“In its highest form, a search has no well-defined object.” The blog post with this statement by writer Nicholas Carr (among his credits: former Harvard Business Review executive editor, IT and economy articles and books) is probably too esoteric for your average Google user, but it’s an useful reminder of how a word that has been around a long time has taken on a new lease on life through a new meaning. To search once meant to seek.
Does it still?
Google now makes us look inward, based as it is on our previously shown preferences, rather than outward to the world we’re trying to explore, Carr argues.
There aren’t any big surprises here: “Google’s goal is no longer to read the web. It’s to read us.” And yet, it’s easy to forget this wasn’t how it started, but this is the way it has evolved. Take a moment to reflect on where it’s leading us.
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – Verbosity is verbal, so what is word diarrhea called in its various other forms? We don’t get an answer to that, but we do learn from the Economist, based on a May 2012 McKinsey report on social networks and other media (MGI, The Social Economy), that Americans are talking to each other, more and more, and using various media to do so. The comments are fun to read.
I have to confess that while watching the start of an interview with Sarah Palin (remember her?) on the follies of Todd Akin, I began to wish some Americans would talk less.
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – The best and brightest of American writing were named by Columbia University’s Pulitzer Prize board Monday 16 April and among them were journalists and poets, but no fiction writers. What an extraordinary statement this makes about the current state of the art in the US, which at last count, in 2009, was the world’s largest producer of books, with 288,000 published that year according to Unesco.
The last time there was no Pulitzer fiction award was in 1977. The Pulitzer Prize board has not provided any explanation and, curiously, given that the award is one of the biggest for fiction in the US, American media are focusing more on the journalism award going to a 23-year-old than to the fact that no one wrote a novel considered big enough for the fiction prize.
Three books were nominated as finalists for the $10,000 award (from the Pulitzer site):
“Train Dreams,” by Denis Johnson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a novella about a day laborer in the old American West, bearing witness to terrors and glories with compassionate, heartbreaking calm; “Swamplandia!” by Karen Russell (Alfred A. Knopf), an adventure tale about an eccentric family adrift in its failing alligator-wrestling theme park, told by a 13-year-old heroine wise beyond her years, and “The Pale King,” by the late David Foster Wallace (Little, Brown and Company), a posthumously completed novel, animated by grand ambition, that explores boredom and bureaucracy in the American workplace.
The three jurors were Susan Larson, former book editor, The Times-Picayune, and host of “The Reading Life” at WWNO-FM radio (chair),
Maureen Corrigan, critic in residence, Georgetown University, and book critic on NPR’s “Fresh Air”, Michael Cunningham, novelist, New York City.
ZURICH, SWITZERLAND – Young people in Switzerland are online, no doubt about it with Switzerland having among Europe’s highest figures for Internet use, but they are still reading newspapers and magazines, in almost the same numbers as in 2003. The figures are part of media statistics published by Wemf, a group owned by major Swiss media, which provides certified numbers for the advertising industry.
Some 24,000 young people from 14-29 years old were questioned about 115 magazines and 190 newspapers, between October 2010 and September 2011. An average business day shows 49.1 percent of them reading at least one of these publications and 86.1 percent say they regularly read them. The free newspapers are hugely popular for commuters and many Swiss students take the train and/or bus to school or work, a factor that has probably helped keep the figures constant for the past 8 years.
The knotty business of knowledge, complexity and language
Russell Smith at the Globe & Mail in Canada writes about the many curious aspects of our culture(s) such as “Who would have thought reality TV could spawn so much junk”. His latest, “Complex ideas can’t always be made simple” offers reflections on how well a competition for PhD students in Australia works. The students are given three minutes to crunch down their theses into a kind of elevator pitch for their work, to be presented to an audience of non-specialists, and the best speaker wins $5,000. Most of them are quite impressive, says Smith. See for yourself: the 2011 Three Minute Thesis Competition, September 2011
“This looks like a brilliant and progressive idea,” he writes. “It attacks the ivory tower; it builds bridges between specialists and the intelligent laypeople whose tax dollars fund universities; it encourages the development of teaching and performance skills among people who are going to be teachers for the rest of their lives. Universities have long been criticized for spending too much money on obscure research and not doing enough to teach teaching.”
But it doesn’t always work, he argues, in large part because of the differences between the humanities and the sciences.
