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.

Pilot MR Retro Pop

One of my weaknesses in life is stationery. I am trying to control it very much by not adding to my discoveries. I have very strong likes and not many dislikes but in general I try not to buy notebooks that I can’t fit into my life (this still leaves lots of scope for Clairefontaine, Paperblanks and Rhodia) and normally I do not need any more pens, pencils or the like apart from the specific items currently on my shopping list (so that would be the new Lamy Safari Petrol because already owning two dozen Lamys is never enough, two or three Caran d’Ache ballpoints and a 0.2mm Kuru Toga).

Anyway, we would not be here if I had avoided Temptation so this is about temptation in a way. €19.99 worth of temptation as it happens so not as bad as all that. Last Sunday, I bought a Pilot Pen. Now I already own a Pilot as I have a Plumenix somewhere which cost about €6 if I remember right. I may have bought that for much the same reason as I bought this one. Defending myself against colours in the turquoise-aquamarine range is difficult. An aquamarine Lamy Safari was my entry level drug into the world of special edition Lamys and somehow now I have loads of the bloody things. Which I love. My new pen is turquoise.

Anyway, there’s a bit of a difference between the Plumenix which frankly leaked all the time so I rarely used it despite the gorgeous (but cheap) italic nib on it and this Pilot MR Retro Pop. If you hang around the fountain pen community at all, the Pilot Metropolitan or the Retro Pop are recommended as good starter fountain pens if you do not want to spend much.

Pilot are a Japanese company and for this reason, their nibs tend to be finer than the European average. I tend to a medium and so this medium Pilot is a good deal finer than most of my Safaris, Lxes, AL-Stars etc etc etc etc etc and ad infinitum. It also was decidedly reluctant to write initially despite the fact that I had fed it with Pelikan Edelstein Onyx ink, an ink which generally causes no problems and is a really nice very, very dark grey, near black. A little warmer than black. So it took a while to get things flowing but once it started to write properly, it really turned out to be a most gorgeous writing experience. I like it a lot.

This is how it looked.

 

#fountainpens #ink #pilotpens #styloplume #writing #handwriting #edelsteininkcollection

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It is obviously a very different style to most of my other pens. For one thing it’s more of a bullet shape, compared to the kinda boxy impression you get with the Safaris and Al-Stars, or the hexagonal shape of my couple of Caran d’Ache fountains, or even the Pelikan M100. While I really do not need any more collecting habits, I would not say no to a few of these to hand inked up in different colours. Regrettably, I do not have a converter for it which is a shame as I have two beautiful bottles of Pilot ink which I love.

Taking pleasure in the small things

I moved to Luxembourg at the end of last year – a move which, to be honest, quite a few of my friends would not necessarily have considered doing because they had Commitments. Children. Houses. The like.

I did not have Commitments. I have had a singular failure in hanging onto any Commitments longer than about 5 minutes, and the net result is there haven’t been children either. Not having a house is a feature of having lived in Dublin and having had a deep desire not to endebt myself to the tune of 10 years gross salary. This has meant, however, that I have had choices at certain points in my life that other people have felt as though they have not had choices and so, I took some rather serious decisions which eventually resulted in me getting on a plane with a suitcase, some clothes, a kindle and an iPad and an illusion I could live without a laptop for very long at the end of last November.

That being said, while I was angling towards a big international housemove, the truth is, I did not expect it to be Luxembourg. This is a pity because Luxembourg has turned out to be a rather happiness inducing gem. Possibly if I were 22 I would find it a bit quiet but so far I have been able to create a life here that makes me feel a lot more content, a lot more relaxed and in general, sleeping better. It has a great concert hall where I’ve been fortunate enough to hear Yuja Wang and Joshua Bell already this year; I am planning on getting a ticket to Anne-Sophie Mutter in a month’s time too. But that isn’t really it. It is possible that my view at the moment is coloured by the fact that for the past 3 weeks or so, the weather has been singularly stunning. The place is a gorgeous golden colour when you walk around it. It is swimming in parks. Lots of it is picturesque. For the most part, the services are very decent. There is nothing really to beat the feeling of walking around a place and just feeling happy all the time. Possibly this is because I get to walk around most of the time, rather than driving.

Who knows what the underlying reason is. Point is, life seems to me to be better when it is relaxed rather than when it is not relaxed.

on attitudes to others

This is one of a few pieces around the piano which will come up.

