Friday, March 31, 2017

Finding the Right Words--the importance of correct terminology

I am periodically reminded of how important it is, when talking to an expert in something, to use the correct words.  There are a lot of words that I know the meaning of only in a general sort of way. That’s good enough when I run into them in a story or hear them in a conversation about something else, but not adequate when I need to communicate a problem.

Imagine the following conversation.

Me: “My computer doesn’t have enough memory.”

Husband-who-works-with-computers-professionally: “Really? Not enough memory?”

Me: “Yes, my computer keeps saying it doesn’t have enough space to back up my Scrivener files.”

Husband: “Oh, your hard drive is full.”

Me (suddenly remembering that there is such a thing as RAM): “Yes, that’s what I mean.”

Husband: “I’ll take a look.”

I’m not saying that actually happened, mind you… but there are a lot of terms associated with computer use that  haven’t always been clearly distinct in my mind. There’s the computer itself (whatever components that refers to), and then there’s its operating system, any applications that have been loaded onto it (including a browser), and then a bunch of other files created by using those applications. It’s taken me a while to distinguish between the applications and the (data) files created with them. It doesn’t help that the applications are also themselves comprised of files. It’s easier to keep straight if I think about the files for my novel, Adrift, and distinguish them from the Scrivener program I used to write them with.

(A slight digression. Think of those scam calls—“Hello, I’m Betty from Windows, and I’m calling about your computer…” “No, you aren’t, because Windows is an operating system, not a computer company, and anyway Microsoft isn’t going to give me that kind of personalized attention unless I first give them buckets of money.”)

There are many other areas where I discover my vocabulary is lacking. The construction of my own house is a bit of a mystery. It has joists, studs, drywall (which is the same as sheetrock, I think), and up above it has a roof with rafters, eaves, gables (maybe?), and soffits (is that part of the roof?). I don’t think much about these words when I read them in passing, but when someone is discussing potential damage to the floor from a leaky shower and whether it has affected the joist, suddenly I'm interested.

I also need the right words so I can describe a problem over the phone accurately—and without sounding stupid to myself. I don’t want to tell the plumber, “The problem is the bathroom sink. The faucet. I mean, the tap. That thing you turn to start the water where one is for hot and one is for cold.” I’ve used the word “tap” before, but in the moment when it matters,  I find myself wondering, “Is that the tap?”

Inadequate vocabulary is most a problem in discussing subjects that, while important, are not of interest to me.  Since I’ve never been particularly into cars, it was some time before I really caught on to the distinction between “wheel” and “tire”. I always sort of thought of them as a unit, the four round things that roll. But don’t tell your husband you think the wheel is damaged when you really mean the tire. You could give him a heart attack. Or a stroke.

Okay, I’m exaggerating as a lead-in to my last set of examples—medical terms. As a kid, I lumped together “heart attack”, “stroke”, “heart failure”, “cardiac arrest”, “coronary”, and “apoplexy” as terms for a bad thing that could happen suddenly and which seemed, in popular expressions, to be linked to sudden shocks or anger.

Now that I’m older, I know that heart attacks involve a problem with the blood supply to part of the heart muscle, and strokes involve a problem with the blood supply to part of the brain. Not the same thing. On looking the other terms up, I find that “coronary” is often used to mean “heart attack” and “apoplexy” to mean “stroke”, but that heart failure means the heart is weak and not working very well, and that cardiac arrest just means the heart has stopped for whatever reason.

But being older and (a little bit) wiser doesn’t mean there aren’t other health-related words I’m misusing. There was some word I used in describing a problem to my doctor which I later realized probably had a very specific meaning for the doctor, and not the meaning I had intended. Further, the doctor, being used to the specific terminology, probably didn’t even realize that I was using it loosely and inaccurately. And that is a communication problem.

I wish I could remember now what the particular word was. Instead, I’ll just offer as an example “dizzy” versus “light-headed”, which apparently have slightly different uses.

Using the right words is important. With them, you can be precise in describing a problem with your computer or your health. Without them, you can inadvertantly create a lot of confusion. Eight-plus years studying philosophy contributed to my concern for correct use of words (“if…then…” is not the same as “if and only if”), but it didn’t teach me how to distinguish a joist from a stud, or a trot from a canter. Some distinctions only get learned when experience makes them relevant.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Reflecting On Reflections--the stories inside the shine

I love things that shine, sparkle, or shimmer, just because they are beautiful. I also love anything that holds secrets or points beyond itself. Some things, in reflecting light, do both.

