Blog News

1. Comments are still disabled though I am thinking of enabling them again.

2. There are now several extra pages - Poetry Index, Travel, Education, Childish Things - accessible at the top of the page. They index entires before October 2013.

3. I will, in the next few weeks, be adding new pages with other indexes.

Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Of Universal Translators and other sundry impossibilities

Over at Bradshaw of the Future, goofy has a post about Doctor Who. Specifically it's about how, wherever and whenever, he goes the Doctor and his companions can not only speak the local language but read it too. The post talks about a scene in an episode I didn't see and almost makes me wish I'd seen it but I have a policy of never watching anything with Katherine Tate in it that no linguistics mystery is likely to tempt me to change.
Anyway, as all fans of the Doctor know the Tardis does the translating for them (and the viewer), unnoticed by everyone, though very occasionally, for the sake of the plot, or more often for the sake of a bit of humour, characters do notice and comment on it.
It is of course a problem in many different science fiction series - the need for the characters to understand each other and the need for the audience to understand all of it. Star Trek managed to visit a different planet every week without communications difficulty thanks to the never-adequately-explained Universal Translator. This device not only managed to translate alien speech from previously unheard of races into whatever passes for English in the future and vice-versa but also, flawlessly, into modern American speech for the audience. A pretty nifty device that only ever malfunctioned when it was necessary to the plot.
Stargate, by comparison, takes an odd and inexplicable approach of having all the races supposedly speaking variations on ancient Earth languages* and taking along an expert who is, (like Universal Translator failures) only ever used when the story needs it. There are token nods towards different races speaking different languages but by and large the team (SG-1) all seem to understand everything said by everyone, wherever they happen to live in the Galaxy.
Buffy and chums, on the other hand, never get to go to alien worlds but do get to beat up lots of demons from other dimensions. There are heaps of references to the demons' own languages. Reference books are always written in mysterious and arcane languages that Giles or Wesley have to study and translate. But, and here's the important bit, whenever it's necessary to the plot, the demons speak English.
I think I see a pattern developing. Translation as a plot device.
What about other series, then? Well one of the favourites of my youth Blake's Seven, avoided the problem by just never mentioning it. Everybody, everywhere did speak English. Going back further to my childhood, the Tomorrow People were all telepaths and, of course, that side steps the problem by having all telepaths able to understand each other.
Sliders, another personal favourite, deals with it by setting every episode not just on alternate Earths, not just in an Alternate America but actually (and very specifically) in alternate versions of Los Angeles and San Francisco. That gets round the accents problem as well.
Battlestar Galactica has fleeing humans from twelve colonies who all have their own languages which we almost never hear because they all also speak a common language which - give or take the odd bit of vocabulary - is unsurprisingly similar to modern American. I'm not sure whether the Cylons they are fleeing have a labguage at all, I don't recall ever hearing one.

So, various ways of getting round the problem have been tried in various programs. Personally I think you might as well take the Blake's Seven approach and just ignore it. The same applies to television and films set in other countries or other times. They are, after all, just for entertainment.

On the other hand I wouldn't mind one of those Universal Translators when I visit other countries. Real life is never quite as convenient as the movies.

(*because they all came originally from Earth)

A logical mismatch

Something struck me as odd about an advert I saw on TV yesterday. It doesn't matter what it was for (code for I can't remember what it was for ) but it started with this

"Don't just look, see. Don't just hear, listen."

It may just be me but I can't unscramble the meaning of this because for me look compares logically to listen while see compares logically to hear. I can decipher "Don't just look, see" as meaning that trying to do something is less important than doing it. (If we take "look" as being "try to see".) On the other hand "Don't just hear, listen." seems to be the opposite - that doing something is less important than trying to do it (with listen being "try to hear".)
The two halves of the slogan seem to me to be logically mismatched rendering the whole sound bite as gibberish.

Or is it just me over analysing again?

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Some celebrities just aren't very bright

As I write this, the TV is on in the corner of the room. The show is a celebrity charity special of Mastermind. Well, I say celebrity but I don't recognize either of the two alleged celebrities sitting trying to answer questions. The only reason that I mention it is that the last question was this.

