Culture is Dead

ania-scream-small

Stand up if you believe things were better in the past. Good, the door is over there, we will stay because life is more interesting than that.

Culture dies – because one day everything dies, even the universe. However, if culture dies we can still make it live again, we just have to care. That is WE have to care, rather than complain that other people do not care. We can sum up culture as the sum of people caring, rather than the sum of people complaining.

When something is new it can seem interesting, then we get bored with it, pushing it to the back of our drawer of life.Sometimes, though, we are rummaging around in our past and we rediscover this forgotten thing. We buy a suit or dress, love it, forget it and then we or someone finds it and calls it retro.

  • Love
  • Forget
  • Retro

This is an important concept if we are teaching culture, because when we are at the bored stage someone else might be still at the interested stage. For years the Communist era was uncool in Poland, for example, but now people are rediscovering some of the gems from that era, like furniture they used to have. Foreigners have a different perspective: they have not been through the cycle, they are still at ‘Love’.

If we are teaching culture, what is boring to us may be very interesting to those we teach, the trouble is that we cannot know beforehand what will be interesting, because other people will never love all the things we have. And they will love things that we never did.

To make things even more complicated – we do not know some of the things that we could love, and our students cannot know everything that they could love. No questionnaire can discover the things we or anyone else do not know that we do not know. In other words questions imply that we know the question, just not the answer. However, what about a question addressing a completely new piece of technology that will appear in ten years time? We lack knowledge of questions as well as answers.

A good example is the British TV series ‘Escape to the Country’, where a couple is presented with two houses that fit the desires they list, and then with a house that goes beyond the list. The latter house is chosen more often than either of the two that fits the knowledge they brought with them to the program. The unknown element can be more interesting than the known. Questionnaires tend to question the status quo, of things in danger of slipping from Love to Forget.

Next… if we teach culture we need to experience some of it, and keep experiencing it because things keep on a-changing. We need to watch films, go to theatres, visit factories. Our students come from varied backgrounds, and they are usually polite enough to pretend that what we present is what they want. Education is often a bludgeon of compliance, preventing us from believing that things could be different, but is that our hand on the bludgeon.

Are we mindlessly programming our students with classical views that they will never really enjoy?

Are we mindlessly programming our students with culture we do not really understand?

Are we mindlessly programming our students full stop?

The argument goes something like theatres will not continue to exist unless we teach about them in culture classes. My counter-argument is that theatres do not continue to exist because a bunch of mindless teachers force the idea of theatre on students. Theatres continue to exist because actors make them interesting and interested people find the money to keep them doing what they do so interestingly, and this process picks up fresh people incidentally for the most part.

The hard truth is that not only must we experience culture to teach it, we have to accept that our way of experiencing it may not be the only relevant way, or even be close to the most interesting way.

Consider clothes shopping, a common element of modern culture. When you go shopping you might do what many people do: enter the shop, find a rack and then start going clack, clack, clack down the rack and onto the next one, looking for interesting clothes, colours and sizes all at the same time. Often people spend about 20 minutes in a shop, and see about 40 different items.

Consider my clothes shopping: I enter a shop, scan the clothes as I walk around, looking for interesting colours and patterns. If I see something interesting I approach it and put my hand on it to feel the quality. If it passes that test I might investigate further, if not I continue around the shop and move onto the next one. In 20 minutes I might see 1oo-200 items in 3-5 shops. I see more clothes, and only look for sizes if something passes all the visual and texture tests, so the chances of me finding something interesting is several times higher than the average shopper.

The point here is that we need to experience culture, and we need to do so in ways outside our previous experience. To find out how we need to experience culture with people from very different backgrounds.

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Short Fire Forms

Short Fire Forms.  I often wonder whether the classical view of language is the right one or, at least, the only valid one. Once more to the bar, my friend, to ponder short words and lost souls.

Short Fire Forms

FU to say it without flowers

FU to say it without flowers

What a nice beer. The great thing about speaking is that it shares a lot with drinking – we have a wealth of bodily functions that we can use to make the point that we are trying to make clearer, anything from a slight change in tone to swinging a mighty, nuclear hammer that mysteriously deposits us face down on the floor. For writing, though, once we lift our pen from the page and depart from the room, our words lose their essential physicality and become mono-coloured, two dimensional shadows on the page.

Ghosts of our presence.

Many cultures have shown a distrust of mirrors of cameras, accusing them of stealing part of their soul. And perhaps it is true, in a way, since everything we see in a mirror or a camera arrived there by light that earlier interacted with the surface layers of our body, and every interaction results in an exchange. I myself am more concerned with the interactions we have with books; as soul stealers I believe they have much greater potential than mere mirrors and cameras. Think about it. A mirror or a camera is made try and show you what is there. A book is created in attempt to change what is there. You.

