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Old houses go on keeping their vigil

Saturday, 28 May, 2016 0 Comments

The American poet Robert Cording writes about faith, grief and grace. Explaining his approach in an interview with Holy Cross Magazine, he said, “It’s self-reflective about your relationship to mortality, to the world, to those fundamental questions: Who are we? Where are we going? Why are we here? That’s what started me writing — those kinds of questions.”

Old Houses

Year after year after year
I have come to love slowly

how old houses hold themselves —

before November’s drizzled rain
or the refreshing light of June —

as if they have all come to agree
that, in time, the days are no longer
a matter of suffering or rejoicing.

I have come to love
how they take on the color of rain or sun
as they go on keeping their vigil

without need of a sign, awaiting nothing

more than the birds that sing from the eaves,
the seizing cold that sounds the rafters.

Robert Cording

Where once we visited


“Women should protect their beautiful faces”

Friday, 27 May, 2016 0 Comments

Named after James Brown’s funky saxophone player, Maceo Parker, Maceo Frost grew up in Stockholm with a street-dancing father and skateboarding mother. “He found film-making at 11 and grew up never having to wonder what to do in life. Today he travels the world directing films and loves making people share their deepest secrets with the camera.” Maceo Frost’s portrait of Namibia Flores Rodriguez is superb.

By the way, supporters of socialist ideals should note that not all Cuban boxers are cherished equally — Namibia Flores Rodriguez is the island’s only female boxer.


Neither forgiving nor forgetting

Thursday, 26 May, 2016 0 Comments

Today is the feast of Corpus Christi and the Gospel according to St. Matthew (26:26-29) will be quoted during the ceremonies: “Drink of it all of You; for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” One of the principles of the Christian tradition is forgiveness, which often implies forgetting, but Laura Kennedy pours cold water on the notion that it’s wise to forgive and forget. Nor is it possible, she writes, because the notion is modeled after God’s divine forgiveness:

“But I’m not God, and neither are you. We are not much like him — or it, or her — at all, and it’s not clear that forgiving because it’s what God would do is a good idea. A policy of blanket forgiveness regardless of how any person might behave toward you may be pious, but it’s also naive and can invite unworthy individuals to take advantage…

…Punishing ourselves with the idea that we ‘should’ be able to forgive is nonsense. When we are truly and unjustly morally injured by others, we owe a debt of magnanimity only to ourselves — to stop considering the wrongdoer, and do what is necessary to heal the injury ourselves.”

“Forgiveness is the final form of love,” said Reinhold Niebuhr, but Laura Kennedy’s “It is not always wise to forgive and forget” challenges the American ethicist’s famous statement. Her’s is a contrarian view and a valuable one.

The Faithful

Note: During Corpus Christi, Catholics take part in a procession after mass, praying and singing as the Blessed Sacrament is held aloft in a monstrance by a member of the clergy. The feast was suppressed in Protestant churches at the Reformation and in one of his postils (homilies) Martin Luther wrote: “I am to no festival more hostile than this one. Because it is the most shameful festival. At no festival are God and his Christ more blasphemed, than on this day, and particularly by the procession.”


Trump: the candidate of Control-Alt-Delete

Wednesday, 25 May, 2016 0 Comments

On Sunday, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal presidential election poll put Donald Trump at 43 percent and Hillary Clinton at 46 percent, but an ABC News/Washington Post poll published the same day saw Trump at 46 percent and Clinton at 44 percent. To understand what’s going on, a reading of “The Meaning of Mr. Trump” by Walter Russell Mead is very highly recommended. Snippet:

“What makes Trump so appealing to so many voters is that the establishment does seem unusually clueless these days. The great American post-Cold War project of seeking peace and security through the construction of a New World Order based on liberal internationalism and American power doesn’t seem to be working very well, and it’s not hard to conclude that neither the neoconservatives nor the Obama-ites really know what they are doing. When it comes to the economy, it’s been clear since the financial crisis of 2008 that something is badly awry and that the economists, so dogmatic and opinionated and so bitterly divided into quarreling schools, aren’t sure how the system works anymore, and have no real ideas about how to make the world system work to the benefit of ordinary voters in the United States. With the PC crowd and the Obama administration hammering away at transgender bathroom rights as if this was the great moral cause of our time, and with campus Pure Thought advocates collapsing into self parody even as an epidemic of drug abuse and family breakdown relentlessly corrodes the foundations of American social cohesion, it’s hard to believe that the establishment has a solid grip on the moral principles and priorities a society like ours needs.”

