Friday, January 31, 2020

Khipus--knotty writing and knotty puzzles

I’ve been watching a video lecture on the Inca and their system of record-keeping on knotted cords (khipus, or quipus). There’s some disagreement among historians (or is it archaeologists?) over whether this was a system of writing, or whether khipus were limited to keeping records of inventory and service and such. Apparently the Inca did send messages in the form of khipus and also had libraries of them, which suggests that it really was writing.

(By “writing”, I assume they mean a way of representing language. If “writing” meant marks on a surface to represent language, then knots wouldn’t qualify. But that’s sort of beside the point.)

I’m fascinated by the different ways people have found to communicate information and then store the information. First there are the languages themselves: spoken languages, tonal or not, and also sign languages. One way of preserving information is to memorize it, but the memorized information only lasts as long as the memorizer (if not passed on) and only exists where the memorizer does.

Visible marks on a surface can last beyond a person’s lifetime (sometimes), can be seen equally well by many people, and are portable (sometimes). I said “visible” marks, but then there’s braille, which is meant to be felt. Braille depends on the previous existence of our alphabet, but history could have gone differently and something like braille could have been our form of writing. We would feel our messages and records of inventory, instead of looking at them. Such a system wouldn’t have been useful for inscriptions that were meant to be seen from a distance, though.

I said things could have gone differently, and apparently they did go differently in South America (though not resulting in braille). Instead of painting or scratching marks on surfaces, they knotted cords in complicated arrangements, with various colors and twists. The information lasted pretty well—there would be a lot more khipus to look at if the Spanish hadn’t burned so  many—and was very portable. On the other hand, this system doesn’t lend itself to official inscriptions and mottos carved ostentatiously into stone. The Inca could represent important events in architecture, sculpture, and paint, but archaeologists would probably have liked some inscriptions to go with them.

If the Spanish hadn’t shown up when they did, would the Inca have eventually created a visual representation of a khipu? That is, marks on a surface to represent knots that represent language? Or would they have done something different, something that I can’t imagine, just as I wouldn’t have thought of using knots as writing in the first place? (Nor would I have thought of magnetized media, etc., to represent marks that represent language, but other people did.)

One further idle thought—why did their history go as it did? Why and how did someone, long, long ago, start keeping records on a cord? 

We’ll never know.

Till next post.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Virtual Versions of Real-world Activities--tidier, simpler, safer...but no substitute

Is there any danger that parents will let virtual versions of activities edge out the originals, perhaps in the interests of ease and tidiness? I hope not. The things kids learn from doing things in the real world cannot be replaced by virtual activities.

Let me start with some examples of virtual versions of real-world activities.

First,  consider “Cooking Mama”, a video game in which one follows procedures to “cook” various dishes. My daughter enjoyed this game when she was younger, and incidentally learned a few things about what ingredients go into what. That’s fine. But I would hate for anyone to regard this as cooking practice. Chopping pretend carrots is very different from chopping real ones. Safer, of course, but chopping real carrots gives a child practice in dealing with the physical world--in handling a knife, he judges how to position food for safe chopping, how much pressure to use, and how to keep his fingers out of the way. Similarly, while a child can’t get burned sauteeing virtual onions, neither will he learn how to judge doneness by sight and smell, nor discover that it matters how much oil is in the pan and how high the heat is.

Second,  consider computer art programs, which have gotten very good at imitating the appearance of paint, charcoal, and other media.  Digital art is a medium in its own right, with its own unique possibilities, and worth doing for itself. But it uses skills different from those required when applying actual pigment to a surface. Using a paint-tip in an art program does not require a child to judge whether there is enough—or far too much—paint on the brush. You cannot break a stick of virtual charcoal by pressing too hard. And while art programs include techniques not available with physical media such as paint, they also restrict the child in other ways.  She cannot mess around,  applying paint with toothpicks, sponges, or other objects at hand, discovering new effects in the process. Of course, she also can’t get paint all over her clothes, the table, and the bathroom sink.

My third example is pets, which is what prompted this post. When my daughter was young, Webkinz were popular, and Tamagotchi, and there seemed to be many games that let you “keep” a virtual pet. We also had real pets, and I kept noticing the differences between a virtual pet and a real one. Real pets are messy—sometimes very messy!—and the consequences of neglecting them more serious. Real pets are also much less predictable, and this is both good and bad. Good when they do clever, funny things that we never expected, like meowing when someone sneezes. Bad when they decide to go outside the litter box, or lick the frosting off the gingerbread house. Our real pets had personalities and quirks that slowly revealed themselves—one cat bold and forever searching the floor for crumbs, the other timid and prone to chewing on things, whether pencils, fingers, or plastic bags. Virtual pets are tidier, cheaper, and don’t scratch, but they aren't nearly as interesting.

Having considered some of the ways in which virtual activities differ from their originals, why do I think it matters?

I think it matters because we all need practice in basic skills in dealing with the physical world. We never know when we will need them. As adults, we sometimes need to pour a glass of juice without spilling. We sometimes need to stick things together (tape isn’t always the answer!). Knives are useful for all sorts of things. We may need to help a friend paint a room without dripping paint off our brush.

It also matters because any simulation is a simplification of the real world, and we need to learn to deal with complexity. Even if we follow a cake recipe strictly, we need to be prepared to deal with real world factors that don’t show up in the recipe. Some ovens run hot. Different cake pans may lead to more or less browning. The baking powder might be old.