That is not to say there are not people out there who will misuse cameras and mirrors, there are, just as there will always be publicans who store their beer badly, or water it down. However, whenever we pick up our pen there is usually something we wish to change – ourselves or others. If we keep on reading then we must keep on changing. If we keep on reading what other people are reading, then surely we and they must steadily become more alike yet different from what we were. Reading steals our soul, a piece at a time.

Writing itself does give a certain permanence to our ideas, without demanding that the reader maintains our pace of monologue: the thoughts will not be lost if the reader chooses to linger over one particular phrase, or abandon them part way through. This shadow world has less to engage our senses, leaving us more opportunity to consider other aspects of the message, and one of these is the repetition of vocabulary and structures. ‘This is a nice book, it is nicely written, and has quite a nice cover’ could be spoken successfully as we distract our audience’s attention by waving around the gaudy block of printed pages we have firmly grasped in our hand, but it loses its essential now-ness once it becomes a shadow on the page. Rather like a freshly emptied glass, which we have to picture full by using our mind rather than by using our senses, although if it is someone else’s glass our imagined brew may not match the former occupant of the glass.

Another aspect is that of patterns. If we were to step into an unknown bar we would have to be specific in asking for what we want, because no one would know what we wanted. When we become more acquainted with the bar, we can arrive and order our usual beverage with no more than a raised finger, relying on the barkeep’s finely tuned brain to spot and learn patterns. While writing has evolved how we think about language, and how we share those thoughts, it has not really altered the way language works. Sometimes the idea of writing causes people to wander off course, into believing that the idea of story was born on a page, or that present day European languages are all the bastards of a true Latin parent – to me a sure sign that these people have sold their remaining souls to the dark letters of the page. Writing is like the foam on the top of beer, in that while it might look different to the rest of the beer it is nothing more than beer with a few more bubbles in it.

In terms of learning a foreign language we need to explore what is considered acceptable and what not in the various uses of language. One significant area involves speed words, those multi-meaning packets that we can pick from our memory with little effort and know that the listener or reader will fill in the gaps.

Nice – pleasant, good…
Big – large, significant…
Spot – location, dirty mark, seek
Keep – maintain, continue, hold…
Get – receive, obtain…
Fuck – oh no, whoops, copulate…

Whether we are asking for a drink or jotting down a note these short forms are a brilliantly effective way of expressing ourselves, and deserve great respect. Yes, some of the boring bookworms of this world do tend to drone on about an imaginary world in their head where the worst thing that could happen would be a girl having her pigtails pulled, but language has many important functions that are not worthy of belittlement. One cannot fairly judge their usage as being a lazy, simplistic form since formal language is nothing more than the replacement of speed words with a set of stock phrases. In terms of language, comparing speed words with formalisms is like trying to describe one sandwich as being better than another based on a list of ingredients used for the filling, forgetting that the major part of both sandwiches is the bread.

When we write all that many of our readers know about us is contained in those few words, leaving us as a mere shadow in their minds. What is more, we cannot be sure that their understanding of what we describe is any more substantial than the ghost of our presence, and so we must be careful to use description that attempts to prevent the reader from forming mistaken assumptions. This requirement for more care does tend to make writing appear more formal than the spoken language.

Our use of shortcuts can be problematic due to their multiple meanings. When we say ‘get’ do we mean ‘receive’ or ‘obtain’, for example, as these have very different meanings: when we buy a beer the barkeep should not be obtaining our money (by taking the money out of our purse or wallet) but be receiving it (we take the money out). Shortcuts work well in writing when we can be sure that the reader will have the experience or training to follow the instructions, or we know that the reader may have reading difficulties or a limited reading vocabulary. A simple ‘Get milk’ on a scrap of paper is still writing, and since we are hardly likely to give it to a stranger, then who does receive it should be experienced enough to interpret its meaning.

Say

Finally we have a special one, aside from its use in relation to speech, that we use in place of ‘for example’ when we are estimating or suggesting something for something we are having to guess. “Let’s get twenty people, say, and see if we can…’. For some strange reason, some translator schools seem to teach it as meaning ‘precisely this value in words’, as in: “2,000,000 (say: two million)” instead of just using the precise phrase of ‘in words’: “2,000,000 (in words: two million)”. ‘Say’ is an informal shortcut, rather than a formal phrase, which is what makes its use seem strange.

Well, that’s enough waffle for now, it is time for me to put away my keyboard and do something useful – like dozing in front of the TV.