This summary of Trump is classic: “He is the candidate of Control-Alt-Delete.” Mead accepts that the Trump movement is not the answer to the myriad problems facing the US, but he’s on they money when he sees the rage that’s powering it as a vibrant expression of democracy: “The tailors are frauds and the emperor is not in fact wearing any clothes: it is a good sign and not a bad sign that so many Americans are willing to say so out loud.” This is going to be a pivotal election, and not just for the US.

Real Clear Politics


Bob Dylan: Young at Heart

Tuesday, 24 May, 2016 0 Comments

The greatest singer-songwriter of the past half century is 75 years old today. A generation ago, Bob Dylan sang that The Times They Are A-Changin, but he appears to be Forever Young after a lifetime in the music business. He’s just released a new album, Fallen Angels, and he’s planning an extensive summer tour which kicks off in June.

Back in 1953. Johnny Richards wrote the music and Carolyn Leigh penned the lyrics for the song that’s the opening track on Fallen Angels. Frank Sinatra was the first singer to record Young at Heart and it was such a hit that a film he was making at the time with Doris Day was renamed after the song. The sentiments are fitting today:

“And if you should survive to a hundred and five
Look at all you’ll derive out of bein’ alive
And here is the best part, you have a head start
If you are among the very young at heart

Don’t you know that it’s worth
Every treasure on earth to be young at heart
For as rich as you are
It’s much better by far to be young at heart.”

Bob Dylan

Happy Birthday, Bob. Onward to “a hundred and five”!


Buzzwords: platform effect

Monday, 23 May, 2016 0 Comments

As an occasional contribution to the language of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, this emerging Buzzwords lexicon is intended to explain the jargon of the, er, paradigm shift, that’s now underway in our sunlit digital mills. We’re starting with the so-called platform effect, by which intelligent enterprises create networks that link buyers and sellers of products and services and thereby make truckloads of money. Economists call this “enjoying returns to scale.”

“Facebook development tools encourage the creation of new features, services, and apps, which facilitate content distribution and stimulate innovation and new jobs.

It is estimated that the platform effect of Facebook in 2014 enabled $29bn of economic impact and 660,000 jobs globally.”

Source: Facebook’s global economic impact by United Ventures, a Milan-based venture capital firm.

The problem with the platform effect is that a handful of companies end up dominating their markets. For the powerful few, the rewards are obvious. For consumers, there are benefits as well in the form of greater convenience and lower costs, but the concentration of so much influence and wealth in so few hands is risky societally, financially and technologically. The solution? Convince or coerce or the platforms to allow collaborative innovation.


An epitaph for an enemy

Sunday, 22 May, 2016 0 Comments

The Anglo-Irish poet Cecil Day-Lewis (or Day Lewis) died on this day in 1972. He was the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1968 until his death in 1972, and the father of actor Daniel Day-Lewis, celebrity chef Tamasin Day-Lewis and critic Sean Day-Lewis. “The poet’s inverted snobbery in dropping the hyphen in his name on his publications (beginning in 1927) has been a source of trouble for librarians and bibliographers ever since,” is how his biographer at the Poetry Foundation puts it.

Cecil Day-Lewis became a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1935 and he adhered to its Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist line until the early 1950s. He renounced communism in 1960 in his autobiography, Buried Day, and his detective story, The Sad Variety (1964), is a contemptuous portrayal of doctrinaire communists and their role in the brutal suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising. While the works of his poetic friends, Auden and Spender, have endured the test of time, his own verse has faded. The visceral sentiment at the heart of Epitaph for an Enemy continues to echo, however.

Epitaph for an Enemy

You ask, “What sort of man
Was this?”
— No worthier than
A pendulum which makes
Between its left and right
Involuntary arcs
Proving from morn to night
No contact anywhere
With human or sublime —
A punctual tick
A mere accessory of Time

His leaden act was done
He stopped, and Time went on.

Cecil Day-Lewis (1904 – 1972)

The enemy


The other European crisis: milk

Saturday, 21 May, 2016 0 Comments

“Dear Representative of the Media,

The severe turbulence in the milk market makes it increasingly clear that the current reckless EU policy has drastic negative consequences for man and beast alike in the countryside… It is essential to systematically counter the extreme overproduction in the milk market. Political institutions and representatives of producers and industry will be addressing this issue at the hearing in the European Parliament on 25 May.”

