French Presidential

The first round of the French presidential election is taking place today and I am a little fascinated by a lot of things about it.

The top three candidates are pretty much within the margin of error for polling purposes so it really isn’t safe to attempt to predict the outcome on the basis of polling data. Additionally, there is some variation between the top two which means some polls indicate Marine Le Pen will come first; some indicate Emmanuel Macro will come first.

The coverage in the United Kingdom has been interesting. I know the world suggests you should never read below the line in the Guardian but I find it more entertaining at the moment given Brexit than it has been for years. Below the line on the New York Times is good. We have forgotten to value other people’s views.

It seems to me, vibe wise, that a lot of UK press seems to be gunning for a Le Pen victory and a lot of their commenters (usually ones angling for a free and perfect Brexit) too. Almost as though what is likely to be most disruptive is also most desirable. I call this playing with fire.

You could, to some extent, understand the desire on the part of the average rabid Brexit supporter for Le Pen to win in France as they are being fed a line that this would finish off the hated EU altogether. I consider that a bit childish in my own view – whether the EU continues to exist or not is of limited importance if you really believe what is right for Britain is to be outside the EU. If Britain’s only chance of success is that the EU gets smashed also, then that has to call into question the convictions about Freedom, Independent Britain and a Bright New Future Taking Back Control. I sometimes think they’re a bit like that character in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the one who crashes his father’s Ferrari.

Both the New York Times and the Guardian have large numbers of commenters below the line who truly appear to be convinced that France’s only chance is if they vote in Le Pen. On the NYT in particular, some commenters have a focus on how dangerous France is given Terrorism but who don’t appear to understand that regardless of the numbers killed in France through terrorism lately, it is still less than the numbers killed through gun violence in the US since the start of the year. In other words if you want my opinion, the US is probably far more dangerous than France is by some distance and accelerating. France is fighting terrorism. The US is not giving up the second amendment.

I wouldn’t pretend to suggest that France got a great choice of candidates this year but as a country, they are not unique in that. I estimate that the most visionary speech made by a prime minister in the UK in the last 20 years was Hugh Grant talking about David Beckham in Love Actually. And let’s face it, the US voted in Donald Trump who makes absolutely every French candidate look competent and statesmanlike, even Le Pen.

As a general note, I sometimes feel that the English language populations are somewhat poorly served by their media when it comes to news about foreign countries where they do not speak English. Absent forcing every one to somehow magically become fluent in a foreign language, I wonder how we fix this. Force journalists to have some command of the language of the countries they are reporting on, I suppose.

A lot to think about…difficult to find a practical solution.

Updates to TreasaLynch.com

If you follow my blog about IT and Language stuff at treasalynch.com/blog you might want to update your RSS reader as I moved the blog to www.treasalynch.com today. I also cleaned out a bunch of subsites and killed two of my older sites (so you’ll not see an update from livingforlight or thingsthatstrikeme for a while unless I reuse the domain name).

This site will remain live but most of the language and tech stuff should appear over on treasalynch.com now. All sorts of other random stuff, drawings and photographs will probably wind up here.

Looking at stubby fingers

Via the wonders of the internet it is possible to get at sheet music online rather than waiting to go through the pile of it 1000km away in Ireland and remember to pack it the next time I am travelling. And so it is that the 2 piano arrangement of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto is safely stashed in pdf form on my Onedrive and I can access it from my iPad. Joy to the world and all that.

Rach 2, as you’ll see it named on Youtube, has been my very favourite piece of music for nearly 30 years. In that, at least, it has outshone Eagle by Abba. I bought the score as arranged for 2 pianos in a shop off Tottenham Court Road when I was 14 because I wanted to learn it. This was highly ambitious since only two years previously I had been ruining my mother’s life with a rather chaotic arrangement of the Rose of Tralee which for some reason I had elected to learn when I started learning piano “properly”. IE, by learning to read both the treble AND bass clefs. My teacher could not get me onto the grades half fast enough. I have no idea where the sheet music to the Rose of Tralee is now. I might check the piano stool when I get home. It had a sky blue cover and it was so old that it is not to be found on a Google image search now. All sorts of things are hidden in the piano stool, and there it may be hiding. But I digress. Back with Rachmaninoff.