The Philosophy according to Names and Surnames

The Philosophy according to Names and Surnames.

Or the problem when there is a lack of feedback in education.

Or discovering you don’t know as much as you think you do

The Philosophy according to Names and Surnames

On Names and Surnames

Surname

Sometimes when I can find a quiet place in a bar I examine the causes and effects of the things that surround us, of the things that we so often take for granted or which take place over a length of time such that they are beyond our possibilities to notice. How could we tell, for example, back in the 1960s and 1970s, that the eventual result of buying those refrigerators would be the endangering of our atmosphere through the release of the gases that allowed them to work, or that we would become nations that wasted up to forty percent of the food we buy?

It is the same with education – at the beginning of our working life we may only guess what we will need to know in our jobs in fifty years’ time, as all that we know for certain now is that by then the world will have changed. Well, one thing will not have – there will still be people moaning that the beer is not as good as it used to be.
In the teaching of foreign languages we often start out by learning phrases that allow us to exchange names, and for English we might learn ‘My name is Jan’. As we then rise through the schooling system we get handed from teacher to teacher, teaching material to teaching material, yet there is no one in full control of our education path. If someone in the teaching system does notice, for example, that graduates cannot do basic math then questions get asked and the basic math teaching may even be reassessed. However, if no one notices such an effect, then how can we seek out the cause?

We know what we know, and we know what we do not know, but we do not know what we do not know.

So, students of English here in Poland get their early bite of vocabulary in the word ‘name’, and then at a later point in the curriculum this is joined by ‘surname’ amongst a whirlwind of other words and structures. Eventually the words ‘name’ and ‘surname’ arrive together in a single phrase: name and surname. No questions are asked, because no one knows that there is a question to ask.

The word ‘name’, though, is a general word, on the same level as ‘beer’. If someone arrives in a bar and asks for a beer and a brand-X lager, they should not share the barkeep’s surprise. ‘Surname’ is a specific noun, on the level of ‘Brand-X lager’, one designed to describe a specific product.

Beer and brand-X lager.

Name and surname.

Logically, we might think, this error should not happen, for the usage of name will be explored many times in the curriculum, as well as appearing in other sources, such as general culture.

My name is Bond, James Bond.

If we were a university lecturer and we somehow failed to comprehend this information in the blizzard of information that is a second language, although a fraction of that collected by a native as part of his or her life’s experience, then the error may start appearing in our work. The result of our failure could be whole generations of students becoming teachers and repeating it in their work, as some kind of truth. This is not untypical in a classical world where we value repetition over observation of unharnessed raw data, learning specific things by rote and then crying when too few people appear to create anything these days.

Those typical errors which do appear regularly in second language use are often there due to a lack of feedback from real life events. University lecturers continue to smile and teach, repeating their past to each new set of students without taking an effective part in actual language use. This failure goes unnoticed by the people who pay the lecturer’s wages – us.

As the effect of second language use is largely hidden to us in the mists engulfing the recipients, living and speaking elsewhere, it is very difficult to track an error back to its source. In foreign language study the connection between what someone does and the result is weak, and as a result the participants are often unwilling to accept that they have a responsibility to society to actively seek the failures. After all, they are doing what they were trained to do – why should what they do be queried? Even better, since the teachers attend the same courses as the translators then many errors in translation go unnoticed by other people in the nation as they have been taught the same errors by their teachers.

This sad lack of quality and quantity of contact with foreign natives does leave the lone translator, often working alone at home, in a rather difficult situation and under a great deal of pressure when required to produce work that is ‘native’. One could compare language teaching to a bar in a village, where the villagers rarely venture forth beyond their borders, never tasting what the world has to offer, yet with no specific training attempting to deduce the world from an advertising card depicting a scantily clad lady, with the final two packets of peanuts still obscuring our vision.

My new booklet on the Lublin region!

Kazi 04 water boatman

As I write this I am about half way through proofing a new project – a booklet about this region of Poland based on about a dozen of my images and the kind of things that interest me about the region and which actually led to me creating the images.

I want to produce an alternative to the rather boringly similar other guides I have seen, and I have seen many, something that talks about stuff one does not need some qualification in the history or architecture to appreciate. Basically, I tie together a series of reminiscences to form a kind of story, introducing a little bit of many things to make the region more understandable, to have a bit more depth.

Anyway, here is a sample:

The Wisła River, or Vistula as we know it, forms the western border of the Lublin province, and has a number of bridges and ferries operating along its length. Rivers have always been some of the most awkward things to pass when we wish to travel on land as they are not something that we can simply go round. The particular ferry route we chose is quite ancient, lying as it does on the trade route between Krakow and Lublin, at the popular small town of Kazimierz Dolny. On this occasion we had intended on using the car ferry, but were thwarted by water too shallow for anything but a passenger boat to traverse. While this latter style of boat is today made of glass fiber, its general design is pretty much the same as the wooden boats that have long been used on local lakes and rivers.

