Archive for August, 2010|Monthly archive page

Netspeak: What’s the problem?

In Web writing on August 24, 2010 at 9:52 pm

Having worked as an ESL teacher for a while, you’d think I’d be a bit of a language pedant. In some respects I am, but one thing you learn from teaching students struggling with your language, and battling through a foreign language yourself, is that while pedantry is important, it’s not all. Creativity, and a sense of playfulness with words, are just as vital. I noticed that students who showed a basic knowledge of the structure of English, but occasionally made up words that sounded sort of right, ended up far more articulate than those who dared not utter a word until they were sure they were word perfect. In keeping the dialogue going, my less fearful students eventually learnt the right words: they weren’t shamed into silence, like so many others, and they started to enjoy the process of learning, rather than endure it. I tried to follow the example of these students in my own language learning adventures, once improvising a half schoolgirl German and half Russian conversation with a bemused German-speaking Russian librarian.

So, having become much more tolerant of improvisation with language (if not with weasel words and nouns that are made into verbs), I felt pained tonight to see yet another of those articles about how the English language is being belted around by the new generation. Though such articles inevitably repeat the same ideas, I always read them; if nothing else, it’s a way of expanding my vocab.This article has some new news, though, regarding the legal ramifications of not knowing internet jargon. In this article, I also learnt about Rickrolling. Although this is a word invented to explain a digital phenomenon, could there a better way to express the idea? Yes, it’s an in-joke, and pretty silly, but it is shared among millions, and, like much absurd humour, it’s catching. IMHO, if digital media are encouraging people to invent new words and acronyms, then all the better, even if those words never do quite make it into the OED (or the Macquarie). As the article notes, students are not turning in essays full of text speak – they are aware of genre – so where is the problem?

Quiz time

Now, for a quiz. The other day, I was inordinately proud of my re-purposing of the word ‘dollop’. As in its original use, my new ‘dollop’ is a noun. Here’s an example sentence, to help you guess the meaning: ‘He’s such a dollop!’

Any takers? Here’s another hint, if you want it.

Tuning in to a shift of power

In The Web and democracy on August 22, 2010 at 10:13 am

Today I’m writing  this with one eye on the television. Of course, nothing’s going to happen for a while, but here are some post-election (or post non-election) observations. ABC 24’s clumsy but amusing pastiches of campaign highlights have fired my cross-wired mind, and snippets of pollie speak are fusing with the reports some of my classmates have posted about the Jay Rosen lecture. In particular, Rosen’s observations about the shift of power from journalists to the audience is food for thought. Thanks, miss bec, for your thoughtful post on this topic, and also for the link to the Guardian MP expenses claims assessments. (Note the admission of error at the beginning of the article outlining the best discoveries ‘training’ was mistaken, hilariously for everyone but the MP in question, for ‘tanning’. The apology is unmissable, a little different from the corners reserved for corrections in print publications – it was probably a lot swifter, too.)

I wonder how tuned Tony Abbott is into the shift of power? He (rightly, in my opinion) poo-pooed the idea of climate change citizens’ assembly, but in typical Tony fashion he went too far: ‘We already have a citizens’ assembly – it’s a parliament.’ Abbott is indeed out of touch. This being said, in suggesting the assembly, Labor went too far. Perhaps fancying itself as fashionably democratic, as it did with the 2020 summit, it forgot that there is power in numbers. Randomly choosing 150 members of the public to offer their opinion on ‘the greatest moral challenge of our time’ does not earn our respect. While the concept of expertise has changed, we still understand that experts are necessary. I’d propose that what we want is experts, but their claims have to be tempered by the opinions of citizens, in the old-fashioned sense. Of course, when you ask everyone to contribute, you have to sift through a lot of rubbish, but the odds of coming across a good idea are far better, as the Guardian claims assessments showed. (The apparent reliability of Wikipedia also stems from this truism.)

On the topic of expertise, here’s Tony again, explaining his lack of knowledge of his flawed wireless/broadband scheme: ‘I’m not a tech-head’. Of course you’re not, Tony, and nobody expects you to be. But watching both candidates relatively competently canvas questions on myriad topics in the town hall-type meetings, this response was unconvincing. Abbott just doesn’t rate an NBN as a topic worth boning up on. Just as in Tony’s time a rounded education was probably a much coveted thing (he was a Rhodes Scholar and has an MA in politics and philosophy – a degree that would presumably cover a pretty broad range of topics), these days an interest in, and passing knowledge of, internet access and the means and speed with which it is obtained is simply general knowledge expected of any intelligent member of society. Although this moral ‘disconnect’ with younger voters, which in an ageing Australia probably makes no difference, given the lack of differentiation between the it is possible changing his NBN policy may have (definitively) won him the election, the only chance he’ll probably have. (The pundits on Insiders are now debating what factor/s lost Labor seats – I think they’ll move to this complementary topic soon.)

