Sunday, December 30, 2012

Adventures in Multilingualism

Writing only in one language is so passé.

There's an idea in programming circles that one should be continuously learning new languages, say, one new one a year. I agree, but not so much with programming languages as spoken ones. Despite extending my programming language repertoire with some Typescript recently (if you’d even call that a full-blown language) spoken languages are more interesting to me right now. European ones. If language be food then these days I'm enjoying a main course of Spanish, picking at some Greek mezes, and reheating French leftovers.

As a kid I learned Irish, Latin and French at school. Because my parents took in Mexican students during the 70's and 80's I picked up a little Spanish as a teenager. Studying photography in Dublin in the 90's, we had a German language module for some reason. And when I married a feisty Zantean, I found myself absorbing (ab-Zorba-ing?) Greek passively at the family dinner table. All these languages in my head, some resentfully imposed on me, some enthusiastically embraced by me, had nowhere to go and no-one to speak them. Until recently I wasn't interested in learning any new language or keeping up the ones I knew, being of the mind as I was that it was a waste of time learning how to say the same thing in different ways. New ideas in science and programming were what mattered, not asking someone the time in French.

Multilingual
'Multilingual', by Shaun Chapman

At the same time I've exercised my language muscles intermittently over the years simply by dint of being such a fan of foreign language cinema. When Luis Buñuel died in 1983 a retrospective of his movies was shown on BBC which as a sponge for foreign esoterica I watched on an old black and white TV in awe. Truffaut died the following year; the years passed, all while I clocked up an impressive list of movies watched from all corners of the world without ever parlaying this cineaste activity into any meaningful progress vis-à-vis learning or improving a language.

For some reason, in the last couple of years I've slowly come around to the virtues of finally doing Spanish properly, doing Greek for the first time, and while I'm at it brushing up on my rusty, half-forgotten French. I don't know why this is; why the language bug has bitten. It may well be because since becoming a programmer in Brisbane I've found myself immersed in a cacophonous parliament of foreign-born colleagues, especially at Dialog, and when on a team with Readifarians of +Readify. I’ve grown accustomed to hearing workmates speak a confusion of languages all around me, and that has had a sort of liberating effect on me from the suffocating monopoly of English one finds here in Australia.

I’m foreign-born too by the way: foreign-born twice over in fact. Irish but born in England. I’m obviously not comparing my situation directly to that of many of the people I've worked with who speak English as a second language, but at the same time I believe that if you weren't born here (and I’m going to generalise this observation in a ridiculous sweep to apply to every country in the world) then you’re different, your language is different, and you are always somewhere on the 'different' scale. "We really have everything in common with America nowadays", said Oscar Wilde sometime in the late 19th century, "except, of course, language." It's the same for a Dubliner who comes to Australia: there are plenty of phrases you have to learn that are unheard of in Ireland, and vice versa, of course. Plenty of friendly enquiries about your accent, plenty of mystified looks when you say that a developer meeting was 'good craic, with decent heads.' Sensibly, you learn to stop talking like that if you want to get on with Australians, never mind kiwis and Indians.

One of the effects of studying languages like I've been doing is to have new-found respect for people I've worked with - people like +Adrian Budiman from Indonesia, +Sandra Palacio from Columbia, +Mehdi Khalili from Iran, +Paulo Alexandre Ogliani from Brazil, +Dmitry Kryuchkov from Russia, +John Wilson from South Africa - who are doing what I do, usually much better, through the fog of a second language. How do they do it?

Only joking about John, by the way: South Africans of course speak English and he actually has a euphonious, 'nice' South African accent. Some of the other South Africans I've met on the other hand sound like 'District 9'. "To this day the accents of Australian, New Zealand and South African English have a distinct family resemblance, derived from the shared experience of class emigration." writes Robert McCrum in Globish. It took me a while to distinguish the Aussie and kiwi accents, but the South African one is quite distinct from either of those to my ears.

Phrases and words that have a different meaning in Australia to the one I’m used to include 'ordinary' (poor quality), 'yeah no' (normally employed separately since they are mutually exclusive responses), of course ‘root’, and just for good measure 'three fifths of a poofteenth' (a trifling amount). My friend Paulo told me he found the hardest part of the language to be phrasal verbs, like 'pay out' (criticise), or ‘stand down’ (sack/fire). While it might look to someone struggling with English that English speakers have it easy, some phrases are what the French call faux amis, false friends, because they look like one thing and act like another.

