Archive for the 'Asides' Category

What gets found in translation

[link] Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

The New York Times has a nice obituary of the writer Raleigh Trevelyan, who died the other day and came from a long and distinguished British family. One of his ancestors was Thomas Macaulay. The obit contains this lovely snippet:

Mr. Trevelyan’s accounts of his forebears’ role in British history covered well-known historic episodes as well as obscure ones that were telling about imperial rule.

He recounted, for example, a 400-mile journey across the south of India by Thomas Babington Macaulay, the historian and former secretary of war, traveling “on men’s shoulders.” The bearers kept up a chant, which Macaulay presumed to be “extemporaneous eulogies,” but which he later learned were something else.

Roughly translated, Mr. Trevelyan wrote, the bearers sang, “There is a fat hog, a great fat hog/How heavy he is, hum-hum/Shake him, shake him well.”

Which reminds me of the Lone Ranger, one of the comic-book heroes of my early childhood. He was always accompanied, you may recall, by his loyal native American companion-cum-servant, Tonto, whose stock response to anything the Ranger said was “Ke-mo sa-bee”, which of course I interpreted as “yes, boss” or words to that effect — an impression later reinforced by studio assertions that it meant “faithful friend” (radio series) or “trusty scout” (television series) in the language of his tribe.

Imagine my delight, therefore, to meet a guy years ago who had studied the matter and claimed that “ke-mo sa-bee” actually translates as “horseshit”.

As the Italians say, even if it isn’t true, it ought to be.

Seven rules for good interface design

[link] Thursday, November 20th, 2014

I like this essay by Erik D. Kennedy. The rules are:

  • Light comes from the sky
  • Black and white first
  • Double your whitespace
  • Learn the methods of overlaying text on images
  • Make text pop— and un-pop
  • Only use good fonts
  • Steal like an artist

It’s work in progress, so he will be adding to it as time goes on.

On this day…

[link] Wednesday, November 19th, 2014

… in 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. I often use Peter Norvig’s wonderful translation of it into PowerPoint to persuade students to think twice before resorting to ‘presentation’ software.

Facebook moves in on LinkedIn

[link] Monday, November 17th, 2014

Well, well. According to this BBC story (which itself is based on a Financial Times story), Facebook is moving in on LinkedIn’s territory:

Facebook is building a network for professionals to connect and collaborate on work-related documents, the Financial Times reports.

Facebook at Work will look similar to its existing social network, but users will be able to keep their personal profiles separate, the paper says.

They also would be able to chat with colleagues, build professional networks and share documents, people said to be working on it told the Financial Times.

This is a difficult one for some of us. I mean to say, I loathe and detest LinkedIn, which I think is one of the most obnoxious ‘social’ networks I’ve seen. On the other hand, I’m not too enamoured of Facebook either. But I’m not surprised that LinkedIn’s shares were down today after the news broke.

In a more detached frame of mind, there might be something interesting here in terms of network theory. For example, are the ties that bind Facebook users stronger or weaker than those that link LinkedIn users?

Obama gets some things right

[link] Wednesday, November 12th, 2014

Obama’s stance on net neutrality is spot on. And if you doubt that, then this tweet from Steve Ballmer should settle the matter.


The text of Obama’s statement is here


[link] Sunday, November 9th, 2014


Tim Berners-Lee at the dinner in Balliol on Friday night, where he was the (deserving) recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Oii. Technically, it’s a terrible picture (very low light in Balliol’s Hall), but it does capture his impish look. And in a nice juxtaposition, behind him is the portrait of Dame Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley, the remarkable woman who funded the Oxford Internet Institute.

Virginia Woolf on blogging

[link] Saturday, November 1st, 2014


Well, not quite. But I’m re-reading her diaries and am coming towards the end of Volume 1 (1915-19) and in the entry for April 27, 1919 came on this meditation on diary-writing which in some ways might also be written about blogging.