I plan to publish it as an ebook, so it is available anywhere for very little money. I am sure I shall make some mistakes along the way, but it feels good to be doing something a little different.

Trevor

The Beers I Failed to Purchase

The Beers I Failed to Purchase. I regret many things, but mostly those things I was too afraid to do, rather than the things I could not or forgot to do.

The Beers I Failed to Purchase

Z008

The other week I wrote a post about how shyness led me to being more innovative, this time I would like to focus more on how it affects the rest of my life. It is a sad truth that there is much I have failed to purchase through a fear of engaging with shop staff, and while this has undoubtedly saved me much cash from casual spending, leaving me a richer man financially, it has meant that I have sacrificed a lot of the pleasure that I could have afforded myself. And now, I fear, I recognize that I am far from being alone in the debilitating world of mine.

If I staggered out of a bar every morning, drunk, at some point someone would likely point me in the direction of some kind of rehabilitation group, once and if I could admit that there was a problem. To think, I could have been a hardened or dead criminal by now, stealing money to pay for my next session and, maybe, laundry.  find it interesting that it is so easy to see the positive side of the way that I am now, and that, I fear, is also part of the problem.

When I look back to my education days, not to wipe a tear away for some kind of lost youth or the ill-found nostalgia for an earlier age, I see that it was patchy, or at least my education was. There were occasions when I excelled, and others where I was unable to proceed, and this has continued into my work years. I am thankful for my mum helping me to learn to read, the teachers and, on one occasion, the headmaster who individually prepared a small group of the losers such as I to get past certain exams. I have no idea what prevented my cohorts of the time from progressing, I just lacked direction and a confidante.

The problem seems to be that what began as shyness has long since spread out to include a lack of will power for other tasks: not a total lack, for there are always parts of my life where I crack the whip hard, but without someone else there to take part in what I do then what I am most likely to choose is to escape.

Many of the managers and teachers I have met since parting with my schools, and other people as well, have their vision of the universe as being the right one and the only one. You can see their simple cluelessness in their faces and in their actions when they look at me: I am sober, intelligent even, so why do I not progress? Pointing to books I should learn from, people I should mimic helps not one whit; that is their vision and it does not function in my world.

So why do I not change, conform?

Because I am shy and seeking the help I need is to find a door that seems not to exist, or that I am too afraid to find, and the reason it is so hard to find is that, unlike when I am drunk, I am not a social hazard and people like me don’t get together to solve our problem. Well, how are we supposed to get together, no, do not even begin to answer that. We have a lifetime’s experience in people telling us how we should solve our problems, sometimes kindly and sometimes not, but it means nothing because we have barriers blocking that path. We all have barriers, everyone of us, but in different places, and while I have no problem taking all my clothes off in public it is surprising how scared the people telling you how to change your life get when you suggest that they remove their clothes in public.

You might be wondering how I can have the courage to remove my clothes, and it would be a good question, and the answer is simple and quite understandable: by removing my clothes I am not actually interacting with anyone, so the shyness cannot be triggered. So, by barrier I do not mean something that you merely lack confidence in doing because you are not sure how to do it or whether you can. You may once have lacked enough confidence to ride a bicycle, then later you learn and any residual fear goes away. Then there are those things where the fear never goes away no matter how many times you are trained or you try to conquer it, such as a fear of heights. Since we all have our barriers, unless you can overcome your own such barrier, you are not really in a position to ‘educate’ people with a different barrier in how they should overcome it.

I have my wife to thank for many of the things that I do now, for the simple process of sharing an activity with someone you feel is not judging you can help you participate, and if she can get me into a bar for a few drinks then things get even easier. On the other hand, being shown or reminded of the targets I need to achieve actually increases my shyness, because now instead of being shown companionship in the journey, I am now being shown rejection.

In light of this, my education was always more rapid when I had a companion in my task or I discovered a secondary pleasure in achieving the task, worst when I felt no companionship at all. Laziness is only apparent on the surface, for I am always fully occupied. If that effort is not being directed particularly to the task in hand, then I am escaping, and no amount of whipping and preaching will bring me back in line because experience has already taught me that there are always other opportunities out there. It is something that people like me seem to learn very early.

The key to success is engagement at my level, and not setting me a task, wandering off and expecting me to progress, for not only have I figured out that there are other opportunities out there, I also can calculate well the latest time I could possibly start a task, and it is well beyond what most people expect.

