Orient Expression

16 October, 2008

I fear I to be unable such a thing do, Dave.

Filed under: language — pyrotyger @ 1:19 pm
Tags: ,

Learning a language is like digging a moat for your sandcastle, as the tide inexorably rises. Or maybe like gardening. It isn’t enough to say “There, I’ve done that bit – now I can move on” – you must constantly revisit and renew your earlier endeavours, or they will be washed away, overgrown, lost like tears in the rain…

I have a pretty good facility for languages, I think. I don’t know why – a memory for detail and vocabulary, decent ability to pick up accents, or simply enough interest to make it stick – but whatever the reason, it’s something I struggle with less than most. Some years ago, during a very brief and somewhat abortive relationship with a lovely South African girl, I couldn’t help trying to pick up a bit of Afrikaans as a courtesy.
The accent wasn’t difficult – light on the tip of the tongue, heavy on the pharynx – and the grammar was the simplest I’d ever encountered (except perhaps Chinese), so it was good fun to throw new phrases I’d learned into conversation, and have the occasional slow, stuttering conversation in her native tongue.

As you can imagine, the opportunities to reprise my conversational Afrikaans have been somewhat scarce since then. I didn’t realise just how much of it I’d lost until someone offered to make me a cuppa tea. “Please”, I wanted to respond, and perversely chose to do it in Afrikaans. Only… I couldn’t remember the word!!
I mean, please, for goodness’ sake! It’s got to be one of the first ten words or phrases you learn in any language, and I was stumped. From having been able to understand and construct simple sentences, I suddenly had next-to-no vocabulary, just six years later.

The phrase I wanted (I remembered after a few moments) was Asseblief – roughly “if you please”. And yet I had no problem recalling the phrase for I only speak a little – it’s a pretty language, but I never use it. Obviously this phrase was one for which I’d had more use…

Human memory, of course, works nothing like a database. There are no convenient boxes in which to store information. There is no empty Tweetaalige Woordeboek (bilingual dictionary) waiting for you to indelibly inscribe it with every acquired transliteration.
Memory serves its purpose by retaining and reinforcing that which is used frequently, and slowly losing grip on that which is fleeting or trivial. The passage of memory from short-term, through its various stages, to long-term memory and (in the case of a skill like languages) into active process has been thoroughly researched by neuroscientists, linguists and tinkering hobbyist educational reformers for decades, and it all comes down to the three ‘R’s of learning:

  • Repetition
  • Redundancy
  • Repetition

(The above stolen from a Jhonen Vasquez comic about the spirit-crushing drudgery of state schooling, but I like it anyway.)

So it’s about what you use, and how often you use it. You can even unlearn your native tongue through atrophy. I know of a man who moved from England to Germany in his early thirties. Now at 65, he is still in touch with his friends in England – but he finds he can only communicate, haltingly, over the phone. If he tries to write or email, he struggles with the English language. In a Firefox-esque feat, he now thinks in German, quite naturally, and struggles to do so in English.

I wonder: will I ever be that good at Japanese? If I work hard, and move over there someday then… well, why not?

The process of professional translation intrigues me; I find myself wondering, how does it work in their heads? Do they listen in one language, and then express it quite naturally in the other without any intervening explicit process? Or do they listen in one language, then switch their thinking to the other – donning a different thinking-cap, as it were – before trying to express the nebulous ideas and idiosyncracies in a natural fashion? I’m quite certain that it’s possible to “think” natively in more than one language…

Even then, translation is not a simple process. Grammar notwithstanding, even syntax can become confusing when expression is rendered in culturally-significant shades of meaning.

I recall hearing of an assembly in the European parliament being brought to a standstill as, during a speech by the French representative, several of the English-speaking delegates burst into laughter. Having made an appeal for calm and rational consideration of the issues, he exclaimed that what the problem needed was “la sagesse Normande”.
The English translators, quite faithfully, relayed the speech thus:
“What we need is Norman Wisdom!”

That’s not the half of it though. Humans, with their inherent understanding of the ideas behind the words, can translate faithfully rather than accurately. Computer software has no such cognitive gifts at its disposal, and the results of even the most sophisticated attempts at translation are derided throughout the blogosphere.

