Wednesday, 27 August 2014

you get little credit for speaking swahili

From An Introduction to Sociolinguistics by Ronald Wardhaugh:
Monolingualism, that is, the ability to use only one language, is such a widely accepted norm in so many parts of the Western world that it is often assumed to be a world-wide phenomenon, to the extent that bilingual and multilingual individuals may appear to be ‘unusual.’ Indeed, we often have mixed feelings when we discover that someone we meet is fluent in several languages: perhaps a mixture of admiration and envy but also, occasionally, a feeling of superiority in that many such people are not ‘native’ to the culture in which we function. Such people are likely to be immigrants, visitors, or children of ‘mixed’ marriages and in that respect ‘marked’ in some way, and such marking is not always regarded favorably.
However, in many parts of the world an ability to speak more than one language is not at all remarkable. In fact, a monolingual individual would be regarded as a misfit, lacking an important skill in society, the skill of being able to interact freely with the speakers of other languages with whom regular contact is made in the ordinary business of living. In many parts of the world it is just a normal requirement of daily living that people speak several languages: perhaps one or more at home, another in the village, still another for purposes of trade, and yet another for contact with the outside world of wider social or political organization. These various languages are usually acquired naturally and unselfconsciously, and the shifts from one to another are made without hesitation.
There is a long history in certain Western societies of people actually ‘looking down’ on those who are bilingual. We give prestige to only a certain few classical languages (e.g., Greek and Latin) or modern languages of high culture (e.g., English, French, Italian, and German). You generally get little credit for speaking Swahili and, until recently at least, not much more for speaking Russian, Japanese, Arabic, or Chinese. Bilingualism is actually sometimes regarded as a problem in that many bilingual individuals tend to occupy rather low positions in society and knowledge of another language becomes associated with ‘inferiority’. Bilingualism is sometimes seen as a personal and social problem, not something that has strong positive connotations. One unfortunate consequence is that some Western societies go to great lengths to downgrade, even eradicate, the languages that immigrants bring with them while at the same time trying to teach foreign languages in schools. What is more, they have had much more success in doing the former than the latter.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

a real team effort

From The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford:

We all know that in most countries the Ministry of Defense is in charge of attacking other countries and that the Ministry of Employment presides over the unemployment lines. Cameroon’s Ministry of Tourism is in that noble tradition. Its job is to discourage tourists from getting into the country.
But I don’t want to give too much credit to the Ministry of Tourism. Discouraging tourists is a real team effort. According to Transparency International, Cameroon is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. In 1999, it was the most corrupt country surveyed. When I visited in 2001 it was the fifth most corrupt, an improvement much celebrated by the government. A moment’s reflection should tell you that earning the title of ‘Most Corrupt Country in the World’ takes some effort. Because Transparency International ranks countries based on international perceptions of corruption, a winning strategy is to concentrate on screwing bribes out of foreign businessmen — for instance, at the airport. But the Cameroon authorities have spread themselves too thin, because Cameroon is massively corrupt at every level and does not just target foreigners. Perhaps it’s this lack of focus that caused them to slip from the top spot.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

in the field of silent air flows

Scientific job advertising clearly went downhill since... well, since my last successful application, some time in the last century. In the olden days, when they published job ads in Nature and Science hardcopies and had to pay per word, they at least made sure the ad was concise and to the point. The title had to catch the applicants’ attention and make sense. How the times changed. Now we don’t browse, we search with keywords. That means, the employers think the titles can be rubbish and the ad will be found anyway. That’s how I found these, for example. In (previously) respectable online sources. (I did not change a single word and left the capitalisation intact.) I wonder how many of these positions are filled now, and by whom.

  • Associate Lecturer / Lecturer / Senior Lecturer in Flute
  • Associate Professor in Autobiographical Memory Research
  • Experienced Researcher for Missions to Phobos
  • Food Sensory Scientist
  • Hard Rock Geologist
  • Head of Bioprocessing (President minus 2 position)
  • Ladder Faculty in Space Physics
  • Mechanical Technician
  • More Experienced Researcher
  • Plant Fellows
  • Post-doctoral position in Food Habits
  • Post-doc position in strong fields
  • Postdoc-Solid Electrolyte
  • Postdoc for Post-mortem analysis
  • Product Manager Allergy
  • Research engineer in the field of silent air flows
  • Researcher Specializing in Fraud & Cybercrime
  • Senior Atmospheric Scientist
  • Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood
  • Value-adding of poplar bark
  • Viral Evolutionary Biologist
  • Wood Professorship of Forest Science

Monday, 21 April 2014


I can’t say that I never thought of doing something useful to earn my living. For example, teaching English. It was not until last year though that I began thinking about it seriously. Well, as seriously as I could. Doing CELTA (Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) seemed like a good way to learn how to do it.

