Pedantry - Moved to http://pedantry.fistfulofeuros.net
Saturday, May 24, 2003
So, I'm watching the Eurovision song contest on the Beeb. This is not, in fact, the first time I've seen it. I did know how cheesy it was going to be. And yet... well, I suppose I have a soft spot for unrepentantly cheesy TV.
The big scandal this year is that Russia has sent Tatu, Russia's current effort to corrupt the minds of western youth. Usually, only obscure nobodies compete in the contest, and usually they stay that way. There are exceptions: Abba, Celine Dion (who sang for Switzerland in '88), A-ha and Israel's famous Dana International.
But, I have to wonder. If Tatu wins, will there be a temptation to send ringers to the contest in the future? I mean real pop stars? It would make the show more watchable, but much of its entertainment value is in its kitschy content.
Update: Russia is in number 2. It'll be Russia, Belgium or Turkey for sure. The UK has zero points. The Beeb commentor has been joking that they'll need to send a gunboat.
Further Update: It's all over. Turkey won. Belgium is number 2 and Russia in third place. The UK ended up with absolutely no points at all - the only country to score nil.
Liebesbriefen von Rußland
I have a question on matters of blogger etiquette. Someone has posted in appreciation of my series on my family, linking to each post in turn. Since I already link to ReachM High Cowboy Network Noose, I have little of the unofficial currency of blogging to offer. What do I do? The best I can think of is fan service.
So, for my fans, I have a pair of letters from my great-grandfather, Kornelius Peter Martens, to his girlfriend, my great-grandmother Tina Neustädter. This is nowhere near complete correspondence. Even as a child I remember hearing about other letters, letters about life in Moscow, at school, and Great-Grandpa's thoughts on WWI. But, Grandpa must not have had them or I'm sure he would have included them. This is what I have.
This first letter must be his very first letter to her. It is dated immediately after when I had understood them to have first met - Winter 1914-15 - while he was on his way to an outhouse during a family function and she was coming back from the same. They were introduced by Grandma Dick's friend Tina Martens, who was also great-grandpa's cousin. She later married Johann Loewen and moved to Ekaterinoslav, then eventually to Fiske, Saskatchewan.
This letter is in German, written from the business school in Barvenkovo that he attended before going on to the university in Moscow. I don't have the original, just a translation. Grandpa was a very capable German translator, but he seems to have had difficulty translating this letter into an unstilted English. I've fixed the most grievous stylistic errors, the moments when I can just about reconstruct the original German from his text. Nonetheless, you can still read through the translation the cheesy romanticism of a 20 year old writting a love letter from school to the cute girl he met over Christmas.
Barvenkovo, 14 January 1915
Great-Grandpa is concerned about the draft. He hasn't been baptised and therefore can't claim a conscientious objection. Mennonites had lost their all-purpose draft exemption by then, and only members of actual dissenting churches could avoid military service. As for whatever his brother said to Tina Martens, I'm sure no one alive has any idea what it was about.
This second letter is from almost a year later, and is written in Russian from Moscow University. Grandma Dick had not learned very much Russian in school. I have had the impression that she was primarily used to speaking Russian with servants and was borderline illiterate in the language. It seems that Great-Grandpa had encouraged her to improve her Russian. He, as a man with a broader education and a future in big business, had quite fluent Russian.
Grandpa didn't translate this letter himself, since he could not speak or read Russian at all. He had it translated by a former associate who was also a Russian professor at the University of Winnipeg. Once again, I am missing the original and it doesn't seem to be a very good translation. It is excessively literal, giving it a kind of bizarre tone for a love letter. I have, once again, tried to repare the worst of it.
Moscow, 1 October 1916
I assume "Nekrosov" is Nikolay Alekseyevich Nekrasov (1821 - 1877), a Russian poet. He was a popular poet, and something of a favourite of social reformers and revolutionaries at the time. He is now something of an obscure writer, known more for having introduced Dostoyevski to the publishing world than for his own work. I also have no idea who "Vanya" was or what his beef might have been.
