Saturday, May 24, 2014

Book Review: The Sharing Knife, Part 2: Legacy

Legacy (The Sharing Knife, #2)Legacy by Lois McMaster Bujold

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In Beguilement, Book 1 of The Sharing Knife, Fawn and Dag successfully overcame farmer opposition and Fawn's lack of groundsense to become both married (in the farmer tradition) and string-bound (in the Lakewalker tradition). But more than simple newlywed bliss awaits them, as Dag takes his new bride to his Lakewalker home and has to deal with opposition to his union. It turns out to be much more intense than what he faced from Fawn's family. His family, arguably the more dysfunctional of the two, decides to challenge the validity of the string-binding in counsel. To complicate matters further, another malice has appeared, this one much larger and more powerful. Dag and Fawn must separate for a time, so that he can go fight the malice. But Fawn is no passive female, and in this book, as in the previous one, her unasked-for, unrespected farmer interference in Lakewalker business turns out to be essential. Not that anyone other than Dag appreciates it, and their marriage is none the less challenged in counsel.

While Book 1 was devoted largely to Dag and Fawn's relationship, this book fills in more of the backstory of this world. We are given at least a sketchy idea of how malices came to be in the first place, and we learn that Lakewalker/farmer relations used to be very different—which is not to say better.

While I thoroughly enjoyed Book 1, I loved Book 2. I am eagerly anticipating my dive into Book 3: Passage.

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Book Review: The Sharing Knife, Part 1: Beguilement

Beguilement (The Sharing Knife, #1)Beguilement by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When farmer girl Fawn gets herself in trouble (in the old-fashioned way), she runs away from home, but ends up finding even greater trouble, in the form of a malice. Fortunately, she also finds Dag, the alluring though much older Lakewalker.

Lakewalkers roam the land seeking out and destroying malices, creatures that suck the life out of everything around them. Despite performing this important service, they are not well-liked by farmers, who fear them as necromancers. Lakewalkers, in their turn, hold the farmers in contempt and see them as something like ungrateful children. So you can imagine that when Dag and Fawn fall in love and want to get married, the reaction on either side is less than positive.

This first book is mostly about the romance blossoming between Dag and Fawn, but it also begins to fill in the background of a complex and fascinating world, where everyone has a life force, known as a "ground," that can be detected and manipulated by those with a "groundsense"—mostly Lakewalkers, but also the rare gifted farmer. Where immaterial, immortal beings called "malices" clothe themselves in flesh and gain strength by consuming the ground of all living things around them, resulting in dead areas called "blights." Where said malices can be "taught mortality" through the sharing knives, which are made through the deaths of two people, and are so called because they share their deaths with the malices they pierce.

Featuring likeable characters, tense adventures, and even a believable and sensitive sex scene (yes! who would have thought it possible?), this is a compelling and promising start to the quadrilogy.

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Saturday, May 3, 2014

Is There a Use for Signed English?

You are left out of the dinner table conversation. It is called mental isolation. While everyone else is talking and laughing, you are as far away as a lone Arab on a desert that stretches along every horizon…. You thirst for connection. You suffocate inside but you cannot tell anyone of this horrible feeling. You do not know how to. You get the impression nobody understands or cares…. You are not granted even the illusion of participation….

You are expected to spend fifteen years in the straitjacket of speech training and lipreading… your parents never bother to put in an hour a day to learn sign language or some part of it. One hour of twenty-four that can change a life time for you.
~Shanny Mow, quoted in 179n of Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf.

Signed English is not a language in itself. It is the transposition of a spoken language into sign, and as such can never be the native language of a deaf person. American Sign Language (ASL), on the other hand, is a complete signed language and is the native language of deaf people throughout the United States, most of Canada[1], and a few other countries as well. Yet listen-up.org claims that Pidgin Signed English "is probably the most widely used communication modality in the United States among deaf and hearing persons who work with them." Why should this be?