It’s the same problem: a database can give you a word-for-word equivalent, but nothing cogent or intuitive – and even with simple words, cultural ignorance can lead to confusion. A generation or two ago, there was no distinct word for “green” in common use! あお (ao) is taken to mean blue, but it was also used for green not so long ago, and some Japanese still use it as such. This sort of cultural knowledge is invaluable when trying to make sense of, for example, Natsume Sooseki’s Ten Nights of Dream. It’s easy to get stuck trying to understand the significance of the lily’s blue stalk…

Does this mean that elderly Japanese people can’t tell the difference between blue and green? No, of course not…
And yet, there is some truth in that statement, bizarre as it may sound. Not in an extreme sense, but studies have shown the importance of language to perception. According to research undertaken at Goldsmith College (and almost certainly many other studies since), the range of words you have for different hues affects your ability to distinguish between them. If we had 20 words for subtly different shades of orange in the English language, we would perceive them as distinct colours, and would recall them as such without difficulty.

It all smacks of Derrida and Phenomenology, doesn’t it…?

This ties in nicely with another study (thank god for New Scientist) investigating the way in which our infant brains adapt to perceive distinct sounds characteristic to our mother tongue. Through repeatedly hearing – and presumably expressing – certain ranges of sound and learning to interpret them as the same sound, we lose the ability to distinguish between the subtle variations. This is quite necessary, for the sake of efficiency in communication, but can be a hindrance when learning a new language.
The classic example is the Japanese l/r sound, which is neither one nor the other. Through careful and diligent study, one can relearn the distinctions lost in infancy, but it is difficult – the mind learns to perceive certain patterns in the chaotic landscape of reality, and convincing our brains to jump tracks in its well-worn neural grooves is hard work.

So how can there be any hope for computers? Is it possible, somewhere in the hypothetical space-opera future, for software to “understand” language in the same way that humans do? Derrida or Heidegger might argue that all of perceived reality is exactly that – perception only. Given that language is the exclusive realm of signifiers and symbols, one might suppose that computers – which deal only with symbols and signifiers – would be ideally suited to the task. Can one be “trained”, in the manner of a human mind, to have intrinsic understanding of a concept? Can an artificial mind be kicked out of its paths of databases and into a more functional, fluid form of expression and translation?

Perhaps the answer lies in that last question. Functional programming languages (Haskell, Lisp) operate on a basis somewhere beyond the mechanical strictures of Structural languages (Pascal, Aida) or the deliberate and measured methods of Object Oriented Programming (Java, C++). My brother (the Dysfunctor – get off your arse and fix your Blog, mate) could tell you a million times more than I could about this topic, but I have some very basic understanding. All things are functions – processes, if you will – and everything is signified rather than explicit. Sound familiar?

Artificial Intelligence (the emergent kind) and a computer really learning a language are in the same chapter of philosophy – the same page, even – because language, perception and intelligence are so closely linked. They’re pretty much a blurry smear of concepts, as any drunk philosophy undergrad will rant. There’s no point trying to tackle one without approaching the others, but if we come at it side-long, with a very long game-plan in mind, and functional programming as the tool (or the precursor to a better one), then who knows…?

Still more curious: if we created machines with the ability to learn and communicate, but didn’t teach them anything, what language would emerge from their society? What could we learn from their linguistic development?

Before they wiped us all out, I mean.


14 October, 2008

With Friends Like These

Filed under: Uncategorized — pyrotyger @ 9:38 am

Who needs iniquities?

I jest – my friends are wonderful. I can tell them anything – any moral dilemma or sticky situation – and they’ll be overwhelmingly understanding and accepting and will never judge. This doesn’t seem to tally with Toby Young‘s philosophy (Paul Carr’s relevant excerpt here) as I try to do the right thing at all times, yet my friends are strangely loyal. That probably says more about them than about me though.

However, fiercely supportive though they are, they do have a tendency to point me in the wrong direction…

There can be no “dilemma” more clear-cut or harder to resolve than the classic “I want to do something, but I know it’s wrong”. The difficulty is not in identifying what should I do, but the more ephemeral what SHALL I do? Those without a conscience can happily decry “There is no Right or Wrong: there’s just Fun and Boring.” (To finish the quote: “A thirty year prison sentence sounds pretty dull to me.“)

So when I turn to my friends and paint a picture of anguish, saying “I know I can’t really do it, but…” they do have a tendency to laugh and tell me to go for it. One friend even categorically listed all the reasons it’s a good idea, freely admitting that as far as she’s concerned the “moral high-ground” is the name for the bit of gutter she’s just left behind on her gentle descent.