And so, some time last November, I started to look for a reasonably priced place, preferably in the sun, offering four-week CELTA courses. That’s how I learned about The Irish Academy in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria: probably the best deal (and location) in the whole of Spain. On the last day of the last year, I sent an email enquiry about the course... and got an immediate response. In the following week, I filled the form and completed a short pre-interview task. I had my skype interview on 17 January and started the course exactly two months later.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

at cost of infinite suffering, we study to love whiskey and cigars

From Novel Notes by Jerome K. Jerome:
“Thought existed before the Printing Press; and the men who wrote the best hundred books never read them. Books have their place in the world, but they are not its purpose. They are things side by side with beef and mutton, the scent of the sea, the touch of a hand, the memory of a hope, and all the other items in the sum-total of our three-score years and ten. Yet we speak of them as though they were the voice of Life instead of merely its faint echo. Tales are delightful as tales — sweet as primroses after the long winter, restful as the cawing of rooks at sunset. But we do not write ‘tales’ now; we prepare ‘human documents’ and dissect souls.”
“Our religion hangs ready-made beside our cradle to be buttoned upon us by loving hands. Our tastes we acquire, with difficulty; our sentiments we learn by rote. At cost of infinite suffering, we study to love whiskey and cigars, high art and classical music. In one age we admire Byron and drink sweet champagne: twenty years later it is more fashionable to prefer Shelley, and we like our champagne dry. At school we are told that Shakespeare is a great poet, and that the Venus di Medici is a fine piece of sculpture; and so for the rest of our lives we go about saying what a great poet we think Shakespeare, and that there is no piece of sculpture, in our opinion, so fine as the Venus di Medici. If we are Frenchmen we adore our mother; if Englishmen we love dogs and virtue. We grieve for the death of a near relative twelve months; but for a second cousin we sorrow only three.”

Friday, 28 February 2014

aku-aku, what have I done

From Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond:

Education is a process involving two sets of participants who supposedly play different roles: teachers who impact knowledge to students, and students who absorb knowledge from teachers. In fact, as every open-minded teacher discovers, education is also about students imparting knowledge to their teachers, by challenging the teachers’ assumptions and by asking questions that the teachers hadn’t previously thought of.
In the class discussion after I had finished my presentation <on the collapse of Easter Island society>, the apparently simple question that most puzzled my students was one whose actual complexity hadn’t sunk into me before: how on earth could a society make such an obviously disastrous decision as to cut down all the trees on which it depended? One of the students asked what I thought the islander who cut down the last palm tree said as he was doing it. For every other society that I treated in subsequent lectures, my students raised essentially the same question. They also asked the related question: how often did people wreak ecological damage intentionally, or at least while aware of the likely consequences? How often did people instead do it without meaning to, or out of ignorance? My students wondered whether — if there are still people left alive a hundred years from now — those people of the next century will be as astonished about our blindness today as we are about the blindness of the Easter Islanders.

Friday, 3 January 2014

applying online

I guess everybody who started working in science 20—25 years ago would agree that applying for a job now is not what it used to be.

No, I don’t blame the internet. Just the opposite: it was thanks to internet that I got all my jobs (away from my blessed fatherland, that is). But I do blame the cancerous growth of HR departments and proliferation of incompetent HR managers.

I would stop short of calling for universal abolition of HR departments. (On a second thought, I don’t see why I should. Yeah, let’s just get rid of them. No human being deserves to be called a ‘resource’.) Nor will I reject outright the notion that somewhere there may exist intelligent, competent, compassionate, human HR managers. I never met one though.

My point, however, is that as recent as in 1990s, the HR people knew their place and did not stand between me and my prospective boss. These days I am getting a rejection letter and have no clue on whom to unleash my wrath. Head of the department? The assessment committee? The human resources? The whole damn place? I know: I... shall... unlike their Facebook page. That will show them.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

hei hei 4.605x

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
William Faulkner

And so, one more edX course is finished: A Global History of Architecture: Part 1. I do hope there will be Part 2 at some point.