In a limerick which lines rhyme?

a) one and three
b) two and three
c) three and four
d) four and five

I couldn't imagine anyone not knowing this, and was astonished when they started to get into a discussion of how many lines a limerick has. They decided to ask the audience. Ah, I thought, now they'll see just how dumb they are - everybody will know this. To my genuine astonishment the audience, while getting the answer right only did so with just over thirty percent. Two thirds of the audience got it wrong. I know poetry isn't popular nowadays but surely more people than that know what a limerick is, don't they?

Monday, 29 December 2008

The palest ink

The palest ink is better than the best memory. (Chinese proverb)

I had intended to preface this with a number of quotes about memory but now that I have found one that is so apposite, I shall forego all the others. The reason for this is that I have spent rather a lot of time this evening looking through old papers and poems to find one to add here in my occasional series reworking my early pieces. I didn't find any that I felt happy enough about to present but what I did find gave me some pause for thought. I found a collection of twenty five numbered ten-line poems that went by the overall title of tributes and attributes. Each of them was originally intended to be about one of my friends. The interesting thing is that when I wrote them I neglected to identify who they were about so that the poems themselves are all that I have to go on. Clearly I thought at the time that I would always be able to remember - and just as clearly I was wrong. Now, while I admit that this was over thirty years ago, I am surprised at how difficult the task of identification has been. Some of them I know; some of them I think I know; some of them I have not the faintest idea about.
The trouble is that they are, at best, cryptic and at worst, gibberish. They are exactly the kind of things that you might expect of a fifteen year old. (Which is a shame as they were written between 1975 and 1977 when I was between eighteen and twenty.) They take a general mish-mash of aspects of peoples characters and personal appearance and then jumble them up with my opinions of them. What they don't do is show any regard for scansion, metre, rhyme or any of the other important elements of decent poetry.

I considered putting one here for analysis but frankly the quality is far too low at the moment, although if I can knock any of them into shape I may do so later. The point of this isn't to show what a rotten poet I was, it's to make a comment on the frailty of memory. The quote at the head of this entry suggests that writing things down is more reliable than just leaving them stored away in your mind, and I suppose it is. After all I can identify most of the subjects. The thing is that the poems themselves are largely meaningless to me. The images and incidents mentioned are gone as surely as if they had never been. I have far from the best memory but in this case the palest ink has also let me down.

Now I shall go away and see if I can manage to write, or rather rewrite, a couple of them. Failing that I could always just pop them into the large black filing cabinet beneath my shredder.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Northern Lights

Today is the day before Christmas so I thought I’d post a link back to my previous entry about Iceland. (Actually I almost rewrote the whole thing before I decided to check whether I had done it before.) Anyway, here it is.

Alices in Wonderland: Part 8

Once again I've discovered very little about Franz Haacken, the illustrator of my German copy, Alice im Wunderland (dtv, 1973, translator: Lieselotte Remané). All I have been able to find is that he was born in 1912 and died in 1979. The illustrations are mostly black and white pencil drawings and are suitably whimsical.

Alice manages (by drinking the contents of a bottle labelled "drink me") to shrink to the size of the door but finds it now locked and the key is on top of a glass table that is too tall to climb.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

That's MISTER Scrooge, to you

A couple of my (not so) jolly Christmas poems.

He doesn't care
If you're naughty or nice
If you go your own way
Or take good advice.
He doesn't care
What you have done
Worked hard all year
Or spent it in fun

He doesn't care
What's in your letter
A brand new Ferrari
Or a hand-knitted sweater
He doesn't care
What it is that you do
He's a psychopath Santa
And he's coming for you.

Santa Claus is coming to getcha!


