ALCStudies Journal

Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies Web Site & Blog

L is for —

Leap
Leave
Lose
Legal
Ludicrous

I am waiting to hear whether I can stay. We assembled my documents as best we can according to the latest information (which keeps changing). We woke in the middle of the night to try and make another (fourth? fifth?) appointment at the immigration office using the broken online scheduling system (which keeps breaking). Bureaucracy and crappy technology are a bad combination.

On TV here there are stories of political corruption, financial malfeasance and bus crashes. Despite this, immigrants from another country where things are worse flock across the borders. Since the fall in oil prices, professionals and working-class, immigrants and locals alike struggle to find work. People sell oranges in the streets and juggle at traffic lights.

In keeping with the Halloween spirit in my home country citizens exclaim and pontificate like people trying to dislodge a rabid bat that has flown in their house. The word loser has gotten a lot of attention there in the past few years – occupying the public rhetoric to the point of irony. It’s a sort of joke unless you are on the receiving end – among those who, to paraphrase A Wonderful Life (the title itself a bit of irony) ‘do most of the working and paying and living and dying’ in this world.

BBC/Getty Images


Love
Loyal
Laughter
Lucky

Like other immigrants, I left personal heartache and darkness; my job, my home, my city, my language, my connections – familiar landmarks by which I navigated a former life. I traveled to a different culture. I was fortunate to find new friends, affection, joy and love among intelligent, hard-working people who know how to enjoy life. Many of them have lost as well.

One had her social security savings embezzled at a previous employer. Another lost her husband to someone else. A young man in his late twenties fled from a nearby country and now works for low wages in a local restaurant. A few weeks ago we heard a Vivaldi concert with two of them. The weekend after we ate dinner and drank wine and danced at a friend’s house till three in the morning. People here know how to throw a party. If they are losers, I’m proud to be in their company.

Living in a privileged society does not make you immune from challenges and loss, of course. In the past six months a former colleague back home died in her sleep. She had a voice like angel and was afraid to tell our employer when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Another colleague in his forties who races bicycles had serious surgery last summer. A third in his fifties has a non-fatal form of leukemia and works to retain his benefits. Some self- help advice I’ve read suggests separating yourself from such people and the ‘negative energy’ they carry — a curious inversion of Christian charity.

Even though the rainy season has arrived, the strong sun requires liberal amounts of sun block. We were hoping to visit the surrounding villages and see historic sites. It’s hard to make plans. Leaving the country starts the visa process over, and I might have to pay a fine to return: Do not pass Go; Do not collect $200. Some days I feel like an exile. Contacting our embassy twice by phone and e-mail for an appointment resulted in impersonal replies to check their web site.

Lo siento (I’m Sorry)
Llegar (Arrive)
Levantar (Raise up, Carry)
Libre (Freedom)

We are all going about the business of trying to live as human beings in the face of institutions, bureaucracies and technologies that increasingly confound our notions of being human. Businesses wittingly or unwittingly abuse the talent and motivation of their employees. Countries squander the hope and goodwill of their citizens and immigrants arriving to seek a better life. Who are the losers?

We are programmed to pursue the better, the new and improved, the different. Because nothing is more constant than change, and what we have is never enough. As for me, here I am 2800 miles away from what used to be home. I tell myself in the positive thinking parlance of the day that I am going toward something. – CDL

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Tick, Tick

Labor Day has come and gone. the black bears along the Tangascootack are eating acorns like the lunch  crowd at the Bucktail.

The rattlesnake roundup went fine. No one got bit. By a snake anyway. No one asked the snakes their opinion of the event.


Ed Blezny retired in May from the Credit Union. He’s been sitting around all summer getting cabin fever, not quite sure what to do with himself. Over the weekend his wife suggested he take their dog Red over by the reservoir to blow some of the stink off both of them.

Loois acting as a stand-in.