So for all my joi de parler, my polyglotism (such an ugly word for a nice thing), how does multilingualism affect your writing if you’re a blogger like me? Maybe not at all. After all, anyone can translate anything you write into just about any tongue under the sun using Google Translate or some similar type of app or browser plug-in in an instant. Speaking of Google Translate, I use it all the time and I find it to be one of the marvels of the computing age. As far as I’m concerned, cloud machine translation, in more or less real time, on your phone, Chavooon!, is mankind harvesting the fruit of its ingenuity in spectacular form - one of those boons you get for just sticking around long enough and buying enough devices and computers over the years, the stuff of our parents' imagination, but for us just another app.

Back to the point: why write in anything other than English? After all, a majority of the web’s content is written in English. But the foreign language internet is rapidly expanding, particularly Chinese, Spanish, Russian and Arabic. Apparently it mightn’t be a bad thing to prime your content with some foreign language version to optimise for all the non-English people who search for your goodness. But I’m not really interested in any practical reason for any of this, or at least, not in any obvious, immediate sense. The most compelling reason I can offer for learning Spanish, French, Mandarin or Greek is this: you have a life of the mind, we all have. It has boundaries, they all have. When you start to think in foreign languages you expand those boundaries. Can you think of a better reason to do something? That’s it. Cést tout. And writing in those languages just takes it to the next level, and moreover is easy to break into using Google+ in particular.

If you’re worried about alienating what small audience you have on Twitter, Blogger, Google Plus, etc. by your experimental ramblings then like I say I recommend Google+. It’s the only big network where you can filter on your side, by sharing only to people you choose to: sympa friends, the language Meetup group you’ve joined, connections you know who aren't going to uncircle you because you've turned into Anthony Burgess. Twitter and Blogger don’t have any such 'supply-side' filtering. Everything you tweet or blog goes out there, to all your followers/subscribers. So, set up a G+ circle for your, say, French bons mots, write something à propos in French then share it without making it public: share just to that particular circle to keep it low-key.

Something else to consider is following a newspaper like El País or Le Monde on Google+ and comment on a post just to be part of the conversation. There are spirited and (generally) well-informed and polite conversations on most posts, and let's face it, no-one is ever going to judge you too harshly for a badly-phrased comment. The day you get your first +1 for a foreign-language comment is a red-letter day for a would-be multilinguist.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Science books of the year 2012

These 7 lucky books are my best science books of 2012. I know what you're thinking: that these are the only ones I read. Hey! That's not fair. Well it's true that I didn't read too many more than this. But I picked them carefully in the first place, as you have to if you have a full-time job, two kids, and not nearly as much free time to read as you'd like. And as it turned out, how right I was! So, having dealt with that objection, let us now turn to important matters. Let us talk of books, like men.

Apart from the winner, I've decided to leave it as a flat list, just like the Royal Society Winton Prize. Obviously, I could pick some from the runners-up that are bigger in scope, more enjoyable, better written, anything, than others, but to start trying to sort all six places like that is meaningless, so they're all in second place.

Best science book of 2012: "The Better Angels of our Nature" by Steven Pinker

You know that phrase that you hear about some books? About how it will change the way you look at the world? This one probably will. That's because it'll persuade you to moderate the feeling that you probably have that the world is getting worse, nastier, and more violent all the time. I blame videogames. It turns out this pessimism largely stems from two things: we overestimate the amount of violence in the world simply because we see it frequently on the news or on YouTube (a bias called the "availablity heuristic", explained in my no.2 book in this list), and we know far too little about the past.

This is a huge book, as in your hand will get tired holding it, and that's relevant to any assessment of it. Not because manual fatigue is interesting per se, but rather because the ambitious scope of this oeuvre has to be acknowledged in any discussion about it. From an unforgettable opening couple of chapters reminding us of the sheer savagery in the bible, and an eye-popping exploration of medieval torture devices, things become slowly more civilized as time passes, leading ultimately to the society we enjoy nowadays, where groups that were hitherto oppressed - animals, children, women, and homosexuals - gradually acquire the same rights as white guys like me over time. Well, alright - nearly. The scope of this book is so wide that you could enjoy it as history, or as science. Either way, it'll change the way you look at the world.

"Thinking, Fast and Slow", by Daniel Kahneman


Daniel Kahneman looks like my father-in-law, but that's where the similarity ends I'm afraid. Wise and worldly as Papou is, Kahneman has a lifetime of sociological work behind him at this stage and his book, which is rather like a recap of his life's work to explain how people think, is a depressing litany of foibles and idiosyncrasies from which we all apparently suffer. The data prove it. I say depressing, because much as I love Tim Harford's hardline rationalism in 'The Undercover Economist' and 'The Logic of Life', if the concept of anchoring is true, well, it makes me weep for humanity.

Just so you know, anchoring is the business of influencing people subconsciously to choose a value you mention, even if just innocently, for example in a discussion on how long a piece of work might take to complete, by simply saying that value. That's it. No more than that. You might have just rolled a dice in front of everyone to come up with the value; it matters not. We are all prey to arbitrary suggestions, and that's simply depressing.