Woolf had just finished writing a long article for some publication or other (one forgets what an assiduous literary hack she was), and then continues thus:

“In the idleness which succeeds any long article… I got out this diary, & read as one always does one’s own writing, with a kind of guilty intensity. I confess that the rough & random style of it, often so ungrammatical, & crying for a word altered, afflicted me somewhat. I am trying to tell whatever self it is that reads this hereafter that I can write very much better; & take no time over this; & forbid her to let the eye of man behold it. And now I may add my little compliment to the effect that it has a slapdash & vigour, & sometimes hits an unexpected bulls eye. But what is more to the point is my belief that the habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practise [sic]. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses & the stumbles. Going at such a pace as I do I must make the most direct and instant shots at my object, & thus have to lay hands on words, choose them, & shoot them with no more pause than is needed to put my pen in the ink. I believe that during he past year I can trace some increase of ease in my professional writing which I attribute to my casual half hours after tea. Moreover there looms ahead of me the shadow of some kind of form which a diary might attain to. I might in the course of time learn what it is that one can make of this loose, drifting material of life; finding another use for it than the use I put it to, so much more consciously & scrupulously, in fiction. What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something loose knit, & yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace any thing, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds & ends without looking them through. I should like to come back, after a year or two, & find that the collection had sorted itself & refined itself & coalesced, as such deposits mysteriously do, into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of ourr life, & yet steady, tranquil composed with the aloofness of a work of art.”

As a thought-experiment, I’ve tried to imagine Woolf as a blogger. My conclusion is that she would have made a terrific one. But of course she couldn’t have done it because her diaries are so suffused with critical (and often harsh) assessments of the people she knew, and so filled with gossip, that she would have had to retain a full-time libel lawyer.

How some of us feel about our inboxes

[link] Monday, October 13th, 2014


A typically beautiful piece of letter-carving by the Cardozo-Kindersley Workshop.

Mrs Woolf’s Diaries

[link] Saturday, October 11th, 2014

Following a lovely conversation with two of my dearest friends, I decided to re-read Virginia’s Woolf’s diaries, which I last read over 20 years ago. But when I went to my bookshelves to find them I discovered that Volume (1915-19) was missing. Someone had, er, borrowed it and forgotten to return it. So then I had to get a new (well, used) copy from Amazon before I could start. (It’s important to read them in sequence, I found the first time round.)

Anyway, here I am, immersed in Volume 1, alternately entranced and appalled by her. Here, she is, for example on Saturday 9th January 1915

“On the towpath we met & had to pass a long line of imbeciles. The first was a very tall young man, just queer enough to look twice at, but no more; the second shuffled, & looked aside; & then one realised that every one in that long line was a miserable ineffective shuffling idiotic creature, with no forehead, or no chin, & an imbecile grin, or a wild suspicious stare. It was perfectly horrible. They should certainly be killed.”

This from a woman who herself suffered from intermittent bouts of madness and eventually killed herself.

One big discovery, though, was the extent to which London seemed to have suffered from air raids in WW1. They figure quite a lot in the entries for 1917 and 1918, for example. On Monday 28th January she writes:

“Home I went & there was a raid, of course. The night made it inevitable. [Which probably means that there was no cloud cover.] From 8 to 1.15 we roamed about, between coal hole kitchen bedroom & drawing room. I dont know how much is fear, how much boredom; but the result is uncomfortable most of all, I believe, because one must talk bold and jocular small talk with the servants to ward off hysteria”.

She’s a maddening writer, because her art forces one to overlook her appalling snobbery. I’m pretty sure she would have looked down on me — an engineer, and Irish to boot. And this, the only surviving recording of her voice, tends to confirm this impression. Talk about cut-glass English!

The parenthood religion

[link] Friday, October 3rd, 2014

From an interesting contrarian rant by Astro Teller (head of Google X) and Mrs Teller. Both authors are, I believe, the grandchildren of Nobel laureates. Not sure what difference that makes.

The origins of the parenthood religion are obscure, but one of its first manifestations may have been the “baby on board” placards that became popular in the mid-1980s. Nobody would have placed such a sign on a car if it were not already understood by society that the life of a human achieves its peak value at birth and declines thereafter. A toddler is almost as precious as a baby, but a teenager less so, and by the time that baby turns fifty, it seems that nobody cares much anymore if someone crashes into her car. You don’t see a lot of vehicles with placards that read, “Middle-aged accountant on board.”