Monday Nov 15, 2004

Just Plain English? (no, non, nein, nyet)

In contrast to my earlier post on the importance of having a common office document format for communication, the same logic doesn't apply to human or natural languages...

A recent Forbes article muses "Must not a superstate of a score of nations have a common language?". I agree that any form of rich communication requires a language in common, but that is not the same as a single common language.

Anyone who immerses themselves in another language discovers not merely a different vocabulary and grammar, but a unique medium for communicating in the mode of a people. The most compelling example I can give of this is the turns of phrase, quotes, sayings and cliches that each language possesses. The simple fact that we love to use these because of their flavour, conciseness and expressiveness demonstrates that they are important; they are also unique to each language, reflecting the history, concerns and ideas of a people.

By accidents of history, birth and travel respectively I speak English, Gaelic, French and German in that order. English happens for me to be the most used among those langages, but it is a unique joy for me to hear and speak a different language. I have had the very great pleasure also to hear and in part to understand Italian, Russian, Czech, Hungarian, and Spanish along with several dialects in their native lands. Each of these languages has a unique flair - a different pace, a sound, a fundamental emotion or world view - and because it is often heard in a certain place, it is part of the mood and atmosphere of a different land. Language is a standing carrier wave for shared events, beliefs and culture.

There are some who view foreign languages as somehow primitive or harsh or comical simply because they are alien. I will never forget how my view of the German language changed when I had the opportunity to live in Munich for 5 months (I actually lied that I could speak German just so that I could get a job there close to my girlfriend, now my wife, and I went through 3 weeks of intense immersion in the language with books and tapes so that I could start on day one with a modicum of understanding ;) - how the experience of an initially odd word like "Schmetterling" changed when it really sunk in that this word represented "butterfly" and that when said with something approaching a native accent it could even sound beautiful - how it felt when I actually dreamed in German; how astonishing to travel on a U-bahn 6 weeks after that initial learning period and actually understand the intense conversations of German teenagers or the traditional insights of a homegoing Opa and Oma commenting on youth's vigour and blindness.

As a citizen of a country (Ireland) that has all but lost it's historic language through conquest, I can only hope that this world's rainbow of languages (including Russian for example which appears to be one of several synthetic languages under threat) never succumbs to the pale monotony of a single colour, even in the limited context of business or statercraft. That would be, hmm... double-plus-ungood.

Saturday Nov 06, 2004

Surfing a sea of music and memory

It's one of those days - the sky pulls scarves of white and grey across its blue, the last leaves on a tree in autumn fire flutter like impatient butterflies before a migration, a trace of salt blows up the hill on a sea wind - and there's house work to be done.

I grab a pot of coffee and a plate of sliced fruit, snag my laptop, and swing by the under-stairs to get the iron on my way to the immense pile of recently washed clothes. I connect my laptop to the hi-fi, plug in the wireless network card, type a few search criteria into my MP3 player, stand up the ironing board and finally hit the shuffle and play buttons. And get to work.

What has all this to do with each other? Well it's about preparing a space for contemplation, a time of mining for meaning and memory, and somehow ironing and listening to a semi-random sample of my music collection can consistently give that to me more than any other activity.

Why? First because music for me must be personal, untainted by the canned perceptions of MTV videos, the bare lines of literal lyrics or the meagre insights of the CD cover notes. A song is an encapsulated experience that you can re-live and re-interpret each time. A song is also a permeable moment; it affects the character of everything else that is simultaneously seen, heard or touched, while itself being felt and remembered with everything else that lives in the memory of that moment.

But why ironing? Because it adds a tactile quality and a minor rhythmic kinaesthetic dimension that substantiates the acoustic ambience of of music. Meanwhile my mind can float in a sea of memory, pulled here by a moment when a song played before, or tethered there by a vision of my wife wearing the item of clothing that I iron.

