A Sky So Blue

15 February 2009

In (Partial) Defence of the Ungrammatical

NO PROBLEM,by maasmeier ___, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic) What is it that keeps us on one path, that makes us entirely certain about what we know, or a least what we think we know? Robert Burton argues that it has little to do with conscious thought – the certainty of knowing arises from “involuntary brain mechanisms”. It is, in short, not a form of logic but a feeling, something that’s necessarily beyond our ken. So it pays to question motives, to probe presumptions, to break down certainties and ask “why is this so?”A recent comment from a customer made me start thinking about what it is that editors take for granted, the touchstone of our craft. Removing all the ancillaries, brushing off the day to day rigmarole, it all comes down to correcting grammar.

It’s not easy to defend grammar, which is by and large a thoroughly boring topic. And having spent a little time planning a series of writing workshops with two teachers on Friday I can attest that the merest mention of grammar will release a series of obscure terms and dire hints of convulsive and compulsive rules to come. Is it important that a writer knows what a present participle is, or just describes herself as a working woman? Written grammar is important only in that it offers a way of formalising on the page what we – at least most of us – instinctively do with the spoken word.

The extent to which we should belabour grammatical conventions is never the point of contention it should be in my profession. True, we need some sort of approbation to ensure that writing is readable, and I endorse most of the hidden tricks that shape written English. But every now and then I come across words in striking combinations that exceed grammar in their cleverness. Margaret Atwood, at once a novelist, poet and essayist, is particularly good at this.

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That Old-Time Evil Ink

11 January 2009

One Hidden Peril of the Printed Word

Clarity, by Jon Wiley, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic)Dilemmas are easily encountered but rarely mastered – they just hang on in there, teasing with possible solutions just out of reach. They’re usually laden with a little irony, a little out-of-placeness, which suggests that perhaps you’ve somehow taken the wrong path, erred once too often, that the untenable situation is somehow your fault alone. ‘Choose a Path!’ they cry, but you can’t. Trust me, I know. In an age of new media and the electronic page, I live in a house of books. So far, no dilemma, and not entirely surprising for someone who reads, edits and writes for a living. But the printed word sometimes makes me sick. A quandary, yes?

Not, I should add, that I’m a moralist. I’m not perturbed by what I read. It’s just that the words can make me sick. Or, rather, the ink with which they’re printed. Our local newspaper, such that it is, makes me sneeze. I don’t mean a delicate little kerchew. No, no – it’s an Oh-My-God-He’s-Gonna-Die trumpet. Every day. So I’ve taken out a Web subscription and my wife reads the print version, kind of surreptitiously at the end of the lounge room, almost out of sight. We have strange reading habits.

Still no dilemma, but you would have to admit an amount of inconvenience.

So consider this, which is more to the point – I recently missed a book launch due to illness and the author kindly sent me a copy of the volume in the mail. I very much want to read it again (I edited it twice, so nothing of it is really new to me) because it outlines the sort of design philosophy that I think will be useful in running an editing department. This might sound like a long shot, but after you’ve exhausted all the sure things to get to a certain level, a few chances taken never go astray. Yet, and almost inevitably now, the book makes me sneeze. It also makes breathing difficult when I have it open.

What sort of ink do local printers use?

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The Joke’s on Us

18 October 2008

Irony in the History of Humour

Adversity will always bring on the chuckles. Anyone who has ever spent more than a short while in the Philippines will know that 500 years of plunder by a rapacious elite has been met with smiles and self-deprecating asides. Life just has to go on. And even more abrupt crises draw out the sort of humour that deflects us from thinking that chance alone has saved us from a particularly unpleasant fate. Iceland, you might know, is in deep trouble at the moment, but that might be all you know about it. “What’s the capital of Iceland?” asks Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution. “About $20”.  We joke because it’s immediate – we understand the danger of the situation and are always prepared to laugh at someone else’s misfortune.

That’s the power of irony – the deflection of difficult meaning; saying something otherwise, usually in quite the opposite direction than is expected.

