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Archive for September, 2011

Look At Me Now!

Children are rewarded for the most trivial of tasks. Whilst I understand that nurture is a great aid to development; that people have an inherent, impellent inclination to be nice to the young; and that progress is often valued as highly as achievement, I do still find this bizarre at times. I think the problem lies in my competitive nature. I can tie my own shoelaces too. And I can do a better job of it.

This less-common point of view does, however, have the advantage of making me an excellent playmate for the wily toddler dabbling with reverse psychology — there’s no way I can resist the cheeky cry of “you can’t catch me”. Yes I can. Watch. See? Easy.

Children become addicted to this constant evaluation and praise. Without it, there is seemingly no value in their actions and they will take many years before they can so much as hope to attach value to something for its intrinsic worth, or to one of their own actions carried out for individual pleasure. There’s an argument to be made that the need for external validation, deeply ingrained from an early age, will mean they can never truly know self-worth in isolation. Traditional Zen approaches to parenting negate this cycle of redundant praise entirely, rewarding emotional growth and maturity rather than the completion of basic tasks.

This has rather drifted away from my original point which is that, my mam is coming to visit in 24 days. We so excited.

Much though I’d love to think of myself as self-actualised and emotionally mature, and despite the obvious fact that I’ll simply enjoy having her here to talk to and have fun with, there remains the inordinate urge to have her see and be impressed by my new city. All of it. And, whilst any loving parent can glance at the clichéd child on a diving board and force a smile, I do occasionally wonder if my mother really is going to be impressed with every tiny detail of the things I love about living here.

In the end though, it doesn’t really matter. Because I have a week off work and I’m going to spend every minute with my mam in the greatest city in the world.

And that’s ffantastig.


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Occupy Wall Street, Man

For the last week or so, there’s been a fluctuating crowd hanging around Liberty Plaza Park (opposite Ground Zero and next to my office) under the banner of ‘Occupy Wall Street’. They’re not actually allowed to occupy the street itself, so they’re making do with camping and protesting here, and taking occasional jaunts down to Wall Street with a police escort, to be photographed by Japanese tourists who have no idea what’s happening, and ignored by traders who care far more about what’s on their screens than what’s happening below.

Whilst the cause no doubt had noble aims to begin with, and may even have had some intellect and intelligence too, it’s now a sorry carnival which serves only as a parody of itself. I’ve been taking five minutes, as I pop outside for an afternoon stroll and some fruit, to walk through and observe the protest, and I flit between amusement and annoyance as I see some of the sheer idiocy on display.

Occupy Wall Street

The placards on display range are amusing enough: there’s the misquoted, wrongly-attributed – Engels, not Marx – out-of-context snippet from the Communist Manifesto (above); the call to abandon capital markets in favour of a 1960′s music festival (below); and the range of bad spelling that I’d love to believe is a cutting admonishment of the educational system (but simply can’t). In amongst these are links to bands’ websites, placards to ‘free Troy Davis‘ (admirable maybe, but slightly off-topic) and general anarcho-liberal trash.

Occupy Wall Street

Not wanting to judge a book by its cover, however, I’ve stopped to talk to a number of the protesters within the park, and forced myself not to simply aim for the glassy-eyed specimens I knew would provide amusement (as I saw a crew of well-dressed bankers doing). Here, again, I was to be let down: I’ll give an example.

I talked to one lad, who seemed fit, healthy and about my own age, who told me he’d been at the protest for 3 days straight. He told me he had a degree with a ‘double major’ in Film and Media Studies and a minor in Middle-Eastern Studies, but couldn’t find a job, and so was here to demand the Government forgave all student debt. That’s all the voluntary loans he, and others, had signed up for and spent on more than just tuition. However, when I (smiling and helpful) mentioned that a couple of the construction crews on Ground Zero seemed to be hiring, or failing that, some of the shops along Broadway, he mentioned that he ‘only really want[ed] to work in media‘. Right.

Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street

I’m upset that these people are reinforcing the stereotype that those who campaign for economic reform are idiotic freeloaders. I’m upset by signs such as ‘tax breaks = homeless Americans‘ being held up by kids on a day-trip from their parents’ home, when across the street there’s a man who is nothing but grateful any time I can spare a banana from my 4 for $1 food-cart trips (and let’s face it, I always can). I’m upset that there are real, fundamental (if first-world) problems in this country, and that those opposed to solving them can simply point and laugh at this cacophony of nonsense rather than be challenged to defend their views.

Mostly, though, I’m just amused that they’ve picked a spot where the vast majority of people who’ll see the protest are tourists, happy to take some pictures and simply leave.