So goes the invitation from the European Milk Board. How bad is the situation? In Germany, discount supermarket Aldi has cut the price of milk in its outlets from 59 cents a litre to 46 cents. Other chains have followed, the Hamburger Morgenpost reports. Milk is now cheaper than some brands of mineral water and dairy farmers are getting as little as 18 cents a litre. They say they need at least 40 cents a litre to cover costs.

Having decided to phase out their extravagant support for the coal industry, Europe’s leaders are now under pressure to pump billions into another bottomless pit of sorts: the dairy industry. But the iron law of supply and demand cannot be wished away with handouts. Market rules should apply as much for farmers as for fitters and flight attendants, who must endure disruption, too. The price for cheap milk comes with a significant cost, however. An entire way of life is dying and the ruins of Europe’s abandoned dairy farms will serve as memorials for a lost rural culture. Those of us who were reared in dairyland are familiar with the words of Joni Mitchell: “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

Pints of milk


Glossolalia: Aramaic lessons

Friday, 20 May, 2016 0 Comments

This is the week of Pentecost, which is associated (Biblically) with “speaking in tongues,” a phenomenon linguists call glossolalia. So, in honour of all things semantic, we’re devoting this week’s posts to language. We started on Monday with Singlish, followed up on Tuesday with decacorns, moved on to Euro English on Wednesday and met Parsey McParseface yesterday. To end this mini-series, it’s time to consider whether past language can tell us anything about present and future language.

First, the present: A new study from the Gallant Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley has major implications for how we understand language structuring in the brain. Published in Nature on 28 April, “Natural Speech Reveals the Semantic Maps That Tile Human Cerebral Cortex” reveals that we use our entire brain — and not just the temporal lobe, as once believed — to group words by meaning. Every “brain dictionary” appears to be unique, but they share some surprising similarities.

Now, the past: Aramaic was once the lingua franca of empires, but today it’s reduced to about half a million speakers, who call it Assyrian, Chaldean, Mandaic and Syriac, to name but four varieties. According to the Bible, the Aramaeans were named after Noah’s grandson Aram and they started out a small nomadic group. By the 11th century BC, however, they ruled large tracts of Mesopotamia, covering parts of modern-day Turkey, Syria and Iraq, including the fabled city of Babylon. Modern Aramaic Aramaic was the English of its day and unified a large number of peoples across an enormous region. It was a sign of sophistication; it was the key to experiencing life beyond the parish, and it was the language Jesus spoke.

There are many differences between English and Aramaic — English is apparently easy to learn, while Aramaic is not — but that had little effect on English’s emergence as a global language, or on Aramaic’s rise and fall argues John McWhorter in “Where Do Languages Go to Die? The tale of Aramaic, a language that once ruled the Middle East and now faces extinction.” Snippet:

“At this point, I am supposed to write that English’s preeminence could end as easily as Aramaic’s. Actually, however, I doubt it: I suspect that English will hold on harder and longer than any language in history. It happened to rise to its current position at a time when three things had happened, profoundly transformative enough to stop the music, as it were: print, widespread literacy, and an omnipresent media.

Together, these things can drill a language into international consciousness in a historically unprecedented way, creating a sense of what is normal, cosmopolitan, cool even — arbitrary but possibly impregnable. If the Chinese, for example, rule the world someday, I suspect they will do it in English, just as King Darius ruled in Aramaic and Kublai Khan, despite speaking Mongolian, ruled China through Chinese translators in the 13th century C.E. Aramaic held sway at a time when a lingua franca was more fragile than it is today.”

As John McWhorter notes, literacy and media are driving the dominance of English. Those Gallant Laboratory finding about the brain’s semantic maps were published in English in Nature, the world’s most cited scientific journal. Empire is playing a role as well. The Gallant Laboratory is located in California, not in China. If the Chinese rule the world someday, “I suspect they will do it in English,” says McWhorter. Maybe. But Beijing has imperial ambitions, too, and the language of the Ghost Fleet masters and commanders will not be English. More about that another day, however.


Glossolalia: Parsey McParseface

Thursday, 19 May, 2016 1 Comment

It’s the week of Pentecost, which is associated (Biblically) with “speaking in tongues,” a phenomenon linguists call glossolalia. So, in honour of all things syntactical, we’re devoting this week’s posts to language. We began with Singlish, followed up with decacorns, continued with Euro English and today we’re venturing into open-sourced language parsing, which is central to creating better voice recognition technologies for our mobile devices.

