Language Evolves

But that isn’t necessarily a good thing. Stinky-breathed Komodo dragons probably evolved from a perfectly nice little fish.

This packaging was clearly designed by someone who doesn’t speak English – or a LOLcat – as they’ve made the cardinal error of applying logic. Consequently they’ve come up with exactly the mistake that the native speaker doesn’t make. Mind you, they’ve probably just skipped a century or two of language development. If dice is accepted as the singular now, ‘dices’ is surely in the future.

Generally I think of myself as a linguistic conservative, on the grounds that language innovations will be different everywhere so older forms are going to be more widely understood. Also, it’s interesting when a word is a misfit. It tells you a lot about its origins – from the Latin ‘datum’ in this case, by way of mediaeval French.

Indeed English spelling tells you so much about the etymological origins of a word that it’s basically useless for telling you how they’re pronounced. But die/dice is just annoying. Following the usual pattern, you’d expect the singular to be douse. When a word needs a rule all for itself, you begin to wonder if you’re not overindulging it.

I think dice should be acceptable as the singular now. Die can be reserved for the technical phrase “twenty-sided die”.

No More Pencils, No More Books

iPad showing OpenStreetMap content
Homework never looked more attractive

Giving iPads to kids in school. How lovely. St Kevin’s in Crumlin is the most recent of something like seven around the country, starting with St Colman’s in Mayo, to join this revolution.

What the hell are they thinking?

I guess it tells you a lot about the world some people live in, that this idea wasn’t shot down on the grounds that the iPads would be stolen by children from other, less well-equipped schools. We assume all these kids are being delivered to the gates by car. It’s even more charming to realise that the kids themselves are being trusted not to break, lose, or ‘lose’ such valuable devices. Of course there’s one advantage – right now, most children who had the cash price of an iPad would probably use it to buy an iPad.

What I find either more touching still, or just hopelessly naïve, is the idea that kids will be able to use iPads, in class or for study, without becoming terminally distracted. They’re being encouraged to do their homework in an amusement arcade. Schools say the tablets will be blocked from things like Facebook and Twitter, but it doesn’t take a child to figure out that there are about a billion other available distractions on the Web, and it’s quite impossible to block them on an individual basis. And remember, this is in school – the only place in the world where it’s legal to enforce hours of brain-crushing inaction on innocent children. I spent thirteen of my most impressionable years being bored to tears, I would have killed for such distraction.

On the other hand, I am distracted every day by the fact that I work on devices I can use to access the Internet. Raised from the very start with the temptation, maybe these kids will develop the iron discipline necessary to keep their concentration in this all-singing, all-dancing world.

Maybe.

One thing that isn’t a problem though – you may be wondering how the hell it makes economic sense to give such expensive tools to every child in a school. To understand, you just need to know about the cost of schoolbooks in Ireland. School teaching is free here, yes. But school books are basically a massive scheme to ream hapless parents until their eyes pop. Compared to that, the cost of an iPad over a few years is almost trivial.

Fixing A Whole

Not my actual download speed

Sorry I’ve been missing a while. Finally, broadband access has reached the country retreat (a.k.a. my mother’s house), and the last couple of days I’ve been setting us up a network.

It’s all gone pretty well. There were problems of course – these things always assume you’re starting with fresh and shiny computers instead of ones that have lived real lives – but in fairly quick succession they’ve all been solved. The Internet speed itself is not that great at about 1.75 Mbits per second; I’d frequently get faster download using 3G. But 3G was frustratingly intermittent, dropping out several times a day – sometimes several times an hour. This connection may not be blistering but it’s consistent, and that’s better. What’s better still, we now have a lovely all-wireless network that can shunt files around and back them up like nobody’s business. I may even take a break from criticising Eircom, the national-yet-privatised phone infrastructure company, for the first time since the year 2000. It’s all very satisfying.

Apart, that is, from one minor glitch. No actually it’s not even minor. It’s beyond trivial. There’s just one place on the network I can’t connect to from my laptop. It’s not something I actually need to connect to¹. But the thing is, I should be able to connect to it.

Do you understand what that means to a geek? The network is not complete. This incompleteness is intolerable.

This is not all obsessive-compulsive disorder. The reasonable worry is that an apparently inconsequential fault on the surface of a complex system indicates a fundamental one below. Unexplained problems ought, where possible, to be tracked down.

Which is where the OCD really comes into its own… Almost always this is a slow, iterative process of experimentation. “What will happen if I try this? Nothing. OK, so what happens if I try this… Nothing. OK, so what happens if I try the third of these two hundred and seventy-eight possibilities?” Curiousity draws you in, but an almost robotic repetitiveness gets you out.

Most of the way out, at least. A day later I’ve figured out what the problem is and I know how to fix it. Actually implementing the solution though, that’s not interesting at all.