"A Universe from Nothing", 2012, Lawrence Krauss

Lawrence Krauss was one of the stars of the 2012 Global Atheist Convention. There were plenty of big names there, but even among them he cut a rock-star dash, pacing up and down on the stage running though his cosmological shtick once more. Cosmology is just mind-blowing, one of the few disciplines where you can talk about the really big questions and receive meaningful explanations. Mind you, you have to pay attention, really pay attention: this was the hardest book to follow in this list. The historical run though the decades leading up to Einstein, relativity, and quantum mechanics are enjoyable, but from then on things get plain weird. A lot of the concepts in this book, like dark energy, the cosmological constant, and whether the universe is open, closed, or flat (turns out it's open) are so abstract as to be something I need to read repeatedly to sink in. It both makes me feel stupid and exhilarates me.

I should have just queued up for a copy of this book, signed in person by LK, at #AtheistCon when I had the chance. The queue was long, but it was obvious then by the love it was getting that this was going to be one of those event books you're going to end up reading one way or another. So you may as well meet the author. Kicking myself.

"Everything is Obvious", 2011, Duncan J Watts

Quite similar to the Kahneman book insofar as it's mainly about sociology and the counterintuitive (or 'unobvious') and fundamentally unpredictable nature of social interactions. This emphasis on the unknowability of the future makes it a bedfellow of the famous "The Black Swan" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Speaking of Taleb, he's got a new book out called "Antifragile", which I'm predicting will be on my list for next year. Whoops - a prediction!

There are many subtle points in this book that you might miss if you read it in a hurry. I found myself rereading pages to make sure that I hadn't just wasted my time reading something blindingly obvious. That's the whole point of the book: that plenty of things that you hardly think about are in fact not what they seem. Narrative sentences are one example. These are cases that seem to be more-or-less neutral descriptions of some event , e.g. "Such and such a border skirmish took place on such and such a date, effectively starting the Iran-Iraq war" but often, strangely, end up being descriptions that would have made no sense to people living through the events because, in this case, the war hadn't happened when that event took place so the sentence is peering into the future, placing the event within some larger narrative. It's obvious, now. But not then. And it leads to some profound conclusions: history cannot be told while it is happening.

"Massive", 2010, Ian Sample

2012 was a big year for the the Large Hadron Collider in general and the Higgs boson in particular. To get a bit of historical perspective on the LHC, the biggest machine ever built by humans, I sought out this book by the Guardian Science Podcast's own Ian Sample. Although it now looks like there might be two Higgs bosons, back before the announcement in July this year, we didn't even have one. It's not nearly as difficult a read as the Lawrence Krauss book - in fact the overwhelming memory I have of it is of a genuinely affecting story of international cooperation in the name of science.

To read this book in the heady days of autumn (northern hemisphere) as I did, when it seemed the great European project was in trouble, when every day saw Europe enter "a dangerous new phase of the [Greek credit] crisis" as the journalists loved to say, was a powerful restorative against such hysterical pessimism. If you look at projects like CERN, ESO and ESA then you'd have to agree that Europe is more than capable of getting on with it. It's just those bloody Greeks*.

"The Rational Optimist", 2010, Matt Ridley

Between reading this and "The Better Angels..." I've never felt more positive about things. Don't believe everything you read (in the newspapers) - things are actually getting better all the time. Human ingenuity, industry and above all compulsion to trade have lifted us out of the subsistence that was the our station until a very short time ago, according to Ridley. This is an impatient, opinionated read, as befits someone who is taking the rather sensible position of saying enough with the usual platitudes about history, and its great figures and sacred cows.
"My education was utterly dominated by two stories: the Bible's and Rome's. Both were disappointing examples of history. One told the story of an obscure, violent, and somewhat bigoted tribe and one of its later cults, who sat around gazing at their theological navels for a few thousand years ... the other, the story of a barbarically violent people who founded one of the empires that institutionalised the plundering of its commercially minded neighbours, then went on to invent practically nothing in half a millenium ... nearly extinguishing literacy as it died. I exaggerate, but there are more interesting figures in history than Jesus Christ or Julius Caesar."
And that's just a footnote at the back of the book! I must say that for all the Latin I learnt as a kid, the overwhelming memory I have is declining the verbs to 'wage war', and 'set up camp'. Never 'to come up with an idea', or 'to achieve gains in trade'. Merchants and traders of any stripe are the heroes of this book, from the ancient Phoenicians to the modern Walmarts. Priests, chiefs, thieves and scaremongering greenies get served.

