Still ticking along…

…even though one of the nodes has been spending cpu time on other things.


English: yes! English: No!

There is a big article in today's Dagens Nyheter: Språkexperter räds svengelskan. The worry is that since much university-level education is given in English, neither teachers nor students will perform at their best. The final paragraph, a quote from Sven Halldin, professor of hydrology, is probably the most stupid thing I've read all this week:

När vi inte längre har terminologin på svenska, ska hela skolvärlden gå över till engelska då? Det ger en mycket större grogrund för främlingsfientlighet.

The logical implication that speaking a foreign language makes you burn down mosques is not clear to me. Rather my bullshit heuristics indicate that when someone claims X will cause xenophobia it usually means “I'm xenophobic and I'm opposed to X”.

I can agree with the point that neither teachers nor students in general manage English particularly well and I'm certain this does mean that education is not performed at maximum efficiency, but the conclusions I draw from that are different: English is the lingua franca of science today—it used to be Latin, in fifty years it may be Mandarin, the particular language is not important but it is clearly impossible to translate everything into every other language, so some common language must be used. The Bologna process aims to increase movement between European universities. I do not agree with the means to achieve this increased mobility*, but I definitely embrace mobility. This means there (hopefully) will be increasingly more non-Swedish-speaking students at Swedish universities. Now, what will most decrease education efficiency: that both Swedish-speaking and non-Swedish-speaking students will be taught in English which they hopefully have some ten to fifteen years of experience in, or that the non-Swedish-speaking students are taught in Swedish, of which they typically have just a few months of experience?

I think the course is clear: If Swedish university students do not understand English well enough, they need more of it, preferrably as early as possible in school.

This does not mean I think English should be used on every occasion and another article in the same issue of DN shows an example, a drawing by Auguste Rodin, titled “Charity”. The article is written in Swedish and Rodin probably only spoke French, so either of the titles ”Barmhärtighet” or « Charité » would have made more sense, but the journalist just lazily copied whatever the English-language catalogue said. This is all too common in newspapers, news are copied from English-language sources and names and quotes are given in English, even thought the correct thing to do would be to give them in the native language or with an approriate Swedish translation. A former editor of Numero used to end all issues with a supposedly witty and/or thoughtful quote from some authority—you know the kind that pesters almanacs and such. Clearly these had been cribbed from some English-language site and it truly jarred one's mind to find that Déscartes, Julius Cæsar or Ibsen had said such-and-such in English. That's so lazy it's despicable.

*In my opinion one of the main points of mobility is that it would allow universities to specialise more and students move between them to learn from the best experts in a particular subject; instead what the Bologna process seems to aim at is to make all universities alike, so that it doesn't matter where you are and your choice of university would be based on whether you like to go swimming or skiing in your free time. That's just plain stupid.


You are not alone—in fact you're just like the others

In order to find out how it works, I did my first upload to YouTube today. I used my standard test video of a propeller:

I thought this was the height of anorakity. Well, I was mistaken, go to the page and check the "Related" videos…


A people separated by a common language, a person formed by multiple languages

On occasion my lectures will touch upon sociological issues and quite often this will cause me to go into high Academic English gear. I catch myself and mumble: “This is John-speak”, so named for one of my thesis supervisors who speaks very good Academese and whose discussions of ethnography and politics have rubbed off on me, so that I unconsciously use his way of presenting the issues.

Gillian Evans is an English academic who, due to financial hardship, ended up living with the Lower Classes for over a decade and finally decided to study and document this strange tribe, which resulted in a book, several articles and lots of commentary in the Guardian. It is all very interesting but also, unintentionally or not, absolutely hilarious, as for example when she translates from the prole-speak of her informants into her own analytic English:

When I ask other people what being common means, they tell me that it is about “knowin' what it's like to be skint—down to your last two quid. There's no more money until next week and there's kids to feed.”

Being common clearly has something to do, then, with economic position and, in particular, the experience of what it is like to be constrained by the limited availability of disposable income [&hellip]

Evans makes a number of interesting points (the validity of which of course may, and should, be argued over) about how for example schools embody middle class values which may be at odds with what gives status and credibility in a working class (or frequently these days—unemployed class) context.

But, I was also driven to some introspection (I tend to think of myself a lot, don't I?), group membership and language. In a superficial sense I am trilingual, yet my language use is very much situationally bound, tied to what I say and how I say it.

My native language, my mother tongue, of Finnish is the language of my childhood. The form I speak is that of Finnish in the 1940s and 1960s, when my parents moved to Sweden. I have a day-to-day vocabulary and speak without an accent, yet I'm not fluent in technical, professional Finnish and I tend to be silent until spoken to (unimaginable as it may seem to those who've met me in person).

My everyday language is Swedish, it is what I speak with friends and family and I probably have the largest vocabulary in absolute terms in Swedish. Some people claim they can detect traces of a Finnish accent, others shake their heads at the idea.

Then, my professional language is English, it is the language that lets me discuss technical issues and it is the language in which I do the absolute majority of my writing. Even when nominally speaking Swedish with colleagues, our speech is peppered with English expressions or English words in Swedish form, not necessarily because there are no corresponding Swedish words, but because the English is closest at hand. [The “domain loss” of Swedish for research purposes is a hot issue these days, I'll probably return to it in some later post.] It is not merely because I want to share my thoughts with non-Swedish-reading friends that this blog is in English, but it is the language in which I normally write. The English I speak is a mirror of the English I read, it is academic, complex, dense with polysyllabics.