Recently I was fascinated by the way people incorporate drawings of cabochon-cut gems into Zentangle-inspired art. Cabochons are rounded and polished, not faceted, like smooth blobs of glass. In looking at demos of how to draw them, I was puzzled by the white highlight. Should the white spot be round, or a long bar? Where should it be placed? I looked at photos of cabochon-cut gems, using Google images (so useful for things like this!), trying to figure out how the bright spot works. In the photos, I saw reflections in the gems of... their light source. 

Purple cabochon gem with reflected window.
Gem reflects window and potted plant.


Some bright spots were shaped like windows, some like bars of overhead fluorescents, while others were merely a round bright spot (an incandescent bulb? the sun?). And sometimes there were multiple bright spots, because there were multiple sources of light.

But it wasn’t just the light source that I saw reflected in the gems. Was that the camera apparatus making the dark square shape? And the shop where this other photo was taken must have a whole bank of windows. In one gem, I even saw the silhouette of person sitting nearby.

Purple cabochon brooch with reflected trees.
Outdoors, you can vaguely see the trees as well as sky.
In each case, all I was looking at was a photo of a single gem, but the reflections told me more.

This shouldn’t have been news--we have mirrors in our cars precisely to give us information about things out of our line of sight. Reflections sometimes play a role in stories, too. I remember an Ellery Queen mystery (the TV series) where the lack of a reflection, where one was expected, revealed something important. And in Bladerunner, a reflection in a photo gives the detective a clue (at least, I think it was a reflection—it wasn’t entirely clear in the movie). A painting that includes something shiny, such as a silver teapot, might make a good clue in a mystery novel-- the distorted reflection of a face could reveal that a third person had been present at the sitting and perhaps even who it was (by their distinctive hat, say).

Silver teapot with reflection of kitchen including two jars of peanut butter.
What kind of peanut butter do we buy? Two jars worth.
Reflections also show up in mysteries because of the misleading way they reverse the appearance of what they show. Someone who sees something in a mirror sees it reversed—information, and yet misinformation.

For the most part, shiny things are appealing because of the way that they play with the light, not because of what their reflections tell us. In fact, paying too much attention to the reflections in gems rather takes away from their immediate appeal. But I like knowing that if I want, I can see more than just the gem. I can see the world around it.

Till next post. 

Purple cabochon brooch with reflection of two fingers.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Make Your Own Tuckbox—what’s in your deck? what’s your deck in?

If you look up "tuckbox" on-line, you may find that it is a box of food, especially goodies from home. However, if you ask a gamer, he or she will tell you that it is a box for a deck of cards with a flap that “tucks” closed, like the cases that playing cards often come in. There are templates for tuckboxes available on-line, so if your playing cards are being held together by a rubber band, you can make them a nice new case out of cardstock.

It isn’t just old playing cards that might benefit from a new tuckbox. What about vocabulary flashcards? Art trading cards? Zentangle™ tiles? Cards with activity ideas or inspirational quotations? And, of course, collectible card games, if you haven’t encased all the cards in plastic envelopes instead.

Tuckboxes for cards with labels or Zentangle style decoration or chiyogami
The source I like is Craig Forbes’ Super deluxe tuckbox template maker. It allows you to generate and print an outline for different size tuckboxes to fit different kinds of cards and different size decks by entering their dimensions. (NOTE: be sure to select “actual size” when printing, not “print to fit”.) Then cut out the outline, score the foldlines (I go over them firmly with a ballpoint and a ruler), fold and glue. A gluestick works well for me.

If all you want is a tuckbox that is neat and functional, you can enter a label in the generator, then print the tuckbox outline on one side of the cardstock and the label on the other. But the possibilities for decoration are what make this fun. You can get a chiyogami pattern from the Canon website and print that on one side of the cardstock, then print the tuckbox outline on the other. Or you could cut the tuckbox out and then draw something Zentangle-ish on the blank side. Or paint a picture, glue on fake gems—it’s your tuckbox.

Tuckbox decorated Zentangle style with painted gems but not folded yet
Till next post.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Death of a Squirrel--animals and moral inconsistency

The other day, I ran over a squirrel.