I'd never even heard of Signed English until recently, when I began a concerted effort to teach myself ASL with the help of Lifeprint.com (a fantastic resource, which I may say more about in a later post). I found mentions to Signed English on a number of the pages on this site. I had no idea why anyone would bother learning Signed English when they could learn a real sign language like ASL, and so I had little interest in finding out anything about it, until I came across the Day sign page. Here is how you sign "day" in ASL: Support the elbow of your dominant hand with your opposite hand, then sweep your hand into the crook of your other elbow, like the movement of a clock hand. Bill Vicars notes that the dominant hand can be flat or have the index finger pointing, but adds, "I don't recommend a 'D' hand[2], that is Signed English."

Finally, my curiosity was piqued. Whatever Signed English was, it had had enough of an impact that Lifeprint.com founder Bill Vicars felt the need to warn against making SE-like signs when signing ASL. That's when I decided to find out more about it.

I did a search for "signed english" and quickly found listen-up.org's comparison of the different signing systems. The page tries to adopt a neutral tone while discussing the options, but nevertheless displays a clear bias towards Signing Exact English (SEE), which sets itself apart by representing every English word and word ending. I imagine this makes it even more tedious and time-consuming to use than regular Signed English, but the site's author touts SEE as a way for the child to develop an expanded (English) vocabulary, and as a system that "may be more comfortable for English-speaking parents."

The page equally displays a bias against ASL[3]. What stood out for me was this statement: "ASL is used by many deaf in the United States, thus its use promotes assimilation into the Deaf Community."

Well geez... you say that like it's a bad thing.

This was my introduction to the curious notion that deaf people should be kept away from the deaf community. The word "assimilation" has a clearly negative connotation. But that's ridiculous. Does anyone propose that Italian people should be kept away from the Italian community, or that Black people should be rescued from falling into the clutches of the Black community?

In Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf, Oliver Sacks reveals that many hearing parents of deaf children have expressed to him their concern that their child will somehow be lost to them if it learns sign and becomes part of the deaf community (Sacks, 2000, 94n). They feel entitled to retain possession of their child, to exercise their influence on it and teach it their culture, and to that end, many of them attempt to deprive their child of sign while putting it through the intensive, years-long tutoring that is required to teach a deaf child to speak.

The irony is that through such actions, they will give their child ample reason to resent them, as shown in the quote above, perhaps helping to bring about more alienation from their child than the Deaf community and sign could ever accomplish.

Such fears are unfounded, of course. The Deaf Community is not The UnSeelie Court of the Fairies, looking to steal your child from you and put a changeling in its place. Your child's inclusion in another culture does not mean it is lost to you. Really, all children belong to a culture foreign to their parents anyway—the playground culture. And yet I have never heard of a parent fretting that they are losing their child to an alien world of clapping and skipping to rhymes with antisocial themes. (Really, what is that business about Tiny Tim dying with a bubble in his throat, and what does the lady with the alligator purse have to do with anything?)

There is, though, an interesting parallel with the fears that some people have about the gay community: that gay men are conspiring to convert their sons to the joys of homosexuality (so much more enticing and fun than straight sex, they seem to think), as if their sons would not become gay without this exposure.

I guess this shows that prejudice is prejudice, whether it is against gays or deaf. I don't think many hearing people realize that deaf discrimination exists. It may never have crossed their minds that the deaf could be an oppressed minority. I know it didn't cross mine until recently.

But they have been historically, and if things haven't changed substantially since Sacks wrote his book, then they still are. No deaf person, given a choice, would sign an imitation of a spoken language when they could sign a proper sign language. The proof of this is provided by Sacks, who indicates in Seeing Voices that children exposed only to Signed English and not to ASL will nevertheless produce their own true sign language[4]. They do this by dropping the sequential grammar inherent in Signed English and replacing it with a spatial grammar. The signs themselves are kept, but are used differently, in space, and the unnecessary components are dropped.

This is great news, because it means that even deaf children who are only permitted to learn Signed English and not a real sign language will still develop genuine signing capabilities. They will therefore be able to become fluent in ASL once they finally get a chance to learn it. They will not be deprived of a native language. That is the essential thing. Some deaf children are so deprived, because their deafness is not diagnosed early enough, or because their parents fear the deaf community and attempt to teach them to speak while avoiding any exposure to sign language at all.