It did him good. September in the central part of the state has brought cool mornings and hot, dry days. A few trees are beginning to turn on the ridges. Red looked for squirrels and chased chipmunks till Ed whistled.

On the way back they stopped at the Chat ‘n Choo at the old railroad station in Cross Fork for coffee. Earl and his cousin Troy were there. Troy’s niece Maxine was pouring the coffee. She’s a nice, smart kid with tattoos up to her ears and in places she won’t say. She’s working at the Chat n’ Choo for the summer with plans to go to Triangle Tech in October.

When Ed came in with Red, Troy looked at them.

Be careful he didn’t pick up a tick. They’re bad this year.

Ed said he would. He always checks Red’s ears, under his chin and neck.


There’s just a few ways you can remove a tick from a dog, or a human, for that matter. The first is you take yourself some kerosene from the local hardware. Dab the skin around the tick so it can’t breathe. When he backs out, grab him with some tweezers. Be sure not to break his head off beneath the skin.


Two, light a match and hold it near the skin where the tick is burrowed. When he wriggles backward, grab him with the tweezers.

Just don’t use the match with kerosene at the same time. You want to avoid canine combustion.

Maxine started talking about her Facebook page. She uses it to stay in touch with her friends, but she also uses it to post messages about politics. She’s an opinionated young lady and not a fan of the nation’s current leader.

Troy looked uncomfortable. Like most people in the region, he voted with the Republican Party. He thinks the world of Maxine, but isn’t quite sure how to take her. He’s also not too sure any longer about the current White House resident.

Earl is less shy about his opinion. He lost his job at the sheet metal fabrication plant two years ago. Then he lost his retirement benefits when the company got a buyout. He’s fed up with politics. He says, The way I see it it’s like you got a tick stuck between a dog’s shoulders. The harder you try to get at him, the harder he digs in.

He holds on, a suckin’ away at the dog’s lifeblood, getting fat. The madder you get, the fatter he gets, head jest a blowin’ up like a balloon. Folks would rather get mad than do anythin’. But don’t do to get mad at a tick: it’s his nature. He’s along for the ride as long as it’s comfortable. You can accommodate them for a while. But at some point you have to come to a parting of the ways.

Just don’t set the dog on fire. — CDL

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‘Smart Machines’ 30 Years Later

‘Dave? Dave? What are you doing?’ (Image courtesy Amazon)

 

Thirty years ago a book appeared that anticipated the automation of nearly every aspect of our lives and the world we live in, including the promise and dilemmas of computers in the workplace, social networking, privacy and the recent debacle with Facebook.

The New York Times called In the Age of the Smart Machine ‘a penetrating study of how automation is affecting the workplace.’ But the implications go much further. The author, Shoshana Zuboff, based the book on her consulting work in the 1980s with business organizations installing personal computers in the 1980s and her Ph.D. research at Harvard. The book’s full title, In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power, belied its uniqueness and the breadth and depth of the material covered.

When the first PCs emerged from antediluvian garages and hobbyists’ living rooms1 in the last decades of the 20th Century, early businesses were not quite sure what to do with them. Before the Internet, before email, before Facebook, texts and Twitter, large mainframe computers dominated the marketplace. Apple’s IIc and Macintosh, lurking in the evolutionary underbrush with their revolutionary graphical user interfaces, were the domain mainly of college professors, designers and artists.

Zuboff went into paper mills, insurance companies and other organizations experimenting with the new technology. She investigated how the new technology implemented at the time affected employees’ and managements’ jobs and the ways they interacted. She combined her findings with research on communication theory, cognitive psychology and labor and social history. The result is one part oral history, one part case study and two parts social history accompanied by a plethora of citations.2 Along the way Zuboff coined several terms, including informating and intellective skills. The former she defined as follows:


… [informating] technology is used to reproduce and extend the process of substituting machines for human agency… Devices that automate by translating information into action also register data about those automated activities, thus generating new streams of information. (Smart Machine, page 9)

