching tool and some communications wire. But, the man did have a gift. And, when he was given the opportunity and knowledge he needed, that gift came out.

Our soldier, the ‘screw up’ no one wanted, was a logistical problem solver. This soldier became the man who could find solutions and get dry socks and warm meals to the men of his unit. That might not sound like much if you’re sitting in your own home with your own washer and dryer, and pizza delivery on speed dial. But, trust me, if you’re out in the field, out in the dirt and muck, that kind of thing matters.

The soldier, the former ‘screw up’, became a beloved and valued member of the unit because he was given an opportunity, a chance to both learn and succeed, and he took it. He took action to become better than he had been before.

But what does this mean to us?

And so it is with us dear reader. We stand on all sides of this equation.

There are times when we are the ‘screw up’ who just needs one success, even a tiny one, and a bit of knowledge and support to put us on course to better things.

There are times when we are the one who can see a need, and an opportunity. In that case we are called upon to take action and help someone to help themselves.

Sometimes we are one of the others in the unit, the ones who need to allow space for change; the ones who will forgive the faults of the past and give someone who can grow the space and opportunity to do so.

Sooner or later we play all three roles dear reader. Sooner or later all good things will come if we let them.

That’s it for this one dear reader, see you next post… Until then…

Find an opportunity and take it!

Lessons from ‘the great American eclipse’

Yep, on Monday of the week I’m coming back to the blogosphere we had an eclipse, a total eclipse of the sun that ran the entire length of the country. I happen to live in an area where the eclipse was 98.9% from my door step and full totality was only about 45 minutes north…

Naturally our area braced for the event and some of the ‘knowledgeable ones’ predicted lots of things, some of which happened and some of which didn’t. Here are a couple of things we learned and some thoughts going forward.

A once in a life time experience:

Everyone and I mean everyone was saying that a total eclipse (not just a continent spanning one but any total eclipse) was a once in a life time experience. And, it is… If you just sit in one spot and you don’t live long enough!

I’ve been through at least two total solar eclipses, several partials (they were total eclipses for somebody!), and more lunar eclipses than I can remember. But, I’ve moved around just a little bit…

Lesson: opportunities do happen, but you need to figure out where they are and what you are willing to do to get them. If you sit and do nothing they don’t come around very often.

Bracing for the horde:

Government officials, media types and professional prognosticators warned us to be ready for 100,000, then 500,000, then 1,000,000 people to who were supposed to be descending on our area. Gas was sure to run out. The phone lines and internet connections would be overloaded. The state transit department was going to have to make I15 a one way street to deal with all the traffic. Stores and restaurants would be swamped and run out of food and supplies. I believe there were even warnings about witches, zombies and ninjas (Wiccan ninja zombies?).

Well, in the end there were difficulties. After the eclipse a forty five minute trip away from the zone of totality became a four hour trip (on the one side of the I15… Traffic in the opposite direction (toward the zone of totality) was just fine…). Several hotels and gas stations artificially raised prices. And… Several stores and restaurants ended up ordering too many supplies, and didn’t sell them all.

The main problem was a problem of hype over thought. Yes, there were lots of people who came up for the eclipse. A lot of them came from relatively nearby and made a day trip of it (or tried to at least…). A lot of them brought food and water with them. The ones that weren’t making a day trip of it filtered in a day or two ahead. It was only when everyone tried to leave at the same time that there were big traffic problems. Some store shelves got barren, but new shipments were getting in on a daily basis and to my knowledge nobody starved.

If you were looking for roving gangs, there weren’t any. Roving gangs don’t’ usually travel long distances for astronomical events. If you were looking for zombies, apocalyptic horsemen, or other such oddities, there weren’t any of those either (that I’m aware of…). If you’re still looking for them I’ve got some nice fiction books in production that you might like…

Generally if you thought ahead and made reasonable preparations you were fine. If you didn’t prepare ahead of time, or it you went straight to the worst case scenario, then things were less satisfactory (but still not a total disaster in most cases!).

Lesson: Be prepared, but make reasonable preparations. A one day event like the eclipse isn’t the same thing as WW3. Yes, people are going to go see something like the eclipse, but it’s unlikely that the whole state of California is going to take a day or three off work and end up on your doorstep.