This is a terrible thing to do to a human being. Everyone needs a native language. It should be a right enshrined in all constitutions and bills of rights. That it is not, is probably due to the fact that the issue does not come up except with children who were imprisoned in cellars by crazy parents, the severely mentally handicapped, and deaf people.

The window of opportunity for acquiring a native language is so small. According to Hearing Voices, a child who has not been exposed to a language before the age of five will probably never acquire the same fluency as someone who was so exposed, and if they only acquire a language after puberty, they probably won't acquire fluency in the language at all; it will always be a second language and will be an effort to use (Sacks, 2000, p65-66, 166n).

But the consequences of inadequate exposure to an appropriate language system before the age of five can be more dire than you might imagine. There is a difference between learning a second language when you have already acquired a first one, and attempting to learn any language when you never did acquire a native language during the critical period. A deaf child deprived of sign may even lack the concepts of language that the rest of us take for granted. Questions, for example, may be incomprehensible to such a child. Isabelle Rapin, quoted in Seeing Voices, described a boy who was unable to understand questions until they were rephrased as incomplete sentences (Sacks, 2000, pp. 45-46).

And while hearing parents might wish their deaf child's first language to be English, and English alone, this is not always possible, especially for the profoundly deaf child. To try and force the issue by denying sign is to gamble with the child's future, really the child's entire life.

It is somewhat difficult and unnatural even to discuss these issues in English, due to its built-in bias for spoken language. I want to use the term "mother tongue," which is the common expression and has a more poetic feel than "native language." Yet it is inappropriate, since signing makes little use of the tongue[5]. It might be more apropos to write "mother hand," except that then no one would know what I was talking about. This invisibility is what deaf people are up against.

Back to my point: Signed English turns out to have a use of a sort. It allows deaf people to have a native language, although in a roundabout sort of way. Of course, it would make more sense to make certain that your deaf child is taught real sign language (and to learn it yourself!), but in the event that hearing parents can't get past their surdophobia, Signed English may at least ensure that they do less damage than they might otherwise do.


After writing my first draft of this piece, I worried I was being too dismissive of Signed English. Is it possible that, beyond serving as a second-best sign language for children of surdophobic parents, Signed English has a value of its own? One might imagine that it would facilitate learning spoken language more effectively than ASL, which being a separate language does not map exactly to English.

So I turned to Google Scholar, but I was unable to find a trace of evidence that deaf children taught Signed English are able to learn to speak and read English any better than deaf children taught ASL. The most relevant article I could find was probably "How Do Profoundly Deaf Children Learn to Read?" by Susan Goldin-Meadow and Rachel I. Mayberry, which finds that "knowing a language (even if it is not the language captured in print) appears to facilitate learning to read." Thus it seems that Signed English offers no special benefit over ASL or other signed languages. The biggest advantage of it that I can think of is the ability to speak while signing. That's not as easily done with ASL, which uses different word orders. So Shanny Mow's family could have helped him feel included at the dinner-table by signing SE along with their conversation—if they'd been so inclined. It sounds as if they weren't.


1 Quebec has its own sign language. Back

2 "'D' hand" refers to making the 'D' shape with your hand, when fingerspelling. Back

3 I suppose any prejudice or insensitivity found on this site should come as no surprise given the odd choice of name: "Listen up!"—something a profoundly deaf person cannot possibly do. Back

4 "...James Paul Gee and Wendy Goodhart have shown dramatically that when deaf children are exposed to signed forms of English..., but not ASL, they 'tend to innovate ASL-like forms with little or no input in that language.'" (Sacks, 2000, p. 89). Back

5 Mind you, "native language" isn't really appropriate either, since the root of the word "language" is lingua, the Latin word for tongue. Back

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Review: One Night @ the Call Center by Chetan Bhagat

One Night at the Call CenterOne Night at the Call Center by Chetan Bhagat

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

For its first three-quarters, this is a perfectly decent novel about a group of people working at a call centre. Shyam, the team leader and the main character, struggles to get over his old girlfriend, Priyanka, who works in his team. To add to his unhappiness, his boss Bakshi is an unprincipled moron who routinely takes credit for Shyam's ideas and work. Priyanka still has feelings for Shyam, but wants to make her mother happy, and her mother wants a "better match" for her. The other agents have their problems as well. Esha wants to be a model, but keeps getting told that she's too short. Radhika's mother-in-law is making her life miserable. The man known as Military Uncle says little, and suffers in silence with his secret pain. And finally, Vroom... well, Vroom is screwed up six ways from Sunday.

