The Hexacoto

Listening to the sound of one hand clapping

Tag: frustration

Extracting meaning in nonsense

Image credit to Wikipedia

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

— Lewis Caroll, “Jabberwocky”, 1871

This is one of the most well-known nonsense poems in the English language, and yet, as Alice in Caroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass says

‘It seems very pretty,’ she said when she had finished it, ‘but it’s rather hard to understand!’ (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) ‘Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate’

Even though the words are nonsensical, we still get a distinct sense of their meaning. How is that achieved? What components of the words in this poem contribute to their meaning? From Wikipedia, it says “The poem relies on a distortion of sense rather than “non-sense”, allowing the reader to infer meaning and therefore engage with narrative while lexical allusions swim under the surface of the poem.” What that means is that when we see the words and hear the sounds of the words, the components draw upon our existing knowledge to draw parallels to words and meaning we already know, and extrapolate the meaning onto the poem.

Thus, the frications, the hisses and lullings of the tongue bring about certain images and parallels to words we already know. A modern example would be the word:

Professor Severus Snape

from the Harry Potter books. It’s a very simply usage of the visual and audio clues as to the kind of person a character with that name might be. From “Severus,” we can break it down phonologically — the repeated sibilant ‘s’ draws upon hissing sounds, starting and ending with an ‘s’ makes the word sound harsher, and the the labio-dental ‘v’ sound draws the speaker’s mouth into an involuntary snarl in order to pronounce the ‘v’. Orthographically, “Severus” looks like the word “severe,” and the “-us” suffix lends it the gravitas of faux-Latin, adding a touch of snobbery and sombreness. Similarly, for “Snape,” phonologically, it leads with an “s” sibilant, and the “SN” consonant cluster makes the reader involuntarily sneer. Ending the word with the plosive “p,” and a released, aspirated one at that, adds to the ideas of a curt, no-nonsense character. One can plausibly imagine Severus Snape (with Alan Rickman as him, of course) saying the words “Get. Up.” with an extra hard release of the final “p” sound. Orthographically, “Snape” looks like “snake,” contains the word “snap” in it, and words that begin with “sn” have usually a slight negative connotation to it. (Snide, sneer, snap, snore, sneak, snoot, snarl, sniffle, snark)

So we’re incredibly able to draw so many allusions just from a person’s name via its sounds and its sights, now imagine extending it to the entire Jabberwocky poem. Let’s just examine the first stanza of the poem:

  1. ‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  2. Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
  3. All mimsy were the borogoves,
  4. And the mome raths outgrabe.

And see if we can annotate it with relevant information that we know.

  1. It was brillig [N? Time of the day? ADJ? Brilliant?], and the slithy [Definitely ADJ. Slithering and lithe] toves [Definitely N, because of following line]
  2. Did gyre [V. Plural object-verb agreement (“toves gyre”). Gyroscope] and gimble [V. Gyrate and tumble? Rotating movement] in the wabe [N. Wet, plus extra wet connotations from “slithy”]
  3. All mimsy [Adj. Whimsy? Whimper? Miserable?] were the borogoves [N. Borrow-dove? A bird? Mangrove?]
  4. And the mome raths [ADJ-N, because of the following V. Home? Mope? Moan? Wrath? Rats? Moths?] outgrabe [out-grab+PAST? Gripe+PAST?]

Wikipedia compiles a possible interpretation of the words, which mine seem pretty close to.

The human mind is incredibly capable, almost desirous, of pulling meaning out of words, such that people arguing about semantics when they disagree with words used by other people seem almost silly. Previously, I have written about how the grammaticality we’re obsessed with contributes little to the understanding of meaning, and people who advocate and insist on a gold standard of grammar are quite misguided. Similarly, we see here even semantic-correctness seems secondary, if the words used have no semantic distinguishing from another, because they are not words in the lexicon in the first place, yet they contain content and semantic meaning.

Does it matter if I say, “The amalgamation of hydrogen and oxygen atoms yields water,” and “The combination of hydrogen and oxygen atoms yield water,”? There will be semantic purists who insist that the act of amalgamation is subtly different from a mere combination; that perhaps amalgamation is more nuanced.

