Wednesday, 1 July 2015

John Steinbeck on Fish and Relativity

Those of us who work with non-sciency things like language and social studies have learnt not just to accept the lack of universal truths and procedures, but to cherish and revel in them. The relativity and the uncertainty of our areas make them somehow more humanly relevant, more personally accurate and liberatingly dynamic.

John Steinbeck also reflected on this issue in his The Log from the Sea of Cortez, and my summer gift to you this year is in the form of his beautiful prose. Let it linger in the back of your minds for the holiday season!


We made a trip into the Gulf; sometimes we dignified it by calling it an expedition. Once it was called the Sea of Cortez, and that is a better-sounding and a more exciting name. We stopped in many little harbors and near barren coasts to collect and preserve the marine invertebrates of the littoral. One of the reasons we gave ourselves for this trip–and when we used this reason, we called the trip an expedition–was to observe the distribution of invertebrates, to see and record their kinds and numbers, how they lived together, what they ate, and how they reproduced…
We were curious. Our curiosity was not limited, but was as wide and horizonless as that of Darwin or Agassiz or Linnaeus or Pliny. We wanted to see everything our eyes would accommodate, to think what we could, and, out of our seeing and thinking, to build some kind of structure in modeled imitation of the observed reality. We knew that what we would see and record and construct would be warped, as all knowledge patterns are warped, first, by the collective pressure and stream of our time and race, second by the thrust of our individual personalities. But knowing this, we we might not fall into too many holes, we might maintain some balance between our warp and the separate thing–the external reality.
The oneness of these two might take its contribution from both. For example: the Mexican sierra has “XVII-15-IX” spines in the dorsal fin. These can easily be counted. But if the sierra strikes hard on the line so that our hands are burned, if the fish sounds and nearly escapes and finally comes in over the rail, his colors pulsating and tail beating the air, a whole new relational experience has come into being–an entity which is more than the sum of the fish plus the fisherman. The only way to count the spines of the sierra unaffected by this relational reality is to sit in a laboratory, open an evil-smelling jar, remove a stiff colorless fish from formalin solution, count the spines, and write the truth “D. XVII15-IX”. There you have recorded a reality which cannot be assailed–probably the least important reality concerning either the fish or yourself…The man with the pickled fish has set down one truth and has recorded in his experience many lies. The fish is not that color, that texture, that dead, nor does he smell that way.
…we were determined not to let a passion for unassailable little truths draw in the horizons and crowd the sky down on us. We knew that what seemed to us true could be only relatively true anyway. There is no other kind of observation. The man with the pickled fish has sacrificed a great observation about himself, the fish, and the focal point, which is his thought on both the sierra and himself.
We determined to go doubly open so that in the end we could, if we wished, describe the sierra thus: “D. XVII15-IX A. II-15-IX”, but we could also see the fish alive and swimming, feel it plunge against the lines, drag it threshing over the rail, and even finally eat it. And there is no reason why either approach should be inaccurate. Spine-count description need not suffer because another approach is also used. Perhaps out of the two approaches, we thought, there might emerge a picture more complete and even more accurate than either alone could produce. And so we went.
Source: As given, pp. 1-3

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

How Not to Annoy - The World Citizens Guide for Americans

The war-time line "overpaid, oversexed and over here", used to describe Americans in Europe has in later years been rewritten to "overweight, oversexed and overthrow whomever". Admittedly, Americans struggle with some public image issues beyond their heartland even to the extent that they are the object of their own phobia, amerophobia or columbophobia. Amerophobes shudder at American overestimation of their powers of comparison through the word "like", their inability to pronounce t-sounds inside words, their volume and their initial ignorance, subsequent ceaseless fascination and merciless appropriation of anything Non-American. However, the fear is more of this stereotype than of the Americans themselves, who often put this stereotype to shame by being sociable, polite and altruistic.

However, in 2014, 8,8% of all Americans took an overseas trip, according to numbers from the Office of Travel and Tourism Industries and the US Census Bureau, a number relatively similar to those of previous years. The cultural challenges facing these Americans abroad prompted "Business for Diplomatic Action", an American organisation worried about the declining standing of Americans abroad, to commission the compilation of the "World Citizens Guide". This guide provides the American tourist with the necessary knowledge to not get on the nerves of the natives of their country of choice.

Here is a collection of pearls from the guide:


Look. Listen. Learn.
Don't just shop. See the sights, hear the sounds and try to understand the lives people live.

Think big. Act small. Be humble.
It's easy to resent big, powerful people. Assume resentment as a default and play down your wealth, power and status.

Live, eat and play local.
Once you get to know other Americans, don't start ignoring locals you knew before.

Refrain from lecturing.
Nobody likes a know-it-all, and nobody likes a whole nation of them. Rightly or wrongly, the I.S. is seen as appointing itself as policeman, judge and jury to the world. Be aware of this perception and try to understand other viewpoints.

Dialogue instead of monologue.
[...] ask people you're visiting how what you've said compares to what they do and how they live in their country.

Be proud, not arrogant.
People around the world are fascinated by the U.S. and the lives we Americans live. They admire our openness, our optimism, our creativity and our "can-do" spirit. Be proud of being an American, but resist any temptation to present our way as the best way or the only way.

Keep religion private.
Some may have no knowledge of the Bible, nor is it appropriate to tell them about it unless you are a professional missionary identified as such.

Be quiet.
In conversation match your voice level to the environment and other speakers. Casual profanity is almost always considered unacceptable.

Check the atlas.
Everyone's home is important to them.

Agree to disagree respectfully.
Surely, there are people who object to actions or activities of our government, our industries and our culture.

Talk about something besides politics.
Listen first. Then speak. And leave politics alone if you can. Speak of culture, art, food or family if you need another topic.

Show your best side.
Americans are a kind and generous people. You can help dispel the stereotype of the Ugly American; impress people with your kindness, curiosity and fair nature.

Sources: Adapted from [1], otherwise as indicated,