Google I/O, the company’s annual developer conference, began yesterday and the focus is on machine learning and VR, and how these technologies are being used in its core products. For example, Allo is a new app that merges text messaging with a virtual assistant. When it launches this summer, Allo will “monitor” your conversations and offer relevant information. So, if a friend in Manchester invites you out for an Indian meal, Allo would suggest a nearby Balti house. Useful, innit?

In the build up to I/O, Google released SyntaxNet, its open-source neural network framework, which includes Parsey McParseface, an English language plug-in. SyntaxNet provides a foundation for Google’s Natural Language Understanding systems, such as the voice recognition capabilities of the Google Now intelligent personal assistant. Parsey McParseface is based on machine learning algorithms that analyse sentence structure to understand the role of every word and grammatical element.

parsing

“One of the main problems that makes parsing so challenging is that human languages show remarkable levels of ambiguity,” Google explained in a blog post. “It is not uncommon for moderate length sentences — say 20 or 30 words in length — to have hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of possible syntactic structures. A natural language parser must somehow search through all of these alternatives, and find the most plausible structure given the context.”

Google claims Parsey McParseface has achieved 94 percent accuracy interpreting English language news articles. Although not perfect, that’s good enough to be useful in a range of applications, it says.

Note: Despite its popularity, Boaty McBoatface did not became the name of the British government’s new polar research vessel. But it lives on, kind of, in Parsey McParseface, Google’s wry name of its English language parser. Where there’s humour, there’s hope.


Glossolalia: Euro English

Wednesday, 18 May, 2016 2 Comments

It’s the week of Pentecost, which is associated (Biblically) with “speaking in tongues,” a phenomenon linguists call glossolalia. So, in honour of all things philological, we’re devoting this week’s posts to language. We began with Singlish, followed up with Valley vocabulary and we’re continuing with Euro English.

On Saturday night in Stockholm, 18-year-old Jamie-Lee Kriewitz became a footnote in the history of the Eurovision Song Contest by achieving last place for Germany with Ghost. This indignity has prompted Die Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache (the Association for the German Language) to demand that Germany be represented next year in Kiev by a song in German. Making the case, the association’s managing director, Andrea Ewels, said that the Eurovision Song Contest does not reflect the linguistic diversity of Europe and that there are lots of fine German singers of German songs.

Note: The last year a German-language song represented the country was 2007, when the late Roger Cicero sang Frauen regier’n die Welt. It ended up in 19th place from a list of 24 entries. Germany last won in 2010, when Lena sang Satellite, in English.

Only three of the 42 entries in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest were not in English. Back in 1956, when the event began, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which runs the contest, didn’t specify which language singers could use as it was expected that each nation would use its own. And everyone did until 1965, when Ingvar Wixell represented Sweden with Absent Friend. France protested. Charles de Gaulle, the French President, who had vetoed Britain’s application for EEC membership in 1963, argued that English “hegemony” would damage the cultural variety of the contest and the EBU was forced to stipulate that each country’s entry to be in an official language of that land.

The turbulent Swedes struck back in 1973 and persuaded the EBU to drop the “official language” rule, which resulted in a run of English-language winners, including ABBA’s Waterloo in 1974. The Élysée Palace was not pleased and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing used his power to compel the EBU to restore the language restriction in 1978 and it remained in place until 1999. Since then, only one non-English song has won the contest: Serbia’s Molitva in 2006. To show how far the wheel has turned, the French and Italian entrants this year had choruses in English and the Spanish song was totalmente in English.

In Paris, Rome, Madrid and Moscow, the reality that English is the language of global music has finally sunk in. International audiences want to listen to songs they can understand and they’re used to hearing songs in English, not in Russian or Ukrainian.

With an audience of some 200 million, the Eurovision Song Contest is the goose that lays golden eggs annually for the EBU. It’s now the most-watched non-sports live television event in the world, and Asia and America are knocking on the door. The idea that participating countries would compete with songs that cannot win, to satisfy a linguistic policy, is ludicrous. It’s an international song contest, sung increasingly in the language of popular culture. Competing nations are not being made to sing in English; they want to because they know the fate of songs that are not in English.

The Eurovision Song Contest is a success and its linguistic issue has been settled, but the debate about the role of English in Europe is far from sorted. On Thursday, 23 June, a referendum will be held on whether Britain should leave or remain in the European Union. If “Brexit” were to happen, the 450 million citizens of the EU would find themselves using a lingua franca spoken officially only in the Republic of Ireland (population 4.6 million) and co-officially in Malta (population 450,000). How will this affect Euro English? More on this during our Brexit week in June.