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The Presumptions of Experience

17 June 2008

Reading as Antidote

The Pattaya Experience, by Davis80, with Creative Commons LicenceExperience is often considered the ultimate form of learning, the ne plus ultra of education. What we do and how we act is taken as the full measure of what we know, and what we might yet know. The past is at a premium, with knowledge as a synonym for memory carrying with it the presumption that we don’t forget, misunderstand or misinterpret. Also implied is that experience can be transferred between people, regardless of background, inclination and aptitude. So we speak of ‘experience sharing’, as though actions can be lifted out of context and passed around, instantly relevant to anyone who grasps at them.

The problem with this somewhat stylised scenario is that it tends towards the non-literary. There are many situations in which practical, hands-on learning combines very well with reading and more interpretive activities. The current trend towards service-learning in universities is a perfect example of that. Students are given the chance to apply what they’ve learned – through instruction and their own reading – to community service projects that they organise and manage with minimal oversight from lecturers.

But what about community organisations themselves? Moving away from established, funded NGOs, many grass-roots groups draw together volunteers from lower socio-economic backgrounds who work too long or too hard every day to have much of a chance to read. In situations like these, learning from other people’s experience becomes an attractive, easy option.

I recently attended a meeting that began the long process of organising a self-help society for migrant workers in Discovery Bay, Hong Kong. These people, mainly women, are extremely hard working for very low wages. The idea behind the group is to help domestic helpers in times of crisis, and to educate members about educating themselves. The sorts of areas we’re dealing with range from the more obvious need for familiarity with legal rights – both in the workplace and within society at large – to less obvious lack of information about where and when to seek medical help for potentially embarrassing conditions.

As the meeting progressed a friend mentioned that one of the primary measures of self-education should always be to read, and to read as often as possible. Given that many of these people work up to 18 hours a day, that could be a very limited exposure to the written word, but it seemed important nevertheless.

Reading Well, by Moriza, with Creative Commons licenceUnfortunately, the reaction was negative – not from the main group members, but from the seasoned and unusually insightful people who were coordinating the meeting. One said that she would fall asleep if she had to read a book, and the other spoke at length of networking and the difference between book learning and ‘relevant’ experience as the basis of transferring important information.

Until that moment I’d though of reading as a supplement to experience, but now I realise it could well be an antidote.

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Wrong Arm of the Law

14 June 2008

Remedial Reading for a Would-Be Sleuth

Cycle (TC 5), by Irena Kittenclaw, with Creative Commons licenceJustice is a complex issue, covered over with perceptions and shot through with assumptions – many of which are surprisingly wide of the mark. In the move from being just, or morally right, to dispensing justice, an elite intercedes and begins to make decisions on what is usual, what is fair, what seems out of place. Like any apparatus of power, the legal system is a step aside from society, with its own, often fragmented, understanding of how people live, prosper, decline and die.

The new micoreviews in the toolbar at the right are part of my reaction to that disassociation – the hesitant beginning of an inquiry into what makes justice just, and the ways in which it can err.

A crucial element in that inquiry is the disappearance and death of Vicky Flores here in Discovery Bay, Hong Kong. The police inquiry into the case is currently plodding towards a conclusion that the dead woman was irrational, prone to dabbling in the occult and by implication – though never explicitly stated – a likely candidate for suicide. But gathering together the scant documentary evidence of police conduct so far, and keeping in mind what they have said publicly, the investigation seems strangely curtailed. Why focus on the possible activities of a dead woman when her home and work life (she was a live-in domestic helper) are by and large ignored?

Detective_Tales_Dec48, by PopKulture, with Creative Commons licenceWith that sort of oversight in mind I began reading about police investigation and the English legal system, which is the basis for Hong Kong’s own. And where else to turn for a soft introduction but to that perennial super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes?

That decision was a little less whimsical than it might seem, because E. J. Wagner has written an eminently readable history of forensic investigation using Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous character as a foil. Wagner’s Science of Sherlock Holmes picks out episodes in Conan Doyle’s tales of mystery to trace the history of forensic investigation as it emerged in Victorian England, all the while highlighting the benefits and limits of precision detective work.

