Category Archives: Language

The only way is Ethics

WhatsApp logoDiary date: 19th May, 1985

Whoever wrote my diary 28-years ago this week sounds like a bit of a whinger. Whoever he is, he’s angsting about revision. A lot.

However, if you’re prepared to believe my A-Level-studying daughter, this is one area of life where times have definitely changed for the better. It seems the best place to deal with revision angst these days is not your desk or the library, but in fact mobile messaging service WhatsApp. A quick demo was enough to convince me that it might amount to more than the usual phone-based time-wasting, so I’ve magnanimously agreed not to pass final judgement until the exams are over – at which point my already irrelevant opinion will be even more academic.

As for the mutual support and expertise WhatsApp helps provide, a real-life example will tell you all you need to know. Faithfully reproduced from my daughter’s phone and saved for posterity, here’s a revision thread covering the complex, highbrow and morally challenging world of A-Level Philosophy and Ethics.

I pass no comment. But I may conceivably be arching an enigmatic eyebrow. Needless to say, names have been changed to protect the innocent:

AP: Shit for ethics I’ve barely gone over genetic engineering and war haha

EM: Neither but ive done bentham and kant

SC: Mee too

EM: So lets hope they come up!!

FG: Im going bentham and kant hopefully

AP: When it says prime mover, what argument is that from? Cosmo or aristotle?

FG: Aristotle

AP: Kkk chillin

SC: Im going ontological and god as creator if thats right

EM: Ok thats not terrible if they come up, wanted ma boy plato though

AP: I really dont mind any of philosophy but not god as creator

FG: I was hoping cosmological?

AP: I wanted paleys watch but that was too optimistic

EM: All the ones i havent done properly have come up apart from science and religion, which is scary

SC: The 2 i know quotes for arent there ffs haha

EM: Can i use ‘good will shines forth like precious jewel’ for kant in ethics?

SC: Yeah

AP: I literally havent even looked at genetic engineering!!!! Scared ūüė¶

FG: I know a long teleological quote, i want that to come up

AP: Quite honestly, im going to fail

EM: Mee too

AP: Seriously id be better off not turning up

EM: Gonna die

AP: Its gonna be horrific

SC: Im gonna bring snacks for that six min break haha

AP: Cant seem to find all my revision for ethics, theres an issue

FG: So funny how we have a six minute break i dont quite understand

SC: Wonder why six not five

AP: Hahaha

FG: We wont leave the room

EM: Omg gals this time tomorrow we’ll have finished philo!!! Woooo

AP: No guys ive lost all my ethics

AP: No ono

AP: well im failing ethics.

Swedish as a superpower

Swedish ChefDiary date: 20th April, 1985

This week in 1985 I’m working hard on my Swedish, ready for a mid-year exam once I’m back at university in a week or so’s time. I’m reading a book called Barnens √Ė by PC Jersild, but since I learned my first words of Swedish just a few short months ago, it’s pretty slow going.

Given that speaking Swedish is about as close to a secret superpower as I’m ever likely to get, it’s worth recording just what all that studying left me capable of in the intervening 28 years. After all, these days a single click and a nano-second of Google Translate is all I need to Swedify followthehumming.

Here’s a quick summary for posterity.

1. I can surprise beautiful Swedish women when they least expect it.

Sadly, this is far less exciting than it sounds – and in fact I have only ever used this aspect of my superpower once. I was an anonymous twenty-year old sitting opposite a couple of blue-eyed, blonde Swedish girls on a train somewhere in Greece in the late eighties. Naturally I was trying to pretend I wasn’t staring at them. They started guessing at my nationality,¬†presuming I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I took a deep breath and decided this was my big moment. “I’m English,” I said in Swedish, “Nice to meet you.” I was then immediately informed – in a fluent English rich in colour and idiom – that I shouldn’t be such a nosy bastard.

2. I know an unfeasibly large amount about the history of Swedish canals.

No, really, I do. Like the fact that the G√∂ta Canal¬†(construction dates: 1810-1832;¬†length:¬†190km; manual excavation: 87km; principal labour: 58,000 soldiers) which links Sj√∂torp on Lake V√§nern to Mem on the east Swedish coast was designed by our own Thomas Telford. And that it became known as the ‘divorce ditch’ because¬†of all the arguments that couples were supposed to have navigating its 58 locks. I could go on. But mercifully I won’t.

Cleaning in sweden

You can’t beat a nice jumpsuit

3. I am perfectly positioned to know what it’s like to feel untall, unblonde and unhandsome.

I once had a job cleaning dockers’ changing rooms on a Swedish dockyard. I wore a bright red jumpsuit every day with a logo saying, ‘We clean anything, anywhere, any time.’ Even with the perk of the jumpsuit, the job was less than glamorous. At the weekends, I spent my spare time wandering the streets of Gothenburg wondering how a race of people could possibly be so unattainably beautiful. I’m pretty sure I’ve carried that feeling with me ever since – along with a keen sense of appreciation for a nicely-tailored jumpsuit.