In comparison to 1970s and 1980s prognosticators of the future such as as Alvin Toffler and John Naisbitt3, Zuboff’s writing is even-handed and thoughtful. Her work compares favorably to that of 90s writer Neil Postman.4 Why the book is not more widely known is somewhat of a mystery. Amidst the current hype over virtual reality, artificial intelligence and smart cars, Smart Machine still stands as the sine qua non toward thoughtful discourse on the place of computing technology in the workplace and society against the pessimism of writers such as Jaron Lanier and Evgeny Morozov5 on one hand, and the relentless promotion of technology by business and academia on the other.

Although retired from teaching, Zuboff continues to write on the vicissitudes and dilemmas of computing.6 Nowadays the vagaries of social networking, the abstraction of labor, deskilling, and monopolies of power are becoming abundantly clear. Zuboff shows that the seeds for the unchecked flow, control and consumption of data and digitization of our lives were sown in the factory system of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, including technologies such as the power-loom and Ford’s assembly lines. Contemporary dilemmas around the impact of computers on human agency, alienation and our fraught online interactions have their antecedents in the telegraph and telephone7. The radio and television brought information to the masses. The world wide web expanded the role of technology as a magnifier of thought and ideas8, for good or ill.

Advances in computing power and global networking since have led to 24/7 connectivity through our smartphones and the ubiquitous presence of applications like Facebook. Despite 1980s rhetoric promising a Third Wave of computing and mass empowerment through the free sharing of information, a digital age of Aquarius has not dawned. Unchecked social networking and social media also carry a danger of creating a more tribal, fragmented society9. We are increasingly subject in our daily lives to the Taylorization10 of our work, our thoughts, our bodies and our relationships and disconnection of our human from our virtual selves. We are sold the notion that we conduct our virtual lives through disinterested ‘bots and algorithms designed for smoothly-functioning utilitarian efficiency without messy emotion.11 In reality they reflect the predilections and character of their creators: business executives, programmers, government bureaucrats, and ‘thought leaders’ accountable to no one. Whatever opportunities they presume to offer toward enlightenment and realizing the better angels of our nature, commercial entities like Cambridge Analytics, Facebook, Uber and Google also reflect and feed off the fear, frustration, greed, anger, lust and chaos in our souls.

Zuboff is an insightful guide to the mundus novus of computing in the last century and a superb writer. She asks good questions of herself and her subjects, questions we should be asking still.

  • Is computing technology transformative, or just an extension of the automation of our lives and work that has occurred over the past 200 years?
  • What are executives’ and managers’ obligations toward workers and consumers in applying the new technology? Is it to to improve their productivity and happiness, liberating them for more creative ‘intellective’ tasks – or solely to achieve the lowest common denominator of efficiency?
  • Is technology ever merely neutral?
  • Are workers and consumers obligated to embrace possibilities of technology? Or do they have rights to obstruct and even undermine changes that may not be in their best interests?

Smart Machine offers a prescient guide toward developing a mindful, humane and sane approach to technology. However, it’s unclear who is interested in employing it thus. Corporations are driven by the same bottom line of optimizing profit that they have been since the 19th Century. Universities have become extensions of the corporate state and mere pipelines to employment. Government extols innovation for its own sake and as a spurious source of profit without regard for ethics or the public good12. The result (at least as far as computers and the web) is the expenditure of untold amounts of talent and money to develop trivial applications (think clickbait) which at best distract us from important matters and at worst separate us from our money, personal data and identity. Despite the cautionary mythology presented in films such as the Matrix, there is little relief today from an advancing tide of futurism, reductionist scientific thinking and technological determinism that sees all aspects of our existence as a nail for the same digital hammer.

The EU attempts to protect members’ privacy with it’s own bureaucracy. Writers such as Jaron Lanier and Evgeny Morozov are shrill counterpoints to unmitigated boosterism. Small groups such as the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, attempt a mindful approach through The New Atlantis to ensure the appropriate use of technology, ethics, and involvement of an informed citizenry in decision-making.

