The Unfolding of Language

Deutscher's The Unfolding of Language

When Stephen Fry laments “it is a cause of some upset that more Anglophiles don’t enjoy language,” it’s as if Michael Phelps were to lament that not enough people enjoy water. So when Stephen wholeheartedly recommended Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language, which he characterized as more playful and engaging than books on similar subject matter, I was hard pressed to say no. It’s taken me ages to find time to get into the meat of this book (strictly my own fault), but now, about two-thirds of the way through, I wanted to offer it my wholehearted recommendation for anyone who is even remotely interested in language and its origins and evolution.

Deutscher’s prose is indeed playful and accessible, his examples thought-provoking, and his subject matter fascinating: what are the forces that shape and transform language?

Deutscher mentions more than once that “These days, there are no systems of communication which are in the process of evolving their first words.”  He’s right, I suppose, but only on a technicality.  Last week I was taught the basics of a computer scripting language I’d never worked with before. Surely the constructs of some arbitrary scripting language represent one of many “artificial” systems of communication which are in the process of evolving their first “words” (and tokens).

I am writing this now as Deutscher transitions in the book from talking about the destructive forces which are applied to language (which favor economy, expressiveness, and analogy), into the constructive ones which enable new linguistic richness to blossom. Metaphor, apparently, provides many of the raw materials for new grammatical elements.

With that observation under my belt, and aspiring to be a creative force in the universe, I suddenly feel a bit better about my obsession with admiration of Roger’s Profanisaurus (a dictionary of profanity that originates in the pages of the UK’s Viz magazine, which derives cleverness and vulgarity in equal measure from a playful, multi-layered cocktail of metaphor, rhyming slang and other wordplay).

And of course there are my dear LOLcats, who reflect (again in equal parts) the absurd and absurdly rapid evolution of linguistic memes as they’re propelled at the speed of the internets. Since I’m in Ireland, and Deutscher recently reflected on the necessity of the word possessing-implying “have”, here’s a somewhat appropriate LOLCat I just cooked up  – with my cap off to Jim Condron for his help with the Irish word for “flavr.” (context here for the uninitiated)

Orish Kitteh Ubserves: Deres a flavor on meh
oirish kitteh tinks: deres a flavr on meh, so dere iz.

Back to Deutscher’s book.  He spends the fifth chapter illustrating a point by employing a fictional dialogue between a cast of characters at a ‘George Orwell Centennary Conference’.  it’s a technique akin to the one I admired in Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach. Actually, that’s all I have to say.  Check it out.  Go for a swim.  And apologies to Deutscher, Mellie, Fry for this rambling but heartfelt review.

It’s a Photosynth kind of day: Synths from The Temple Bar Pub, Dublin, Ireland

PhotoSynth is the Microsoft Research / Seadragon / UWashington technology that can process a collection of photos and turn it into a scene that can be navigated in 3D.

At this year’s Siggraph conference, there’s an interesting paper from the University of Washington and Microsoft about finding more intelligent paths through collections of photos like the ones produced by PhotoSynth.
Here’s the video that accompanies that paper:

(Click for direct link to YouTube)

When I was working for Microsoft in Dublin, I experimented with what was then an internal tool for creating PhotoSynths.  I ran around Dublin taking photos of some famous places.

Two of my favourite Photosynth collections were shot in the early morning quiet at The Temple Bar Pub.  Now, with the public release of PhotoSynth, I can publish these to the web!

Temple Bar (Front Bar), Dublin, Ireland

(Click for larger view on Photosynth site)

If I could go back and shoot these again, I’d put more time into taking close-ups of objects and memorabilia of interest. Photosynth shines in scenes where the viewer is interested in navigating the scene to discover and examine points of interest.

Temple Bar (Back Bar), Dublin, Ireland

(Click for larger view on Photosynth site)

I also have Synths of Newgrange and the Liffey River which I will post when I have a chance to find the original photos.

Congratulations to the PhotoSynth team, and please send me a link if you ‘Synth something cool!

IIA and Enterprise Ireland Net Visionaries Awards

IIA Net Visionary AwardsI have long suspected that the Irish are mad, and now I have proof.

At some point during the National Productivity Centre crunch time, I received a mail from Irene Dehaene, informing me that I’d been nominated for the Best Blogger award at the IIA and Enterprise Ireland Net Visionary awards next month. 

I was overwhelmed, and remain extremely grateful to the person or people who nominated me.  It is tremendously gratifying to know that while I was living in Dublin, stumbling to keep with a finger on the tech scene pulse and keep developers informed and enthused about what was coming down the pipe, someone was listening and appreciating what I had to say.  It’s an honour to be recognized for that.

But I’m not the best blogger in Ireland.  I have incontrovertible proof of this fact: I’m currently in Canada.  In fact, I’m in Windsor, which some of you may know as the town across the border from Detroit where, according to Michael Moore, nobody locks their doors.

Since Twenty Major is incomprehensibly not on the shortlist, and Podge and Rodge aren’t yet blogging, I don’t have a candidate I can wholeheartedly throw my voting weight behind.  So I wish the very best to all the candidates and, again, am very grateful for the honour. 

And I hope that those who are still answering Ireland’s Call keep reading — I now have the new and hopefully interesting perspective of being a globetrotting Canadian, now an independent IT consultant, who had the good fortune of living and working in Ireland for 6 years. 

And, believe me, the “6 years living and working in Ireland” bit makes for some amazing story value back here in Canada.

Right.  I’m off to Guatemala for a bit.  I’ll post some pics of beautiful autumnal Canada first.

National Productivity Centre Launch

You’d be forgiven for being surprised to find out that I haven’t yet begun my travels, and haven’t even dipped my toe in the water for more scuba.

Instead, I’ve been working as an independent consultant for the past few weeks, helping to complete the development of the first application for Ireland’s National Productivity Centre, a joint venture between the Irish Management Institute and Microsoft Ireland, who are supported in their effort by a host of industry collaborators.

MSR Teleconferencing App at the NPC

The environment of the National Productivity Centre (NPC) is the coolest part: A boardroom with seven enormous wrap-around screens, a table full of tablet PCs, teleconferencing gear straight outta Microsoft Research, and all the supporting technology you could eat. As much as I like the applications that have already been developed for the NPC, my head is swimming with ideas for what could be built for that space.

National Productivity Centre - Case Study App

Part of the first NPC application (shown in the photo above) integrates Virtual Earth with a Windows Presentation Foundation front-end to provide a geographically-partitioned view of case studies where Microsoft technologies are being put to work to simplify how people work together and improve business insight.

And so my time in Ireland (to date) now ends as it began: with a demo for Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern (below).

Prime Minister Bertie Ahern launches the NPC

My good friend Damian Isla was a major part of the original Irish demo adventure, which culminated with Bertie, man of the people, herding virtual sheep on national television. Now, after thoroughly enjoying the celebration of Damian’s marriage to his incredible wife Julie, it’s time for some much-needed rest, after which I’ll enjoy the fruits of Damian’s most recent (technical) labour!