Of course, I don’t deny that there are certainly words that are more nuanced than others. There is certainly a different between the words “happy,” “delighted,” “glad,” and “ecstatic” — they align differently on the superlative scale where one might construe “glad” to be the most slight and “delighted” and “ecstatic” to be on the other end. But even between these words, how is one to distinguish the semantic difference between “delighted” and “ecstatic,” where one is full of delight and the other full of ecstasy, that one is more superlative than the other other? Does ecstasy trump delight?

As such, insisting on absolutism for certain terms is imposition of one’s views on another. Splitting hairs semantically, like grammar-nazism, contributes nothing to the discussion if the intent of the speech is clear.

To end off, I’ll try my hand at “nonsense prose,” to see if I could, without using lexical words, tell a story.

“You seem morried,” Alex said, as he kriched up a klatch, and lit his smube. He took a long wheg. “Is everything milly-willy? Surely nothing fellish happened?”

“I’m afraid I’m a little tatchet,” I said, my shoulders smished, my haiths swanged.

Alex poff-poffed, for he whegged one too big. “Sorry about that. Come on, tich your bin up, kellyvale everything.”

I hished my feet, “You know what my pairrows are; they have viddied not an inch. Every burrise I wake, the same ol’ nubs, the same ol’ tracherns. I am still without work, and my time here is plivered. If I don’t get a job immish, I’m fanade I’m going to go wallyfaloo.”

“Surely it’s not that sapper,” Alex kippered, “You have your tumms around you, being snorm and glideful. Surely that clappas your situation?”

“I’m grateful for my tumms, yes,” I said, “But they can only clappas por piti. It’s been four yardas already, Alex, and the best I’ve bainaged was this mopstep.”

“I can’t movome back, Alex. That finta is unbelfortasible to me; I didn’t swarvvy thousands of loons and cross ninan lashes to come here, only to have to gallivog home. There is no syfe for me there, Alex. Although I have tumms and revelas back home, to have to be washorled by all that sikthorn and snurling pekvork will beshoy me. I’ll sooner slax myself than movome.”

“What are you going to do then?” Alex said.

“I can only prish it will be wingwag, Alex. I can only pope.”

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Where childhood education begins, childhood ends

Previously, I wrote about the breakdown of the Singapore education system, and how divisive it was to the population’s children.

When you have schools that are seen as “elite” and schools that are seen as “neighbourhood” (regular), you have a nation of parents desperate and eager to send their offspring into these “elite” schools. As with demand and supply, seats are limited at these prestigious places and thus school children have to work ever so harder to outdo each other.

This means cram schools, or as they are called in Singapore, tuition centres.

After-school tutoring has become a thing where previously students who were slightly weaker went to to catch up, to a thing today where it is necessary to send one’s child to or else lose out to the other children, whom themselves are taking after-school tutoring and enrichment classes. It is reported that 97 percent of students in elementary and middle school in Singapore today are enrolled in tuition and enrichment centres, double from that of twenty years ago.

Children as young as in first and second grade are having to spend time after school going to these tuition centres, where they spend hours practising math drills.

Children in the Western world don’t even have proper homework until much later; perhaps some light reading exercises in the lower grades, but nothing in the likes of worksheets and homework assignment books.

There were many times in first and second grade where I have been punished (a smack on the palm with a wooden ruler) by the teacher for not having completed my homework.

And not even just homework, students begin taking year-end examinations as early as in first grade.

And so, going to tuition centres in Singapore to just keep up has become endemic, to the point that bringing a child up in such a competitive environment seems almost an affront the kid’s childhood. A Singaporean blogger Ian Tan notes:

For many parents, enrolling their children for tuition is not about the desire for top grades, but because of the fear that their children cannot catch up enough to get a decent passing grade.

Then, any free time the child has is sucked up by travelling to tuition classes or doing tuition homework. Where do they get the time to enjoy outdoor activities, learn new hobbies or other things that make them well-rounded individuals?

This is coupled by increasingly difficult standards of homework (actually only math, really) and exams that students receive, of which the same blogger notes:

…school teachers sometimes do not have the opportunity to reinforce the basics of simple arithmetic, and are forced to make their students do sums that are more useful in weeding out mathematical geniuses than genuinely impart knowledge. Within the cramped periods of each school day, it is simply impossible for teachers to cover all the bases in today’s punishing curriculum.

So if students have to resort to after-school tutoring to even maintain a level playing field, guess who loses out?

That’s right, those who can’t afford to send their kids to these tuition centres.