Of course, at the centre I still am a single person that reads a lot, has scientific training and perhaps more than a smidgeon of a need to show off, and this shines through as “posh” turns of phrase, regardless of what language I speak in, but in Finnish and Swedish I am much more likely to drop into the vernacular (and not use words like “vernacular” to begin with).

There is also some kind of class journey involved, from a working-class, lower middle-class background where we did not have “house rules” to some kind of economical upper middle class, but where I still think Magdalena Ribbing is a complete waste of space and that a person wearing shoes indoors is destined for the nearest lamppost.

Still, if you know me in one language, I may not be quite the same person in another language…


You can never go back

As a graduate student, I had reason to travel to many places abroad for conferences, research administrative meetings and such. This means that I have a deep and intimate knowledge of airport departure lounges and university seminar rooms, but haven't in fact seen very much of “the world”. What I have seen has been due to the ticket structure that made air travel cheaper if you stayed away the night between Saturday and Sunday. This has all but disappeared with all the new low-fare airlines, but it was an important factor in travel budgets in the 1990s. So, when I had tickets of this kind and there was no work planned for the Saturday I would have a day in which to wander around strange cities.

On this particular day, I was in Geneva with two colleagues, O and K, it was a warm summer day, O's birthday as it happened, and we had the day all to ourselves.

Geneva has this strange topology where, no matter which direction you start out in, you soon find yourself on the same skewed square in the Old town, so we often came back there. When we first arrived there, from one of the other streets ending up on the square came a large group of youngsters chasing a huge red rubber ball. During the day we would run into them in other places around the city, still chasing the ball. We never found out how this crowd had assembled or if they had any other purpose than just playing with a big ball, it was just one of those mysteries that not necessarily have to be solved.

Around the slanting square and adjoining streets were all kinds of posh shops, and we ducked into one of them because K was interested in the rattan furniture in the shop front. It didn't take me long to see that anything beyond their smallest pillows was beyond my financial reach, so I wandered further into the shop. I found a door opening on the inner yard. I stepped through the door and the feeling was as if I had ended up in Tom's Midnight Garden or just the Centre of the Universe. In the small yard was a chair made of steel bands and I went and sat in it. It could have been uncomfortable but right then it was just right to sit in and watch the vines creeping up the surrounding walls over which I would see the inner walls of the surrounding houses, a half-open tap was letting a small stream trickle through the moss on the paved ground to a drain in the other end of the yard. I just sat there, feeling no need to do anything but just sit and be. I don't know how long I sat there, but eventually I remembered my friends who had been patiently waiting for me. We continued on our way.

Presently we found a little art museum. It was like the home of a rich family with artwork everywhere, so you could sit down in soft leather armchairs to admire the paintings and I and K nodded off for a quarter of an hour or so in a room where the incoming midday sun made you pleasantly sleepy. We had lunch in a restaurant somewhat off the main thoroughfares and I was introduced to salmon carpaccio.

We talked about many things and of course we also discussed our current research project and while strolling around we developed new ideas for computer-supported communication. In a toy store (O had never had a model train as a child and was thinking of getting one for his birthday) we had new and heady ideas for message passing. We stopped at an ice-cream bar and got huge bowls of ice-cream and started writing down all our ideas on whatever scraps of paper we had, including a shopping bag that K had acquired during the day. Very pleased with ourselves we walked on as the afternoon fell. As sun set we found ourselves by a restaurant by the city hall (naturally very near the sloping square) and looked through the menu for Swiss specialities. Cultural differences and expectations clashed: O, born in Southern Europe, said: “It's my birthday so the dinner is on me.” K, well-bred Swede, was aghast: “You can't pay—it's your birthday!” Both were adamant on what their honour demanded of them. K attempted a coup while O was in the lavatory and quickly asked the waitress for the bill. She went all haughty: “A woman pay for a man? Never!” I guess I could have intervened to complicate the situation further, but I was laughing too hard to think of it. O prevailed in the end.

As the night went on, O and K disappeared to some shady night club that one of K's friends in the UN was running, while I, who suspected it would be a smokey affair, retired to the hotel where I sat up late with my laptop and wrote a draft paper based on our notes of the day and, you know, I think I had as good a night as my friends had. (And so I guess this in the end had been a work day after all, but why not?)

These are pleasant memories of places I visited, perfect moments as it were. And they cannot be repeated. Even could I go back to that furniture store and they just would happen to still have their inner yard in the same state, I could not experience that same feeling of peace and inner calm because the precondition was that it was unexpected, it couldn't be created consciously. Some things can never be as good, or even good at all, as the first time. (On the other hand, the first time I tried to bicycle down a hill was a painful disaster, it has been much more pleasant on later attempts.)


In days of yore

Jim Horning has several blogs, the one named The Way It Was tells of his experiences in the beginning of his nearly 50 years as a computer programmer. I haven't been in the business quite that long, still many of his stories resonate with my early computing experiences too.


Food hygiene

An important part of Christian ritual is eating the flesh of their god. Uncooked, apparently. All kinds of diseases and parasites could be spread this way, so I propose a religious health campaign:
Braise The Lord!