Technology is more than a device or solution. It it is a way of thinking which offers benefits and limitations in navigating this world of our creation. Far from simply being a benign extension of ourselves, the tools have the power to change the nature of the user and the manner in which we live.  -CDL

1Such as the Tandy TRS-80, which could be purchased as a kit (?) through Radio Shack.
2Including semiotics, problem-solving, the abstraction of work and media studies addressed in writing by Karl Polanyi, Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman
3Authors, respectively, of the Future Shock (1970) and Megatrends (1982)
4Author of books including Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), Technopoly (1992), Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future (1995)
5Authors, respectively, of Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now and To Save Everything Click Here.
6No escape from the Panopticon, ScienceNode, October 14th 2017
7See Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet.
8A machine is a magnifier of labor
9In Ill Fares the Land the late Tony Judt describes the ‘connected isolation’ that results.
10Named for Frederick Winslow Taylor, Henry Ford’s manager and promoter of ‘one best way’ for completing tasks.
11 Facilitating superficial, zipless interactions without emotional investment or accountability, to borrow a term from 1970s writer Erica Jong,
12The late Neil Postman, in Building a Bridge to the 18th Century, proposed we ask of technology, What problem does it solve; what problem(s) does it create? Who benefits? Who pays?

 

Bon Voyage, Tony

I enjoy cooking. I find it creative and practical, and I’m not bad it it. I used to joke that I wanted Anthony Bourdain’s job. Now I guess that’s more of a possibility.

His death Friday from apparent suicide hit me. He was my age. I have the usual thoughts and questions:

  • He had such a cool job
  • He had a girlfriend and a young daughter
  • He traveled all the world, talked to people, ate with them, got paid for it
  • He kicked heroin

What the hell?

As a survivor of someone who committed suicide, over the past year I’ve reached out to friends, family, strangers, professionals and colleagues. I sought comfort, peace and reconnection. With important exceptions what I encountered disappointed me. Our get-ahead go-ahead society turns our thoughts, feelings, need for intimacy, friends and acquaintances into commodities to be bought, sold and easily discarded. (And thanks for capitalizing on that Facebook.) Most people I tried to connect with did not have time or patience for the grief, loss, nagging thoughts and memories I experienced and am still experiencing. You may have spent a week with someone or a lifetime, known them casually or intimately, said hello at the office or woke up in the same bed, who was enmeshed in so much pain, confusion and despair in their head (or body) that they decided to leave this world. As you struggle to comprehend, to move on, people you’ve known for years throw a few clichés at you. They tell you to see a therapist, ask if you’re on meds, and are gone. No time for conversation, tears, laughter or reminiscences or even a meal together. And sure as hell not serious questions.

I don’t know why Anthony Bourdain killed himself. We’ve created a world that pushes our buttons and makes us constantly doubt and feel afraid and anxious about whether we fit in and at the same time makes us feel isolated. That requires us to do crazy things and pretend to like it. Then, when we act out and feel bad, we sell ourselves services and products and meds and therapy. Nice little business you got going on there. Be a shame if anything happened to it.

I was told that people often don’t know what to say. Certainly this life (and death) can leave us at a loss for words. But people know what to say about plenty of other things, like politics or their sex lives (or other people’s sex lives if they don’t have one). My expectations are not high. Maybe I’m idealizing here (Thank you Big Chill), but give it a shot. Knock on the door of someone who’s experienced a loss like I and millions of others have. Take five minutes to give them a call. Invite them them to lunch or to take a walk or have a beer, or take a bicycle ride. And for the sake of whatever belief system you have, mention the name of the person they lost instead of pretending they never existed. Even if you’re afraid it might upset them (um, what, more?). Grow an anatomically-correct pair of ovaries or testicles. Or a heart. Dare to be brave. Don’t make them do all the work themselves in isolation, which helped create the mess we’re in in the first place.