Their problems and interactions are told believably and engagingly through dialogue and flashbacks to dates between Priyanka and Shyam, which illustrate the deterioration of their relationship. Then comes the moment that they receive, on Shyam's cell phone, a call from God. Ironically enough, this is the moment when the story goes straight to Hell. Each thing they do to "fix" their situation is more inappropriate and implausible than the thing before it. There were scenes that I read while squinting and scanning because that was the only way I could stand them. After all, I didn't want to abandon a book 18 pages from the ending, even if it deserved that.

How did things go so badly wrong? I wonder. It's tempting to blame the phone call from God. After all, this was a completely realistic novel up to that point. One might argue that the author had no business turning it into a fantasy three-quarters of the way through. However, I was willing to accept the God call. After all, the author prepares us for it in the prologue.

In my view, the failing is a moral one. What kind of person thinks it's appropriate to meekly tolerate a boss's betrayals without a word, then all of a sudden blackmail him with a made-up email and physically abuse him? There are abundant options between these two extremes, and a moral adult would try one or two of them before resorting to violence. A moral adult would find a better way to save a call centre than by terrorizing Americans with lies. (By the way, Americans are abundantly and enthusiastically insulted in this book, so think twice before buying it if you are American. I'm actually amazed it got picked up by an American publisher.) Perhaps an author who has not managed to become a moral adult is the one most likely to resort to a literal Deus ex machina to fix his novel. There is a species of laziness here, which itself is a type of moral failing. Furthermore, if the thoroughly unbelievable turnaround of Priyanka followed by the thoroughly unbelievable rejection by Shyam followed by the thoroughly absurd and painful-to-read romantic car chase and reconciliation (thank you, squinting and scanning!) is any indication, the author has watched far too many Bollywood movies.

Yes, the previous paragraph has a lot of spoilers in it, but that's OK, because you don't want to read this book. Trust me. That would be several hours of your life you'd never get back.

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Sunday, August 18, 2013

Review of Rule Zero by Laurence Timms

Rule ZeroRule Zero by Laurence Timms
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you love non-stop action, mayhem, explosions, wanton destruction and high body counts, with maybe a zombie thrown in for good measure, this is the book for you. Laurence Timms is a screenwriter, and it shows. If Rule Zero were made into a movie, it would be very much at home with the other Hollywood thrillers of the day, only perhaps even more so. Timms is what the genetically engineered offspring of Iain R. Banks and Douglas Adams would be like if he were also high on amphetamines.*

Towards the start of the story, when things are calmer, there are some humorous and even insightful moments, especially pertaining to Helen, the luckless fluff-piece-writing journalist who gets caught up in the dangerous game going on between the Ministry of Defense and its enemies. For example, "She was the kind of person who packed four kinds of nightwear for a weekend away on the basis that you just never knew. What it was you never knew she wasn’t sure, but in Helen’s book equipping oneself with a choice of nightwear went some way to mitigating the horror of the unknown." These felicitous observations last until the action gets underway in earnest (up until that point, several people have tried to kill Helen, but it turns out that's nothing compared to what's coming), and then things are rather grim for quite some time.

To my mind, the novel's biggest flaw is its length. There is so much of it, so many different characters and different things going on, that the problem is twofold; a great deal to remember, and plenty of time in which to forget it. So I often found myself thinking things like, "Who's that guy again?" "What is this SMILE company trying to achieve, anyway?" and finally, "Was that explained earlier? Because I didn't get that at all. Did I miss something?" I expect that won't be an uncommon experience for readers. It might be a good idea to keep notes. Failing that, you might have to read the book twice to fully understand it.