This situation of constantly having to bolster a child’s “education” with supplementary classes is socio-economically divisive — the rich can afford to keep their children at the top of cohort, who will end up being able to go to elite schools, and appear more attractive to employers when their educational resume boasts of top schools and top grades. Poorer families, where sometimes even the children might have to chip in at their parents’ stalls at the market or hawker centres, are just unable to keep chucking money at external agencies to help with their children’s education, locking them in a cycle that they currently are. Thankfully, given the level of subsidies and assistance available to students in the country, most students are able to go to high school (junior college, Centralised Institutes and polytechnics) and the local public universities (National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University, and Singapore Management University), should they work hard enough, but most families will be locked into their socio-economic grouping and upward-mobility, of which education plays an important role, is incredibly hard.

I end by quoting an observation by (yet again) the same blogger I’ve quoted twice before:

If a brilliant student comes from a disadvantaged background and goes to a school where most of the kids have no access to expensive tuition or sometimes even have to help out at their parent’s hawker stalls, what are his chances of reaching his real potential?

I see parents spend thousands of dollars sending their kids to swanky tuition centres (which themselves show off their wealthy clientele by displaying iPads and cute pets at the window dressing area). Yet I am fully aware that these are the top 10-20% of society.

Of course, these kids would have a far better chance of doing well at PSLE compared to equally bright kids who have never stepped into these tuition centres. To make things worse, the primary school exams and assessments of today are ridiculously hard even by adult standards. Without the aid of tutors or full-time mothers, most kids would be quickly “filtered” out by these trick questions.

Understanding the Chinese consumer culture

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Photo credits to South China Morning Post

Ikea bends over backwards to accommodate Chinese keener on sleeping than shopping, but sees unprecedented growth

Shoppers sleeping on display beds; couples taking “selfies” in the showrooms; thermos flasks of drinks and plastic bags containing food sit on the display kitchen tables, with shoppers actually eating and drinking off of them — these sorts of behaviour would be unthinkable anywhere else, but in China, they seem to be the norm.

And it is not as if the store actively encouraged it. In the article, store staff Jason Zhang says that every day, he wakes up about a hundred of them.

Ikea was certainly not expecting such behaviour, and has certainly bent over backwards to accommodate these shoppers in hopes of chasing their yuan, and it has certainly worked — their turnover in 2012 exceed 6 billion yuan.

Understanding why they behave that way requires the understanding of two conflicting ideals: Being insensitive to criticism and the needs of others (having a thick skin), while being sensitive to scrutiny at the same time.

There is a certain lack of awareness of others among the Chinese; if the Japanese are overly-conscious about the considerations of everyone around them, then the Chinese would be the antithesis. Only by having a skin thick enough to brush off admonishments from their inconsiderate acts could they even behave they do in the first place. If the customers at China’s Ikea considered about other customers using the products in the future, they would be more careful with it. If they cared enough about not appearing to be uncouth, then they would not spit in public or be disruptive. If they cared enough about the people trying to get out of the trains, they would not be rushing headfirst as the train doors open.

As such, you have people doing whatever pleases them, oblivious to the disapproval of those around them.

According to Tom Doctoroff, an expert on Chinese consumer psychology and author of What Chinese Want, … going to Ikea may not be too dissimilar to visiting a theme park. Generally, Doctoroff explains, Chinese people tend to take a more recreational approach to consumption. “Shopping in China is far more about the experience itself than it is in the West,” he says.

Blindly charging ahead, in pursuit of their ‘experience.’

Doctoroff also says:

For Chinese consumers, products for domestic consumption are secondary to the more visible status offered by Western brands such as cars, watches or even Haagen-Dazs ice cream and Starbucks coffee.

This is a rather salient point about Chinese consumer culture: buying things is very much less for its utility than the perceived status it affords. Therefore, a brilliant sofa from Crate and Barrel would be inferior to a Gucci handbag, and people would rather tote around a Starbucks cup containing average coffee than a cup of fair-trade organic coffee.

What this means is that just as they brush off criticisms of their actions, they are at the same time sensitive to how people perceive their prestige, and the easiest way to obtain that is through acquisition of material goods. They are eager to be seen wearing their expensive clothing and bags, and eating, drinking and socialising at establishments that boast of an affluent lifestyle.

This obsession with flaunting status is not something new: traditionally, in restaurants, a Chinese host would often order more dishes than anyone at the table could finish, resulting in incredible wastage. This is so that the host can display his generosity and capability of affording such lavishness.