The shop off Tottenham Court Road only sold sheet music. I’m pretty sure it is long gone because when I was living in London in 1997, studying to be an interpreter, about 10 years after I bought this particular piece of music, I could not find it again. I always thought it was called Oxford University Press for some reason – maybe it said it on the plastic bag it came in – but that could be fiction on the part of my memory. I do remember the shop though. It was magical then and I have never seen anything like it since. It was floor to very high ceiling wooden drawers. There were probably discrete labels here and there to ensure that the right sonatas and fugues could be extracted.

I wanted two piano concertos, the aforementioned Rachmaninoff, and additionally, a Grieg piano concerto. When push came to shove, however, a choice had to be made on financial grounds because two together were just a bit much for 14 year old me. In the end, Rachmaninoff, despite being marginally more expensive, won, and Grieg was left aside for another 3 or 4 years.

I guarded it with my life back to the small town in Cork where I grew up and it took up residence on the top of the piano, sharing space with the various exam pieces I had to do for the RIAM grade system and the music exam for the Intermediate Certificate at school, an exam I passed almost completely on the strength of playing because it was not on the back of my prolific knowledge of required musical theory as laid out in the syllabus.

I worked at the Rachmaninoff on and off over the years. I have very clear memories of sitting in the car, reading along with the sheet music while listening to a tape of the piece ad ensuring I could track which bits were were on the tape. There are still annotations in the book aligning certain sections with times on my favoured/only available recording at the time. And I have very clear memories of using the week before my Leaving Certificate to spend 5 or 6 hours a day working on the second movement. In the days running up to a life defining school exam, I could be found crouched over the piano; a pint glass of Ribena resting on top of the piano, carefully hauling my fingers into the shape of the opening notes of the second movement.

I am never without a recording of the piece of music. For years, the recording I had was Julius Katchen’s recording which had been released as part of the Great Composers part work series sometime in the 1980s – a wonderful resource which introduced me to an awful lot of classical music, and many key performers of the time. When my chips are down, the world tends to feel better with a sound track of that and his glorious Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (which, to be honest, I might see if that’s available too). Lately I have been listening mainly to Yuja Wang and Leif Ove Andsnes playing it.

To some extent, when I pick up the music with a view to playing this piece, it is less to play it, and more to spend time with an old friend. I know there will never be an orchestra behind me ready to enter after those titanic opening notes. Last night when I did so, it was to the news that my fingers no longer fitted the opening chords of the first movement, if indeed they ever did. I can still manage some of the second movement almost even by heart despite it being 27 years since I prepared for seven honours subjects in the Leaving Certificate by drinking Ribena and repeating the opening eight bars of the second movement ad infinitum…There are places I can still go with Rachmaninoff; and there are places he will not take me.

Things every house should own

I was reading a fascinating article on Ars Technica the other day – mostly to be honest, I read these things because I am intrigued to see what the comments will be like – if I am honest. Anyway, the article concerned the hacking of an emergency notification system in Dallas Fort Worth. Here’s a link to it.

As it happens, the comments were the usual mix of rank ignorant and rank knowledgeable and a scale of non-rankness in between. One of the key questions from the “we recognise we are ignorant” is why the area still used this kind of alert system – basically sirens given that the technology existed for things like cell phone warnings and this is where it got interesting.

Dallas Fort Worth is in Tornado Alley and so the alert system actually gets used, and often at short notice. And the reason it continues to be used is that a) it works and b) it is reliable. There is already a lot of experience to demonstrate that in emergency situations, cell networks are not reliable (although landlines are tending to stand up to disaster a bit better). Well, this system is reliable as long as no one tries to hack it but that’s a wider moral discussion. The point is, cellphones are often switched off, on silent, in the room downstairs, or whatever other excuse you are having yourself. In the context of the onset of a tornado that’s never going to be enough.

A couple of things struck me about the conversation – one was the usual tendency of people who live somewhere with gigabit fibre to assume that everyone has gigabit fibre, and similarly, the tendency  of people to assume modern might always be better than old tech. Sometimes and often times it isn’t. Anyway, another point which popped up almost in passing in the comments was identifying other sources of information in the event of an emergency. A siren is one thing to tell you hunker down, avoid, escape to high or low ground, or whichever is appropriate for your situation (CF earthquake drills in Japan as another example). Someone mentioned that they would always have a battery operated radio in the house just in case power was taken out.

This caused me to pause and think. I have a torch in the house at all times, and it has a place where it lives. I’ve always felt that you should always have a functional torch in the house and that’s why there were 4 in the last house. But if I lost electricity, I have maybe mobile phone for up to 24 hours if it was fully charged when I lost electricity and provided I switch off cellular data. I live in a temperate area and normally, you’d expect that I might be out of electricity for a relatively short time.

