TTW2 – the second Tiree Tech Wave is approaching

It is a little over a month (3-7 Nov)  until the next Tiree Tech Wave 🙂  However, as I’m going to be off-island most of the time until the end of October, it seems very close indeed!

The first registrations are in, including Clare flying straight here from the US1 and Alessio coming from Madrid; mind you last time Azizah had come all the way from Malaysia, so still looking very parochial in comparison!

While I don’t expect we will be oversubscribed, do ‘book early’ (before Oct 10th) if you intend to come to help us plan things and make sure you get your preferred accommodation (the tent at the end of my garden is draughty in November) and travel.

If you want to take advantage of the island’s watersports, catch me in one place for more than a day, or simply hang out, do take a few extra days before or after the event.  One person has already booked to arrive a couple of days early and others maybe also.

To see what the Tech Wave will be like see the Interfaces report … although it is the people who make the event, so I’m waiting to be surprised again this time round 🙂

Looking forward to seeing you.

  1. In fact guided over the ocean by the ‘golf ball’ on Tiree, which is the North Atlantic civil radar.[back]

Cycling Cumbria to Northumbria for Miriam, Kenya and Cancer

In  just over a week I’m going to be cycling the coast-to-coast route, from Maryport on the west coast of Cumbria to Tynemouth on the east coast of Northumbria, 140 miles across the Pennines, the backbone of England.

The C2C ride is part of Miriam’s preparation for her 400km cycle ride in Kenya next February (see her blog “BICYCLE, BICYCLE, BICYCLE (I want to ride my…)“), organised by Women V Cancer, in support of several women’s cancer charities. During the Kenya ride Miriam will be doing a gruelling 50 miles a day in summer heat and on not-so-smooth roads, compared to just 35 miles a day on the C2C.  Janet Finlay, Rachel Cowgill and I are joining Miriam on the C2C, and Miriam, Janet and Rachel recently had their own pre-C2C training weekend down in the hills north of Cardiff, up near Aberfan (site of the 1966 disaster, which I posted about a few months ago).

In principle this should be a leisurely ride, we are doing it in four days, some people manage it in three or even two.  However, I’d not been on a bike for ten years before last summer, and since June have been travelling continuously and consequentially only stepped onto the bike four times — so not a lot of practice.  Furthermore, Tiree does not offer a lot of practice for cross-mountain cycling … the last time I cycled up a hill was 1994!  So, Alston Moor and the Pennines may be a bit of a challenge :-/

I’ll do a post when I finish and tweet (@alanjohndix) on the way (mobile signal allowing).

I’m not doing any sponsorship individually, but if you would like to support me and my sore bottom do add a few pounds on Miriam’s JustGiving page for Kenya and pop in the comments box that it is for me on the C2C.

Death by Satellite

The Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) is on its way down after 20 years zipping by at 375 miles above our heads.  As the bus-sized satellite breaks up parts will reach earth and NASA reassuringly tell us that there is only a 1 in 3,200 chance that anyone will be hit.  Given being hit by a piece of satellite is likely to be painful and most likely terminal, I wonder if I should be worried.

With a world population of 6,963,070,0291, that is around one in a trillion chance that I will die from UARS this year.  Given the annual risk from asteroid impact or shark attack is around one in in 2 billion2, that sounds quite good for UARS (but must buy that shark repellent from Boots).

Of course, it is a bit unfair comparing the UARS that has been up there for 20 years spinning round the world like frenzy, with more mundane day-to-day risks like crossing the road.  For air travel they take into account the distance travelled and aim for safety factors around 1 accident (but with a lot of people in the aeroplane) every hundred million flying miles and achieving a figure about 10 times better than that3.

At 375 miles the UARS will have been orbiting at 7.55978 km/s4, so travelled 2.9 billion miles in the last 20 years.  That means it is causing one death in 10 trillion miles travelled … five thousand times safer than air flight, 120 million times safer than car travel5, and around million times safer than bicycle6.  I must cancel my KLM ticket home and get one by satellite.