We've gotta kill Santa

There’s a Santa on the Chimney
There’s a snowman on the lawn
There’s a polar bear astride the garden shed
There’s a reindeer in the garden
And a Christmas tree adorned
With flashing lights in white and green and red
A Merry Christmas in the window
Corners painted with fake snow
More red lights than Amersterdam at night
There’s a three foot plastic robin
Sitting there on show
It’s time we put an end to all this blight

We’ve got to Kill Santa, Santa’s got to go
It’s bad enough putting up with frost and ice and snow
Without this tackiness that descends each year to plague us
And turn suburban streets into copies of Las Vegas

There’s a turkey on the table
There are twenty pounds of sprouts
And mince pies enough to sink a battleship
There’s a drunkard in the armchair
Say’s he’s something to let out
Before loosening his belt and letting rip
There’s Christmas Cake and trifle
A Yule Log with paper holly
There are crackers, cheese and onions in a jar
There’s a feast to feed a hundred
With everyone still jolly
This conspicuous consumption’s gone too far

We’ve got to kill Santa, Santa Claus must die
He’s fattening us like turkeys, but no-one’s quite sure why
With so much food inside us we can’t move to get away
Whatever Santa’s up to he’s got to go today

There is tinsel in shop windows
There are jingles in the air
And the radio plays only Christmas songs
Christmas cards fill the mantlepiece
Though God knows why they’re there
You can’t remember half the folks they’re from
Carol singers at your front door
But they only know the words
To half a chorus of God Rest Ye Gentlemen
You give them ten p for their trouble
But it’s really quite absurd
In half an hour they’ll be back there again.

We’ve got to kill Santa, we need to do it now
We’ve got end this misery and there’s only one way how
We’ve got to kill Santa, that much must be clear
I’m not sure that we can tolerate another year

You may call me “misery guts”
Or Scrooge behind my back
“Hail, fellow and well met” if to my face
Say it’s clear the Christmas spirit
Is something that I lack
And avoid the briefest visit to my place
You don’t realise the true extent
Of how I hate this season
Or understand the things we might achieve
If I could just convince you
That we really have a reason
If I could persuade you to believe

That we’ve got to kill Santa, there really is no choice
We must be of one accord, we must have a single voice
This cruel despotic tyrant has been here for too long
Overthrowing such a monster surely can’t be wrong.

And one more, very short, one.

In Ecuador I’ve eaten ants straight from a log
In China I was served with a fricassee of dog
In Japan they give you blowfish but without the poison in
But Finnish supermarketes sell Rudolph, in a tin.

And a very thingy whatsit to both my readers.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Alices in Wonderland: Part 7

I picked up the rather nicely A A Nash illustrated edition thanks to a friend who noticed it in a second hand book shop and reported back to me. (He didn't buy it because no one, not even me, knows the current state of my collection at any given time.) I have drawn a blank on the internet in my efforts to find information about Nash, even to the extent of gender, nationality or age. Again you may consider this a general appeal for information.

Anyway, in the story Alice has tried all the doors and found them locked. There is, however, a single unlocked door which is very small through which she glimpses a beautiful garden that she is far too tall to enter.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Alices In Wonderland Part 6

Some artists adopt an altogether more surreal approach to the work. This is from an Icelandic edition that I have (Aevintyri Lisu i Undralandi) published in 1996 and illustrated by Anthony Browne. Here we see his take on what happens when Alice rises from the pile of leaves and finds herself in a long corridor full of doors, all of them locked - a scene which has always struck me as almost Kafka-esque.

Poster Boy

It seems that I am the poster boy for BABSSCo (The British Association of Boarding School Short Courses) this year. This picture is taken from the contents page of their new brochure. I'm the one on the left. There is another version of the same picture inside which, though smaller is in landscape rather than portrait format. I won't reproduce it because, oh boy, does it make me look fat!

Friday, 12 December 2008

Bizarre metaphors

The TV is on in the corner, showing Newsnight Review (an arts program), but I wasn't really paying attention so I'm not sure which of the guests said it or, indeed, what exactly he was talking about but this struck me as a decidedly odd metaphor.

"My mother always said, 'Don't complain about being eaten by a horse if you have chosen to play polo dressed as a sugar lump.'"