It’s just lots of people have found out the hard way that this might not be a completely safe assumption.

So I added a battery operated radio to the shopping list and found a small Sony for 25E in a local electrical shop. I need to get some batteries for it because of course it’s a different size to the set of batteries I have here already.

You can wander around Youtube and find all sorts of survival kits, squeezed into tiny Altoids boxes if you want to be really creative. But in the context of living in a city with no desire to go off-grid, as it were, possibly your shopping list should include a torch, a radio, spare batteries for both and a few litres of water at the very least. And at that, I’d like to think we’d be able to see the biggest problems coming from a long way off.

Myths or not myths

Colm Ó Broin has an article in the Journal today on the subject of the Irish language which annoyed me greatly for a number of reasons. I could add to the dozens responding on both the Journal’s site and on their Facebook page but then when would I bother paying for a hosting package.

Anyway, my primary issue with it is that it’s an incredibly poorly argued piece and it centres on what he considers to be the main myths around the Irish language. For simplicity I am going to list them, and then I will respond to them, and then I will add some other thoughts on the question of Irish in general terms.

  1. Irish is a dead language.
  2. Ireland would be poor if we spoke Irish.
  3. Gaeilscoileanna are elitist.
  4. Irish shouldn’t be an EU language.
  5. Irish isn’t compatible with modern technology.
  6. We don’t have to speak Irish.

The number one problem I have with this is that most of these aren’t myths; at best you could say some of them are opinions and some of them are assertions. Collectively they are a strawman, but I am going to comment on each of them.

Irish is a dead language.

No it isn’t and it is not one of the myths I hear being thrown around too often either. However, you would have to be delusional to not accept that it is a language which is living on the edge in terms of endangerment. We are having this entire conversation because the Census figures revealed that the numbers speaking Irish have dropped somewhat over the last 5 years.

A worryingly low number of people speak Irish in daily life although interestingly enough, I know about five of them living here in Luxembourg.

I suppose you could possibly call this a myth because Irish technically isn’t dead. But those supporting Irish need to recognise the reality that it is endangered and more to the point many efforts to resuscitate it have been singularly unsuccessful. If I had to choose one successful item, it would be TG4 but there’s a horrible risk that this has been a bit too late.

But the problem is, it did not have to be this way and some contributions as to why it is this way are linked to decisions made in the past. There is a whole cohort of Irish people who will never forgive the Irish schooling system for inflicting Peig on them. There is a whole cohort of Irish people who were native speakers of English who were taught Irish as though they were native speakers of Irish and who struggled with it because no one with any authority was willing to admit that for a large proportion of the population, Irish was at best a second language and for many people, it was rather foreign. The fact that many of these people after 14 years cannot or have no confidence to speak Irish is a shocking reflection on the education system of the time. There are cultural reasons for this which I will come to later.

Ireland would be poor if we spoke Irish.

Historically it could be argued that there is some truth to this. There were times in the history where children were supported to learn English within their families because there were good economic reasons to do so, of which one was emigration to a larger and more economically viable English speaking country. But in this day and age, this is not a fact, or a myth but an assertion and more to the point, I have not heard anyone suggest it in the last 30 years.

ETA: in any case, it would be profoundly prudent to maintain a situation where people were also able to speak English as this is a pretty handy skill to have. I don’t think anyone is suggesting that we become monolingual Irish speakers. Plus take Luxembourg. Most people are equally at home in French, German or Luxembourgish

Gaeilscoileanna are elitist.

For the purposes of any non-Irish people floating around a Gaelscoil is a school taught through the medium of Irish. There have been an increasing number of these in the last 10-15 years.

However, they have always existed, at a time when they were just known as schools in local areas where Irish was the locally spoken language, and still is in a number of locations. I think it can be safely argued that Gaeilscoileanna are not elitist in locations where in fact, they are basically the local school because this happens to be a Gaeltacht or Irish speaking area. But it is not such a safe argument in areas which are English speaking areas. Historically they have attracted students at times when they tended to have smaller class sizes and often, less diverse in terms of class, and in the modern age in terms of ethnicity and were chosen for that reason. Obviously there are downsides to smaller schools in that they often may not have the same level of facilities but if you have high parental engagement that can be countered.

In other words I don’t think it is safe to assert that Gaeilscoileanna are not elitist. Historically, some of them appear to have been, I do know that on the ethnicity side of things, some schools have broadened their cohort’s diversity. But additionally, children attending Gaeilscoileanna tend to have a high level of parental involvement and in urban areas that tends to indicate schools with a certain level of elitism.