This last letter is even cheesier than the first. Great-Grandpa seems to have fallen under the influence of some highly romantic poetry. The few lines he quotes are no doubt from some Russian poet, but I can't read the language well enough to find out who the original author is.
I'm struck by the irony of the line from his first letter "The future will probably seem longer to us", for he was dead by the spring of 1920 after a sixteen month marriage. According to Grandma Dick, he learned the catechism in less than three days, so that he could get baptised immediately and marry her in a Mennonite church.
Yet, in 1916 at age 21, he seems to have put his faith elsewhere entirely: "Man can do anything. There is nothing impossible in this world." I don't doubt that he would have been quite the engineer if he had lived.
Friday, May 23, 2003
New York Turkeys, and I don't mean Mayor Bloomberg
According to today's NY Times, a wild turkey has taken up residence in Manhattan.
From the Times article:
By all accounts, the wild turkey sightings apparently are a first in the center of Manhattan. Few species would seem less likely inhabitants of an urban core, considering the wild turkey's ungainly size, its native habitat in woods, mountains and swamps, and its diet of berries, nuts and insects.
This leads me to some science-fictiony thoughts. What if this trend continues? What if we have to learn to live with wildlife larger than the average cat in our cities? I know New York has been encouraging hawks in Manhattan to keep the pigeon population under control. Perhaps we need to bring a whole ecosystem into our urban planning?
I'm just wondering what a city with a native bear population would be like. I imagine Animal Control could implant microchips into each large animal to keep track of them. And the trend in video surveillance is already towards cameras everywhere. I suppose city residents could track wildlife on the Internet through some kind of "roving bearcam" website. Or perhaps they could put alarms on every street corner to warn people when a bear is coming and make enough noise to discourage it from moving around in areas with lots of people. It would mean having to bear-proof your home and garbage cans.
It's a kind of surreal image, the city as a wildlife preserve. The interesting question, though, is how would the people have to change?
Dick Lugar wigs out
There have been a number of Republicans lately showing less than robotic loyalty to their erstwhile president, and Dick Lugar is probably the biggest so far.
Bush 'is on brink of catastrophe'
Thursday, May 22, 2003
I'm watching Panorama right now on the Beeb. Panorama is a bit overdramatic as news programmes go, but it's usually interesting.
They have a rather disturbing programme this week on how chicken is processed in Europe. It's an excellent example of why people become food activists. They haven't shown anything that's actually a risk to your health - essentially, many Dutch chicken processors use water and generic proteins to get chicken meat to weigh more. It's not illegal if it's on the label, and the worst thing they've managed to accuse the chicken processors of is probably pumping more water into the chicken than the label says. It's not going to kill anyone. At worst, it's got denatured pork protein in it and therefor in one case there may be some lying about halal labeling.
But people don't like mystery meat. I don't. I hated the moment when they started showing the colour and texture of the chicken that's pumped full of water, I realised that the chicken I buy looks like that. And I pay €9 per kilo for those chicken breasts.
There's a post coming soon one of these days on the American nightmare - especially as portrayed in American film and TV and how it relates to American politics. This is a good example of the American nightmare in action: the fear that everything is somehow fake, including fake chicken that just appears in supermarkets like magic.
Patrick Nielsen Hayden points out that this is a worthy, and yet regrettably RSS-inaccessible blog. I am attempting to remedy this oversight. However, this means messing with the template. If you start to see funky things, that's why.
Update: Okay, in theory I ought to have an RSS feed through Blogmatrix, but their spider hasn't reached me yet. You ought to see it at the bottom of the sidebar something like:
Once Blogmatrix' spider gets to me, I ought to be properly RSS accessible.
Further Update Blogmatrix' spider must have got to me overnight. We now have RSS, although I can't vouch for the actual update frequency, and it tends to take the beginning of every post as its title, so it may look a little awkward.
Het is voorbij!
Just had my oral exam. I think it went well. The most bizarre exercise was: Here are two photos, one from the wedding of Prince Philip to Mathilde and the other of Prince Alexander to Maxima. Compare the men and women in these two photos.