4. I can correct people who think that the Swedish Chef actually spoke Swedish.

The Muppets have a lot to answer for. Tell someone you can speak a little Swedish and I guarantee they will find it impossible not to start saying ‘bork, bork, bork’ or ‘hurdy gurdy,’ and generally impersonating the Swedish Chef.¬†It doesn’t end there: Google even offers a version of its service in the language ‘Bork, bork, bork.’¬†The act of reassuring deluded Muppet fans that this is not a real language never gets the thanks it deserves, but it seems like the right thing to do.

5. I can translate the furniture names at Ikea.

Possibly the most useful aspect of my superpower, I can inform dazed Ikea shoppers that they are standing next to a three-piece suite called cliff, holding a cup called humble, or sitting on a chair called point. It almost makes it worth the 3-hour round trip and 2-hour queue to get into the car park.

From Baby Boomers to the Boomerang Generation

Australian boomerangDiary date: 4th April, 1985

Back in 1985, I’m home from university for a couple of weeks and looking forward to seeing old schoolfriends again. My time off is spent in a blur of sport, reading, socialising and alcohol. These days, I’d be exhausted just thinking about it. But when my diary reaches the end of the holiday, I’m lamenting the lack of excitement, and reflecting that even though I only left my family for the first time a few short months ago, the break is already permanent. I already know that I won’t live at home again.

Fast forward to today, and no matter what your preference, your choice might not be quite so clear cut. According to the UK Office for National Statistics, the number of adult children living at home with their parents has increased by 20% since the end of the nineties – with limited job prospects, stagnating incomes, rising accommodation and living costs, student (and other) debts, and relationship issues all playing their part.

As usual when something like this comes along, we’ve been busy inventing new names for what’s happening – largely as a means of pretending that we’re more in control of it than we actually are.

The winner so far is almost certainly the idea of the ‘Boomerang generation‘ – in which children leave home only to return to live with their family a few years later – which has the advantage of being a ready-made throwback to the original ‘Baby Boomers.’ ¬†The more folksy-sounding ‘twixters‘ has been mooted (originally by Time Magazine) but has never quite caught on, despite spawning an indie TV series of the same name. Then there are the usual silly acronyms such as the Yuppie-derivative, ‘Yuckies‘ (Young Unwitting Costly Kids), and the even more outlandish ‘Kippers‘ – Kids In Parents’ Pockets Eroding Retirement Savings – which was coined by the Prudential in 2003.

In Germany, young adults still living at home may find themselves labeled ‘Nesthocker,’ (young birds that stay in their nest for a long time) and are said to be living at ‘Hotel Mama’ – a similar idea to the British ‘Bank of Mum and Dad.’

In Italy, Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa – considered one of the founding fathers of the European single currency – caused a stir in 2007 by referring to stay-at-home children as ‘Bamboccioni‘ – conjuring up an image of clumsy,¬†overgrown babies unable or unwilling to make decisions for themselves.

In Japan, the language sounds even less kind. A variety of cultural and economic factors have resulted in a large constituency of what have become known as parasaito shinguru – ¬†Parasite singles.’

Whichever names eventually stick, given the scale of the changes since last-minute Baby Boomers like me flew the nest, it seems unlikely this shift is going to be reversed anytime soon.

Ten reasons why a Kindle is more than just reading

Diary date: 29th March, 1985

I’d forgotten how much obligatory reading I used to have to do. In 1985, I was in the first year of my degree course in French and Scandinavian Studies (mostly Swedish, with a bit of Danish thrown in for good measure). I was never the fastest of readers, so by the time I’d got through Stendhal‘s epic¬†Le Rouge et Le Noir¬†(which, according to my diary, I bought today), the entire four-year course was all but over.

Le Rouge et Le Noir

These days, it feels like it would be so much easier.

Yes, I’m talking about my Kindle.

I haven’t read a physical book since I was introduced to my Kindle; but I’m not sure ‘read’ is really the right word – Kindling is an activity that feels different enough to deserve its own name.

Like everything else, Kindling comes with its good and bad points, so here are my top ten reasons why it’s great – plus another five that should reassure you that my love is not blind.

The good stuff

1. I can read faster on my Kindle.

I have absolutely no scientific evidence for this whatsoever, but as a notoriously slow reader, I can tell when I’m motoring through pages at a decent lick – and my Kindle maximum is a darn sight higher than my standard top speed.

2. I never have to buy trashy airport novels or exceed my baggage allowance with loads of weighty books.

I have as much of the world’s literature as I can afford already in my pocket – and it will never weigh an ounce more, even if I do decide to buy¬†Le Rouge et Le Noir at some point¬†for old times’ sake.

3. I can try before I buy.

As someone from the old school of being morally obliged to finish a book once I’ve started it, sample chapters are a godsend and can save me months of heartache and frustration. I just wish my Kindle had been around before I bought¬†The Da Vinci Code. There’s a few months of my life I’ll never see again.