Irish shouldn’t be an EU language.

The problem I have with this is it is an assertion or an opinion but it is not a myth. In many ways it is a choice to be made. There are arguments to be made in both directions but to select it as a leading myth is just not one of them.

Irish is not compatible with modern technology.

I’m stunned to hear anyone assert this. Ultimately there was actually an argument of this nature with respect to Irish about 70 years ago and it was a valid argument. This is because at that time, Irish used a script which has a lot in common with what are now called uncial scripts, and for which there wasn’t a commonly available typewriter. To be fair, the Irish alphabet at the time was heavily Roman in style but with certain stylistic features and slightly different ways of writing certain letters – the letter A being a key example the S also, and the G. Its way of handling miniscules and majuscules was a little different in that it was a question of scale rather than the case in the Roman alphabet where there are differences in  form between the miniscule and majuscule letters.

So the decision was made to move to a fully Roman style to cater for the fact that all our typewriters tended to be UK quertys. It also reduced the number of alphabets which needed to be taught in primary schools thus apparently aiding the teaching of reading. This matters because if someone had had a chat with the Germans, we could have gotten a QWERTZ which also catered for that other problem which was not resolved at the time, namely, the Síne Fada, known to the French as the acute accent in terms of form. They certainly weren’t pronounced the same way. In Ireland, they were typically handwritten in after the typing was done.

Modern technology does away with that. If we had Unicode seventy years ago, we could have just installed another font on the computer, baby, and typed away. As it now, it is trivial to add fadas to vowels in Irish even on an English keyboard. Alt-GR is your friend. And to be honest this is a problem that the French, Germans, Spanish, Danish and Greek have had to solve in some shape or form. In a way, the English centric world of Ireland caused us not to be aware that other people were dealing with not being English too. Suffice to say, writing in Irish is now a whole lot easier than it was when we didn’t have any technology at all. I’d argue that this is a myth and countering it is useful if people are asserting it. It is just that, amongst the whinging comments about Irish I hear from time to time, not being compatible with technology is not one.

We do not have to speak Irish.

Strictly speaking this is 100% true once you get out of school. We do not have to speak Irish. It may be desirable that we do, but it is not necessary. Describing this as a myth is not much of an argument.

Okay.

So much for the myths.

I live in Luxembourg, a place with about half a million people living there, and most of the natives, which is not close to most of its population, speak Luxembourgish, French and German. To some extent Luxembourgish has been the subject of a bit of a revival, particularly since the 1940s as I understand it. There is an argument – and I wouldn’t make it to any Luxembourger hanging around – that the line between it being a separate language and a dialect of German is a bit thin. I can, however, confirm that if you do speak German, this is no guarantee that you’ll understand Luxembourgish. It is also spoken in parts of Belgium and Germany and possibly northeastern France as well. Regarding the number of native speakers, estimates vary between 250,000 and 400,000. The interesting thing about Luxembourgish is that it has historically not been the national language. Luxembourgish for a long time was a German speaking area, and then it switched to French – this is linked with various events and transitions in its history. Luxembourgish became the official national language in 1984.

70% of the people in Luxembourg speak Luxembourgish daily according to the government here. That is far in excess of the numbers speaking Irish daily although less than those who claim to know a bit. The point that I am driving at here is that Luxembourg has been comparatively successful in turning Luxembourgish into a national language in use by a large proportion of the population and Ireland really has not. Maybe ten times the number of people speak Luxembourgish daily as speak Irish.  Yet Irish is an EU language and Luxembourgish is not. It is something which perhaps we need to think about.

If you talk to any Irish people, they will have very strong opinions on what went wrong in Ireland. They will point at the teaching and I would argue that in truth the teaching left a lot to be desired. Not necessarily because of the teachers but because of the context they were required to teach it in.

  • assumption that everyone spoke it anyway
  • delusions about creating a particular cultural form of Ireland – ask anyone about the dancing at the crossroads colleens
  • poor teaching materials
  • poor teaching methods.
  • a focus on the literary and not the language as a tool for communication.

The problem is the way I learned 20 years ago – which was terrible – is almost certainly not the way it is being taught today so people’s arguments about it is based on something which is not a reality any more. There has been an recognition at some point that most people don’t speak it and there has been an effort to start teaching it as an acquired second language in some places. At this point I have some concerns about the Gaeilscoileanna because we are basically teaching kids to read Irish before they can speak the language at the same time as we are teaching them to read English. There is some research floating around that kids below the age of about 7 have trouble with bilingualism and tend to be a little behind for a while before catching up.