So hi, how’ve you been?

 

  1. If you must know, it’s the root of one – though only one – of my USB external drives. 

Shiny, Shiny Shark

iridescent shark catfish Pangasius hypophthalmus
Weird-looking fish

I know I’m writing about dinner a lot this week, but it’s really not my beat. I have friends – Domestigeek, Zucchini and Aubergine – who blog about food far more entertainingly than I ever could. Because they write better? I would deny that of course. But they sure as hell eat better.

OK, the days are over when I regarded beer as the staple and takeaway fried chicken as the health supplement. Seriously, I lived that way for years. Well, I say lived. Nowadays I’m a reformed character, all fruit and nuts and vegetables and cereals. But though my diet is healthy, it’s still not really interesting. There is only so much you can say about bran.

Today though was an exception. Today, I ate iridescent shark.

This is not a 60s band from San Francisco, it’s a type of catfish farmed extensively in Southeast Asia. I understand it’s fairly common in the US where it’s often called tra or swai, but it’s pretty much unknown here and was being offered under its taxonomic name pangasius. At an introductory price of just one euro a fillet too – but really, they had me at the Latin.

Even better, the place was about to close so she gave me the remaining four for the price of two. Mushrooms also being on special offer, I bought a punnet and grilled the whole lot together with butter and just a cheeky sprinkling of mélange d’herbes. The fish was pleasantly unusual. A little earthy, though not so much as catfish usually is, but quite sweet and fatty as well. I didn’t think I could eat four of them, but it was just exactly enough to make me feel sinfully stuffed. And all for three euro.

My cooking tip of the day then: Buy weird-looking fish they’re about to throw out.

The War Against Humour

Ali Ferzat replies to his critics

I was going to call this a worrying trend. But no, it’s not. When I think about it it’s an exciting trend, a real sign of hope.

Governments throughout the Middle East are starting to take jokes seriously.

Pakistan has banned telling anti-government jokes by text or e-mail. On the streets of Syria, noted political cartoonist Ali Ferzat was attacked by pro-government thugs and beaten up, with particular attention paid to his hands.

What does it mean? Well, it shows that Ralph Steadman wasn’t entirely right. One of Britain’s most famous cartoonists of the 1960s, Steadman gave up political caricature because he came to think that politicians were so monstrous in their craving for attention that they saw satire as a form of flattery. Perhaps they only pretended not to be hurt, but they did a good job of it, offering to buy even the cruellest drawing. No wonder he despaired.

But while that may happen where leaders rule by popularity, they take a very different attitude when they control by fear. Nothing undermines fear more than ridicule – that’s why some of the best jokes come out of the most horrific situations. Laughter restores perspective, shrinks giants, drives out darkness. And laughter will win.

A Brilliant Satire Of Market-Driven Idiocy

Julian Gough. Photograph: Anne Marie Fives

Good news: My friend Julian has a new novel out, Jude in London. Here’s the first review, from the Guardian.

Gooder news: You can read it for free. If you like it, you can pay what you think it’s worth afterwards.

Julian and his publisher needed to get copies out ahead of its scheduled publication date of September 6 for the book to qualify for the Guardian’s “Not The Booker” alternative literary prize, so they sent out PDFs on the honour system. The response was so good that they decided to extend the offer, at least until it comes out officially. This “books on trust” idea could revolutionise the publishing industry more than the eBook and iPad combined. Probably not of course, but it could.

If you need to read a bit of a novel before you decide if it’s even worth downloading for free, I can recommend the excerpt The Great Hargeisa Goat Bubble, which was published by the Financial Times as a short story and later converted into a radio play by BBC4 (Listen here). It’s brilliant satire of the market-driven idiocy that got us where we are today – most of it written long before the crash actually happened.

A Brilliant Satire Of Market-Driven Idiocy

Julian Gough. Photograph: Anne Marie Fives

Good news: My friend Julian has a new novel out, Jude in London. Here’s the first review, from the Guardian.

Gooder news: You can read it for free. If you like it, you can pay what you think it’s worth afterwards.

Julian and his publisher needed to get copies out ahead of its scheduled publication date of September 6 for the book to qualify for the Guardian’s “Not The Booker” alternative literary prize, so they sent out PDFs on the honour system. The response was so good that they decided to extend the offer, at least until it comes out officially. This “books on trust” idea could revolutionise the publishing industry more than the eBook and iPad combined. Probably not of course, but it could.

If you need to read a bit of a novel before you decide if it’s even worth downloading for free, I can recommend the excerpt The Great Hargeisa Goat Bubble, which was published by the Financial Times as a short story and later converted into a radio play by BBC4 (Listen here). It’s brilliant satire of the market-driven idiocy that got us where we are today – most of it written long before the crash actually happened.