Yesterday I signed up for gold membership of Piano Street. A couple of their features drew me to do this, namely the sheet music library (okay it’s not petrucci but it has some useful stuff and also, annotations for learners), there is access to the full Naxos classical catalogue. Naxos have a great search too. Access to International Piano as well. I found that quite interesting.

Piano Street is something I hadn’t paid for before but I had signed up for silver membership years ago and via that, got limited time offer for a reduced cost access. I might not have done it for the full whack. It fascinates me as a resource. Clearly, the key attraction has to be the Naxos library followed by the sheet music. The part which most people have access to, however, is the forum and to be honest, I find it a bit hit or miss in terms of the community. I might ask for advice about a piano, but not necessarily about playing it.

This is not to say that the average community of contributors to Piano Street are bad musicians. There are some very knowledgeable people there and I’ve found some interesting threads on repertoire there – it’s through that site I have found a lot of the less well known piano concerto works, including Paderewski, Medtner and a couple of others. I don’t always find their attitudes to be less than somewhat jaded. In certain respects, I can’t blame them. Two threads caught my attention yesterday, one relating to someone whose teacher had told them to give up on their dream of being a concert pianist. The other related to a 14 year old looking for advice on playing a rather highly rated piece on the difficulty scale.

There were a variety of answers to both questions although both voiced dissatisfaction with the idea that they might take time to respond to people who might be trolls.

I have mixed views. I used to mod two internet fora in Ireland and the issue of bad faith posters, well it’s just one of those features of the forum. However. Neither got an answer that I felt was really useful.

If we take the 19 year old who wanted to be a concert pianist, the first thing any 19 year old should be concerned about is where they are relative to their business competitors. Being a concert pianist is less being a musician and more being a business person. If you are 19 years old, you need to look at the people you want to be competing with for engagements, and where you are. We were all 19 once, and we were all probably clueless once. But I had established by the time I was 16 that I wasn’t going to make it as a concert pianist, key amongst them is that even though I might have been one of my teacher’s star pupils, I wasn’t yet playing what you might today call the sexy music. I was 15 by the time I got to Fur Elise which with the best will the world, is definitely on the easy side of repertoire. A 19 year old who is at Ronda Alla Turca is competing against people who have been in the Julliard School since they were 14 or 15. Of that class in the Julliard School, it’s not likely that many of them will make it either. If you have reached the age of 19 with a desire to make it as a concert pianist and do not know whether it is too late or not, the likelihood is that it is too late. If not, there’s a lot of rehearsal ahead of you. I was working on Rach 2 – ambitiously – at the age of 14  but I knew at that point that playing it on the stage of a concert hall as a star was a dream and it was not likely to turn into reality any time soon. Didn’t stop me spending hours at a time working on tiny sections of it, because that wasn’t why I did it in the first place.

But.

One of the things that in hindsight got on my nerves is that when one of my co-students saw I had got the Rachmaninoff two piano script for the second piano concerto, flicked through it and pointed at bits that said “it’s impossible. You’ll never do it”. It’s a rotten seed to plant in someone’s head. It didn’t help on the journey which I am still nowhere close to finishing.

I’m much more in tune with people being realistic about how likely it is going to take. I think sometimes we tend to want to protect youngsters from stretching themselves. So I’m more in favour of saying to a youngster that if they want to try it, perhaps they should, but to recognise that a journey which is worth while may occasionally take you in a different direction to what you expected. The piece of music in question was the Chopin Ballade No 1 which is on my wishlist but not high enough up it for the moment. It is unquestionably a lovely piece of music, but, almost like Rachmaninoff 3 is getting a bit hackneyed owing to a reputation.

I remember reading an article about Rachmaninoff 3 – never my favourite of his works – in which someone asked was it really the hardest in the repertoire. This was sometime after the David Helfgott biopic, and a senior teacher from Julliard responded to the journalist in question that yeah, you know it’s really hard. Then he paused. “But I have 25 16 year olds in a class who can all play it perfectly, you know.” The point is, the standards move and sometimes, when a lot of people target something, something of its mystique leaves us.  Ballade No 1 is iconic, so yes, teenagers are going to want to play it. And they approach problems in a different way to adults in many respects. Adults look at the risks and the pitfalls. Teenagers look at the opportunities.  I don’t regret starting Rach 2 when I was then, and in many respects, still am not, technically tooled up for some of the challenges in it. I do regret though that parts which are not in my view, the hardest parts in that work were pointed out to me as “impossible”.