People are people and that includes both locals and tourists…

One of the problems that did come up was relatively normal people conflicts.

Several national news reports claimed that the locals weren’t friendly. Several local news reports included pictures of tourists driving their vehicles and setting up camp in local farmers fields, the ones the farmers were growing crops in…

Sorry folks… I know ‘farmer John’ may be “just a farmer”, but if you drive through his field and set up camp on top of the crops you are damaging his lively hood. You are also cutting down your own food supplies. Tourists you need to use some sense.

On the other hand… Locals, please have the courtesy to wait until the tourists actually do something offensive before you get all offended. And remember, they’re new here… Some of them have never have gotten out of the city before… Maybe put up a few signs to mark the active wheat and ‘tater fields?

Again this is one of those things that’s kind of predictable… When you get large groups of people together somebody’s going to be less than intelligent. The goal is for you to be intelligent and do what you can to prevent problems in the first place.

Trust me folks, when it comes to my home I’m as territorial as anyone. I’ve also been the one who’s traveling. I know what it’s like to not understand what’s around me. It is much better to do some thinking, planning and considering about what’s around you than it is to go immediately to harsh words and blaming the other person. (By the way… To the ones who were offended when the farmer decided to call the sheriff: be grateful… I know folks who were stocking up on ammo along with the food and toilet paper! Think first!)

Summing up

The name of this blog is Words Mean Stuff. I named it that because words do mean something; they are symbols for ideas. The biggest lesson from this week’s events is to have and use ideas, good ideas. A lot of problems can be avoided and a lot of truly majestic moments can be witnessed (or even participated in!) if you just gather some good data and think first.

That’s it for this one dear reader. Next week I’m going to talk a little about what I’m doing with the blogs. And then after that… Well, that’s next week’s post isn’t it. See you next post dear reader.

The Mistake of ‘Allness’

That’s what my dear besainted mother called it ‘the mistake of allness’. It’s a relative of the ‘binary choice’ and my old friend the ‘one factor model’. And, it’s a real problem.

In some cases you can make a complete, accurate statement of the form “all x are y”. Much more often you need a qualifier to make the statement correct: “all my x are y”; “all your x are y”; “all oranges currently in California are not currently in Greenland”. Often statements with these qualifiers are correct, but even then you run into trouble. Sorry folks it would not be correct to say “All Latinos in Idaho are migrant farm workers”…

And it gets worse

The mistake of ‘allness’ really comes into full fruition when you get into the area of people. Sorry gang you cannot say “all Muslims are terrorists”; “all white people are racists”; “all ‘straights’ hate ‘gays’”; “all men are rapists”; or “all Russians are communists”. You also can’t honestly make the opposites of those statements. Things are more complex than that.

The moment you step into the world of human beings you step into a world of multilayered complex systems. There are a lot of factors that go into being a human being physically and psychologically (and if you bring spiritual life into the mix things only get more complicated). Even in the most homogenous situation you can create, identical twins living in the same home, you have little differences like one twin getting just a little more oxygen; or being pressed on just a little more in the birth canal; or being dropped by a clumsy sibling that create differences in who the people are and what they do.

The reality is that every human brain is a ‘one off’ instrument. They are generally the same, but from the start each one is slightly different. And then they grow and change based on the things that happen during the person’s life.

Now, this is not to say all people are completely different.  If you‘ve ever watched or read one of Shakespeare’s plays, or experienced a Greek tragedy, you can find the same things going on today. And I’m pretty sure that goes for the works of Musashi, Sun Tzu, and Confucius as well. People can be pretty similar, but when you get into the details each one is unique.

So how do we deal with people if they’re all different?

Well… That’s the trick isn’t it…?

And, if you try to give one answer that covers all people in all situations you’ve just committed the mistake of ‘allness’ again. The only being I know of that can actually get away with making completely accurate global statements would be God and He/She/It (choose one) doesn’t make them all the time either.

The best advice I can give dear reader is that we must use knowledge and understanding. At a minimum we must realize that not everyone is the same. We must realize that no one actually stays the same for their entire life.

Once we make those realizations, and accept that you have to deal with people where they are and (hopefully) help them toward a mutually beneficial goal; then you can actually start dealing with people effectively. As for exactly how to do that… You didn’t expect me to cover it all in one post did you dear reader?

See you next post.