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* And yes, he is British. Why do Brits write so much better than North Americans, by and large? Is it the educational system? The canings? Tea with milk? Frequent rain? I don't know, but I must find out. Back

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Recipe: Kale Chips (Garlic Flavour)

Kale chips are a tasty, nutritious alternative to potato or tortilla chips—but they cost nine dollars a bag at the health food store. It makes more sense to make your own.

Ingredients

  • 1 bunch kale, washed and dried
  • 2 tbsp. vegetable oil
  • 1/2 – 1 tsp. garlic powder, depending on taste
  • Salt (optional)

What is a "bunch?" Not a very precise measurement I realize, but the quantities are not crucial here; tweak as desired. A bunch is about what you'd get wrapped up at the supermarket. If on the other hand, you buy a whole plant at a farmer's market, it will be a good deal bigger, maybe twice as big.

Instructions

Preheat oven to 350F. You can use a toaster oven, but you might need to halve the recipe to get it to fit.

Place oil and garlic powder in a mixing bowl. Sprinkle in a little salt if you want. I don't think it's really necessary. Mix. Remove kale leaves from stems, tear into bite-sized pieces and add to bowl. Save the stems for something else. Add them to a soup or something.

Toss the leaves with the oil until well blended. I think the best way to do this is with your hands.

Spread the oiled leaves onto a baking tray and bake in oven for 10-15 minutes. You might want to flip them halfway through. Keep an eye on them so they don't overcook. They're done when they're crispy all the way through and brown at the edges but not right to the middle. Delicious!

I developed this recipe on my own. Then, when I decided to write it up and post it, I did a search online and discovered that there are already a bazillion kale recipes available. So, I'm not as original as I thought, and maybe my drop in the bucket is not really necessary. Still, here it is, for what it's worth, and I hope it's worth something.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Blither Age: Obfuscation and Fluff in Modern Business Communication

Our time has been dubbed the Information Age. Sometimes I think it should be called the Blither Age. In business and marketing communications, it has become acceptable, indeed expected, to use as many words as possible to say as little as possible. Certain words are especially popular: leverage, paradigm, dynamic. They are sprinkled liberally throughout written and verbal communications with little regard to their meaning.

Why did this practice come about? It was probably borrowed from the scientific and academic world. Professors and scientists alike have long taken pride in their ability to write dense, incomprehensible prose filled with as many long, obscure words as possible. It is a way for them to prove their education and credentials—not everyone can write like that, after all. When business adopted this tradition, it chose a different set of long, obscure words, but retained the denseness and incomprehensibility, as well as the goal of demonstrating cleverness and credentials.

On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with this goal. Who doesn't want to feel intelligent, and persuade other people that they are intelligent? However, one must examine the cost of this ego gratification, which may be quite high. Typical business and marketing communication, which is in fact poor communication, may result in a loss of productivity, increased difficulty in hiring qualified employees, and loss of business.

Meetings may be called to give employees information that will help them do their jobs. But this goal of providing employees with information may not be fulfilled as well as it could be if the speaker has another goal: to show everybody at the meeting how clever he is. Many an employee has drifted off into dreamland as the speaker droned on about leveraging paradigms. The more difficulty your employees have understanding you, the less they will be able to concentrate.

Jargon-filled speech is much longer than straightforward, clear speech, so its usage will extend the length of the meeting. Because of the lack of clarity, employees will need to ask more questions in order to fully understand the material. Either they will do so, which will make the meeting take even longer, or they will keep silent out of fear of appearing foolish, thus thwarting goal number one of the meeting: to communicate information.

Consequently, the speaker's goal of appearing intelligent through jargon-filled speech works at cross-purposes to the meeting goal, and wastes time. A waste of time means a waste of money, as the meeting drags on and runs into time that the employees could be using to do their jobs. You can see how poor communication in meetings can result in reduced productivity, but you may be wondering how it can get in the way of hiring employees.

Businesses employ classified advertisements when they wish to find an employee with precise qualifications. It would make sense, then, to state what is required in clear, precise language. But that is not always what happens.

