10 March 2014

Constraint (Re)ranking

When I was in graduate school, I had to learn about Optimality Theory. It is a theory of phonology (the branch of linguistics that is concerned about how sounds are organized in languages), where it posits that several sound and word forms are generated, but most are pruned due to language-specific constraints (in English, a [z] cannot precede a [l] sound, unlike in Czech). Anyway, from a cognitive point of view, it seems pointless that the brain will generate all these possibilities, only to eliminate them later. So when I was in graduate school, I learned that while Optimality Theory is not a good theory of phonology (my department wasn't a big fan of it), it is a very good theory of life.

See, we use constraint satisfaction and constraint ranking in daily life, even though we might not be talking about life in those terms. See, what if we have 200 EUR in our pocket? How would we spend it? A dinner? A movie? An adult escort (can you even get one for 200 EUR)? Are we hungry or not so much? Are we a fan of the actor? Are we horny and yet we don't have a date, a fuck-buddy, or energy to pick up someone at the club?

Anyway, why am I talking about constraint ranking in life? Because recently I realized what constraints are relevant for myself. I don't want to write publicly everything I realized, or how I got there, but I realized that I value traveling more than my job. I only do my job because it allows me to travel.

Sure, I enjoy being a psycholinguist. I enjoy discovering new things about how language is processed in the brain. But seriously, I only do it because academia gives me a salary and schedule that is comfortable enough to take off and backpack in some random part of the world for a few weeks at a time a year.

Conversely, I realized that I would probably not enjoy life as much as I do now, if I stop traveling. I want to see the world, both its nice and not-so-nice parts. If someone told me not to go to a place, just because this person thinks it is unsafe, it is a sore point. What if this person thinks it is unsafe only because this person is uninformed, and given the right precautions, one can actually enjoy the place?

I remember when I was in Prague in 2006. I was in a Colombian restaurant with my parents. I casually remarked that it would be cool to go to South America once. My dad immediately responded that I shouldn't go, because I would be kidnapped. The next year, I went to Ecuador and spent a week in and around Quito. I came out unharmed.

I have been to 34 countries by now. Of my past destinations, I count my trips to Guatemala and Honduras, as well as to Georgia and Armenia as my best trips. Guatemala/Honduras was the first trip in which I had no fixed itinerary at all, going to places decided at the last minute, based on which bus was leaving the terminal next. Georgia and Armenia on the other hand was the first trip in which I couldn't read the script, which I found was harder to handle than not being able to speak the language. Both of these trips made my adrenaline pumping, and the feeling I got when I was on my way home, this whole feeling of success, was just something I thrive on.

It's usually when there are new elements in life, that one realizes what one's priorities are. And I just realized that I might be a psycholinguist, I might be an academic, but I can easily quit that and am willing to be someone else and earn money in some other way, if there is a higher-ranking constraint that necessitates that decision. But being a traveler in search of adventure, that's me. If someone tells me to stop being one, he might as well have told me to stop being me.

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