He addresses the relationship between complexity and knowledge, one we too often skirt. Smith is talking about the social sciences and the jargon of social theory, explaining that “the idea is generally that we can’t see the ideological and economic structures that we live in unless we change our language – for language is a pillar of that very structure. Furthermore, the veneration of clarity or simplicity is itself an ideological position, one that limits thinkers to conventional thoughts.”
I’m a strong proponent of plain English, particularly in education and the workplace, where jargon and complex language often veil a lack of clear thinking. But a distinction needs to be made by people who push for plain English. Complex ideas often cannot be reduced down to simple ideas, or suffer if they do; plain English is needed because simple and elegant language can help us explore complexity, not annihilate it.
Embracing complexity: an inheritance that doesn’t diminish
If there is one kind of wealth I would like to leave to the next generation it is the ability to seek out complexity, to understand it, to appreciate rather than fear it, and ultimately to be able to express it. I would like them to have this ability whether they apply it to physics, politics or the affairs of the human heart. These are the riches that make us truly human.
I’m heading off now to the Lucerne International Film Festival to represent my son’s film, “10,000 Miles“, about traveling from Lhasa in Tibet to Shanghai with three other young men (and about young people there). It is a Selection at the festival (he’s in China and can’t make it). I asked him to send me questions and answers for the FAQ session that is scheduled after the film’s European premiere tonight.
Most are about the technical aspects of the film or details about their travels. I’m particularly happy about the last one, which leaves us with the idea that these travels are the start of a much longer voyage, for all of us.
Liam, who is fluent in Mandarin, has traveled extensively in Tibet, on several occasions.
Q: What do you think about the Tibet-China issue?
A: It is far too complicated to answer in a couple short questions and I woud avoid doing this because it is one of the issues that people most love to jump to conclusions about. To really understand it takes knowing a lot of history, languages and culture; it isn’t as simple a topic as it is often made out to be.
Film’s trailer, posted by the festival
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – NoViolet Bulawayo is the winner of the £10,000 Caine Prize for African Writing, which the BBC refers to “as Africa’s leading literary award”. She won the award, announced Monday evening 11 July, for her short story, “Hitting Budapest”, about a group of shantytown children who steal guava fruit from a wealthier part of town.
Bulawayo is from Zimbabwe, recently completed a master of fine arts at Cornell University in the US, where she now teaches English and writes.
The chairman of the jury, Hisham Matar, says, “The language of ‘Hitting Budapest’ crackles. Here we encounter Darling, Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Stina and Sbho, a gang reminiscent of Clockwork Orange. But these are children, poor and violated and hungry. This is a story with moral power and weight, it has the artistry to refrain from moral commentary. NoViolet Bulawayo is a writer who takes delight in language.”
The story was published in The Boston Review, Vol 35, no. 6 – Nov/Dec 2010.
The pitfalls of publishing in another language, particularly one that you don’t really speak, can be unnerving. In the case of a Welsh roadsign that translates neatly as ” “I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated,” according to the BBC, the Welsh is certainly puzzling.
A few years ago I traveled through northwestern Ireland on a bicycle. It was at a time when debates had been raging over mandatory bilingual signs, including road signs, which on the positive side preserved the culture, some argued, and on the negative side cost money that no one had, others argued. And that was before they argued about the translations.
No solution was found and so all road signs were removed. I rode my bicycle in circles on isolated country roads, all of them unmarked and not on any map. It was a great opportunity to see Donegal at a slow page.
So to avoid confusion over tranlsations and encourage leisurely tourism, I suggest Wales try the Irish solution.
There is something silly but special about words that start with the letter “p” and October seems to prompt more of them than usual to appear, starting with potatoes and pumpkins, particularly prominent at the moment. Once you get started, they (the words, not the food) are a bit addictive. Last week I found myself thinking that politicians can be a perfidious lot, even pernicious. I recalled a discussion with a former boss of mine who greatly admired politicians, saying they were devoted to improving the world in a way most people are not. I had trouble seeing him as perspicacious that day, and I still do, as least where politics is concerned. But then I am reminded that my mother used to warn me not to be persnickety, always wise advice to perpend. One more for the day: plosive, before I head back to the empty pumpkin patch to put on more poop from the farmers’ cows, now out to pasture.
This is the most refreshing site I’ve seen in a while: the BBC’s Ouch! is by, about and for disabled people and anyone who knows a disabled person, which must surely include all of us. If you’re looking for self-pity and political correctness, this is not the site for you. If you think you need a quick course in how to talk to disabled people without being offensive, this is a very good starting place, although you might find you’re too amused and distracted to remember if they are called, um, handicapped? or was that challenged?