There it is - what the world has been waiting for: my inaugural science book list. In light of such a never-ending stream of mind-expanding popular science books, year after year, I just don't read too many novels any more. It feels like short-changing myself. But now that "Bring up the Bodies" has won the Booker, I do feel like tackling that and "Wolf Hall". And I did enjoy Umberto Eco's "The Prague Cemetery", and Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom". But I love my science books: next year's list starts here.
* And Irish, Portuguese, Italians and Spanish.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Android Blogger app will drive you insane

In this short tale I will attempt to convince you that you should not use the Blogger mobile app under any circumstances except to finally publish an article to your blog, written elsewhere.

I'm on a 3-day break with my family at the moment, doing the usual sightseeing and relaxing by the beach. We rented an apartment at Noosaville, right on the river. While hanging out with Tina and the kids I usually do a bit of fiddling around on Twitter and Google+ on the phone, a HTC One X. This trip I thought I'd work on a blog post while I had a spare moment or two. Keep writing; if I can just keep writing!

There's something really wonderful about writing on the move. Mobile Phone technology allows you to live your own Kerouacian road fantasy, unshackled to the desk, typing out ideas pretty much as they occur to you. (I've no idea if Kerouacian is the correct adjective but if you say it out loud you'll realise it's a keeper.) As I type this, in fact, I'm sitting in a park in the kindly shade of a giant fig in the small market town of Eumundi in the Sunshine Coast hinterland of Queensland.

Flickr photo
FlickrJack Kerouac-Florida-1958, by pitoucat. Should have just used a typewriter, like Jack here

I noticed the Blogger Android app had been updated (to 2.0.41 - it must have been v1 previously). It looked newer, but whether it had any new features I couldn't say. There didn't seem to be any. Still lean as a whippet. Anyway, I fired it up and worked on a post I'd been writing for a few days. Penning a blog post in the Blogger mobile app isn't easy - making a link involves switching to Chrome, copying the URL, switching back and handwriting the 'a' tag, copying and pasting, which is fiddly to say the least.

I soon found out it was a bit worse than that. Pasting in a URL at one stage I realised I'd accidentally either pasted over much more of the post than I'd intended, or else cut instead of copied, or something or other - I can't be sure what I did exactly. Text editing on a phone is tricky, full stop. When you're composing a blog post which is supposed to have links, using software like Blogger which has no intrinsic way of making links, it's even trickier.

But here's the thing: Blogger has no 'undo'. Think about that. Let it sink in there for a minute. You could have spent a month writing an article, poured your heart into it, but one slip of the index finger and it's toast. In my case I lost my entire first paragraph, and could see no way to retrieve it. I knew the intact version of my article was only one level down on the history stack, but there was no way to get to it.

Switching to Chrome again, I Googled in vain for 'how do I undo in blogger Android app'. I couldn't find any way to. I did find plenty of links lamenting the lack of undo functionality in Android. But time was running out, or so I thought. Desktop Blogger auto-saves every minute or so, so fearing something similar I thought it best to quit back to the main menu at which stage I might get a save warning which I could cancel, possibly restoring my work. No such luck. With a diligence at once impressive and infuriating Blogger saved on close of the document. I had lost work in a harsh, unforgiving environment, much as I imagine the surface of Mars to be.

After some trial and error I realised that the way you have to use the app is to save as often as possible and use the Android back button to rollback your pending changes. That's because of two things: auto-save isn't enabled, and back button is effectively the undo button. Which is harsh, since it obviously undoes everything since your last save. Remember, this is a mobile app, one you might use waiting for take away fish'n'chips, waiting for someone to return from the toilet, waiting for the kids to get ready. I'm usually not 'in the zone' when I use it, so it's tough to keep to a sentence, save, sentence, save rhythm.

Google Drive can do undo and redo, so why the Dickens can't they do it for Blogger? I have since used Drive (ex-Google Docs, of course) to work on the article, happily undoing as the need arose, and will paste my finished piece into Blogger for the sole purpose of clicking the publish button. Because if there's one thing worse than using Blogger on Android, it's trying to use the Blogger website on a phone or tablet.

I'm not even going to talk about the way the app will HTML-encode the tags it itself places in your post if you dare to preview your piece more than once. Ok then, I will. Paste in something you've written in Drive and Blogger will turn any paragraphs into blocks surrounded by 'p'  tags. Ok, it's hard to see the structure of your article anymore, but that's valid HTML so that's ok. But on subsequent previews it will encode that 'p' tag again as well as whacking in a new, pristine one. It's around that time that your will to live starts fading.

And that's why the Blogger Android app is more than useless - it's a potentially dangerous waste of your words and your time. Writing on the road should be liberating and exhilarating, one of those things we can be so grateful to mother technology about. I love it. It's a real shame that Blogger makes such a mess of it.