So, I am now temporarily between schools and need to start looking for a third year Dutch programme before my job starts to get on my nerves.
Computing's Lost Allure
The NY Times has this piece up today on the sudden decline in undergraduate Computer Science enrollment, something it attributes - probably correctly - to the dot-crash. The end of easy money has certainly dimmed some of the field's allure.
At Carnegie Mellon University, applications to the School of Computer Science for next fall are down 36 percent from their peak in 2001; applications to Virginia Tech's computer science department have declined 40 percent since 2001. At M.I.T., renowned for its computer science curriculum, 20 percent fewer freshmen declared electrical engineering and computer science as their central focus this spring than did in 2001 or 2002.
It's true - it's a lot harder to get an IT job than it used to be. The wife and I can only attribute our jobs to a truely extraordinary run of luck this last year. Our jobs really did just fall into our laps, and we were doubly lucky to get them in a country where, at the time, neither of us had work papers.
Still, in the absence of a recovery, opportunities in the computer field are contracting. In 2000 Intel hired 2,378 recent college graduates. Last year it hired 566, one-fourth that number.
On the other hand, there is fear that a long run fall in CS enrollment might have other negative effects:
"Our department will be hurt," said J Strother Moore, chairman of the department of computer sciences at the University of Texas, where interest in the field has also diminished. "But more importantly, when the economy recovers, we're going to need computer programmers, and many more of them than we'll be producing at the current rate of input. It's a serious problem for the national economy."
Personally, I find this unlikely. Forcasts of labour market needs, especially in an area like computer science where demand is so contingent on the investment climate, are not to be believed. As a veteran of the dot-com era, I saw so much labour wasted in the IT industry in the 90's (especially my own) that I'm not at all convinced there needs to be any fear of a tech shortage in the foreseeable future.
The grad school enrollment picture, on the other hand, looks quite different. If we assume that people with graduate educations are more productive than those with only undergraduate educations (a bit of a stretch, I know) then this paragraph suggests that there is little to fear:
The number of graduate students entering Ph.D. programs in computer science rose 21 percent last year, according to the Taulbee Survey, an annual report compiled by the Computing Research Association, a nonprofit research group. M.I.T. officials said that the graduate program in computer science had received about 3,000 applications for next fall for 120 places, up from 2,000 applications four years ago.
Now, being a contrarian, let me offer some advice to those facing career choices at any level and considering IT. Now is a good time to be a CS/EE undergrad and a bad time to get a graduate degree in CS or EE. This is a good time to look at other kinds of advanced education that can complement a computer science background.
Why is it a good time to be an undergrad? Well, because moldable early 20-something minds are an important industrial commodity - they don't cost as much as grown-ups, they have the latest and most up-to-date training and they don't realise yet that employers are not to be trusted.
There is another reason though. It was one of the reasons why I didn't get a CS degree, and it's something that's changed:
Yes, they have cute girls in CS departments now. This is a huge improvement over the days of yore, when the ratio was one woman per fifty awkward geeks. But, things are different now.
If you're middle class and between the ages of 15 to 25, now is the time get used to women making more money than you do, because among professionals it is increasingly the normal situation. Although the overall pay gap has not disappeared, in the technical trades it has come closer than elsewhere. Now is the time to deal with the idea that the right woman can set you in up in the lifestyle to which you would like to become accustomed. You too can take advantage of your university as marriage mill, just as women have for decades.
Yes, now is the time to find yourself a techno-babe.
(*ouch* No honey, I didn't marry you for your money. *ouch* You were living in your Pinto when I met you, remember? *ouch* Stop hitting me with your iPod! *ouch*)
Anyway, for those who already have degrees and are contemplating CS grad school to avoid unemployment, this is not the time to go get a Master's or PhD. First, because if you do you will be competing with me for jobs, and I take a dim view of that sort of thing. Second, with so many people trying to stay in school, you risk finding yourself overqualified for entry level jobs and in a market flooded with CS/EE PhD's.