And so, I tend to favour supporting teenagers attempting to do something hard but laudable. So many of them are not attempting to do hard stuff after all.

Handel

I spent some time yesterday and the day before considering whether to restart piano grades or not. If you spend any time around some of the piano forums on the internet, you find this is a question which quite a lot of adults who have gaps in their piano playing life address at some point, and a question that beginners want to deal with. Since most people doing grades tend to be children or teenagers, it is a question which causes a certain amount of nerves. A bit like someone going back to school after 30 years away because they never did do a school leaving exam. In many respects, on account of being completely out of whack with the rest of your cohort, it can be very nervewracking to be different, older and behind. Plus, children and especially teenagers, can be quite cruel sometimes.

On balance there’s a part of me that would like to finish things out. I made it to grade five with the Royal Irish Academy of Music before school got in the way and then I started on a journey through life where access to a piano was erratic at best. It is the same part of me that tries to tempt me into signing up for a PhD. I don’t have time to do all the things I want to do because unfortunately I also have to work. And I like my job. I like the meeting of other people. Anyway it is in that context that I was considering this. I had a look at repertoire for the Royal Irish Academy and against, that, for ABRCM and Trinity in the UK. I could not find a local centre that made sense to me, but ABRCM have an exam centre here in Luxembourg

From what I can see, the RIAM offers the grade structure, but also a couple of recital options. ABRCM seems to be double grade – performance and musicology. I can’t remember too many details about Trinity. Anyway, I had a look down through the assigned pieces for each of the examining authorities and one of the things that struck me was this: There are pieces I want to play. And there are pieces on the assigned lists. The overlap was sadly, rather limited. On the basis of this years sets of lists, I will not be starting back at grades.

One of the many things which cratered my attachment to music as a child was an assigned piece for grade 3 or 4 – so not exactly beginner but not very high up the scale  – by Bela Bartok called Pentatonic Tune. I continued on because I knew enough to know that in general, this awful, awful piece of music which I hated but which some examiner had thought valid for a young person was not representative of all music. You will have teachers who consider this stuff required to have a well rounded musical education. I am not sure I agree – Bartok existed way after the piano repertoire – Liszt seemed to survive okay without him, as did JS Bach who didn’t per se write for the piano. What came into consideration for me as I reviewed these lists was this question: do I want to play these pieces, do I want to put the very minimal time I have free to do this into pieces I wasn’t really inspired to play in the first place? Where Bartok is concerned, the answer is a straight no, and I’m not too enamoured of Prokofiev either. They could both be avoided

I’m not afraid of hard work with the piano. When I have the freedom to do so – and I am having increasingly more of it – I am well capable of sitting at the piano for 2 to 3 hours at a time, breaking the hearts of my neighbours upstairs in constant repetition of parts to master fingering. I’m also not afraid of the piece I am learning taking a long time to learn. I’m aware that I have a massive gap in my practice, and I have some weaknesses with sight reading. But I also have some pieces I am motivated to learn, some easier than others. I spent a good chunk of yesterday with a piece of Handel which, if fortune smiles on the spare time front this week may well be finished by Easter. It’s a short piece. It’s an easy piece. And it is something to play for when people say “Play something there”. People tend to want the well known.

But I have a couple of serious stretch targets, here on my desk beside me is a book of the Chopin ballades of which I started work on the second the last time I had reasonably dependable access to a piano (thanks to the nice people at the music department in UCD). There is a choice to be made between hours into a Chopin Ballade which really interests me – challenging and a bit beyond me yes – and hours into a few pieces, most of which I am not yet familiar with and of those, not on my radar. It may be that I would be better off sitting down with a teacher and considering the recital exams with the RIAM instead and selecting three pieces which appeal to me, or possibly 2 plus one obnoxious piece of modern stuff which I don’t much like to round off completeness. It is a hard call.

In the meantime, if it comes to me to spend around 4 hours with the piano transcript of Sarabande by Handel, I’m not sure I’ve lost anything because I’m not doing the grades. I suspect it is a decision I will be revisiting on a year to year basis.

waves and numbers and stuff