Anyway.

The biggest problem that I saw with Irish 25 years ago, and very little has changed, is that it really wasn’t massively relevant to young people’s lives. There was no pop radio in Irish. No Irish rock bands or pop bands. Even the Scots had Runrig who were a credible rock outfit in Scotland at least in the 1970s. We had nothing. We had people who were angling to create a culture where we all listened to trad music, went to céilís and were basically living the life off a John Hinde postcard. Raidio na Gaeltachta started a series of world music at some point in the late 1990s, late on a Friday night if I remember rightly, and the purists went mad. People had already thrown fits about songs in English being played on RnG.

This basically ensured that the young Irish population who were interested in pop music and rock music listened to English language radio. Actually, we listened to a lot of pirate stations because it was in the 1980s when we got Radio 2 which was dedicated to younger people’s music. I’m sure some people didn’t like that either. Meanwhile, in Scotland, Raidio nan Gael was playing the hell out of the Highland Connection by Runrig because it was one record in their collection that appealed to young people in their broadcast area and there were songs in Scots Gaelic on it.

We didn’t do this in Ireland. We tried to shape the young generations into an image of Ireland that might have never really existed but which you could buy for 50p in any newsagent in the country and stick a stamp on instead of recognising that a living language lives and develops with its young people. And we lost one, two, maybe 4 generations. If I’m honest forcing young people to read Peig and delight in the life of an old lady living on an island off the coast of Kerry was not likely to be successful either. I know she’s been replaced so I refuse to complain about it as a problem now.

But the thing is, I cringe when I see the arguments about Irish coming up because they tend to be predictable and both sides get stuck in a rut.

I never see good reasons to study Irish being pushed. If you look at Colm Ó Broin’s piece it’s basically a moan of “why won’t you understand and speak my lovely language?” But he does not give us one good reason to do so. And this is a bit dumb because actually, there are a bunch of good reasons to speak Irish. Of course, it would help if it were taught properly but, here’s a few options.

Irish has a wider range of phonemes than English.

Eh wha? This basically means that Irish has a wider range of actually sounds you have to make. Now you might not care one way or the other about this but this actually makes it easier to pronounce other foreign languages and therefore supports the learning of other foreign languages (some industrialists suggest Chinese but I’d still suggest French or German and let me say German and Irish have a few useful phonemes in common).

In simple terms, if you learn Irish it should be easier for you to learn another language later on. In particular you are aware that things work differently to English syntax sometimes. Our verbs come before our subjects and we have those wonderful prepositional pronouns.

Irish is pretty handy for cursing.

Those wonderful curses that we have in Ireland which usually sound like cruel or unusual punishment. The Irish Times has a bunch of them here.

It’s an amazing opportunity for making up your own words.

Sasamach. That’s all I have to say.  Oh yeah, the official word for Sasamach is Breatimmeacht which is pretty decent too when you think about it. But there is no other language in which you could create that pun, or play on words like that about Brexit. (oh btw – Sasanach is the Irish word for English person and amach is one of the Irish words for outside, specifically, the one used for when you are transitioning to being outside).

Unique #hashtags on twitter

You just know that something #sneachta is not going to be about 3m of snow in New York but will refer to 3cm of snow in Palmerstown or possible 7cm of snow in the Sally Gap. And of course there is the classic #whatthefliuch meaning I have certain concerns about the amount of rain which has been failing for the last half an hour which even by West Kerry standards is somewhat excessive and it may be that getting home after work could be fraught with difficulty. No mere English hashtag could squeeze in all that meaning

It explains an awful lot of the lyricism and imagery of the English as mangled I mean spoken in Ireland

On the downside, that gave us James Joyce. Your mileage may vary on that. But the whole thing around alliterative adjectives of which I cannot think of one example right now comes straight down the pipeline from An Ghaeilge.

Actually, we do some fairly spectacular mangling of English. I give you this tweet from The Irish For discussing the verb to shift, a verb which Collins English Dictionary asserts means to move or change.

On the other hand, the past weekend has seen a discussion on what it actually means in an Irish context.  On twitter (what was that about Irish and technology again?). I’m going to link to this one because it demonstrates other words which have specific local meaning in Ireland and which I suspect many foreigners would have some issues with unless they have seen the Snapper. In any case, Collins is not familiar with the concept of shift being an activity engaged with in courting, as it were.