So, I dedicate this text, and the image I produced for it, to all those out there unable to achieve what other people want us to achieve. We are what we are, and our world is part of everyone else’s, even if no one wants to admit it.

Laziness as the Key to Innovation

Laziness as the Key to Innovation. I often wonder whether it is my laziness that leads to me to being innovative and a lack of laziness that leads other to success.

Laziness as the Key to Innovation

Getting relaxed

Wiling away our lives in the sun

I believe that one of the most terrible things that we can do to each other is not to understand what we each need. I, for example, have always tended towards that habit of leaving things not done, then trying to fix things at the last minute. That is bad, in many people’s books, criminal in others, rather like my tendency to spend a friday night in a bar drinking beer rather than doing something constructive. I am irretrievably lazy.

But is laziness, or ‘delayed response’ as I languidly prefer to call it, necessarily bad? Has all that swilling turned me into an underperformer at the trough of life? Does society even need the socially pungent at its table, forever forgetting to keep its trotters in its lap, on top of its napkin, or sliding its cutlery to the twenty past four position at the appropriate moment?

As a shy lad I was usually last to hand in my homework, possibly last to even do it, although sensible enough to regularly create situations where I must confront my social problem so that I do not finally shrivel away in a house or apartment alone, dieing and being eaten by rats. In much the same way I joined the Mountaineering Club while at university in order to confront my fear of heights. Or my shyness of heights, as I also like to describe it. Shyness means that if there is a situation where I have to go see someone, I will delay doing so until I can no longer avoid it or the need for it disappears. So we could say that my apparent laziness is really a response to my shyness, hence my use of ‘delayed response’.

My wife, bless her, is much different, she is a planner-actioner, she gets things done, and will even change channels on the TV 15 minutes prior to the start of a program that she wishes to see so in order not to miss it (so I miss the last 5 minutes of my program and get to see 10 minutes of advertising on her chosen channel instead of mine). She is wonderful, but not so innovative.

Consider the situation: we each need to write a 500 word assessment. She will write hers ahead of time, based on what is known, having plenty of time to plan and check references, go to the library, search the internet and pump her acquaintances for the low down on this type of test. I, on the trotter, will wait until the last moment, well past any opportunity to gather suitable materials, forcing myself to be inventive and draw on any resource that is to trotter – but my brain will have to light up like a Christmas tree (or whatever) and burn some essential energy very rapidly.

Do you see the difference? If we are the kind of person who is rarely late, then on those occasions we are then we will quite possibly produce something that is visibly hacked together, or is lacking somewhere. If, on the other hand, we spend our life stepping from one crisis to another, we should start to get skilled at producing something worthwhile from apparently very little. A minimalistic, hermetic response that optimizes what we possess.

If we took a course in doing the long jump, then would this make us athletes? If we took a course in beer tasting, would this make us a suitable candidate for a job at professional brewery? Sadly, no, our body and mind take time and effort to become expert, including the ability to understand what is successful behaviour and what is not.

Conversely, if we do put long term effort into something, then we should reap some changes. OK, not always profitable changes, such as what we might achieve slumped every night in front of the television, but does this mean that if we design an education system to suit a certain kind of mind then we might be missing the creation of benefits that could accrue from training minds in other ways? Whatever, I wish I had considered all this decades ago.

Imagine you are down at your favorite haunt, and some idiot manages to set light to the table next to you, and assuming that you have not been trained for just this kind of incident, what would you do? Too late, decision time is over, if you stopped to think, by now I would be already at the bar asking, hopefully, for a refill.

I wonder if we might make a comparison with the different forms of muscle fibre, and I found this excellent summary on Athlepedia:

Muscle fiber types can be broken down into two main types: slow twitch (Type I) muscle fibers and fast twitch (Type II) muscle fibers. Type II fibers can subsequently be broken down into two types: type IIA, which is referred to as “fast twitch oxidative glycolytic”, and type IIX, which is referred to as “fast twitch glycolytic”.  Type I fibers are characterized by low force/power/speed production and high endurance, Type IIX fibers are characterized by high force/power/speed production and low endurance, while Type IIA fall in between the two.

Fast twitch and slow twitch brains, one type functioning optimally in sprint environments and the other in marathons? In which case my wife has the marathon sort – having had only the one job and gaining all the necessary qualifications, while I have the sprint type – having had many jobs and a series of more minor qualifications from a broader range of subjects.

In summary, if you see someone lazing in the sun with a beer in their hand, they may still be doing constructive, training their mind to relax and recuperate before the next time it needs to be engaged under pressure. Or they could be getting plain-old drunk. Who knows.

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