A typical classified ad may say something like, "Seeking friendly, dynamic sales associates." How many of the words here tell the reader precisely what is being sought? "Friendly" and "sales associates" are fine words. Everybody has a pretty good idea of what they mean. But what about dynamic? What does it mean?

Consulting a dictionary, one learns that dynamic means, "relating to the forces in nature; relating to activity or things in movement; causal; forceful, very energetic" (Chambers Dictionary). Is this company looking for a sales associate who is a force of nature? Probably not. Dynamic also means something that moves. Is the company saying they won't hire a paraplegic or quadriplegic worker? That could get them in trouble. What about forceful? Possibly they want someone with an aggressive sales style. That seems the likeliest interpretation. Still, an aggressive sales style puts many customers off. That might not be it at all.

The point is that the reader of the advertisement has to guess, and then they have to decide whether they are dynamic, whatever on earth it means. The way "dynamic" is tossed around in classified ads these days, used to describe employees, products, companies and everything but the kitchen sink, I strongly suspect it means nothing at all. Yet there it is, in the ad, taking up space and costing money.

Yet this is a relatively benign example. The higher up you go in terms of prestige and pay scale, the more obscure the language. In a typical ad in the Careers section, we are told that among the responsibilities of the Director of Business Development is to "provide strategic direction in the planning and execution of innovative, integrated and results-oriented business development." This is fluff. Would you want your business development to be non-strategic? What does it mean for the business development to be integrated? Integrated with what? And what about results-oriented? Would you ever want your business development to be oriented towards something else, such as thumb-twiddling and money-wasting? Perhaps the development of classified ads like this one would qualify.

If all the words that mean nothing are subtracted from this phrase, we are left with, "plan and execute business development," or even "develop the business." Even this is vague. The prospective director is left with little notion of what is expected of him.

If you doubt that business jargon can result in the loss of business, you need only check out the web pages of a few software companies and attempt to figure out from the marketing lingo what it is that they or their products do. The task ranges from difficult to impossible. Instead of solid information on product function, software company web pages are full of writing about "leveraging technologies" to "deliver maximum value" as part of a "solutions-oriented approach." You can feel your brain throb as you read these words and attempt vainly to glean any sort of real meaning from them. If you're trying to figure out what the product does, it can be very frustrating. I have little doubt that many a prospective customer simply gives up, deciding that if they can't figure out what the product does, they probably don't need it.

The most ominous result of modern blither jargon may be the erosion, not just of the user's ability to communicate clearly but even to think clearly. I recently saw a Dragon's Den episode that vividly and poignantly demonstrated this inability to think as a consequence of marketingspeak. Click on the link to watch it yourself.

If you're not able to play the video, here's a brief summary.

Three would-be entrepreneurs pitch their web site idea, Whizof.biz, where would-be entrepreneurs (like themselves, presumably) would be able to get free, expert business communication advice from experienced entrepreneurs.

"Now, you're going to tell us how we make money, right?" says Kevin O'Leary.

"Yes," says Peter of Whizof.biz.

"When's that happen?"

"Right now."

But it doesn't happen. The Dragons ask increasingly detailed questions and get increasingly frustrated at getting waffle in response. Peter claims he can attract customers by offering 50% lower fees than competing companies, but Reg says they will attract the experienced entrepreneurs by offering higher payments. They can't explain how this is going to result in profits but only talk in vague terms: "If you've done well on the review and decide you want to do a rewrite, the cost of the rewrite is far less than would otherwise be the case."

Says Arlene Dickinson, "I usually don't get so frustrated but I'm listening really intently and I can't understand what you're telling me."

A short time later, Reg says, "We have in our minds at least a very clear image of how it will work."

But that's just it: they don't. The conversation as a whole suggests rather that everyone involved has a fuzzy image of how it will work, with all gaps filled in by magic, and the fuzzy language they use to talk about it protects them from becoming aware of the fact.

Needless to say, they get no offers. As Kevin points out at the end, they need their own product—badly.

Let us therefore bring back clarity in our speech, not only for the sake of relationships and good communication but for the sake of our higher brain functions.