  1. World population of 6,963,070,029 at 5:14 UTC (EST+5) Sep 19, 2011 according to US Census Bureau World Population Clock [back]
  2. Scientific American, “Competing Catastrophes: What’s the Bigger Menace, an Asteroid Impact or Climate Change?“, Robin Lloyd, March 31, 2010 [back]
  3. Wikipedia Air Safety page quotes different, but close numbers: 3 deaths per 10 billion passenger miles, one death in 20 billion passenger miles and 0.05 deaths per billion passenger kilometers.[back]
  4. CalcTool Earth Orbit Calculator[back]
  5. Based on UK figures of 3,431 deaths per year (US NHTSA) and 26.7 billion miles driven in the UK per year (Admiral Insurance).[back]
  6. Wikipedia Air Safety statistics[back]

Private schools and open data

Just read short article “Private schools aren’t doing as well right-wingers like to think” by Rob Cowen @bobbiecowman1.  Rob analyses the data on recent GCSE results and finds that independent schools have been falling behind comprehensive schools in the last couple of years.  He uses this to refute the belief that GCSE standards are dropping, although equally it calls into question David Cameron’s recent suggestion that independent schools such as Eton should be given public money to start ‘Free Schools’2.

However, this is also a wonderful example of the way open data can be used to challenge unsupported views including official ones or ‘common knowledge’.  Of course, during the recent voting reform referendum, David Cameron expressed his disinterest in data and statistics compared with gut feelings, so the availability of data is only half the battle!

Graph shwoing comprehensive vs independent school performance

  1. Thanks to Laura Cowen @lauracowen for re-tweeting this.[back]
  2. See BBC News: Cameron: ‘Eton should set up a state school’[back]

The Adelphi Liverpool

Last week I spent an evening in Liverpool watching the Lodestar Theatre Company production of Romeo and Juliet, part of the Liverpool Shakespeare Festival.  It was a wonderful performance, with evocative AV backdrops, rich music and an energetic cast, the high spot for me probably Juliet’s effervescent energy as she covered the stage with 14 year old tomboy-ish exuberance.

For the night, due to an overbooked hotel elsewhere, I ended up at the Adelphi Hotel, right in the heart of Liverpool, only a hundred yards from Lime Street Station and the St George’s Hall, where the performance was staged.

The Adelphi seems like an hotel from a different age, a huge Victorian edifice in the heart of Liverpool city centre.  The perhaps more imposing station hotel has been converted into student accommodation, so now the Adelphi stands alone in the centre jostling with the glass and neon Holiday Inn and Travelodge for station travellers, still representing tradition in an age of automatic check-in and Lego-kit furnishing.

Like an ageing aunt, remembering her dancing days, bright lipstick slightly awry, the Adelphi is clearly struggling to maintain its dignity assailed  by the recession and narrowing margins from without, crumbling masonry and cast-iron radiators within, and the occasional onslaught of amiable drunks passing on their way from pub to pub.

Sometimes it seems that, like the crooked lipstick, things slip: three times dragging my suitcase up and down to and from my sixth floor room until my keycard was properly programmed (yes electronic keys, signs of the 21st century), the water taps that only just work and never gave a hot shower, or the lifts that seemed to constantly deliver the same packed group of pensioners up to the sixth floor when they really wanted to get down to the ground. But, like the firmly grasped handbag, hat and Sunday gloves, signs of a different standard of service, vast veneer wooden wardrobe and dressing table, brocade-covered arm chairs, a real teapot and cup and saucers with the (electric) kettle, and of course a room-service menu that includes “roast of the day”.

At breakfast it feels like a post-apocalyptic science-fiction set where in the aftermath of 1950s atomic testing  all conception ceased and so now, from wall to wall, the room is filled with septuagenarians eating unending supplies of bacon, fried eggs and toasted crumpets, with the only under-60 faces the serving staff from Eastern Europe, which has evidently been spared the mass impotence of the West.

