(8/10/20) #beirut knowledge as maps and grids

Hey all,

Heartbreaking to hear about the massive explosion in Beirut. Several friends and former colleagues grew up there, and they describe the situation as devastating.

If you’d like to chip in to help with hospital expenses and household support, please contribute to my friend Georges’ fundraiser. They are from the area, so you know the funds will go directly to those who need it.

(The fundraiser might be closed by the time you read this. If that’s the case, please check out the charities listed here.)

What I’m Thinking About

I studied Arabic in college. I’m pretty rusty, so don’t quiz me! But back then, I considered myself to be pretty decent at it.

Modern Standard Arabic (fusHa) has a pleasing algebra to it. You can take the root letters of almost any word and apply some standard transformations to produce new words.

Finally!! A language with clear rules and central organization. No complexity. Straight lines and right angles. I could organize all my Arabic knowledge around a grid of just a few global constants.

I flew to Lebanon a year into my study so I could immerse myself in an Arabic-speaking environment. My confidence brimmed. I ordered a taxi.

“… Shu? … Ah, you are American?”

This is how it turns out. FusHa is the equivalent of Shakespearean English. No one really speaks it, though it is commonly used by United Nations types.

On the ground, people speak regional dialects. Egyptians speak Egyptian colloquial — they pronounce their jeems like geems. Lebanese speak Lebanese colloquial — they aspirate their qaafs like aafs, slide into their ahs like ehs.

Colloquial Arabic has a more ad-hoc flavor and taste to it. You learn it by speaking it, not by studying it. Most languages work this way, but I found this to be particularly true for Arabic.

Just like learning to navigate Beirut, I learned to navigate colloquial Lebanese like a map.

Start here. Get your bearings.

Follow this street down several blocks until you see the laundromat.

Turn right onto Hamra. My place is right next to the newspaper stand.

Over time, my map of Beirut and its dialect grew richer and richer. Playing soccer with local college kids, jamming out to Mashrou’ Leila, embarrassing myself ordering street food.

I couldn’t structure the colloquial into a neatly organized grid of terms like I could with fusHa.

Colloquial is relational. I picked up the language in phrases and situations, not verb conjugation charts and etymology studies.

It was like figuring out how to get from one place to another by conferring a hazy map, walking the path myself, and scribbling my own notes and landmarks on the map for future reference. Pretty soon, I had the basics figured out.

The maps of Beirut the city and Lebanese the language are complex, but that doesn’t make them complicated.

The schoolboy in me wanted the consistent, context-free gridlines of fusHa. I wanted to overlay order over something I didn’t quite understand yet.

The explorer in me discovered a place and a tongue with a very simple internal logic that created a complex space of interactions and possibilities. I only uncovered this logic by poking around and talking to people.

The more I poked around, the more detailed my map of the language became.

By comparison, fusHa felt trapped inside the thick textbooks that I first encountered it in.

But here’s the really exciting part.

I returned to Modern Standard Arabic, and its formal approach fed me different ways I could explore my intuitive Colloquial map. The etymologies and conjugations let me improvise more effectively.

I learned Arabic on foot, and Colloquial brought the Classical to life. The Classical organized the Colloquial and gave it more consistency.

The map and the grid began to support each other.

So I learned a thing or two.

Something may appear orderly, but as you watch it at work, you realize it’s not quite doing what it said it would do.

Something may appear chaotic, but as you immerse yourself into its machinery, you realize it’s working effectively.

Usually, the world is somewhere in between, and we can use grids and maps together to create great things.

Bullet-Point Summaries

Practice as the Bar for Truth - Cedric Chin

  1. The practice-minded debater: “Let’s both try it and compare notes in a month or so.”

  2. The practice-minded interviewer: “Tell me a story about how you implemented this approach.”

  3. The practice-minded human: “Do I even know what I’m talking about? Or am I being defensive?”

Learning Golang in 24 Hours - Kislay Verma

  1. I first tried learning Golang (the programming language) by going through the rules.

  2. I got bored and lost my motivation. Learning the syntax is really tedious.

  3. I decided to give myself 24 hours to learn Golang by using it to build something fun.

  4. Learning by building something rather than learning the rules was so much more effective. The motivation of seeing something tangible get built cannot be over-stated.

Thanks for reading! Have an awesome week.