That case system is pretty handy for learning Finnish

Just trust me on this.

It hasn’t got a lot of irregular verbs.

11 I believe.

People will ask you to same something in Irish.

Seriously.

Rinne sé bean di.

I have very clear memories of a teacher in a convent struggling to explain what this actually meant. We none of us really wanted to buy the “oh well that just means they got married. Yeah, they got married”. Is Toraíacht Dhiarmada Agus Gráinne still on the syllabus? If not, it is one hell of a pity.

But the point is, Irish is one of the oldest written western European languages, if not the oldest (okay depends on how you define Greek) and as such it’s got a very handy selection of myths and legends which are real myths and legends. We had superheroes before Marvel Comics did. Check out Fionn MacCumhail, occasionally good and occasionally bad, or Cuchulainn. It is something to behold really when you think about it.

Moving forward

To be honest, I learned French by watching Beverly Hills 90210 so I’m really happy to know that we have Irish translations and dubbed versions of some of the Harry Potter stuff, for example. We need more of this stuff.  I was also delighted that (despite the lack of support from some people) that there were pop programmes on TG4 and a lot of cartoons were dubbed. Also, some of the Asterix and Tintin stuff is now available in Irish. I would love to see Calvin and Hobbes available in Irish too. These are all good things. TG4, operating on a shoestring budget, has done spectacular things to get the Irish language in to public consciousness, such as Rugbaí Beo and a lot of fascinating documentaries. The language has a special place in the education system and it would be wonderful if, going forward, this time was not wasted but resulted in people who spoke the language as a means of communicating and not because it was some way of proving Irishness

In the meantime, it seems to me that we would get a lot further if we looked at good reasons to speak it and learn it rather than trying to refute myths which aren’t really myths.

Aaaannn this is 3352 words. Oops. I had other plans for this evening.

 

 

That United video…

United Airlines is in deep PR trouble (at the very least) today after a video taken from the inside of one of its planes started to circulate on social media. Basically, they had a full plane, and wanted four passengers off it to make room for crew on standby. When they got no volunteers, they started involuntary offloading. One of the passengers refused to volunteer (this sentence hurts) and so security/police were called. The video shows very clearly that the passenger, a paying passenger, was manhandled in the process. I’m not linking to the video and no doubt when I read this in 5 years, it’ll be gone. But I have some comments.

Overbooking is a fact of life in the airline trade. A lot of work goes into balancing it to ensure you book enough people to have a full plane and not so many such that you wind up paying a lot of compensation. Most flights have a few no shows. But I’m not happy with United’s explanation of the flight being overbooked. If you’re overbooked, you’re usually looking for the offloads at check in. You don’t want to be giving passengers boarding passes if you’re not going to be flying them. There are security ramifications for that too. Much better to get passengers to voluntarily offload at check in and do not check them in in the first place. As United were pulling people off the plane, then under normal circumstances you’d have to assume the passengers were paid up and checked in.

If they were looking to position crew for any reason to another airline they need to reserve the seats rather than assume standby will work. I worked in the airline trade for more than ten years. If I had business travel I had a reserved seat (still had the possibility of being bumped off in an overbooking scenario but at least there was recognition that the seat had to be booked and checked in). What didn’t happen in my experience is that paying passengers got bumped off a flight for paying passengers. It looks like in this case, seats were not reserved and the United staff were not checked in. And the passengers were on the plane when United gate staff and cabin staff came to try and get four passengers off the plane to make room for the four United staff that suddenly needed to fly.

So, in the first place, paying passengers should not be the target of being offloaded to make room for non-revenue passengers. If it happens in United regularly they need to start being a bit more organised about booking their crew if they need to be moved from one airport to the next.

However, even if it ever was acceptable to bump paying passengers – you know the ones who support the salaries of United staff up to and including their CX – it certainly isn’t acceptable to get someone to manhandle them off the plane such that the passenger winds up injured in some respect. I’ve seen comments that he “refused to obey the cabin crew” and arguably this could be seen as true. But the instructions he was refusing to obey should not have been made.