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Of Accents

One of the most fascinating things I’ve found about living in New York is that, whilst an American accent now sounds completely natural to me, I’m barely able to distinguish any regional nuances at all, unless I happen to run into someone from say, Georgia. Part of this is simply ear training – I pride myself on being able to pinpoint fairly accurately where someone in the UK is from, or name multiple locales if they have a combination of accents – but there is also a breadth of homogeneity in American accents unparalleled in Europe.

The first thing to note is that I’m only talking about accents (the way words are pronounced) as opposed to dialects (which also include grammar, idiomata and vocabulary). My own particular accent is a mixture of English-speaking South-Walian, Cardiff English and multicultural British English. The latter is a result of being immersed in linguistically diverse settings in Birmingham and London, and shouldn’t be confused with Multicultural London English, also known as ‘Jafaican’.

There are around 50 classes of regional accent to be found in British English (remember, Great Britain includes only England, Wales & Scotland), and although estimates vary wildly as to the number of distinguishably identifiable accents within these, it doesn’t seem unfair to take a conservative approximation of around 250. The average Brit (sample size: minimal) can name around 25 British classes off the top of their head, and even Americans seem to be able to recognise a few, albeit with more amusing names: ‘like John Lennon’ for Scouse; ‘Scottish, or Irish or something’ for Glaswegian; and ‘is she speaking English?’ for Geordie.

SED Similarity Map of British English Accents

The above graphic (click to embiggen) shows similarities between regional accents curated during the Survey of English Dialects in the 1950s. It’s based on a complex set of features of speech, and if you speak Austrian you can discover a bit more about the process here. More recent studies seem to suggest that, whilst diffusion of dialect has occurred in general since this period, the number of unique accents has risen, with lines of demarcation now much more present in metropolitan areas through urbanisation and immigration — London being the epitome of this. Contrast this with the, much less scientific, graphic below, which quite honestly seems to show class (of accent) lines within the USA.

American Dialects

I’m a vocal supporter of both Received Pronunciation and the Queen’s English. The former refers to the accent and the latter the dialect. Whilst I try to imitate neither, I’d be greatly offended if a BBC news presenter chose a more modern colloquialism over the correct phrasing or pronunciation. Those interested in debating the matter are more than welcome to do so over a beer sometime. As such, I’ve been very surprised that my American friends don’t seem able to recognise when someone sounds ‘posh’ or not. So, I looked into the matter.

There exists, a highly localised, intense set of sociolinguistic factors that may subconsciously affect the speech of an urban American. Nowhere is this more prominent than in New York City. The linguist William Labov studied this in detail, in one famous study he simply listened to employees at Sak’s (high-brow), Macy’s (middle-brow) and S. Klien (lower-end) pronouncing “fourth floor”. Those at Sak’s clearly enunciated the r whereas it was nearly inaudible from those at S. Klien. Staff at Macy’s varied, but when specifically asked to repeat the phrase, tended to add the distinct r that is a prominent feature of Received Pronunciation. Similar studies in New York have shown an active & conscious attempt to avoid Received Pronunciation from those who wish to portray a working-class background, particularly musicians. This, of course, isn’t alien to the British world: amongst many others, Mike Skinner of The Streets has a strong Cockney (or Mockney) accent when performing, but is rather soft-spoken day-to-day.

I’m still completely unable to fathom the American psyche, which on the one hand seems to promote integration, equality and to strive to identify as American above and beyond all things; and on the other hand has a profound respect for roots and a knee-jerk reaction to identify with any and all foreign cultural backgrounds they can identify. On the point of accents at least, it seems the former is winning out.

Any further research or experiences much appreciated, there’s a wealth of literature out there I simply haven’t had time to touch.


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Capoeira (Portuguese pronunciation: [kapuˈejɾɐ]) is a Brazilian art form that combines elements of martial arts, sports, and music.

…or so says Wikipedia.

Capoeira is the most fun you can have whilst losing half your body weight in sweat and constantly wondering when you’re going to get kicked in the face next. Capoeira began as a means for unarmed, starving black slaves in Brazil to beat armed and mounted Portugese dragoons in single combat. Capoeira is highly musical and the entire tone and pace of the game (the fight) is set by the music and singing of those in the roda (circle) around the players.

The aim of (modern) capoeira isn’t to hurt, pin or knock-out your opponent, it’s to prove yourself more skilful. Merely touching their face with your elbow, pulling a kick inches before it reaches their head or showing yourself the more elegant and graceful fighter can be enough to ensure victory, and this gives the entire art an ethos that I find extremely appealing.