I'm reminded of the narrative at the end of American Beauty where Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) ponders his own little life; like Lester, I am grateful just for the privilege of being, and even more grateful that music and the simple physical act of ironing can give me a perspective of timelessness that allows me to experience my own existence as a virtual eternity. My ironing board is my surfboard and I surf on the sea of memory, pausing to treasure some flotsam or jetsam, or to ride one wild wave again. Perhaps this is an activity I should save for my latter years, but I choose to do it now as a I balance on the tidal foam between blank youth and weathered age, only to ride on again to that endless golden beach on my horizon. Play on sweet music of memory, until I am myself only a memory. Now, time for a coffee!

music = ...; James MacMillan|Seven Last Words from the Cross; U2|Promenade; Annie Lennox|A Whiter Shade of Pale; Howard Shore|The Breaking of the Fellowship; Deep Purple|Child in Time; Enya|Storms in Africa; Juli/Perfekte Welle; DJ Shadow|Stem/Long Stem; Joe Jackson|Nocturne; Youssou n'Dour & Neneh Cherry|7 Seconds; U2|The Ground Beneath Her Feet; Bryan Ferry & Roxy Music|Angel Eyes; Dido|White Flag; Lloyd Cole & the Commotions|Brand New Friend; Leonard Cohen|That's No Way to Say Goodbye; Sugababes|Stronger; Lemon Jelly|Kneel Before Your God; OMD|Telegraph; Beethoven (Karajan & Berlin Philharmonic)|Symphony No. 5 in C minor. Op.67, II Andante con moto; Dire Straits|Private Investigations; Massive Attack|Teardrop; Morrissey|America Is Not The World; Aimee Mann|Save Me; Florence Joy|Consequence of Love; Phish|Billy Breathes; Amiel|Lovesong; Thomas Dolby|One of our Submarines; Paula Cole|Nietzche's Eyes; Tori Amos|Icicle; Tears for Fears|The Way You Are; tATU|All The Things She Said; Supergrass|Sofa (Of My Lethargy); Heaven 17|And That's No Lie, The Connells|New Boy; David Gray|This Year's Love; Cock Robin|When Your Heart Is Weak; Leftfield & Lydon|Open Up; John Coltrane|Sonny's Crib; Beethoven (Karajan & Berlin Philharmonic)|Symphony No. 5 in C minor. Op.67, III - Allegro; Gary Numan|Down in the Park (Piano version); Paul Oakenfold|Lovechild Gloria; Hans Zimmer|Hannibal - Vide Cor Meum; Sting|I Was Brought To My Senses; Go West|The King Is Dead; Red Hot Chilli Peppers|Scar Tissue, Alan Parson's Project|Sirius; Lou Reed|How Do You Speak to an Angel; Ronan Keating & Lianne Rimes|Last Thing On My Mind; Kate Bush|The Man With the Child in his Eyes;The Divine Comedy|When the Lights Go Out Over Europe; Alphaville|Forever Young; Destiny's Child|Jumpin' Jumpin'; Paul Simon|Slip Sliding Away; Del Amitri|Driving With The Brakes On; The Doors|Break On Through; Eric Serra|Remembering A Heart Beat; Prince|Vicki Waiting; Gorillaz|Clint Eastwood; ...

Wednesday Sep 15, 2004

Physics, Communities and The Tao of Democracy

After reading redbeetle's blog about  What the Bleep Do We Know?, I think I've found another movie I need to go and see (I already added the director's cut of Donnie Darko on my list when it came out a couple of weeks ago; I've been curious since I managed to catch 80% of it on the tail end of a plane trip when it first came out ;). However, the combination of physics and spirituality is not that unusual; Fritjof Capra's Tao of Physics covers similar territory.

Over the years, I find the optimistic belief in Capra's books that people are constrained to work in ways similar to natural ecosystems to be increasingly strained; national economies built on stock markets and dominated by both the results of elections and the effectiveness of propoganda will inevitably sacrifice long- over short-term considerations (and the needs of the many in favour of the privileged few), especially when a short term of 4 years is sufficient to enable a small upper-tier ecosystem of folks to win significant personal advantage at the expense of significant (and sometimes irreparable) long-term harm to all (no, I'm not opposed to capitalism; damned if I know what can really work, but I suspect that automating and enabling high levels of verifiable transparency into the inputs and actions of government and the justice system by a country's citizens might help to counter the fact that money can buy a better class of election or legal campaign with a near-direct influence on the outcome; that level of automation would constitute real "e-government", but who in government would ever fund let alone adopt such a thing... ;).