I don’t know whether Anthony Bourdain was depressed (as if that explains anything) or narcissistic or had a personality disorder. I’ll leave the armchair therapizing to the self-appointed experts. To me cooking and enjoying good food and traveling and telling stories and getting people to share their stories and recipes around the world and having an ego does not mean you have a personality disorder. It means you contributed just a tiny part of the solution in this crazy mixed up world.

In my mind I imagine me and Tony drinking mojitos in Cuba and arguing baseball. Or sitting down in Istanbul for shish kebab or in Barcelona for tapas.

My sense from watching is that he could be a cranky son-of-a-bitch: standoffish, opinionated and garrulous. He also appeared witty, wry and self- deprecating, generous and kind. And to genuinely savor life. We could use more of that in the human species.

So for me now keep your tributes, your marches, your causes, your ribbons, your 1-800 suicide hotlines, your therapists on the clock, your platitudes and statistics, your by-the-book support groups, your medications that distance those of us left behind from our anguish and questions so we can work and buy groceries and feed the cat and ourselves and maybe our kids. Don’t ask me for money, or to write my congress-person.

Show up.

And I don’t want Anthony Bourdain’s job. I’ll skip the heroin, thanks. I think I would hate running a restaurant. But for a long while he seems to have recovered and turned it into a pretty good life and work. I want him back so i can continue watching him show us how it’s done.

Bon voyage, Tony. Buen provecho. – CDL

 

Our Stars, Ourselves

Nuestra Estrellas, Nosotros Mismos

‘The spirit of sect and bigotry has planted its hoof amid the stars .
H.D.Thoreau, Life Without Principle

‘The fault is not in our stars, Horatio, but in ourselves.
Hamlet, Act I scene 1

In January this year I spent an afternoon walking in Quito, the capitol of Ecuador. Near the cathedrals and shops of the colonial city, I came across the Observatorio Astronómico ( Astronomical Observatory). Completed in 1878, it’s a museum now. The entrance fee was ~5.00 usd, so I went in.

Coincidentally, I recently read American Eclipse by David Baron. I wasn’t sure at first the subject was my thing, but his storytelling is superb. And of course I like most any history of technology. Barron’s book tells the story of the 1878 race to capture a total solar eclipse in the western U.S. The event took place at the start of the gilded age, when the country became obsessed by wealth and figures such as Pittsburgh’s Andrew Carnegie and J..C Frick made their fortunes. The book mentions Samuel Langley of the Allegheny observatory.

A few weeks ago mi novia texted me that drug dealers from Columbia murdered three journalists kidnapped in Esmeralda province in her home country of Ecuador. She and I traveled through Esmeralda on the way to La Costa. It’s a lush green landscape, but poor.

It’s hard for me to ascribe any cosmic meaning to the fates of three journalists unless we address the causes of their deaths on earth. A year ago I couldn’t tell you why events in Ecuador would amount to a hill of beans for me. But looking up at the stars today makes the world seem a very small place. — CDL

But Let’s Not

(Facebook Deletion Notice)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oh, what the hell —

An Apology for the Internet from the People Who Built It (Noah Kulwin, New York Magazine)

Shoshana Zuboff: No Escape from the Panopticon (Lance Farrell, Sciencenode)

–CDL

Speaking of Facebook…

Three recent articles on technology. One takes a ‘Don’t worry, trust us’ approach. The other two  are more critical:

Victor Frankenstein Is the Real Monster (Ronald Bailey, Reason)

Uber’s Fatal Crash Raises Big Questions About Self-Driving Cars (Video, Wired)

Does My Algorithm Have a Mental-Health Problem? (Thomas T Tills , Aeon)

And should I be worried about the elevator that keeps closing on me? — CDL

Detaching

— From a variety of things. Including soon, perhaps, Facebook. Bye fly, FB!