The aim of capoeira is to at all times dodge and outmanoeuvre an opponent’s attacks, putting the capoeirista in a position from which they can cause maximum damage. This is what allows a capoeirista to fight against an armed opponent, or a group of opponents, and is part of the reason for the elaborate acrobatics that punctuate any fight. The rhythmic movements and graceful jumps and flips, however, have been some of the most violent things I’ve had cause to witness first-hand.

I’ve been training with Grupo Capoeira Brasil for a few weeks now, and I’m intending on sticking around for a long while. I’ll let you know when I’m up to the standard in the video above.

’til then, however, I’ll just be practising lying prone on the ground and hoping no-one kicks me.


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Cross-Post: Selling the Ether

I write in a few different places, and whilst most of the time there’s little overlap between what people want to read, I thought I’d share something I recently published for a group of innovators & scientists in a closed community.


Selling the Ether

Gertrude Stein once told Ernest Hemingway that many of his short stories were inaccrochable. This odd term (of French derivation) refers to a piece of art that cannot be displayed anywhere (in the above example, for crudely discussing taboo topics). If it cannot be displayed anywhere, it cannot be assessed and the artist loses out both on the opportunity to sell their piece of art, and also to be recognized as the creator of novel and interesting art, or even art forms.

Power Placard Museum

Now, very few concepts are off-limits for a writer, but there’s still a lot of challenges that creative people can face in displaying their art. As we’ve moved from traditional forms (hung paintings, sculpted busts) to a wide range of media, galleries have struggled to keep up and I’ve often found myself in a gallery simply watching a low-fidelity video of an interactive, live-action or large-scale piece of art. The current special exhibit, Talk To Me, at MoMA in New York is, although highly recommended, an unfortunate example of this. Further, many pieces of modern art (like them or not) are often more about the conceptual message than the purity and skill of the execution. Other than to those within the artist’s clique, these generally need explanation and again, the casual visitor to a gallery may spend the majority of their time reading small placards rather than looking at the actual art they describe.

The inability to easily convey the interesting aspect of an invention, or perhaps even to visualize its benefits at all, is also a problem that affects the spaces in which we innovate. A novel clustering algorithm may excite and impress the small fraction of people who really care about unsupervised learning, but finding a way to display this to people who don’t move in that world can be a challenge. Even putting a nice visualization on top of this algorithm isn’t necessarily a great approach – whilst it might elicit initial responses of “that looks great” or “cool!” it won’t necessarily be something they can relate to. Showing some nice bubbles clustered together is one step, but conveying exactly what’s new, cool and interesting about the way that works may still take pages of dry documentation.

If we can’t display our art, we can never sell it. And even if we can display it, if it’s not in a way which is easily intelligible at a glance, if people need to spend all their time reading the placards underneath it – it’s going to be a lot harder to sell it and get recognition for having made something beautiful.


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Eating American

I worried, on day 26 in this country, about the effect that American food would have on my health. Over the last week, two things have contributed towards the feeling that this was, perhaps, well-justified.

The first of these was that I put a photo of myself up online that I’d found lying around. It was a photo of me from just before I moved here, looking completely emotionless in order to meet the strict criteria for a US visa photo. This, however, wasn’t what drew comment.

[...] you look very thin on your profile pic – have you lost weight?

Hey what happened since I saw you last? You look much thinner.

Thanks guys.

The second was that, as I was layering more American cheese onto the top of a potato that I’d baked, hollowed and re-stuffed with a mixture of the original potato filling together with cream, cheese and American bacon, my housemate remarked:

You’re a real American now.


It’s not my fault that I love American bacon so very, very much. It’s not my fault that people put things like chicken-fried steak or bacon-flavoured chocolate bars (actually I didn’t buy that one) in front of me, or that people bake me entire cakes.

Bacon Chocolate

My (beautiful) housemates have few rules that they insist I stick to (actually that’s entirely false, but let’s continue with the premise for the purpose of the narrative). One thing, however, that they won’t compromise on, is that they always need to have a packet of Double-Stuf Oreos on hand. These are like regular Oreos, but with double the stuffing. The clue was in the name. I’ve so far mostly been able to resist snacking on these, sticking to cashew nuts and yoghurts instead, but I’m wondering if I’ll be able to keep up my willpower now that Kraft has released these 100-calorie-apiece monstrosities upon the world:

Bacon Chocolate

The scary part is that New York isn’t even a particularly unhealthy city, by American standards. The recent Iowa State Fair put the rest of the world to shame by unveiling their latest masterpiece, a deep-fried stick of butter on a stick. Take that Texas, with your pathetic deep-fried beer and California with your hippy-healthy Krispy Kreme Chicken Sandwich.

If I ever stray west of New Jersey, you may as well burn all my clothes.


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