However I believe that regardless of our actions and choices, Capra's notion of sustainability (especially described in his Ecology and Community article) is applicable; also, it is certainly useful to people working at the finer granularity of companies and workgroups - I see evidence of some of his ideas in the success of open-source communities and the notion of business co-opetition which is gaining acceptance.

Monday Sep 13, 2004

Philip K. Dick, virtual humanity and (oops) Hellboy

Betimes, I'm a bit of a sci-fi buff, and looking at the blogs of some folks here (richb, Scott Hudson, James C. Liu and grahamm) on bsc I guess it often goes with the territory of being an engineer. It was kind of funny for me to see Isaac Asimov's "I, Robot" make it to the silver screen as the paperback with its shining silver face was the first book I ever chose for myself (I was 10 and I still remember thinking "wow, a robot that knows itself - would it have a soul, and if so, where would it come from?"; sadly Asimov never tackled those issues but he did create a lot of inventive stories by stretching the constraints of the 3 Rules of Robotics).

Recently I've indulged my reading habit with:

  • some fibre - a mixture of political analysis (Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival) with some pop-pol (Michael Moore's Stupid White Men), and light but not lightweight business (Tom Peters' colourful Re-imagine!)
  • plenty of brain-carb's (remember, they're good for you) and -candy (sweet stimulation) using a steady feed of classic but lateral SF, including:
    • a first-time read of Philip K. Dick's awesome The Little Black Box (out of print, sadly as it contains many wonderful stories including We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (an astonishing story that was Hollywood-ized as Total Recall) and The Pre-Persons (against which my convenient rationales for certain choices simply dissolve); you can see some of PKD's "inventions" on technovelgy; I think the empathy box (and the black box from the title story of TLBB ) is an interesting way to think about how technology may create new ways to create social connections and to share or even simulate experiences; the Philip K. Dick: Reason, Mind, and Being article has some interesting analysis on PKD's stories about emphathy as the defining quality of humanity; (I actually wonder the opposite - maybe the virtual experiences that are possible even today with TV and movies can actually overload our empathic intelligence by providing us with the occasion for empathy without the opportunity to act); PKD has a heap of movie credits too if you like to stimulate your optic nerve as well as your brain
    • a re-read of the first four in Douglas Adam's HHGTG series, just so that I could read the final Mostly Harmless in context
    • a first read of William Gibson's  Pattern Recognition and a re-read of Idoru - Gibson explores the same human territory as PKD, but does it in a relentlessly realistic modality using a unique technical and dense literary prose - if you haven't read Gibson, sample a few paragraphs of an online copy of Neuromancer or Virtual Light or Mona Lisa Overdrive

But just for a change, I've over-dosed on media this last week with a whole 5 hours of TV (I watched local news a few nights, and did double-damage with Kill Bill 1 and 2 on rental VHS - definitely fun-ky). And I saw Hellboy last night (a slight but pretty entertaining movie, entirely due to Ron Perlman's ability to invest his chunky red character with some attitude; best lines (honest): "crap", "crap", "crap" and towards the end he alternates to "damn"; it does a pretty good job of keeping some dark material ok for under 12's with  the result that it's a bit lacking for adults).  Speaking of comic-derived movies, I guess there's not much hope that the few comics (oops, graphic novels) I've sampled since I was 13 like Hellblazer and Sandman (forget the horribly unimaginative Harry Potter franchise - the Books of Magic are Neil Gaiman's real thing) will in any way survive the transition to moviedom. If only Peter Jackson was a closet Gaiman fan... guess we'll have to wait till he's done King Kong to see if he's going to stay in the SF/fantasy genre and maintain the quality of his LOTR films...

Read on, gentle reader...

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