In general, we need passengers to comply with instructions for safety reasons. Assume we’re in a situation where we need to clear a plane because, oh it has landed on the Hudson or something. As such we need airlines not to be abusing the requirement to have passengers comply unquestioningly with crew instructions because frankly, there needs to be good reasons for those instructions. Four of our staff need your seat is not a good reason. And it damages the relationship between airlines and their customers and breaks down the trust. That affects all airlines, not just United. Instructions from cabin crew given the context that they are entitled to absolute obedience under law need to be reasonable. It seems to me that no one in United on the occasion appeared to question why paying passengers should be dumped for staff which leads me to wonder if it is a frequent occurrence. Either way, the right to unquestioned compliance has a corresponding responsibility that the right not be abused.

The fall out for United Airlines around this is substantial. Significant numbers of the public are making it clear that they do not ever again want to fly with United. It is unknown what settlement the passenger concerned will feel motivated to come to and if United’s lawyers are any bit sensible at all, they will want to settle rather than go to court. But it should never have come to here because United should not be bumping paying passengers off their airplanes for the benefit of non-revenue staff.

Leaving it to the engineers

It is possible that this belongs on my other site but…Fine.

I think this was caused by a tweet linked to a comment made at the SCIC21 interpreter training conference during the week. It is an annual conference involving the interpreting service of the European Commission and the universities which run courses that supply the interpreter pipeline. The comment, which I now cannot find, grosso modo, amounted to highlighting the risk in allowing the engineers to be in charge of the future of the language industry. In other words, Google.

EDA: and the tweet is here from Marcin Feder:

C. Tiayon – do not leave languages in the hands of engineers, a reference to Google, etc.

(quick thanks to Alexander Drechsel who found it for me)

I have a background in artificial intelligence and machine learning and as part of getting it, I did a machine learning course where the lecturer confidently asserted that translation as a problem had now been solved by applying statistical methods. This basically means, loads of data and learning from that. There are well known issues with this; it tends to be good, as in better than what went before, but anyone who has seen both Google Translate and Bing Translate in action would really be admitting that it’s still not great. In many cases it’s terrible. Twitter’s language recognition engine is a bit hit or miss too which makes its translations hilariously absent. One of the things which annoyed me in general when I did my CompSci masters was the extraordinary tolerance computer scientists have for faults in things which are not necessarily computer science. Woe betide you if you don’t comply with someone’s pet programming style peeve (usually in the area of variable names) but a 60% success rate in whatever the code is trying to do, like, translate something from French to English is tolerable. The computer end of business they are shockingly fussy about, the business end of business, less so. Human interpreters and human translators are still far, far better than computers in terms of transferring meaning from one language to another. This is because meaning is not all verbal and computers are not good at nuance.

So we keep hearing how great computers are at something or other – lately it has been GO – or diagnosing some illness or other. I have doubts about the last one because often that’s a question of judgement rather than straight binary… – Anyway we keep hearing how great computers are at some task but when you drill down, it is because monumental assumptions and allowances have been made. You can read, for example, that Duolingo is better than college courses for learning languages and that this is scientifically proven. The relevant study had a 75% drop out rate. That means 75% of people who started learning a language to in a programme to measure the effectiveness of Duolingo dropped out before the end of the study.

This is not just true for languages but in general, if computer science or technology is getting involved in your industry, it is worth paying careful attention to what they consider to be adequate performance. It may well  be significantly less than is considered adequate in general in your industry and you will want to know the rationale for that.

Dragon Queen of Horndressers

I was up early this morning and drawing. The end result was this:

 


To be honest, I had done a greyscale version of it with a HB pencil during the week but having finished that, decided that really, probably because it was a dragon it merited the coloured pencil treatment.

The piece took just about 2 hours to complete, start to finish. It was done on Hahnemuller 1584 sketching paper which is 190gsm, so a bit heavier than some of my other drawing paper, and bought as a cheap layout pad for a different project but as it turned out to be really nice paper to draw on it has been a bit repurposed. The coloured pencils are Caran d’Ache Pablo pencils, which I love. The underlying line drawing was done with a Faber Castell sparkly which is my go to for a lot of stuff like this. I have a beautiful Swiss Wood Caran d’Ache too but it is prone to smudge so I tend to use it for watercolour rather than for coloured pencils. Smells beautiful too.