Blustery, with showers

Geoffrey Pullum, over at Language Log makes a point that also occurred to me many years ago when I first visited America and found myself watching a television weather forecast. The forecast was remarkable because it managed the trick of being simultaneously both extremely precise and totally meaningless. They said, if memory serves, "There is an eighty per cent chance of rain at three O'clock this afternoon."
It's marvellous. It's the curse of specious precision that afflicts so much of modern day life. I found myself sitting watching this forecast and asking myself the question, "If it doesn't rain at three O'clock, will they have been right or wrong?"
Actually you could ask the same question if it did rain. (And it did!)
There's another example on a poster at my Metro stop. At the bottom of the stairs is a poster that says "Regular use of the stairs can help you to avoid weight gain", a laudable sentiment certainly.
At the top another poster says "Congratulations. You have just used one sixteenth of the calories needed to avoid weight gain." The linguistic logic of that sentence may be a bit suspect (you need calories to avoid weight gain?) but the intent is clear. One sixteenth, eh? Not one fifteenth or one seventeenth but one sixteenth. And that regardless of your size, age, gender, level of fitness or whatever. Now that I think of it, it also doesn't specify a time frame - the calories I need in a week? A day? An hour? Speciously accurate and utterly meaningless.
I may come up with more, similarly nonsensical, examples later. Please feel free to add any that you can think of in the comments.

Save the banks... save the world

My few US readers may not have heard the rather telling slip of the tongue from the Prime Minister today. He said, and this is a direct quote,
"We not only saved the world, er, saved the banks,"
So, what we've always suspected is true. Gordon Brown IS Flash Gordon (Saviour of the Universe).

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Five a day....aaaaarrrggghhhhhhh!

If I ever have another conversation about healthy eating it will be about a century too soon. Yes, it's that time of year again, the time when my ESOL learners are busily trying to pass their speaking and listening exams and the subject is, as it usually is, healthy eating. This year, unusually, I have two tutor groups. That's thirty six students in total and each exam has two near identical tasks and each task has to be first completed and then listened to again for marking. That's seventy two times I have had to hear essentially the same conversation, albeit performed with widely varying levels of achievement. Even allowing for a few no shows and some help from my co-tutor on one of the courses it's still considerably more about healthy eating than most people could take without losing their sanity.
Of course there are moments of humour. Two of my afternoon students, for example, were afflicted with fits of the giggles at the very thought that someone my shape could be doing a role play as the leader of a Healthy Eating workshop. Their exams had to be stopped until they had managed to compose themselves. They are allowed to prepare their topic for about forty minutes before the actual speaking starts and this leads to some quite surreal conversations. One student, for example, had prepared a couple of questions that he wanted to get in and he was determined to ask them whether they fit the conversation or not, so the conversation began with
ME:"Hello, how are you?"
STUDENT:"Good. How are you?"
ME:"Are you joining the healthy eating club?"
STUDENT:"Why do we need calcium?"
Altogether he managed to ask the question three times and never at any point when it might have been appropriate.
It reminded me of my own language learning days. I used to do a German class and I was rather good at it. Sadly that wasn't true of everybody. We had a student who was of advanced years and not entirely on the same planet as everybody else. Let's call him Ernie (which wasn't his name!) Once, when we reading a text about the manufacture of Garden Gnomes when in the middle of it he started to talk, apparently earnestly, about the impossibility of breeding them because of the scarcity of female ones.
Anyway, I did a Saturday school once and was startled to find myself partnered with Ernie on a relatively easy exercise where we were simply reading the two parts of a conversation. So I read the first line. And then he read the same first line again. I stopped and explained it to him again. He nodded. So, I read my first line. He read his first line. I read my second line. He read his first line again. We stopped. I explained it to him again. I read my first line. He asked me what we were supposed to be doing.
And so it went on, and that was before we'd got to the role play part.
It gives me a lot of sympathy for my students but frankly if anybody mentions five portions of fruit and veg, six grams of salt, five food groups or anything else about nutrition (however bizarrely they pronounce it) I shall probably do something unspeakable to them with a lettuce.