Now is the time to consider changing tracks and doing a graduate degree in the humanities.
Yes, I know, if you have a degree in tech, you think the humanities are a synonym for unemployment. However, tech in conjunction with a background in the humanities can be a killer combination. It pays, often well, to be the engineer who actually knows how to write. It pays to be the competent programmer who also speaks Chinese. It pays to be the guy who both knows technology and psychology, or sociology, or history, or even modern lit, or any of those fields that don't pay off so well by themselves. Computing for the humanities is a growing field while pure tech is slowing down markedly.
Now, the other thing you're likely to tell yourself is that you need a Bachelor's in something in the humanities to do a Master's in it. The truly funny thing is that this isn't true except at the most elite American universities. In Quebec, you can enroll in a Master's in a subject you've never studied before, subject to the condition that you spend your first year taking the 30 credit undergraduate coursework that would have been required to major in that subject. It's only a year's extra work to do. In Europe, they offer complimentary degrees, many only one or two years long, which are intended to enable you to enter PhD level programmes in fields you may have little or no previous experience in. Even in the States, good GRE's and an earnest expression of interest will do wonders.
In a field like foreign language education, there may not be any special prerequisites at all to continue studying, although it won't necessarily lead to a graduate degree. Do you think the war on terrorism is on the wane, or will be any time soon? If not, don't you think born Americans with tech backgrounds and fluent Arabic are doing pretty well for themselves right now? There are excellent Arabic language schools in many countries in the Middle East, many of them quite inexpensive, especially now. Yes, I suppose there is some chance you'll get yourself blown up, but the odds are on your side and the rewards are considerable. In the same way, I've been wondering what SARS will do for the cost of an education in the Far East. What do you want to bet that no one wants to live in Beijing or Shanghai right now?
Anyway, it's something to think about.
Wednesday, May 21, 2003
The last Buffy ever was on last night, and I haven't even seen the begining of the last season. Kanaal Twee doesn't have it on, and God only knows when BBC2 is going to get it back since it's on Sky in the UK this season. RTL and La Deux are showing, like, season five, but only in French. I don't want to see it dubbed in a couple years (Fait gaffe, Bewffy! - please!) and I don't want to wait for DVD.
Somebody, please tell me the final show was worthy.
From my cold, dead hands
I wonder when the NRA is going to start holding rallies to defend Iraqis' right to own guns. It looks like what some folks consider human rights in Idaho don't apply in Iraq.
Allies to Begin Seizing Weapons From Most Iraqis
I want to see the anti-gun control people defend this one, especially the ones who both supported the war and believe that gun ownership is a guarantee of good government.
I especially like the picture that accompanied it:
Looks like some paranoid fantasy of the black helicopter set doesn't it?
Will this be ignored by the right wing press or is the weaseling about to begin? We report, you decide.
Colombia Searches for Real Soldiers of Fortune
Is it just me, or does this sound like a very cheesy summer action movie?
BOGOTA, Colombia (Reuters) - More than 100 elite Colombian troops were on the run on Tuesday after stealing at least $14 million from a Marxist rebel war chest.
They've stolen $14 million from narcoguerillas. Now the Columbian army, the US army, Marxist guerillas and the drug traffickers are all out to get them.
This summer, Columbia entertainment presents... Sylvester Stalone, Bruce WIllis, Kiefer Sutherland, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in the summer thriller of 2003...
The robbery of the century
Coming soon to a theatre near you.
Tuesday, May 20, 2003
The Belgian Blogger Blues
Both Enetation and Blogger were on the fritz last night and haven't been too reliable this morning either. That's why there's new post up dated yesterday. I wrote it, I posted it, but I couldn't publish.
Looks like everything's back up for the moment though. Of course, it's the middle of the night in the States, so no one is reading this anyway. My new blog implementation isn't quite ready to go yet, and the wife is back at work, so who knows when I'll finally be able to migrate.