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Needless to Say

12 June 2008

Eviatar Zerubavel on Silence and Denial

The Elephant in the Room, by Eviatar ZerubavelWords are powerful, words change lives. Spoken or unspoken they shape and focus perceptions, permit or deny action. Even the absence of talk isn’t devoid of words. In our least articulate moments silence speaks to us, urging thought in a specific direction, demanding that we describe life in certain ways when the conversation starts again. Eviatar Zerubavel knows this, and pries open silence to reveal the babble of repression in things best left unsaid.

Zerubavel’s Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life is a brief but utterly perceptive guide to the undiscussable. In only eighty seven pages of argument it outlines the social collusion that culminates in conspiracies of silence, tracking through examples ranging from survivor silence about the holocaust to the unwillingness of families harbouring alcoholics to speak their self-imposed sentence.

Central to Zerubavel’s thesis is the proverbial elephant in the room, that overwhelming presence of denial we confirm with an absence of speech. The point is not that no-one knows about an untoward event or a pervasive social ill. Rather, they fail to acknowledge the obvious, acting as though it doesn’t exist, and through their actions might yet not exist. By failing to speak we skirt the awkward truths grown abundantly throughout life, hoping irrationally that the family, the group or the society will benefit from our constant evasion.

Shame, by Joe Gatling, with Creative Commons licenceAnd this is not a haphazard process. Zerubavel shows that we’re “socialized to focus only on certain parts or aspects of situations while systematically ignoring others”. We don’t ignore by chance or inclination, but through social pressures that turn us one way and then another, unspoken censures that ensure achievement, satisfaction and happiness are not forthcoming for those who greet any situation with a cry of ‘this is wrong! Things must change!’

So it should be obvious that conspiracies of silence are counterproductive – they cripple lives, and through that harsh, grinding process they retard society. Look around you and ask, what is obvious but unspoken? What proverbial elephant passes by, too close for comfort but not close enough for shouts of alarm? And, more to the point, who actively denies the elephant when it’s exposed?

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When the Message Matters

20 May 2008

On the Importance of Communicating Importance

365.016, by r5d4, with Creative Commons licence‘Speak truth to power’ is an often cited phrase, a catch-cry for change in a world that flaunts stability. But even if we have a message, and it’s a message that matters, how do we speak its truth? What methods should we use to argue for social justice when every government, every authority, has heard it all before? Unfortunate as it sounds, the direct approach isn’t always the most successful. So for this week’s microreviews, now in the sidebar at the right, I’ve drawn together three volumes that describe unusual ways of delivering important messages. And it’s fitting that they do so to varying degrees of success.

Over 40 years ago Marshall McLuhan pronounced that “the medium is the message”, that how we communicate shapes what we say. He was particularly keen to show that each medium, whether it be the alphabet itself or a television programme, has limits and possibilities that affect both the speaker and the listener, the writer and the reader, the actor and the audience. Take a message, shift it from a movie theatre to the radio, and the message changes in the process.

But what if we take one message out of its original medium, maybe not even legally, shove it into another, and mix in a few more ways of tailoring it to a new audience? We can now control messages in new ways because they are not so tightly strapped to any particular method of communicating. Yet we have to become a little unlawful, we have to be prepared to share information in uncertain conditions – no-one really owns the message any more. That’s what Matt Mason calls “the pirate’s dilemma”, and he wants to unleash the buccaneer in us all.

Mason’s Pirate’s Dilemma, the subject of my first microreview this week, focuses on what you might call ‘remix culture’. It captures the ways in which ideas can shift between youth culture – in movements such as punk, hip-hop, graffiti tagging and file sharing – and commercial culture, changing in outline, skipping across media, but retaining and even strengthening their messages.

New, by karroozi, with Creative Commons licenceThe result, he writes, is a world in change, where – to give an intriguing example – disco’s original message of tolerance and the open society, born in the Loft with David Mancuso, has delivered us the open source movement. In computer operating systems such as Linux, Internet browsers like Firefox, and many other forms of software, the exchange of once proprietary information is now leading towards greater possibilities for collaboration in education, library work, and even the concept of intellectual property itself.

Bill Gates, you would image, never learned to boogie.

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