Monthly Archives: November 2017

The map IS the territory


Road map of Rhode Island

This past August, I was driving up, with my spouse, to Block Island for an extended weekend.  One has to take a ferry; one of the boat terminals is at Point Judith, R.I.  As usual, we were relying on our car’s GPS navigation system.  But luckily, I remembered to also bring that old standby, our road atlas.  Even though the GPS basically got us there fine (you’ll see later why I say “basically”), the Connecticut and Rhode Island maps in the atlas supplied all the “context”.  As we proceeded, I could see on the map what we were passing, arousing either memories of the old, or curiosity about the new.

To perform the rather egotistical act of quoting myself:  “A navigation system gets you where you want to go.  But it doesn’t tell you where you are.”

Recently, in the book world, I ran across a parallel to this.  I retrieved from my shelf a volume I had dipped into, maybe back in the 1980’s when it came out:

James D. McCawley - The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters

Written by a professor of linguistics at the University of Chicago, the Eater’s Guide is a tutorial on the subset of the written Chinese language one has to know, in order to read the menu in a Chinese restaurant.  (It is common knowledge that the English part of a Chinese menu typically does not present the full range of culinary offerings.)

McCawley begins by explaining that most Chinese characters are not pictorial, but rather composed of two parts: the RADICAL which shows the general area of the character’s meaning, and the PHONETIC which rhymes with the word the character represents.  Much of the book is composed of a glossary, which ingeniously does not rely on scholarly knowledge, but is usable by the beginner.  The pages below, for example, show some of the phonetic half-characters that could go with the four-stroke radical meaning “tree”:

Eater's Guide glossary - sample page

In the last several weeks, I’ve been studying this book rather seriously (finding it a good companion to subway trips).  I have been diligent about doing McCawley’s exercises, which ensure that one has not just an abstract notion, but actual skill in tracking down words in his glossary:

Eater's Guide - some exercises

This was indeed work, but it brought the reward not just of useful ability, but also of  general learning.  Plus some delightful discoveries.  In finding the character that means “home”, I was suddenly presented with the Chinese name of one of my favorite dishes (though at least in my Queens, NYC neighborhood it appears in a vegetarian incarnation):

Eater's Guide - Home Style Bean Curd

And, I thought it was fun to discover that “chop suey” originates in a Chinese character that means “miscellaneous”:

Eater's Guide - chop suey ("odds and ends")

OK … the scene shifts to a subway trip when I was NOT perusing McCawley’s book, but talking to a friend about it.  Not greatly to my surprise, she noted that “there is an app for that”.  I’m not sure if this is the one she meant, but here is one called Waygo:

WAYGO app - point phone at Chinese text to translate

This seems to me, to be the GPS of the Chinese-menu world.  To be fair, I have not tried Waygo yet.  If it turns out that it does not just give facile translations, but delves into the linguistic intricacies that are so interesting to me, I will eat my words (so to speak) and update this blog entry accordingly.  But my strong suspicion is that you will get a result that is quick — and (darn it!) probably very practical — but one without any of the alluring context and background.

Now, I’d like to extend this discussion into a much broader arena.  I’m linking below to a recent article in the New York Review of Books.  It’s a review of a 2017 book called Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy.

Born to Be Free _ by BM Friedman

The authors (Philippe van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght) advocate a guaranteed minimum income for all Americans.  (Note that this is not a “minimum wage”, but income that you would get whether you held a job or not.)  Why?  Because the rise of artificial intelligence and robotics will dictate that many workers will need only minimal skills to do their jobs.  (An example already widely current: since taxi drivers use — here we are again — GPS, they don’t need to know anything about a city’s geography.)  All these now-unskilled workers will not be able to command a liveable income from their job alone.  As Benjamin M. Friedman puts it in his review:

Only convinced futurists envision FedEx and UPS vans racing around the nation’s cities anytime soon with no human inside. But in the future, what will the human on board be doing? Most likely, not driving the van but running packages up to people’s doorsteps and then pushing a picture icon on a touch screen to confirm that deliveries have been completed — not so different from what the cashier at a McDonald’s now does. For just this reason, the wages those no-longer-drivers receive also won’t be much different from McDonald’s wages.

If I may come full circle here, and return to my trip to Block Island …

Detailed map: Point Judith, Rhode Island

We had to get to Point Judith.  We were coming up on Route 1, and our GPS, as I recall,  left us in some doubt as to where to turn off toward the coast.  With my map in hand, it was easy to see that we should not head towards Jerusalem (necessitating a swim across the inlet), but rather go a bit “too far” and double back, on Route 108, towards Galilee.  (We are  very Biblical here, no?)  The map freed us from  our GPS blinders, and gave us (literally) that “extra dimension”.  We got to our Block Island ferry in time!


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