But, did you notice, in an age of croissants, yogurt and Danish pasties – crumpets, yes real crumpets for breakfast – a trace of the Empire still survives in Liverpool L1.

So like the ageing aunt, whose occasional quirks and impatience you forgive, overlooking her inexpert makeup, for the memory of war-time childhood and rock-and-roll romances, so with the Adelphi, I forgive its dodgy plumbing and erratic lift, for the glimpse of a style and a world that is past and will soon be gone for ever.

And in days to come, in some hotel room of plastic, steel and wine-bar-like sheen, I will dream of my night at the Adelphi.

book: The Unfolding of Language, Deutscher

I have previously read Guy Deutscher‘s “Through the Language Glass“, and have now, topsy turvy, read his earlier book “The Unfolding of Language“.  Both are about language, “The Unfolding of Language” about the development of the complexity of language that we see today from simpler origins, and “Through the Language Glass” about the interaction between language and thought.  Both are full of sometimes witty and always fascinating examples drawn from languages around the world, from the Matses in the Amazon to Ancient Sumarian.

I recall my own interest in the origins of language began young, as a seven year old over breakfast one day, asking whether ‘night, was a contraction of ‘no light’.  While this was an etymological red herring, it is very much the kind of change that Deutscher documents in detail showing the way a word accretes beginnings and ending through juxtaposition of simpler words followed by erosion of hard to pronounce sounds.

One of my favourites examples was the French “aujourd’hui”.  The word ‘hui, was Old French for ‘today’, but was originally Latin “hoc die”, “(on) this day”. Because ‘hui’ is not very emphatic it became “au jour d’hui”, “on the day of this day” , which contracted to the current ‘aujourd’hui’. Except now to add emphasis some French speakers are starting to say “au jour aujourd’hui”, “on the day on the day of this day”!  This reminds me of Longsleddale in the Lake District (inspiration for Postman Pat‘s Greendale),  a contraction of “long sled dale”, which literally means “long valley valley” from Old English “slaed” meaning “valley” … although I once even saw something suggesting that ‘long’ itself in the name was also “valley” in a different language!

Deutscher gives many more prosaic examples where words meaning ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘she’ get accreted to verbs to create the verb endings found in languages such as French, and how prepositions (themselves metaphorically derived from words like ‘back’) were merged with nouns to create the complex case endings of Latin.

However, the most complex edifice, which Deutscher returns to repeatedly, is that of the Semitic languages with a template system of vowels around three-consonant roots, where the vowel templates change the meaning of the root.  To illustrate he uses the (fictional!) root ‘sng’ meaning ‘to snog’ and discusses how first simple templates such as ‘snug’ (“I snogged”) and then more complex constructions such as ‘hitsunnag’ (“he was made to snog himself”) all arose from simple processes of combination, shortening and generalisation.

“The Unfolding of Language” begins with the 19th century observation that all languages seem to be in a process of degeneration where more complex  forms such as the Latin case system or early English verb endings are progressively simplified and reduced. The linguists of the day saw all languages in a state of continuous decay from an early linguistic Golden Age. Indeed one linguist, August Schleicher, suggested that there was a process where language develops until it is complex enough to get things done, and only then recorded history starts, after which the effort spent on language is instead spent in making history.

As with geology, or biological evolution, the modern linguist rejects this staged view of the past, looking towards the Law of Uniformitarianism, things are as they have always been, so one can work out what must have happened in the pre-recorded past by what is happening now.  However, whilst generally finding this convincing, throughout the book I had a niggling feeling that there is a difference.  By definition, those languages for which we have written records are those of large developed civilisations, who moreover are based on writing. Furthermore I am aware that for biological evolution small isolated groups (e.g. on islands or cut off in valleys) are particularly important for introducing novelty into larger populations, and I assume the same would be true of languages, but somewhat stultified by mass communication.