One final note: Wouldn’t it be lovely if the losing candidate takes this as an opportunity to stop the ‘dog-whistling’ and show some real compassion to refugees? One of the Gillard’s questioners on her Q & A appearance clearly agrees. The transcript reads:

TONY JONES: We’ve got a web question that’s come in from Dave Bathur in Erskineville: “I’m hoping/praying your initial missteps on asylum seekers were just to win over the marginal seats and in government you’ll revert to a more humane and sensible approach … If this is the case and you’re not allowed yet to admit it, just look at the camera and say, ‘Moving forward.’ I will know what you mean. Want to send a little coded signal?”

JULIA GILLARD: I can’t send any coded signals. I tried to lay out before the Australian people my whole view here. I think maybe some of it got through, some of it didn’t. Maybe some of that’s my fault. It’s a complex debate but I’ve tried to say to the Australian people let’s be clear about the size of what we’re dealing with here. I’ve specifically adopted Julian Burnside’s words, noted lawyer, that at current rate of arrivals it will take 20 years to fill the MCG. That’s true. So, you know, let’s get a sense of perspective, 20 years to fill the MCG. But even with that perspective, I don’t want to see people get on boats, risk their lives, pay people smugglers to get here. I want to have a better solution than that and that is why I’ve put forward the regional process in play.

With the unprecedented success of the Greens, it seems that some previously muted voices are being heard, particularly on the topic of climate change, but Dave Bathur’s plea underlines what a double-edged sword true democracy is: regardless of how easily we can make our voices heard now, some voices will still be louder.

What’s your take on the election, and Web-enhanced political debate?

Back to the future

In The Web and democracy, Web writing on August 14, 2010 at 2:00 pm

You might recall that I’m cynical about the quality of much online content (see Is this what it is like?) and, of course, I’m not unique in this respect. Now,  from my own, unfocused surfing,  links my classmates and others have given me, and my reflections on my history with the Web, I’m starting to feel a bit better, and a bit more ‘in control’ – if this makes me paranoid, then so be it.

This week’s readings have helped with this. One of the common threads in all of the readings was that concision is key. Why is this so reassuring? Well, for a start, there is nothing new about this advice. Remember Strunk? For the uninitiated, here is an extract from his 1918 treatise, Elements of Style (since updated).

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
Many expressions in common use violate this principle:
the question as to whether whether (the question whether)
there is no doubt but that no doubt (doubtless)
used for fuel purposes used for fuel
he is a man who he
in a hasty manner hastily
this is a subject which this subject
His story is a strange one. His story is strange.

Second, there are many examples of this sort of writing on the Web, Catherine Caine’s article among them. I love decluttering text almost as much as I like throwing out household junk. My friends will tell you there’s nothing I love more than picking up cliches, tautologies and skips in semantic logic (mostly they find this amusing too, until I turn on them). On the topic of linguistic redundancy, no-one is better than Don Watson. He now has a website, quite a disappointing effort, but well worth a visit nonetheless. Better still, buy his books and devour them, or simply google him to find articles like this.

I also liked the advice regarding brevity. Roy Peter Clark’s idea that any topic can be tackled in 800 words is great. (The article is referenced in Jonathan Dube’s article, but the link doesn’t work, so here is the shortened version, abridged by Clark himself. How fitting! ) This too is not a particularly newfangled idea: remember the tiny essays you were asked to write as undergrads? Lecturers would insist that if you could distil your thoughts into, say, 1000 words, you had really come to understand your topic.

So why does this old-fashioned advice, common to all this week’s readings, reassure me? Well, it makes me believe there is some consensus about what good writing is. It indicates that despite the rubbish we’re faced with, many of us still have the critical faculty needed to weed it out.

On the other hand, something about this advice bothers me.

Do we all want to write like Hemingway?