Still, maybe I like people like that because they never take me seriously. I do enough of that for 10 people at least, so having friends I can turn to who won’t mirror my conscience can do wonders for my sense of perspective. I wouldn’t rely on an alley-cat for sage advice, but you couldn’t find a better creature to needle you out of your self-obsessed introspection!

So maybe I can look to my friends as a moral compass.

Just one that points South.
All the time.

And thank heavens for that.

Try to live a good and honourable life. That way, when you are old, you will be able to enjoy reliving your memories.
– The Dalai Lama

9 October, 2008

The persuasive power of nothing

Filed under: Cambridge — pyrotyger @ 5:45 pm

Always leave them wanting more…

If you can tell me who said it, you get a gold star. I mean, who originally said it. A 10 minute trawl of Google, Wikiquote and a whole raft of Quotations databases has turned up nothing but half-remembered film-quotes and the occasional educated guess.

Someone said it was Walt Disney, but if his early films are anything to go by then it’s certainly not a maxim he employed much. Love ’em or hate ’em, there’s nothing more rounded-off and wholesome than a Disney film, and that doesn’t seem to be in the spirit of the phrase.

No, I think the implication is that you should never try to completely satisfy someone if you want them hooked; just give them enough of what they want to enjoy it, and hint at the promise of more to come. That’s the essence of desire, as any established flirt, stage-magician or heroin-addict will tell you. It’s the secret of every burlesque show, the art of the thriller-movie, and the only possible excuse for that shambolic ’80s fashion of nouvelle cuisine.

It sounds vaguely P.T. Barnum-esque in style, but not in spirit – there’s no mercenary edge to it, and Barnum would quite happily have satisfied your every craving for a steep price given the opportunity. It’s not even Machiavellian, although manipulation is of course the purpose.

Give them a little of what they want – but not enough to lose their attention. I feed my cat with enough to make him healthy and athletic, without satisfying his every craving – for there lies the road to the sack-of-porridge look of spoiled house-cats everywhere – and his interest in me is seldom stronger than when he’s had enough to enjoy it, but not enough to lose the taste.

Budding authors would do well to take note of the instruction, I think. There are many skilled novelists and playwrites who can give you a really satisfying yarn, rich in detail and full of exposition; but the best – the true craftsmen – will only hint at the truth, will give it form but not definition, will point you at the heart of a matter and say “look, it’s right in front of you…” but will never actually spell it out.
Some of the greatest works of art are not photo-realistic reproductions of real or imagined scenes, but are impressions or outlines, with just enough detail for the mind to fill in the rest.

As Pratchett explains in his recent bestseller Going Postal, the true art of the forger is not in perfection, but in suggestion. Present enough detail to suggest the real thing, he notes, and the human imagination will gladly do the rest, rejecting a perfect forgery but happily accepting one that is far less accurate, because the mind will not notice a discrepancy when it has conjured the detail itself…

So, then, desire is a function of our curiosity, not of our needs. It springs from the human need to wonder: what is behind the next door?, or what happened next?, or – tragically – what would it be like with someone else? I will never forget reading an article in New Scientist some years ago, which sought to explain the neurochemical mechanism of addiction. As an important aside, it was noted that heroin’s dangerously potent addictiveness springs not from its effects on the pleasure centres, but from the fact that it chemically simulates desire. When the drug reaches the brain, it floods the synaptic gaps with chemicals that scream “I want this!!” rather than “I like this!!”

These thoughts came to me when writing my UCAS Personal Statement. This is a university-applicant’s open audition, a 47-line window through which one must sufficiently impress or intrigue the admissions tutors for them to invite you to interview. It’s easy to talk about yourself if you have the confidence, but when presented with a 4000-character (not word) limit, I had to ask myself: What am I trying to achieve here?

The answer was quite obvious. I wanted an interview. There are ways of achieving that goal, but the fundamental purpose of my prose has to be this: Make Them Want More.
That’s right. Always leave them wanting more, kiddo. If you can get that hook in someone’s head, you’ll always have an opening for the future.