The Troubadour & the Gypsy Princess

We live surrounded lately by dark made-up events, people and stories confabulations. I figured I might as well make up one of my own with some light.

The Fable of the Sleeping Troubadour & the Gypsy Princess1

A troubadour lived in a village long ago and far away. He made his way telling stories and singing in return for a meal and a bed for the night. Once he had a family, but something happened and he was alone.

He met other travelers in the village who told him of their adventures. For a night or two they shared songs and stories by the fire. They laughed and drank and entertained each other against the darkness and cold and loneliness. Then the other travelers went out into the world again, bidding each other to be safe and happy until next time, leaving him behind.

The troubadour was no longer young, but neither was he too old to dream. Everywhere he went he encountered ghosts and memories of his former life. Some of these he remembered fondly. Others were so sad he could barely stand to live with them. His friends and relatives told him, ‘Forget the past. Stop dwelling on your memories.’ They were part of his life that was gone. He wondered about the future and what would become of him.


The travelers he met in the village told the troubadour about a land to the south in the middle of the world where the sun shone and winter never came. The troubadour decided he wanted to see it. His friends and relatives warned him, ‘It’s dangerous. Stay here with us where it’s safe’. The troubadour answered, ‘You tell me me to forget sad memories and the past. Alright, I’m going to leave and make new ones.

The troubadour traveled through the jungle and saw strange beasts. He paddled through rivers and lagoons. He drank with local people and ate their food. They spoke a a language he didn’t know, but he laughed and talked with them anyway. They welcomed him. The head of one village offered the troubadour his daughter in marriage. ‘Stay here with us. You’ll have land. You can have many children and become rich.’ The troubadour considered the offer. He thanked the man and said, ‘I am a stranger and traveler in your lands. My settling down days are over.’
After many miles and many days the troubadour arrived at a great city in the land to the south where a gypsy princess lived. The gypsy princess had the face and spirit of a girl but was no longer young either. She had had lovers but never settled down. She enjoyed children, but had none of her own. As a maiden she went to distant lands on her own, carrying her harp and sword. She fought battles and suffered wounds and deep scars. Even those she trusted to care for her had hurt her. Maybe that’s why she left.

After many years she finally returned home to the city of her birth to rest. But she felt strange among her own family and friends. Her aging parents worried about her. ‘What will become of her? ‘There must be something wrong with me,’ the gypsy princess thought. Her family, friends country-men and women told her, ‘Who do you think you are? Why don’t you get married and settle down?” No one knew she was a gypsy princess. Or if they knew, they forgot to tell her.

When the troubadour arrived in the city of the gypsy princess, the journey had begun to make him feel anxious and afraid. He wasn’t sure traveling all that way had really been a good idea. He wanted to rest. Generally people were kind, but it tired him to constantly learn a new language and new ways. On his second day he came across a magnificent mansion. The people there gave him something to eat and a place to stay for the night. In return he sang a song and told a story about his home to the north. When he lay down to sleep, the troubadour didn’t wake up. His songs and stories were silent. His memories went away, both the happy and sad ones. He knew nothing that went on around him in the world any longer. His friends and family forgot about him as though he never existed. Thorns and thick vines grew up around the mansion. The people who owned it went away. What had once been a resplendent home filled with life and happiness appeared as a crumbling ruin to passersby .

Each morning the gypsy princess woke in the bed she had slept in as a girl. Her parents slept downstairs. Possessions of her childhood surrounded her. But now when she had nightmares, no one comforted her. Since her parents were getting older, she decided she would devote herself to caring for them. If that would be her life, so be it.

Sometimes she would take out her harp and sword and look at them. When she did her old wounds twinged. The sword bore the nicks and scars of her battles. The harp was tarnished and missing a string. She would carefully put them away and tell her parents she was leaving. Then she went out into the city to meet her friends. They would go to entertainments and talk about when they were younger. Many of them were married and had children. Her former suitors had gone on to make their own lives. Once she imagined marrying a star in one of the entertainments. When she saw her friends’ comfortable lives, her old scars and wounds bothered her even more. She grew angry and frightened of the busyness of life in the city, and the obliviousness of people. The streets were filled with noise and traffic and people with lives unlike her own. She felt unconnected, floating in the world.