The Chinese equate goods that are expensive, and easily-recognised brands with social standing. One needs only to go to premium outlet malls such as Woodbury to witness the whimsy with which they buy bags and purses from Coach, or Prada, or Gucci. Of course, to afford these goods, they have to have a certain amount of wealth in the first place, and indeed the ones causing the most antagonism worldwide in their squabbling ways are those who can afford to leave the country to tour, travel, work and vacation.

For example: A teenager was caught defacing a 3,500 year old Egyptian temple, Thai message boards were abuzz with complaints of Chinese tourists being a nuisance in public and spitting, a French boutique hotel announcing that they would bar Chinese visitors — the burgeoning affluence of China has opened the doors to the world to its newly-rich, and the rest of the world feels it.

“That China is a lawless, poorly educated society with a lot of money is going to take its toll on the whole world,” said Hung Huang, a popular blogger and magazine publisher in Beijing.

Ms. Hung, the blogger, blames the Communist Party’s tumultuous rule for China’s uncivilized behavior abroad. “There’s an entire generation who learned you don’t pay attention to grooming or manners because that’s considered bourgeois,” she said. While Chinese are more open to Western ideas now, that has not necessarily sunk in when actually interacting with the outside world. “They think, ‘The hell with etiquette. As long as I have money, foreigners will bow to my cash.’ ”

Despite the bad rep, countries are still bending over backwards to accommodate the Chinese, for they represent revenue to be made. As reported in the New York Times, 83 million mainland Chinese spent $102 billion abroad — overtaking Americans and Germans — making them the world’s biggest tourism spenders, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization.

Wedding companies in South Korea are trying to lure Chinese couples with bling-heavy ceremonies inspired by the viral music video “Gangnam Style.” A coastal county outside Sydney, Australia, is building a $450 million Chinese theme park centered on a full-size replica of the gates to the Forbidden City and a nine-story Buddhist temple. France, one of the most popular destinations for Chinese tourists already — 1.4 million visited in 2012 — is working to further bolster its appeal.

Parisian officials recently published a manual for the service industry that offers transliterated Mandarin phrases and cultural tips for better understanding Chinese desires, including this tidbit: “They are very picky about gastronomy and wine.”

Such pandering, however, encourages the poor behaviour of these Chinese tourists. Be it countries abroad, or Ikea in China, letting revenue permit the lack of social grace is as myopic as the Chinese who spit and litter wantonly on the streets: focusing on whatever is pleasing now and not having to worry about consequences or how it might affect others.

Perhaps shops should enforce orderliness, and firmly rebuke those who are disruptive, even if it might cost them some business. Perhaps greater social education should be emphasised upon in schools. Change will not happen overnight, and in fact, given the vastness of the country, China may not even see a betterment of its ungraceful problem for many generations, but leaving this wildfire rampant and unchecked is not a solution either.

Journalism is killing journalism

I am out of college, trying to enter the field of journalism. “Are you crazy?” my friends and peers tell me, “Journalism is dead!”

But who are the ones killing journalism?

Journalism isn’t solely dead because people are reading physical newspapers less and less — people go online for their sources of news. People still need the news, and all that is happening is that newspaper journalism is simply undergoing a transformation, not death.

It is the journalism industry itself that is killing itself by being unable to change simply because they’re not letting anyone new in.

Having spent nearly three months job-hunting for journalism jobs, all entry-level positions have a minimum requirement of three years of experience, and that they’re only looking to do experienced hires only. This locks out an entire generation of people with fresh ideas and enthusiasm who have not yet been tainted by the whole “journalism is dead” creed yet, but rather cycles around existing journalists who are even deadbeat about their own prospects.

Other industries in IT and finance constantly take in fresh hires and in its young blood, is able to reinvent itself and stay on top of changes.

Journalism tries to protect itself by holding on to its existing assets and shuns acquiring new people, landing itself slowly into attrition and becoming irrelevant.

How can we make news accessible to the future generation? The easiest way to that answer would be to ask people in that generation, wouldn’t it?

Of course, it is easy to say that as much as papers want to hire, they are unable to because of finances. Well if they keep up in this way, eventually they will go the way of the Boston Globe, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune; sold off to people who are less interested in producing journalism than in serving their own financial interests.

So for the sake of the future of journalism, start hiring already.