Friday, May 18, 2007

I've been away...

I wish I could say it was to some peaceful isle where I pondered the nature of existence. Alas, I was merely stranded without internet connection after I moved house. For someone whose job is online and who is normally online daily, it was a pretty gruesome challenge. Where oh where would I find out about the news/ the weather/ the name of that thing I saw in a film the other week?!

I'm not sure if we've (I've) become addicted to the internet, but on filling in a 'support network' questionnaire the other day, I did list it as fulfilling two of my social needs. The experience of working on an offline computer was strangely peaceful; whilst it no longer had the pull of the internet, it was a place where I could purely focus on one task. That's quite rare.

However, I'm not a Luddite and the world is changing. Socialising and information is accessed increasingly through the web. It's a natural reaction to view new ideas as inferior or potentially damaging; we mistrust them. But for kids (myself not included) it's becoming an integral part of their lives, often pushed by schools. Interactive learning and ICT are big news in education.

I've learnt to embrace the blogosphere and the sharing of ideas and thoughts with like minded people from all over the world is something I find novel and stimulating. I'm less enamoured with the social networking sites of Myspace and Facebook's ilk. Various blogs have talked authoritatively on their shortcomings in social interaction so I wont go there, except to offer my amateur take on it, which is: they just don't feel right. I react against them and see them as largely superficial, juvenile and a substandard replacement for the real thing.

But I expect in 50 years it will seems as harmful as a telephone call. Speaking to someone that's not in front of you?! Preposterous!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

McLanguage control

Apparently McDonald's aren't too happy with the OED's definition of McJob:

"An unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, esp. one created by the
expansion of the service sector."
Why do they take issue with that? Well, it's clear the definition is not exactly complimentary to a certain kind of career choice. But their main gripe? It's out of date.

The reason I'm drawing attention to it, other than being a linguistics nerd, is that McDonald's seem to have a very basic grasp of lexicography. Dictionaries are meant to represent the language that is spoken and used. They are constantly revised: new words are added regularly; meanings are adjusted; words become archaic and redundant. It's how we, you know, track and record language.

Trouble is, if I refer to a job as a McJob to you, you probably know what I'm trying to say as we both understand the connotations. McDonald's can't alter these just because it doesn't paint them in a good light. The definiton hasn't been chosen arbitrarily; it reflects the meaning that people intend and understand.

Mcdonald's have allegedly attempted to coin the optimistic term McProspects to reflect their understanding of the a career in the fastfood industry. Unfortunately, you cannot create a word, define it and then stick it in the dictionary. New words are coined daily, but they really have to catch on otherwise you'll just be talking to yourself.

A spokesperson for the Oxford English Dictionary says: "We monitor changes in the language and reflect these in our definitions, according to the evidence we find." Exactly.

On a different note, has anyone seen the Fast Food Nation film? It's due out here in a few weeks.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Boost your memory

Sorry for the delay in posting. I've not been sitting with my feet up eating ice cream, nor have I been meditating in the Himalayas, unfortunately. I've been looking for somewhere to live and after seeing 14 flats in two weeks, we think we've found the right spot... unless someone gets there before us.

In the meantime I leave you with this:

Now what was I going to write about... ah yes, improving your memory! According to the Guardian, it consists of 5 easy steps:

1) Use memory techniques
If you're introduced to someone called Kate, who looks a bit like a gate, put these ideas together in your mind and hey presto; no more embarrassingly tapping people on the shoulder because you can't remember their name.

2) Develop new mental skills
No, not telepathy or using the Force. Learn a language, play chess or practise saying everything backwards. ekil tahT.

3) Eat clever
The school dinner ladies were right. Eat fish and you'll be bright. (And maybe a poet too, if you eat as clever as me.)

4) Reduce stress
You know when you're stressed, you just can't find the toothpaste and the measuring tape? Me too. Just chill and they magically appear. Seriously.

5) Meditate
Something to do with 'cerebral', 'cortex' and 'thickening'. Exactly.

So, if you see me chilling on the sofa at work, speaking hcnerF, eating fish fingers and sitting in lotus position, I am NOT just skiving, ok?

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

An ethical code for robots

This is the stuff of the future... or the not so distant future, it seems. South Korean experts are drawing up an ethical code for robots to ensure their - and our - welfare. Is it enough to prevent robots harming humans and humans harming robots? If robots ever achieve a similar intellectual state - would it be advisable to suggest, or even dictate, a moral code which covers actions, honesty, speech etc...

Should this kind of moral behaviour be preprogrammed, or should robots benefit from as much freedom, and the chance to learn from their own experiences, as us? (Although they undoubtedly will find a way to break their programming, as in all the good science fiction movies.) If not, should we not reprogram ourselves? I could indulge in a bit of hardcore hypnotherapy to ensure that I act perfectly morally and soundly - then I'd be some kind of super human that you could all emulate. Although I wouldn't have achieved any level of awareness or understanding, and perhaps that's the key.

Interestingly, the super team drawing up this ethical code include futurists (whatever they are) and a science fiction writer. Would it be useful to have a representative from each religion - then we could have moral, compassionate robots with an acceptance of all religions and none. Wow. Then they'd be better than us. This blog has some unique suggestions as to what the 'bot's code of conduct could be.