In the mean time, let me direct you to the latest from George Monbiot in today's Guardian:
Let's hear it for Belgium
Monday, May 19, 2003
Arundhati Roy tells us what she really thinks
[via ReachM High Cowboy Network Noose]
I'm only halfway through this speech transcript from the subcontinent's most attractive famous leftist intellectual, titled Instant-Mix Imperial Democracy. Buy One, Get One Free. Man, she is not into the Bush way of doing things.
[...] The point is, if Saddam Hussein was evil enough to merit the most elaborate, openly declared assassination attempt in history (the opening move of Operation Shock and Awe), then surely those who supported him ought at least to be tried for war crimes? Why aren’t the faces of US and UK government officials on the infamous pack of cards of wanted men and women? [...]
I have promised the rest of Grandma Dick's story for some two weeks now. The first part is here, and there is a link from there that lets you go back to the rest of Grandpa's memoirs. This story should be contrasted with my grandfather's memory of the same events, which were not the same.
We pick up Grandma Dick's story again in 1927 - she says almost nothing about the years between her parents murder and her exit from the Soviet Union, except a series of dates for her baptism, her marriage and my grandfather's birth. For her, Russia symbolised a misery that I don't think she was ever comfortable talking about, while Canada was her liberation. Russia was where her parents were murdered, where she spent her teen years in misery with her foster parents, and where her husband died less than eighteen months after her marriage.
I suspect she rationalised some of her hatred of Russia as hatred of communists. Anti-communism was far from unusual among people who had lost their property to nationalisation, long before Stalin started to make people's lives extra difficult for their class and ethnic origins. Although there were many Mennonites exiled under Stalin - something she fears would have happened to her - this did not happen to everyone, and it did not happen to her foster parents as far as I know. It would, however, likely have happened to her in-laws, and she might well have been taken away with them. It's hard to know.
Nonetheless, her desire to flee Russia, to get as far from it as she could, was real enough. She wanted out and she never looked back. But, there were obstacles she would have to overcome first.
How often I have thanked the Lord that He lead me out of Russia with Theodor. It was His hand, and He is a Father the widows and orphans. Together with Theodor He lead me out of the land of misery.
In 1928, Stalin ordered foreign relief offices shut down. In 1929, thousands of Mennonites who were trying to leave the Soviet Union were stranded in Moscow for weeks until they were either given permission to leave, or were forcibly returned to their homes, or, in some cases, sent into exile in SIberia. Grandma Dick and my grandfather got out a little more than a year before it became impossible to emigrate.
Next: Grandpa Dick's history.
While I'm on the subject of The Matrix Reloaded...
One second thought, I'm not going to write a real post on The Matrix Reloaded. All the good lines have clearly been taken by Andrew O'Hehir in today's Salon, who I now intend to quote more extensively than fair use rules usually allow:
[...] But in "The Matrix Reloaded" they take the time to show us what Neo and his tough-babe squeeze Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and über-cool guide/guru Morpheus and the rest of the human rebels battling against the technocratic enslavement of the Matrix are fighting for. It's not the awesome designer leathers and sunglasses, the Porsches and Ducati bikes; as cool as those things may seem, they exist in the Matrix, which is to say they don't really exist at all. [...]
I was struck by the scenes in Zion, just as O'Hehir and many others were. The neologism technegro leapt to mind, although somehow I doubt the word would ever catch on. We're used to a vision of the future where blacks, Asians, Hispanics and other people with off-white skin get to be captains of starships, Nobel-prize winning scientists, engineers and the like. It's the vision those of us growing up in white middle America after the civil rights movement absorbed with our breakfast cereals while watching Sesame Street on PBS.
A lot of people look at people of colour, Latin Americans, Arabs, Africans, and God knows who else and say that they can never have what we have unless they become culturally more like us. Look at Star Trek, or other contemporary SF, and how it reinforces this belief. Jordi LaForge has dark skin and dates interracially (a little), but there is never the slightest indication that he is in any way culturally different from the rest of the crew on the Enterprise. This was even more heavily reinforced with Sulu on the original Trek. If you closed your eyes, you would never know that he was Asian at all.