Monday, 8 December 2008


At the moment I'm sitting composing this in my living room for the first time ever.Yes, I finally bought a laptop computer and mobile broadband. Well, I've discovered one disadvantage - well two actually, though related. The first is that my dad likes to sit and watch the television here and the second is that he likes to talk about what he's watching to anyone in the room. It's most distracting.
Anyway he is currently watching Airline. This is a program that shows the trials and tribulations of the staff at an airport and the bit that's on right now shows a very loud mouthed customer arguing with an Easyjet desk clerk because his flight has been cancelled.
Actually it has reminded me of an incident when I returned from Thailand. I had to change planes at Amsterdam but my flight from Thailand was delayed by several hours. On the journey it made up some of the time but not all of it. Now I don't know if you are familiar with Schipol airport but it's absolutely huge and my departing flight for the UK was at the opposite end to the arriving flight from Thailand. Everybody sprinted across the airport but to no avail. The connecting flight had gone.
There were two distinct reactions from the passengers. Some got irate and started shouting at staff and banging desks. The rest of us went and got a cup of coffee, waited for the angry passengers to finish then strolled up to the desk and asked politely when they could get us onto a plane home. There was one in about two hours but, and the staff were very apologetic, there were so many people who had missed the previous flight that it was very unlikely that they could get us all on. The next flight after that was more than six hours later.
So everybody waited to see what would happen and to my great surprise I got a seat on the earlier one. Looking around the departure lounge I noticed something very interesting. All the people who had been patient and polite were there and NONE of the people who had been shouting the odds and threatening legal action were.
I'm not saying that this was anything but coincidence but it makes you think, doesn't it? They say that politeness costs nothing, which is true, but it can also buy quite a lot.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Bad hand, naughty hand!

From a (slightly edited) memo recently circulated by a manager in our college.

Dear all, could you let your staff know that **** ****** is on leave this week and that **** **** will be off for a couple of days at least as she has badly scolded her hand.

Alices In Wonderland: Part 5

I have two Spanish editions, one is a full text translation but uses the classic Tenniel illustrations. The other is altogether curiouser. It contains an extremely abridged version of the story with some very jolly cartoon like illustrations for younger children. It also contains a lot of children's activities: costume making, card making,collages, papercrafts and so on. For anyone who reads Spanish and wants it the details are "Alicia en el Pais de las Maravillas" published by Paramon,1997. ISBN 84-342-2131-4.

The illustrator is Lluis Filella and here he shows Alice arriving at the bottom of her long fall and landing on a conveniently placed pile of leaves.

The perils of stereotyping

I was watching an item on television this morning about the London School of Economics' decision to stage a beauty pageant. In the studio there were two guests, both students of the college. One was one of the contestants, the other was a students' union representative opposed to the pageant. Both put their points of view clearly and articulately as you would expect from LSE students. I have no comment to make on whether or not beauty pageants are a good thing or whether or not they demean women in general and the contestants in particular, but I do like to see pomposity punctured. The anti student had made a number of points but then finished off by suggesting that one problem was that they create a western ideal of beauty and exclude people from other cultures.
"I haven't seen any Moslem women entering it," she said.
You can see what's coming can't you? The contestant, a pretty Asian girl, immediately responded with "Excuse me, I am a Moslem."
I do have some sympathy for her rather deflated opponent as, as a teacher of overseas students, I have in the past occasionally been guilty of assuming students either were or were not Moslem or Christian or whatever based on nothing more than their country of origin and their general appearance and attitudes. It's an easy trap to fall into but I think if I were going to fall into it, I'd rather it wasn't on national television.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Alices In Wonderland: Part 4

I often buy editions of Alice that are in languages that I cannot read. Frequently these editions use well know illustrations from British or American editions and just translate the text. Sometimes they use home-grown talent. It can be quite hard to find the names of the illustrators if everything on the cover is, say, in Japanese and the help of a native speaker needs to be sought.
The Russian edition that I have is, judging from the artist's name, one of the ones that uses Russian talent. He's called Boris Pushkarev, information obtained from the publisher when I bought it. Beyond that I can find nothing and again information about the artist would be greatly appreciated if anybody has any.

What I can say is that the illustrations are quirky and colourful and that I really like them. This one follows on from the previous one. Alice, crawling down the rabbit hole, suddenly finds herself falling vertically down a tunnel lined with all kinds of peculiar things.