One of the robot team has fears of a robot on human action, 'Imagine if some people treat androids as if the machines were their wives.' Would this be wrong? How would it differ from sex toys, or cyber sex? Human beings have been unecessary companions for a while now. Most techno-with-it people communicate and hang out with other beings on the web, virtual friends are as popular as 3D ones. I suspect with the rapid advancement of technology, ethical dilemmas such as these will become more important. Until then, we can just laugh at the techno-nerds.

Thursday, March 01, 2007


This is great. It really is. I came across the new craze (?) via Wired magazine. Conservapedia is 'a conservative encyclopedia you can trust.' That's right, not only does it serve America's conservative majority (let's not worry about the readers in the rest of the world) but reassuringly it 'is a much-needed alternative to Wikipedia, which is increasingly anti-Christian and anti-American.'

Really, how so? Well, Wiki commits the heinous crimes of using
'the anti-Christian "C.E." instead of "A.D."'. Anti-Christian, or just neutral? I think, but correct me if I'm wrong, that a huge percentage of the world's population are not actually Christian.

Oh and another terrible Wiki faux-pas is to use British English spellings, 'Look up "Division of labor" on Wikipedia and it automatically converts to the British spelling "Division of labour..."' I mean, we're using English as a world language here, I presume? Therefore it must be American English, dammit; the most original and pure!

I love the romantic tale they tell of the myth known as Buddhism:

Legend has it that Buddhism's foundations lie with an Indian prince, Siddhartha Gautama, who, after observing the suffering of his people, longed to discover the reason for suffering and pain. There are many romanticised accounts and theories as to the course of Gautama's life. One particularly simplified story proclaims that he went into meditation for a long time seated under a tree, and after finishing his period of meditation formed Buddhism.
(I admit, I anglicised the spelling here.)

On a serious note, I'm wondering what purpose such an encyclopedia has. It clearly serves a purpose for an archive of censured and biased information for a particular audience (and not just those poking fun). But as for claiming to be an unbiased, educational, clean and concise reference tool - I just don't get it. Self-delusion or pure propaganda?

For some good examples, check out the pages on homosexuality and evolution.


Alzheimer's sufferers are denied drugs costing a pittance while the NHS squanders millions on junkies and image consultants
The Daily Mail; you gotta love 'em. Talk about loaded language! For a bit of background - The National Institue for Clinical Excellence (NICE) gets together and decides which drugs should be available on the NHS, based on cost, need, effectiveness and priority.

The 'Alzheimer's sufferers' are clearly much more deserving of any drugs than the nasty 'junkies' who are obviously just having a bit of a laugh and don't really need any treatment - all they need to do is stop, right? And they probably can't be arsed. In fact it's nearly as much of a crime that the Daily Mail has wasted valuable ink referring to them in seven letters, as the NHS 'squandering' millions of pounds on them.

I suppose the reworded version wouldn't make the front page:

NICE have limited the amount of drugs available on the NHS for treating Alhzheimer's disease, however, treatment is available for drug addiction.

Monday, February 26, 2007

How do you feel?

I've just discovered a remarkable little website thanks to gstar. The website is called We Feel Fine and it is a delightful gem, tracking and categorising the changing feelings in the blogosphere. Every few minutes the We Feel Fine Monkeys 'harvest feelings' from the world's weblogs, making a note of the blogger's age, sex, location and the current weather conditions. Any blogger who uses the words "I feel..." may find their feelings contributing to the dynamic landscape of this site.

The result is a beautifully crafted and animated collection of the ever changing feelings of the world - it reveals a startling window to the pain and the joy felt by real people, right now. Is it art, is it research, is it fun? Perhaps it's all three, nevertheless it is intriguing, saddening and inspiring.

Check it out... and be aware next time you document your feelings!

I feel happy to have found it.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Are you muzungu?

I was at a talk yesterday, given by two colleagues who had just returned from doing some charity work in Uganda. In and amongst all the stunning photos, cute stories of village children and tales of goat kebabs, the phrase 'white people' kept popping up and it was starting to make me feel uncomfortable. The term was used to describe the volunteers who go over to help the mainly black (and Asian) native people.

However, not all volunteers, travellers and tourists to the region are white. In fact the representative from our company, who went last year, is black himself. Therefore the liberally applied 'white people' term just cannot be used to describe all foreigners who come out to help.

When I questioned it, I was told it was a translation of the word muzungu, which means white person and this is the term of address and exclamation of general excitement and amazement when a non-Ugandan person is spotted. Regardless of the words direct translation, when we translate words, we translate the meaning in context and not the literal translation.

For example, in Japanese the term gaijin literally means outside person. However, on my return to England I would not refer to all the non-Japanese I had seen as 'outside people'. Even if I was relating some Japanese conversations about gaijin , I would most likely translate it as foreigner, or perhaps Westerner, depending on the context.

The Ugandans use the word muzungu to refer to visitors who are not Ugandan. True, they may be mostly white but not exclusively so. We have to be aware of the power of our words and talking about the help that 'white people' offer Uganda, to a multicultural London audience is just not right. It alienates those who are not white. A more suitable term may be foreigner, although these word is not free from controversy. Or perhaps Westerner as these may be in the majority, but I'm sure there may be Indians or Japanese, for example, who may fancy a bit of a holiday or some volunteer work, so the term Westerner doesn't really fit the bill either.

A little bit of Wiki magic reveals the origins of muzungu to be a description of 'one who moves around'. Not exclusively white then, hey?