As far as I can imagine, there are three ways to achieve this:

  1. Knock their socks off. The masterful authors, musicians, artists and craftsmen of the world can do their thing, give you the very best, and leave you changed. That sort of profound work will always stay in your mind, and that’s a certain way to win someone’s interest. But there are limits to what you can say about yourself, especially in 47 lines, and if I could do that I would be an author.
  2. The Cliffhanger. Device of every literary and cinematic hack out there, and not very elegant. It’s easy to get it wrong and just frustrate your audience, leaving them thinking “So where’s the rest of the story? Did you miss a reel…?” Besides, it’s hardly appropriate in the circumstances. Definitely not.
  3. The subtle art of suggestion. Make allusions to bigger topics. Indicate your intentions and interests, but don’t describe them exhaustively. The ripe fruit of outlined potential is tempting indeed and, just as importantly in the circumstances, it’s economical! Let the audience pick up on what interests them, and they’ll want to know more. If they don’t, you haven’t wasted a paragraph explaining why taiko excites you so much, or exactly what depth of understanding you’ve developed of generational conflict in Japanese cinema. If they want to know more, they can ask – and ask they will. That’s what the interview is for, after all…

So I’ve pretty much finished my personal statement. All of the above is just rash theory and extemporisation after the fact – I write how I write, in a way that makes sense to me at the time given the context and the audience, and then try to understand why I felt compelled to do it so. It always seems to work, which suggests to me that I have sufficient natural facility for language and persuasion to get it right (or at least, right enough), and I make no apologies for that. If I have a gift for expression then nobody could accuse me of resting on my laurels now.

Wish me luck, one and all. I’ll let you know what happens, however it pans out.

3 October, 2008

It’s PC gone mad

Filed under: Uncategorized — pyrotyger @ 10:10 am

First an apology, of sorts, for being so quiet since… well, since months ago. I haven’t been too busy to post, nor had I retreated into my man-cave and shut myself off from the world.

I didn’t post for so long because there seemed to be so much I wanted to tell the world, yet I didn’t know exactly what to say. Life has been busy, in all sorts of good and bad ways, but I’ve always been determined that this blog should never descend into the LiveJournal trap of “What I Did Today And Who I Saw When I Was Doing It And Why He/She Is A Total Luser”. Unless I have some clear thought or issue I want to express to the world, I don’t want to inflict my opinions on the hoi polloi. God knows, I don’t need the typing practice.

However, silence is death in the Blagosphere, so here’s a brief summary of some of my key events of the last couple of months or so:

  • Spent a looong weekend doing Volunteer Steward work at The Big Chill festival with my brother & sister. This was an intense, exhausting, exhilerating, magical experience, and something I shall always remember fondly. I met a lot of lovely people, very few of the other sort, saw some unforgettable performances, did some memoir-worthy shit, and generally felt more alive than I have for months.
    Special mention to my brother, who has struggled with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for a very long time, yet put us all to shame with his enthusiasm and sociable toil throughout our shifts. My heart nearly overflows when I think about it now.
  • Finally got my house fixed up, with a lot of help from my sister and her man, and it’s going on the market now. I think I love and appreciate my siblings as an adult more than I ever did as a child.
  • I’ve started running, because I’m rubbish at it and don’t want to be. It’s actually kind of fun, once you can find a decent pair of trainers that fit, and a decent running partner when you can.
  • I’ve stepped up a gear in my Japanese studies lately, and the more I learn, the more I fall in love with the language. It’s like a fire or a rampant disease, and I don’t care.
  • As a result, I’ve decided to apply to study it at Uni next year. Cambridge. Wish me luck…
  • My PC died, horribly, catastrophically, in the worst way possible. Tech-geek warning:
    Everything was running off a 500GB RAID0 (striped) array. I was in the process of backing all my data up to a single drive, when it all went titsup. One of the two drives failed to initialise, and the backup failed, so I’ve lost the lot.
    Ultimately, I’ve lost every photo, drawing, document, song and email I’ve ever received or created in the last 10 years, plus a novel I was working on sporadically. I was devastated, but as the data is essentially intact (just not coherent) it can be recovered by a data-lab. It’s just going to cost me several hundred pounds…
    So, I’ve decided to mothball it for now and reinstall my OS on a new drive – the data is there, and I’ll get it back one day.

So that’s why I’ve been offline for some weeks. This is a courtesy-post to apologise to the world (that little corner of it that knows and cares) and tell you that I’m still here, still thinking, still thinking of you.

I’ve just not been desperate to get back online. It’s amazing how much more I’m getting done now I don’t spend so much time at my PC (and in retrospect, I’m surprised at how much time that was), and how much more I want to do. The interwebs had filled the void left in my life by the TV, when I made that Big Decision all those years ago, and I realise now that I don’t want that void at all.

My “passive entertainment” organ can shrivel up and die now; I just don’t care. I’ll be back one day, but by then I hope my appetite for this world, this place-that-isn’t-a-place, will have atrophied.

I do still miss it though.

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