Friday, January 18, 2013

The Universal Language

This article by Joshua Foer in The New Yorker on constructed languages (e.g., Klingon, Esperanto, etc.) is good journalism, good prose, and an enthralling biographical sketch of a California DMV worker with a passion for linguistics.  The DMV worker spent 30 years of his life constructing Ithkuil, a new language.  (I'm imagining disgruntled California motorists waiting for their numbers to be called at the DMV during those 30 years.)  He publishes a manuscript describing Ithkuil on the Internet.  A Russian science magazine does a piece on the manuscript, although the DMV worker is unaware.  A couple of years go by and then . . .

In early 2010, he was forwarded an e-mail in patchy English from a Ukrainian academic named Oleg Bakhtiyarov, who introduced himself as the director of a recently formed institution of higher education in Kiev called the University of Effective Development, and as a leading proponent of a philosophical movement called psychonetics. When Quijada Googled both Bakhtiyarov and psychonetics, he found “a sea of impenetrable jargon” about “efforts to develop the human mind using a mix of Western and Eastern ideas,” but nothing that made him suspicious of the group’s motivations. The e-mail invited Quijada to participate in a conference titled “Creative Technology: Perspectives and Means of Development,” which was to be held that July in Elista, the capital of the Republic of Kalmykia, a small semi-autonomous state in the Russian Federation, situated on the arid western shore of the Caspian Sea.
Republic of Kalmykia?  Yeah, that was my reaction.  Just reading the Wikipedia page on the Republic of Kalmykia, "the only Buddhist region in the West," is its own adventure.   These people got the full Stalin treatment and then some.  For no reason at all, here is their flag:

 Here is their governor talking about his alien abduction and his plan to build a $10 million building in downtown New York City shaped like a king chess piece.

Anyway, the DMV worker accepts an invitation to go on an all-expense paid trip Kalykia to speak at the conference.  There, he's treated like a rock star because of the language he created.

That's just the beginning of this tale.  You'll have to read the rest for yourself.  (There's even a special appearance by George Lakoff, whose writings on language and metaphor I discussed in my Sunday morning Moral Imagination class, a couple of years ago.)

Reading The New Yorker article, speaking to how inefficient human languages (the real ones) are, and how much better language could be if it was designed through a rational process, I was reminded of Hayek's criticisms of philosophies that fail to respect the emergent nature of society.  Here's Wikipedia on "Emergence in Political Philosophy":

Economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek wrote about emergence in the context of law, politics, and markets. His theories (Hayek 1973, p. 37) set out the difference between cosmos or "grown order" (that is, emergence), and taxis or "made order". Hayek dismisses philosophies that do not adequately recognize the emergent nature of society, and which describe it as the conscious creation of a rational agent (be it God, the Sovereign, or any kind of personified body politic, such as Hobbes's Leviathan). The most important social structures, including the laws ("nomos") governing the relations between individual persons, are emergent, according to Hayek. While the idea of laws and markets as emergent phenomena comes fairly naturally to an economist, and was indeed present in the works of early economists such as Bernard MandevilleDavid Hume, and Adam Smith, Hayek traces the development of ideas based on spontaneous-order throughout the history of Western thought, occasionally going as far back as the presocratics. In this, he follows Karl Popper, who blamed the idea of the state as a made order on Plato in The Open Society and its Enemies. Emergentism is a rejection of the state on the grounds that it is a perversion of the emergent rules that societies form spontaneously. Some 19th-century classical liberals, notably Gustave de Molinari and Frédéric Bastiat, were known advocates of an emergent society and wrote about the concepts in detail. See The Production of Security and The Law, respectively.

Maybe it's simpler to quote Hayek: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”  Maybe the same could be said about the "conlangers" in The New Yorker piece.  So I appreciated the humility of the DMV worker in acknowledging that Ithkuil is an impractical language that would never be adopted.  As Lakoff says, it is more of a conceptual-art project.  

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Pentagon Misleads Commander In Chief

"With respect to Private Manning, I have actually asked the Pentagon whether or not the procedures that have been taken in terms of his confinement are appropriate and are meeting our basic standards. They assure me that they are." - Barack Obama, White House Press Conference, March 10, 2011.