On her walks the gypsy princess often passed a crumbling old mansion covered in vines and surrounded by cedron trees. It had once been owned by a local family. Some tragedy befell them and their home was abandoned. There was a beauty about it that intrigued her. She returned again and again. Sometimes she climbed the wall to get a better look and see what might be inside. But the vines and thorns were too thick to see more.

One evening she noticed dim light shining in one room of the mansion. The next evening she took her sword from the drawer. She lifted down her dusty harp from its place on the wall. She told her parents she was going out for a walk as usual. The streets of the city were quiet. The moon shone strongly through the leaves of the cedron trees. She went straight to the old crumbling mansion. With the harp slung over her shoulder, she lay the sword on top of the wall and hoisted herself up onto it. She peered through the dense foliage toward the window on the second floor where the light shone. Twisted trees with thorns filled the yard like beasts and dragons. Only one spot in the yard near the wall was clear. The gypsy princess leaped down and landed with a thud. Her knees bent and her feet hurt. Her old wounds pained her. She shook her curly red hair and gritted her teeth. She grabbed the sword from atop the wall and began hacking through the undergrowth. Her arm and shoulder found their rhythm. Though nicked and long disused, the blade retained its power to cut. The thorns drew blood from her fair skin. She raised her arm to shield her face. But the sword did its work. Branches fell to the ground beneath her feet. The night was silent except for crickets. The sounds of the city faded. She cleared a path until she stood outside the mansion wall covered in vines. She stood for a moment looking up at the window, then began to climb.

She turned her head to avoid branches hitting her in the face. She inhaled the scent of bird droppings. Her legs and arms shook. Finally she reached the second-floor window. She pulled herself over the windowsill and looked in. Through a gap in the heavy curtains the moonlight revealed a figure on a bed. It was a man. She could see that much. A graying beard covered his face. His arm lay across his face. He was sleeping. The glass was broken from one of the window panes. The gypsy princess reached in and undid the latch, swung the window open, and stepped inside.

The room was still and quiet. Dust and broken plaster covered the floor. As the gypsy princess approached the bed, the man’s chest rose and fell. His nose was straight and his lips full. Lines showed around his mouth, but his chin was strong. His hair, which at first appeared entirely gray, was mostly covered in plaster dust. The gypsy princess reached out to touch his sleeve, but he did not stir. She touched his hand. His skin was warm. She looked down, wondering what to do. Should she she let him slumber? She touched his face gently. She felt his beard with her fingers, touched his strong nose. He was not an apparition. He had flaws and imperfections on his skin, a scar on his cheek. A bit of dried saliva showed at the corner of his mouth. Some impulse made her touch his hair. When she brushed away the dust, gray showed there like frost. She leaned down and kissed his lips, feeling their warmth. She lay her head on his chest. Her heart beat twice to every one of his. She unslung the harp and began to play. Sound filled the room. The strings miraculously sounded notes as she plucked them with her fingers. Slowly at first and uncertainly she remembered a tune from her childhood. The stranger drew a deep breath, then another. His arm moved away from his face and he opened his eyes. A puzzled expression crossed his face.

I’ve been asleep.’

She didn’t understand his words as she continued to play.

He looked around the room, then at her. His eyes were blue in contrast to her own of warm hazel. He spoke again, and suddenly his words were as clear as water.

Yes,’ she answered. ‘I found you.’

You are beautiful,’ he said.

She shrugged. ‘I am a little strange.’

He shrugged. ‘And I am a lost stranger.’

The troubadour touched her face and smiled at her. The gypsy princess took his hand. It was warm and strong. The mansion was no longer derelict. Dust and plaster no longer lay on its floor. Birds sang and the smell of the cedron tree came through the open window. Outside darkness gave way to light.