Yes, it's a real improvement just to have convinced people that you can be morally equal no matter what your skin colour is. But that's not enough.
Take a look at the way Asians are routinely portrayed in American fiction in the 80's and later. Modern, intelligent, capable, high-tech Asian characters are still very Asian, often in ways so stereotyped that they're offensive. No one has the slightest difficulty imagining Asian characters as having what we have - wealth, power and loads of cool stuff - just as they are, quite independently of whatever we think about their culture as such.
Now, imagine Jordi LaForge from Star Trek speaking like some kid from the bad part of Oakland, or with a thick Mississippi black accent, or playing his collection of Tupac CD's on the engineering deck, or wearing massively baggy pants and a tuque, or whatever other stereotype you care to indulge. You can't do it, or if you can, the image is probably pretty uncomfortable.
Well, the Wachowski brothers seem able to go there. Zion isn't quite so stereotyped as all that, but it is definitely somebody's idea of the 'hood. You can tell from its crowds (Zion looks pretty packed), its architecture (old and rusted), its music (big on rhythm and bongo-looking drums), and its sensuality (a myth about dark people to be sure, but a myth us white folk seem all too willing to indulge when we're feeling horny.) Zion isn't an interracial neighbourhood. It's a black and Hispanic inner-city neighbourhood with some white people who've decided they like it there. And, despite being culturally quite remote from the mainsteam culture of the Matrix, they still have all the cool stuff you could ask for. They have mecha that any fan of Japanese anime would recognise in a second. They have cool virtual keyboards, hovercraft, lasers and all the high tech stuff you could want.
And - in a turn that really deserves an award for audacity - the 'hood is the salvation of humanity, the one place free of the Matrix. It's those white folk back in the Matrix, with their big houses and office jobs, who are all screwed up. Or is it so simple? At the end of the movie, we are led to believe that Zion is not so free of the Matrix after all, just like the ghettos, where rap CD sales and Nike shoes send corporate bosses' kids to prep school and fund Republican presidential candidates.
I like that symbolism. It makes me want to reread Guy Debord's La Société du Spectacle. It's daring and honest about our world in a way that few big Hollywood names are able to manage these days. I'm sure if somebody hasn't decided that it's racist by now, they no doubt will in the next few days. But I don't care. It's a hell of a lot more interesting than the bridge of the Enterprise, where diversity means different skin colours instead of different kinds of lives.
I know I haven't blogged much the last couple of weeks, after promising several provocative essays and some more stuff from Russia. Real life sometimes interferes with my web time.
I did just finish a wonderful essay on what I'm trying to accomplish here at work - complete with a short and highly abridged history of machine translation, computer-aided translation and controlled language engineering - and I'd love to post it and get feedback, except that I think it would breech my non-disclosures and be somewhat legally troubling anyay. It would offer up a nice picture of what I do for a living, but it would also disclose to anyone with a browser the corporate strategy I'm trying to sell my boss on.
And, there's all kinds of things I'd like to comment on going around the blogs and the news: the "indefinite postponement" of an Iraqi interim government, the British Tories' new plan (according to today's Guardian) to be the "party of the poor", last night's Belgian election returns, and I note that I'm not the only one with thoughts about The Matrix Reloaded's portrayal of race. But I just haven't the time.
So, let me leave you with a few pictures from my summer 2001 trip through Asia, to give the impression that I've actually posted lately.
One of the Three Gorges - I can't remember which
A city next to the Yangtze - I think one of the ones due for demolition
Sign along the river - I think it reads Witch Mountain Highlands Conservation Works. I can't read the third character and I don't have a simplified character dictionary on hand.
Update: Found the character. It's "xiàn" - in traditional characters it looks like:
"Xiàntian" literally means something like "sky country", so I figure highlands is probably a good translation.
The last Gorge - I think
The Three Gorges Dam works, enshrouded, like so much in China, in smog
The scale model at the Dam's adjacent tourist trap