Deutscher does deal with this briefly, but right at the very end in a short epilogue.  I feel there is a whole additional story about the interaction between culture and the grammatical development of language.  I recall in school a teacher explained how in Latin the feminine words tended to belong to the early period linked to agriculture and the land, masculine words for later interests in war and conquest, and neuter for the still later phase of civic and political development. There were many exceptions, but even this modicum of order helped me to make sense of what otherwise seemed an arbitrary distinction.

The epilogue also mentions that the sole exception to the ‘decline’ in linguistic complexity is Arabic with its complex template system, still preserved today.

While reading the chapters about the three letter roots, I was struck by the fact that both Hebrew an Arabic are written as consonants only with vowels interpolated by diacritical marks or simply remembered convention (although Deutscher does not mention this himself). I had always assumed that this was like English where t’s pssble t rd txt wth n vwls t ll. However, the vowels are far more critical for Semitic languages where the vowel-less words could make the difference between “he did it” and “it will be done to him”.  Did this difference in writing stem from the root+template system, or vice versa, or maybe they simply mutually reinforced each other?

The other factor regarding Arabic’s remarkable complexity must surely be the Quran. Whereas the Bible was read for a over a millennium in Latin, a non-spoken language, and later translated focused on the meaning; in contrast there is a great emphasis on the precise form of the Quran together with continuous lengthy recitation.  As the King James Bible has been argued to have been a significant influence on modern English since the 17th century, it seems likely the Quran has been a factor in preserving Arabic for the last 1500 years.

Early in “The Unfolding of Language” Deutscher dismisses attempts to look at the even earlier prehistoric roots of language as there is no direct evidence. I assume that this would include Mithin’s “The Singing Neanderthals“, which I posted about recently. There is of course a lot of truth in this criticism; certainly Mithin’s account included a lot of guesswork, albeit founded on paleontological evidence.  However, Deutscher’s own arguments include extrapolating to recent prehistory. These extrapolations are based on early written languages and subsequent recorded developments, but also include guesswork between the hard evidence, as does the whole family-tree of languages.  Deutscher was originally a Cambridge mathematician, like me, so, perhaps unsurprisingly, I found his style of argument convincing. However, given the foundations on Uniformitarianism, which, as noted above, is at best partial when moving from history to pre-history, there seems more of  a continuum rather than sharp distinction between the levels of interpretation and extrapolation in this book and Mithin’s.

Deutscher’s account seeks to fill in the gap between the deep prehistoric origins of protolanguage (what Deutscher’s calls ‘me Tarzan’ language) and its subsequent development in the era of media-society (starting 5000BC with extensive Sumerian writing). Rather than seeing these separately, I feel there is a rich account building across various authors, which will, in time, yield a more complete view of our current language and its past.

On Travelling and Stretched Souls

A few days ago I tweeted:

“Maybe people like car warranties have so many years or so many miles? Each flight a little death; 400 more miles on the clock. Better walk.”

This was half in jest, but set me thinking.

Each time I fly I feel thinner, more distant, like some bored executive’s rubber desktop toy overstretched. Now this may simply be age or ennui, but, naturally resisting such a simple explanation, I wonder about an alternative Pullman-esque world, not so different from our own, where, while our bodies move, some part of our soul, like a snail track or Theseus letting out Ariadne’s thread, is stretched behind, so that in the sky amongst the vapour trail of each passing plane, two hundred souls are also spread, vapourous, across the heavens.

It is not so far from the world we know where, with nostalgia and fond memory, it is clear some part of our heart is always left behind. If we move slowly, or rest still for periods, our souls regrow, regenerate, but, if we move too fast or too far, our body, Golem-like, continues to walk, yet our eyes increasingly blankly stare from an emptied heart, and our soul blows gossamer-like, spread thin across the empty seas.