We should be vigilant against tautologies and other redundancies, but I’m wary of  too much decluttering. After reading McEwan, an economical writer, a few weeks ago, I’m back to Thomas Hardy, one of my all-time favourites. I don’t think Hardy’s a great stylist: I don’t gasp over the beauty of his sentence construction. In fact, with his distinctive nineteenth-century punctuation, I’m often forced to re-read sentences to find the point. This being said, he can really tell a story. He’s a bit like the Stieg Larsson of the romantic period.

Yes, Catherine, the impulse to shorten sentences and remove idle words should be encouraged, but not everyone wants to write like Hemingway, even if they can. Sometimes these short, sharp posts, with their one-sentence paragraphs and self-satisfied economy, simply annoy me. If the Web is truly democratic, perhaps we should all be looking to find our own way of expressing ourselves? (Of course, those looking to sell something on the Web would do well to heed her advice.)

Today’s musing brings me full circle: as much as I’d like to encounter only quality – a wish that is only going to result in my turning off the Web altogether – I’d much prefer to develop my own Web filter, and be happy in the fact that, however long and ungainly their sentences, and however vacuous their chatter, people are simply expressing themselves. Which I guess is the point of Web 2.0.

Being in control

In Coming to terms with the Web, The Web and the arts on August 7, 2010 at 4:34 pm


Well, another week is over, and I have a chance to get back to my Web re-education. This post is a little discursive, so please be patient (if you get bored, you can follow the fun links).

This morning, my partner and I were watching Rage.  Sometimes I like to do this: it gives me a chance to catch up on all the 80’s filmclips I missed because I was too busy doing other things during my idyllic childhood (learning embroidery, polishing up my French, playing sonatinas on the fortepiano…) Often I find I’ve missed the music, too. This occasional reorientation to my youth helps me participate in nostalgic conversations about a pop-culture I was only dimly aware of when it was happening, much as my current exploration of Web 2.0 helps me converse intelligently about Twitter (err… give me a few more weeks and I’ll understand it). Anyway, Prince’s Musicology came on, and we were arguing about when it came out. (We were discussing how the fancy lighting effects behind the stage were achieved, and said partner opined that they were remarkable, given how old the film clip must be – ie. pre-LCD).  The dispute was resolved after I challenged him to a google-duel. It turned out I was right: despite my woeful lack of pop-culture knowledge, I tend to be able to pinpoint when things happened (the album came out in 2004). We googled further, and read about Prince’s repudiation of the Internet.

The article I’ve just linked to is hardly worth your while visiting, but if you want to be distracted by it, feel free. For those more linear readers, the gist is: Prince is annoyed at having his music illegally downloaded, and sued YouTube and the like for copyright infringement (yes, I know this is old news, but there is some interesting commentary on the matter here. In particular, go to the comments).  Prince has also cancelled deals with iTunes and other legit distributors.   Oh, and he thinks the Internet is ‘over’  (does he mean the Web is over, perhaps?)

Prince looking schmick at 48. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Now when you’re famous,  whingeing is a great way to attract some column space (as did the free distribution of his latest album via The Mirror – see here for more whining, from rival paper The Guardian). Many have contended that illegal Web-based distribution of his work has only increased Prince’s renown.  Nonetheless, I think Prince’s anger is real. What’s more,  I can understand it – he is a man who lost control, after all, and however you might argue that this loss of control benefits him, he is entitled to the very human reaction to losing control: frustration and anger. Perhaps this is why he has lashed out against the Web in general, because it’s hard to argue, as he has, that it has had its day.

Anyway, Prince’s motivations, copyright law, and the death of the Web are all topics for another day. I’d like to link two other ideas my post has touched on: rounding up knowledge, and the lack of control people may feel when faced with the Web. What I’d really like to know is:

  • Do you feel a loss of control when confronted with the mass of information and opinions that is the Web? Do you feel like you have lost control of your self-identity? Or do you suspect that you have lost touch with what is important in your life? Are you unsure as to what is important, even?
  • How important is it to you to  ‘know’ something deeply, or are you happy having a finger in every pie?
  • Do you link deep knowledge or wide knowledge with power? Is there a balance we should have of both? How can the Web help with this?
  • Are you in control of the Web, or is it in control of you? And do you care either way?

This is fairly deep stuff – it’s not life, but metalife, which is why I’m going to go for a walk and clear my head.


NB I had found a YouTube clip of Musicology (well, just the music and Prince’s airbrushed visage) and linked to it, but then wussed out. Just thought I’d let you know it’s there, in case you want to reminisce.