On Tuesday (1/8/2013), the military judge presiding over Manning's court-martial found, as the Guardian's Ed Pilkington reports, "that he was subjected to excessively harsh treatment in military detention" and is thus entitled to a reduction of his sentence if he is found guilty. Pilkington notes:

[The military judge's] ruling was made under Article 13 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice that protects prisoners awaiting trial from punishment on grounds that they are innocent until proven guilty. The recognition that some degree of pre-trial punishment did occur during the nine months that the soldier was held in Quantico marks a legal victory for the defence in that it supports Manning's long-held complaint that he was singled out by the US government for excessively harsh treatment.
Do you think President Obama will now go back to the Pentagon person he spoke with in 2011 and angrily demand to know why he was lied to? 

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Cross and Lotus Blossom

I'm currently reading The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia -- and How It Died, by Philip Jenkins.  Here's a selection from the first chapter.

The Church of the East was anything but a newcomer in China, and Christianity first established itself in that land about 600, roughly at the same time that Tibet first welcomed Buddhism.  About 780, a Nestorian community erected a monument that recounted the Christian message in Buddhist and Taoist terms, just as European Christians were trying to make the faith acceptable to peoples of western northern Europe:

The illustrious and honorable Messiah, veiling his true dignity, appeared in the world as a man; . . . he fixed the extent of the eight boundaries, thus completing the truth and freeing it from dross; he opened the gate of the three constant principles, introducing life and destroying death; he suspended the bright sun to invade the chambers of darkness, and the falsehoods of the devil were thereupon defeated; he set in motion the vessel of mercy by which to ascend to the bright mansions, whereupon rational beings were then released; having thus completed the manifestation of his power, in clear day he ascended to his true station. 

I also thought the following information about the Christian influence upon Buddhist texts was interesting:

Around the the time this memorial was erected, in 782, the Indian Buddhist missionary Prajna arrived in the Chinese imperial capital of Chang'an, but was unable to translate the Sanskrit sutras he had brought with him into either Chinese or any other familiar tongue.  In such a plight, what could the hapless missionary do but seek Christian help?  He duly consulted the bishop named Adam, whose name headed the list on the Nestorian monument.  Adam had already translated parts of the Bible into Chinese, and the two probably shared a knowledge of Persian.  Together, Buddhist and Nestorian scholars worked amiably together for some years to translate seven copious volumes of Buddhist wisdom.  Probably, Adam did this as much from intellectual curiosity as from ecumenical goodwill, and we can only guess about the conversations that would have ensued:  So, what exactly is this "bodhisattva" we hear so much about?  Do you really care more about relieving suffering than atoning for sin?  And your monks meditate like ours do?  Scholars still speculate whether Adam infiltrated Christian concepts into the translated sutras, consciously or otherwise.  

Headstone of Mrs. Yap
Yuan Dynasty(1272-1368)

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Envy and Politics

For the Sunday morning class I'm teaching on envy, I've been reading Envy: A Theory of Social Behaviour, by Helmut Schoeck.  It is a sociological study of envy.  The chapter on "Politics and the Appeasement of Envy" contains the following introductory paragraph:

It would be a miracle if the democratic political process were ever to renounce the use of the envy-motive.  Its usefulness drives, if for no other reason, from the fact that all that is needed, in principle, is to promise the envious the destruction or the confiscation of assets enjoyed by the others; beyond that there is no need to promise anything more constructive.  The negativism of envy permits even the weakest of candidates to sound reasonably plausible, since anybody, once in office, can confiscate or destroy.  To enlarge the country's capital assets, to create employment etc. requires a more precise programme.  Candidates will naturally try to make some positive proposals, but it is often all too apparent that envy looms large in their calculations.  The more precarious the state of a nation's economy at election time, the stronger the temptations for politicians to make 'redistribution' their main plank, even when they know how little margin is left for redistributive measures an, worse still how likely they are to retard economic growth.  

One might assume this was written upon the close of the 2012 election, but it was written in 1966.