It wasn’t all that surprising. There are lots of squirrels, and they do run across the roads. But I’d been dreading this occurrence and hoping that, with careful attention, I might go my entire life and never hit a squirrel. (It’s too late now to hope that I’ll never hit a deer, though I hope never to hit another one.)

So this squirrel ran out in front of me and I wasn’t able to avoid him. There was a small thud/crunch noise as I drove on.

Now what should I do, I thought. As a person who cares about animals, big and small, what should I do?

I turned around and drove slowly past the scene of the scrunch. Was it dead? It certainly wasn’t moving. Other cars passed it. I drove on without stopping.

It was a squirrel. Had it been a dog or cat, my day would have come to a screeching halt. I would have been bound to investigate, tend it, and—horrible day—notify its owners. The incident would probably have become fodder for bad dreams.

But it was a squirrel, a "tree-rat", and they get run over all the time, don't they? There are lots of squirrels. It wasn't even a turtle or an owl, which probably would have caused me to stop and investigate its condition, maybe call CLAWS or some similar organization for help.

Where's the consistency in any of this?

It makes sense that I wouldn't react the same way as for a person. Human animals and other animals--different cases entirely. Had it been a person, even if only mildly injured, more than my day would have come to a screeching halt. My life would never have been the same.

And no person was concerned in the incident--almost certainly there wasn't any person who knew and loved this squirrel. Probably there wasn’t any person who could even have told it apart from any other squirrel.

But is that really all there is to it? Whether a person is involved? Had it been a feral cat, I'm pretty sure I would have been more concerned, even with no owner to worry about. And is my concern with owls and turtles strictly about their value to the environment?

Should morals be consistent? As a (lapsed) philosopher in ethics, I want to say yes. Inconsistency suggests there is a problem, either with our principles or with our behavior. People who treat other groups of people badly, if faced with the apparent inconsistency, try to rationalize. “Those” people are different in ways x, y, and z—not like “our kind,” and not deserving of the same treatment. Most of those differences are either irrelevant or false. (Some differences may be real and a result of different cultural upbringing, but that doesn’t justify disrespect. Complicated subject and not relevant here.)

Going back to my original topic—clearly animals are not "our kind", but they are all animals. Why the enormous inconsistency in how we treat them? Some wild animals get fed (birds, usually—please DON’T feed the deer), while others are hunted. Some animals we eat, but require to be treated and killed humanely. Some animals we take to the vet and go to great lengths to help, because we love them. Sometimes the animals we eat and the animals we love are of the very same species.

We loved our guinea pigs--I'm not even saying how far we went to treat them when they got sick. And yet, the recent newsletter from Heifer International had an article on guinea pigs--easy to raise, tasty, nutritious--with photos of a cuyeria where they serve various dishes of cuy (guinea pig). And photos of pens of adorable red-and-white piggies, all destined for the cuyeria. And why not—guinea pigs are no more special than rabbits and cows and goats.


Even at the very vet where we took our darling piggies for help, they also sold frozen baby rats and mice (pinkies, fuzzies, weanlings) to feed pet snakes. Snakes have to eat, too. So they went to great lengths to help some rodents, and deliberately killed others. You might say that really they were just trying to help the owners, the humans, but I don't think it’s that simple.  They really cared about our piggies. They would not have taken it lightly if we had said, "Oh, we don't actually mind what happens to them. Do whatever you want."

And yet, suppose we tried to be consistent. Suppose we cared about all animals, because all animals can feel pain. It would still be true that snakes need to eat rodents, cats need meat-based food, the wild owls eat the baby squirrels and fieldmice ...

Most of the time, I ignore the inconsistency. Having a child makes that more difficult. I think most children have that moment when they realize that the meat they are eating was once an animal, and ask "Why do we do this?". At that moment, parents have to reopen a question that they may have been ignoring since the moment when they had that realization and asked their own parents. For parents in some circumstances, the answer is easy—“We eat animals because we have to.” Sometimes raising livestock or hunting is the difference between sustaining life and starving. For parents in more prosperous circumstances, the answer has to be different.

The inconsistency nags at me. The squirrel. The bird my cat tried to bring in yesterday. (Why couldn’t it have been a vole? They keep eating my plants.) The vet’s office. My daughter who is a vegetarian. Sandu, in my novel Adrift. (His father can truly give him the easy answer, but why did the One design the world in such a cruel way?)

I should be wrapping up this post with a conclusion. Something satisfying, yet thought provoking. I don’t have one. I don’t know if I ever will.

Till next post.