They stood and embraced. The mansion became a cottage by the sea. And instead of being in the city filled with noise and confusion and worry, they found themselves in a village surrounded by friends. Outside waves rolled against the shore and the delicious smell of the ocean surrounded them. From that day forward the gypsy princess and the troubadour lived together surrounded by light and love and laughter. — CDL

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1For all gypsy princesses, hidden or otherwise, and one in particular.

 

Found in Translation

Riqui’s en Quito

I’m in touch with new friends in Ecuador through an application on my phone called WhatsApp. Their English is often far better than my Spanish. I’ve been using Google Translate to help me correspond. When I arrived in Ecuador for the first time in December last year, I knew barely a lick of the lingua franca. My mental phrase book was limited to Hola, Como esta? and Como se llama? I’ve learned a few more words and phrases since then, including some curse words and slang for communicating inspiration, frustration and desire.1

Technologies exist now that purport to remove the necessity for our ever having to learn a new language. A person from a local university showed me an app on her phone that allows her to hold it up to a person in a foreign country, ask them to speak into it, and receive an approximation of the corresponding phrases in her own idiom. While this eliminates the effort (and the fun) of learning a language, I’m not sure shoving your phone in someone’s face to hold a conversation will endear yourself to local residents.2

Douglas Hofstadter rips Google Translate a new one in the Atlantic. Hofstadter’s beef is that GT’s algorithms don’t understand the meaning behind what you are trying to say. Therefore, it can’t really replace a real human translator (and take his job). I find Google Translate useful. Of course GT doesn’t give a rat’s ass about what you are trying to say. I’m guessing it correlates words and phrases based on proximity and context against a history of similar words and phrases in a different language stored in it’s vast Google-ian deep-thought-like3 repository. The actual translation is likely based on probability and pattern recognition. That’s a guess. Anyone with more knowledge in this field feel free to correct me.

Artificial intelligence, natural language processing and machine learning have been around as concepts in business, academia, science fiction and prognostications of the future for years.4 The technology has gone from theory to practice and is finding its way into call centers, banking, medical transcription, and most usefully, assistive devices for the vision- and hearing-impaired and cognitively and physically disabled. It now allows us to look up phrases and get almost instantaneous pretty good okay-ish translations on the web that that give the gist and allows us to understand and be understood.

As Hofstadter points out, speaking and writing across cultures contains idiosyncratic and unique phrases and meaning.5 Even human translators find balancing nuances of meaning against accuracy and clarity challenging. Grammar checkers and thesauri included in word processing software reject work by writers such as Hemingway and (especially) James Joyce as ungrammatical and wrong. Machine-only translation often produces borderline gibberish.6

As a bit of assistive technology, GT has its place for helping those who sometimes want a quick and dirty7 way to communicate in a different language. Replacing real translation with this sort of tool makes us complacent and robs us of the worthwhile work and pleasure of finding and appreciating the beauties and subtleties of another language.

In the utilitarian bottom-line world we live in, too often we believe we have no other choice. The scary thing is when people start taking these pieces of technology as gospel and assuming they are the only game in town. – CDL

1 Which is one of the the main purposes language serves.

2Como dice ‘Vete a la mierda?’ This might kill the mood in more intimate circumstances, but who knows? People can get used to a lot.

3See Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy (the original radio play, not the lame film).

4See Alan Turing (The Imitation Game) Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, and work at universities in Pittsburgh in the 1980s.

5Which lend themselves to delightful wordplay.

6Mi amiga especial, who originally recommended Google Translate, told me over WhatApp, ‘It sounds like a robot’. She resorts to texting ‘GT, phone home.’ whenever the app fails her. Muy adorable.

7Sometimes literally. GT is very accommodating. If you put in the filthiest phrases you can think of, it’s a lot of fun. Try it with a friend.

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