I registered for 4.605x quite by accident. My mind was already set on doing different course this Fall, but since it was not on until mid-October, I decided to check what else is on offer. As 4.605x was starting in mid-September, I thought I can give it a try. (A mental note to myself: don’t do two edX courses at a time.)

No regrets, and many pleasant surprises. The course had everything one can expect from the name, viz. “architecture”, “history” and “global”, and much more: anthropology, geology, geography, ecology, religion, philosophy, economy, politics...

Monday, 25 November 2013

the importance of knowing the rules

From The Kalahari Typing School For Men by Alexander McCall Smith:
The public office to which she was admitted had that typical look and smell of government offices. The furniture, such as it was, was completely functional-straight-backed chairs and simple two-drawer desks.
This clerk was not bright, and people like that could show a remarkable tenacity when it came to rules. Because they could not distinguish between meritorious and unmeritorious requests, they could refuse to budge from the letter of the regulations. And there would be no point in trying to reason with them. The best tactic was to undermine their certainty as to the rule. If they could be persuaded that the rule was otherwise, then it might be possible to get somewhere. But it would be a delicate task.
“Yes, Rra. I am sure that you are very good when it comes to rules. I am sure that this is the case. But sometimes, when one has to know so many rules, one can get them mixed up. You are thinking of rule 25. This rule is really rule 24(b), subsection (i). That is the rule that you are thinking of. That is the rule which says that no names of pensioners must be revealed, but which does not say anything about addresses. The rule which deals with addresses is rule 18, which has now been cancelled.”

The clerk shifted on his feet. He felt uneasy now and was not sure what to make of this assertive woman with her rule numbers. Did rules have numbers? Nobody had told him about them, but it was quite possible, he supposed.

“How do you know about these rules?” he asked. “Who told you?”

“Have you not read the Government Gazette?” asked Mma Ramotswe. “The rules are usually printed out in the Gazette, for everybody to see. Everybody is allowed to see the rules, as they are there for the protection of the public, Rra. That is important.”

The clerk said nothing. He was biting his lip now, and Mma Ramotswe saw him throw a quick glance over his shoulder.

“Of course,” she pressed on, “if you are too junior to deal with these matters, then I would be very happy to deal with a more senior person. Perhaps there is somebody in the back office who is senior enough to understand these rules.”

The clerk’s eyes narrowed, and Mma Ramotswe knew at that moment that her judgement had been correct: if he called somebody else, he would lose face.

“I am quite senior enough,” he said haughtily. “And what you say about the rules is quite correct. I was just waiting to see if you knew. It is very good that you did. If only more members of the public knew about these rules then our job would be easier.”

“You are doing your job very well, Rra,” said Mma Ramotswe. “I am glad that I found you and not some junior person who would know nothing about the rules.”

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

we fetishize the national boundary

From the lecture 10 of the MITx course 4.605x, A Global History of Architecture, by Professor Mark Jarzombek (Fall 2013):
One thing you can get from this course is why all the maps in your book are wrong, except in our book. So this is not right. I mean, it’s not wrong, just completely useless. I mean, who really cares if the Qin was here or there or there — the point is, what do we learn from maps? What can maps tell us about connections and connectivity? It’s not about national boundaries. In our modern world we’re obsessed. We fetishize the national boundary, because of certain tropes of international law. This was not necessarily the case in the earlier time. Yes, boundaries were important. But to do history is not about the history of the nation, national boundaries. History is about certain connections and how countries or nations rise and fall, or certain dynamics that go across region and across time.
So the Shang had five capitals. And as they got power, they moved the capital to particular places. And then as they lost power, they moved the capital to another place. And of course, with that huge populations had to move with them. Because all the bureaucrats and all the whole regime — it’s like saying, when Bush became president, the capital would move then to Texas. So you would have to build the capital, and then thousands and thousands of people would have to go down to Texas. And then comes another president and will have to build a new capital in Arkansas or Nevada or wherever. We’d be continuously building capitals and reusing them. And then of course, when Obama came in, he would burn Bush’s capital down. And then build a new one in Chicago. And then everyone would have to move up to Chicago.