In the case of pets, there is additional difference between virtual and real. Real pet care has consequences for a creature other than oneself.  In Sherry Turkle’s book Reclaiming Conversation, she touches briefly on robot companions and pets, as well as A.I. therapists—on virtual relationships, you might say. Her concern seems mainly that conversation with computers may take the place of conversation with actual people, resulting in less practice in conversation skills (and so less conversation between people). Pets don’t talk, so conversation skills isn’t what I’m concerned about. But there is a relationship between a real pet and a person. Pets have their own needs, their own preferences, and part of taking care of them is respecting that. They are also vulnerable—we put them in situations where they cannot take care of themselves. The guinea pigs can’t get their own water and greens. The dogs can’t go hunting. Taking care of a pet is exercising responsibility and practicing some kinds of relationship skills.**

I started this by asking whether there is any danger of virtual versions of activities taking the place of their real-world originals. People are spending a lot more time with computers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the real-world activities are being replaced. There also seems to be a trend toward making activities simpler, easier, and with less clean-up—packaging art activities with pre-cut bits and easy instructions,  offering meals that are half-way prepared to save time and effort—but even simplified, those are still real-world activities. I don’t know. I guess time will tell.

Till next post.

**I’m not suggesting every kid needs a pet, any more than every kid needs to practice painting or cooking. Besides that, the idea of giving a kid a pet to teach them responsibility leaves out the fact that parents need to step in as well, lest the pet suffer. Nor is this the reason people have pets—pets are fun! Pets are (sometimes) cuddly!

Friday, January 10, 2020

I Trust My Cat, and My Cat Trusts Me

Sometimes when I am sitting with a cat on my lap, watching Netflix, I am amazed that this creature trusts me enough to fall asleep there. I am certainly big enough to do her harm. 

The trust works both ways, of course. She may be small, but I know how sharp her claws are. But I don’t even notice when she settles down mid-movie, though she could, if she wanted, shred my face.

Why do we trust each other? We certainly don’t have any contract with each other, enforceable or otherwise. We don’t even speak the same language. What we do have is our past experience with each other, and a strong need to trust.

I mention our need to trust because past experience alone isn’t enough. Bertrand Russell, in The Problems of Philosophy, points out that the chicken gets fed every day, right up until the farmer decides on a chicken dinner. How can my cat be sure she isn’t in the same position? The fact is, she can’t. But living with continual suspicion of each other—suspicion not based on anything in particular--would be an exhausting and unhappy way to live. We need to trust each other so we can relax and enjoy each other.

In the case of my cat, she is trusting me not to harm her. She also seems confident that I will put out food every day. It’s a fairly uncomplicated relationship, given that we can’t communicate well enough to set up rules. Otherwise I’d feel betrayed, rather than annoyed, when she scratches the sofa or climbs up on the table.

People have much more complicated motives than cats, and it’s harder to know when to trust them. Our lives together are full of rules, written and unwritten. Our decisions about whom to trust are still based on our shared past experience, though we can also consider what motives they might have. We can worry about the possibility that we are chickens being fattened up. But we desperately need to trust at least some people in order to be able to live and work together.

Sitting with my cat reminds me how important trust is to our sense of security, and oddly, how basic it is. It’s about expecting not to be harmed by the other. Maybe with a little food and treats thrown in.

Till next post.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Cats Like to Play, and So Do People

Everyone knows that kittens like to play at stalking and pouncing. They’ll play with shoelaces, with toes, and even with their own tails. Children too, like to play, and we know that they are practicing grown-up skills in the process. 

But it isn’t just young cats that like to play—grown cats do too, exercising their cat skills on fabric mice and wand toys when real prey isn’t around. Books on cats stress that this is good for adult cats, that having regular opportunities to practice their cat skills makes for a happier cat. This makes me think about people, and how grown-ups enjoy playing and practicing their human skills.

One of my cats started me on this train of thought because she would meow at me for no apparent reason. She wanted something, but it wasn’t food. It wasn’t “out.” Petting? A lap to sit on? I couldn’t tell, and she can’t speak human. She liked to play on occasion, and once in a while she would even chase her tail, like a kitten. Da Bird used to be both cats’ favorite—a feathery toy that could be whizzed through the air or dragged on the ground—but too often it seemed like they lost interest quickly. So I didn’t get it out much.

As I worked on a sewing project, she started playing with bits of the fabric.This reminded me that some years ago I had tied leftover strips of fabric together to make a rope that could be dragged around. Our cats sometimes enjoyed chasing and catching it. So I got it out of their toy basket (yes, they have a little basket of cat toys) and played with her for a while. Then I hung it over the back of a chair and left it there.

That chair happens to be right near where she tends to sit and meow. So I started flicking the fabric strip in the air the next time she was meowing in her undecided way.

Turns out she has much more capacity for playing than I realized, with the right toy and the right timing. She grabbed the strip out of the air, she chased it around the house, and she had a great time chewing on the knots in it. Weeks later, she’s still enthusiastic about it.

It could be that she will get bored with the strip of cloth, but I did read that cats prefer toys that give them a feeling that they are making progress, not just in catching the toy, but in tearing it apart. The cloth strips are easy to catch with her claws and the fabric does shred a bit with every capture. Actually, they were unravelling so much that I sewed some new strips with bound edges, so I don’t have to worry so much about her swallowing threads. 

When I play with her and see how much she enjoys exercising her “kitty skills” of stalking and pouncing, I think about all the opportunities to play with her that I’ve missed. I also think about people—grown-up people. Are our lives better if we get regular opportunities to exercise our “human skills?” Do we get enough of the right sort of play?

It’s interesting to make a list of  human specialties and consider the games we play. We are tool-makers and –users, also language-users and social beings, and we used to be hunters and gatherers for our living. As kids, we play tag and other chasing games, hide-and-seek (searching), and various kinds of pretend. We build sand castles and mudpies, and we have singing games and tell stories and jokes.

We have virtual versions of all of these as well, but maybe we need some of the non-virtual, physical games, too, to engage our whole selves, body and mind.

Something to think about.

Till next post.