I haven’t been drawing all that much lately – it seems to be a Sunday morning activity at most lately – because I have been playing the piano (Handel is spinning in his grave as is Chopin, to be a bit frank). The last significant bit of work I did was for a Faber Castell competition for a Karlbox which is 2500E worth of drawing gear, mainly Albrecht Durer watercolour pencils, PItt pens which I use a lot and some Polychromos – about half the full range, all neatly tidyable away. If I am really honest, it’s the ability to tidy this stuff is which really attracted me to the competition. I have my Pitt markers in a shoebox for example. Anyway, FC announced during the week they had 1500 entries. My chances are, at best 1/1500+, and then you bear in mind that winning is not completely random either. But I had fun doing it and I appear to have a slight cartoonish quality to my drawing of people. It was a learning process

As little as necessary

There is a thread running on boards.ie about how hard it must be to live on the salary of a clerical officer in Dublin. The starting point is currently 21KE.

Clerical Officer roles as far as I remember do not require post leaving certificate qualifications. Above that, executive officer roles require some PLC but I think a diploma is the minimum. For administrative officer, you’re looking at a degree. This is by way of information. The fact is it doesn’t change the problem that yes, the salary of 21KE makes it borderline impossible to live in Dublin. I am aware of some people at AO level who, on something like 29KE were pondering how they could pay rent, feed themselves and get to work without spending about 4 hours commuting every day. And that’s supposedly a management track role.

There’s an argument that these are all entry level salaries and there are guaranteed rises. The rises however while guaranteed, don’t bring you up to affording to live in Dublin in under about 10 years. There are problems with this too, a key one being the civil service attracts quite a lot of people with previous experience – substantial in some cases – who do not necessarily fit the requirements for principal officer or assistant principal (linked, in my limited experience, to the rather narrow view the civil service has of defining reporting lines and people reporting to other people). Key examples include qualified women who have been out of the workforce for sometime owing to child care duties, or people who hit the job market in the period since 2007 when the country was in recession and who are diligently applying for jobs they are qualified. In short, at AO level and down, there tend to be a bunch of overqualified people. The civil service, when it hires these people, is getting quite a lot for free under the circumstances.

In general, however, the problem isn’t really the salary scales as such. The key issue is the relationship between the salary scales and the cost of living in Dublin. If you could guarantee that every person on 21KE was 18 years old and living with their parents, then it’s just about economically viable. Arguably, they won’t be having much of a life, and they won’t be saving much money. Like me in another job with what was then a defined benefit pension they will be investing in their future well being with some penury and some limitations in their job options. This is fine if someone doesn’t change the rules later. My defined benefit pension is no longer so defined.

The cost of a three bedroomed house to rent in north Dublin is around 1500E, or at least it was when I left. It might be higher now. Flatshares were tending to 700E a person when I left. 21KE salaries will barely cover a room in a share. The further out you move, the somewhat less money you will pay, but then, your costs mount in terms of commuting time and commuting money. Public transport in Dublin in my opinion is disgustingly expensive and the service across modes is at best of mixed quality and very poorly integrated. People on low salaries are screwed either which way in Dublin.

The solution is not, as it happens, to give them more money because this just winds up meaning that someone who used to be destitute on 21KE is still destitute on 28KE because the key contributor to the cost of living in Ireland is still accommodation and the cost of accommodation is generally governed to some extent by supply and demand. 7-8 years ago, accommodation in Dublin both rental and purchase was tumbling because there was a monumental oversupply. Although the population of the country, and possibly Dublin, has not sky rocketed in the intervening period, rents have. Supply has clearly tightened such that a reasonable equilibrium is not being reached.

Junior or low level civil servants are not the only workers in Dublin who are on a salary which bears no practical relationship with their cost of living. Private sector employees, especially those in retail, and any on zero hours/minimum wage, are struggling too. A universal fix to this problem is to do something about the accommodation supply problem and leave wages alone. There are benefits to this from a social and economic point of view. Reduced accommodation costs should see some corresponding increase in the retail and hospitality sectors which will lead generally to increased employment, reduced unemployment, increased tax take/USC take. The rental market becomes more fluid and there are more people moving to locations suitable to work rather than trying desperately to manage a commute from somewhere completely unworkable. It may lead to improved public transport options for some people, and that might lead to a corresponding reduction in carbon emissions.

But I can’t see it happening because one of the things which would have to happen would be a significant reduction in property values in desirable urban areas like Dublin. Whether we do it by building huge amounts of property or by forcing the use of currently unoccupied property, or by putting a huge tax on second home sales, a 50% reduction in property values will not be welcome. Maybe if we hadn’t reinflated our last property bubble in under 10 years…

I left Ireland in December because I failed to see a future where I wasn’t constantly economically stressed purely because of the property/commute issue. A city where more people feel economically secure would probably be a significantly happier and more productive city. But it will not happen.

waves and numbers and stuff