4. I can concentrate on what I’m doing.

There’s nothing else really going on to get in the way of some serious reading, like dog-eared pages, coffee cup stains or distracting covers. The uniformity of the overall experience lets me hone my powers of Kindling to the max.

5. No one knows what I’m reading.

Embarrassing books or covers are no longer a worry in public places. I haven’t read¬†Fifty Shades of Grey and have no intention of doing so, but you get the idea. ‘Nuff said.

6. I have a vague feeling of being part of something.

In a spooky way, I feel just a teensy bit connected to other books and other people. I can ignore both if I want to, but at least they’re there if I need them.

7. I Kindle on my own terms.

Font size and line spacing are suddenly up to me, not an anonymous typesetter somewhere. If that isn’t power, I don’t know what is.

8. I can save my favourite bits.

Not just from one book, but from every book I read – and keep them all together in one place. I have no idea why I find this so cool, but I do.

9. I actually look up words I don’t understand.

In the past, I would almost never have looked up the meaning of a word I didn’t know in a dictionary – especially if I was cosy and warm and tucked up in bed. On my Kindle, I do it all the time and now know the meaning of crepitus¬†, xenobiotic¬†and of course, sciolism.

10. I can fool myself that my eyesight is not deteriorating.

Just adjust that font size and pretend it’s not happening. Who knows, it might not be.

The not-so-good stuff

1. Every book feels a bit the same.

There’s so little that obviously distinguishes one book from another – size, weight, colour, font, spacing – that I occasionally get myself all mixed up and start wondering why Jack Reacher is suddenly in Life of Pi.

2. You can’t easily flick backwards to check stuff.

OK, you can, but not easily or quickly enough for my liking, and especially not if you’re going back a long way and need to check the name of a minor soldier you last encountered 300 pages ago in War and Peace.

3. Pages don’t stay the same.

This is probably just me, but¬†I remember a lot of what’s-happened-when in a book from the physical layout of the page.¬†I’ll know for example that a particular scene happened a couple of pages after the start of the previous chapter, on a page with lots of dialogue and a long, solid paragraph at the bottom, and with a speck of mud-coloured dirt in the top right-hand corner. Kindling doesn’t give me these kind of clues, and if a bit of mud-coloured dirt is on one page, it’s on every page.

4. There’s no hard evidence of what you’ve read.

Finishing a book has always provided a moment of minor celebration and achievement for me, but somehow I don’t get the same buzz with my Kindle. Putting a completed book on a shelf somewhere has been like a rite of passage. All I’ve got now is a screen full of digital covers that only I ever see. My bookshelves are starting to look rather forlorn, and increasingly either out of date, empty, or filled with other stuff that’s probably even harder to dust. If I was in the bookshelf industry, I might start thinking about diversifying.

5. You can’t see what other people are reading and get inspired by it.

Watching someone absorbed in a book on the train and making a mental note to buy a copy is becoming a thing of the past. I can confirm that peering closely at fellow travellers’ Kindles to try and achieve the same effect is frowned upon and considered impolite, creepy and whatever else it was that woman said before she moved to the other side of the carriage.

Happy Kindling!

Belgium, man! Belgium!

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy tape boxed setDiary date: 20th March, 1985

On this day back in 1985 I am not happy. One of my cassette tapes has broken, beyond even the ability of a rewinding pencil to repair it.

Understand please that this was not just any tape.¬†To record it five years earlier in 1980, I had plugged a tiny microphone into my portable cassette recorder, and propped it up against the speaker of my bedside radio alarm clock. The squeaky-sounding reward for my efforts had eventually been the full second series of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which I then listened to on a fairly perpetual loop every night for years afterwards. The lost episode was the one in which Zaphod utters the most obscene word in the universe (‘Belgium’, in case you were wondering – fortunately here on Earth we don’t know what it means) – not once but twice.

No such trouble these days, with the entire five Hitchhiker radio series available for download from the likes of the iTunes store, stored in the cloud if I need to access any of them, and syncable across as many devices as I can afford.

It can feel as if this sort of ubiquitous availability is somehow also equivalent to ¬†permanence – that Douglas Adams‘ work is now saved and secured forever. But that’s surely a mistake. Who’s to say what the world will be like years from now, and whether we’re even capable of building a digital infrastructure that will stand the test of time?

Interesting then, that when the Long Now Foundation – an organisation dedicated to long-term thinking and the originators of the wonderful 10,000 year clock – were considering how best to preserve a record of the world’s many disappearing languages, they decided to etch the information onto a nickel disk in addition to committing it to the potentially ephemeral ones and zeroes of the cloud. Copies of the disk will be sent off into the centuries to come in the hands of individual owners across the world – a physical, distributed, analogue storage system far more capable of surviving a journey of thousands of years into into the future than anything the digital world currently has to offer.

If we want to avoid on a grander scale the kind of sad end that befell my cassette, we’re going to have to work a lot harder at managing both our data and the platforms that allow us to access it. Within a year or two – possibly less – the technology required to play my remaining Hitchhiker tapes will probably have departed the house – unlikely ever to return.