Thursday, July 29, 2010

The oddest experiments; attempting to define "bad" writing style again

28. Elephants on Acid and Other Bizarre Experiments by Alex Boese

The cover and the title should give you an accurate feeling about the book: the experiments in the book are truly bizarre, they are often described fairly shortly so that you can use this as handy bathroom reading (chapter 8 is specifically designed for this), and headings are in a bubble-gum purple hue.I think the typesetter/designer wanted to really get the readers into the acid mood.

I was afraid the book would be way too quirky--or just stupid--for my tastes, but I found I was unable to put it down. The bizarre experiments drew me in, and Boese's writing style balanced well between the humorous and trying-too-much-to-be-witty. Although I ended up reading most of his final sentences in in my head in the puts on sunglasses -style, the punchlines were not annoying enough for me to give up this book.

The experiments range from the well-known ones (the terry cloth mom experiment with monkeys; the severed dog head that continued living; trying to raise a chimp as a human child to see if it would begin to behave like humans, etc.) to the more obscure (testing LSD on elephants, testing whether a tapeworm learns new stuff if it is fed a piece of another tapeworm with the knowledge, and so on).

My favorites were among the human psychology and sociological experiments. I heard of the Stanford prison experiment the first time when I saw Das Experiment (insert obligatory <3 Moritz Bleibtrau)which is loosely based on the real experiment. It freaked me out in a way that made me want to know more about the exam. By the way, I got that movie poster as a gift from a friend, and it was so depressing I could never put it up on my wall. Onward!

Originally, the experiment was to see what factors lead to prison abuse. Is it because people working in prisons are naturally violent and nasty, is it because the inmates are naturally violent and nasty, or could the environment affect their behavior? Completely normal and mentally stable men were chosen for the experiment, where half were given gowns to wear with no underwear (the prisoners) and the other half were given khakis (the guards). The only instructions for the guards were that they should not use violence and they should not let the prisoners escape. Although during the first day of testing the "prisoners" were simply sitting and playing cards, chatting about the experiment, within a couple of days the guards had put them in isolation chambers for punishment, made them pee in buckets and leave the buckets in their "cells" and forced them to do humiliating acts (such as sexual acts). The experiment that was supposed to last for two weeks was canceled after six days, because the "prisoners" were facing such abuse and psychological stress from their "guards." Even their yells, "This is just a simulation!" would not calm the guards the eff down. 

I find this absolutely fascinating, just as the Milgram experiment where completely ordinary people ended up giving electric shocks they thought were deadly to people, all just because a man in an authoritarian position told them that he'd take the blame, and the subject was simply obeying his orders. When asked whether they could ever kill a person, they would probably have answered--as all of us non-psychopaths would--with a no. These experiments just show us that there is a lot about ourselves that we don't know or understand. These experiments--although the results are shocking and appalling--should help people in designing situations where people's behavior would not be allowed to escalate so easily into abusive situations. Unfortunately, the results also give an idea of how easy it is to manipulate a person to behave against his or her will.

The book is a fun read, but I did not say it was a light read! 

Speaking of fun...

29. The Accidents of Style: Good Advice on How Not to Write Badly by Charles Elster

If you want to read a book on style, please read any of the other ones I have written about. This mentions all the old hats of proper English usage as they do, but in addition, the author barely hides his loathing toward spoken varieties of English. He begins by stating that this book is for writers, whether you write for newspapers, blogs or you just write emails. But every now and then, he slips in snide comments about the bad ways people speak English (when the "bad" is actually just a vernacular of some type, or a shorthand). Elster, your agenda is showing.

Sometimes the author simply sounded like an old curmudgeon.He has a big chip on his shoulder (and he would slap me for that cliché) about blogging: the multitude of insulting terms he has come up with for bloggers is quite astounding, and he rarely forgets to mention that he came up with those terms all by himself! What a guy!

He takes swipes at Mignon Fogerty because whoever wrote her grammar book's dust jacket copy described the book as--wait for the dry heaves from Elster--a "fun book." (You can't use "fun" as a regular adjective, he mutters between his spew-covered teeth.) His disgust toward lexicographers is hard to avoid: Elster's descriptions make them seem like a bunch of namby-pambies who allow anything to be printed in dictionaries. I'm fairly sure I used the word "namby-pamby" wrong there, and he would make ruthless fun of me.

Elster seems to believe that dictionaries should act as teaching material on what proper language is like. I think that dictionaries should reflect language as it is used. Our views on language are fundamentally different. He is absolutely right with many of his examples, such as the ones where people don't get it that the idiom is toe the line, not tow the line (because the latter makes no sense--not that idioms are always sensible). But every now and then he seems to forget that language develops and evolves constantly, and if majority of people nowadays think it's OK to use "fun" as an adjective to describe objects, then protesting against it will only make you sound like someone who thinks that the English from a decade ago is something we should try to preserve, whatever the cost.

So, if you think that there is only one way to speak and read proper English (and that English must be from somewhere well post-U.S. colonization,, then this book is for you!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Radio plays and poetry--yes, this is 2010.

25. and 26. Melua mekossa and Sen pituinen se by Leila and Annukka.

Now a defunct radio station, Radiomafia was quite the anarchist in the Finnish world of broadcasting: they would assign a program devoted to heavy metal at prime time, or start your Sundays with a dose of progressive rock. The weirdest parts were the radio plays and sketch shows. You would not find any Prairie Home Companion here, that's for sure. One of my favorites back then was a show created by Johanna Reenkola and Tiina Siikasaari (who also gave voices to the characters) about two absolutely clueless women in their early 40s, Leila ja Annukka. Now, reading the books that are basically transcripts of the show revealed to me how much they actually played around with language, and how often they veered into Monty Python-esque absurdism.

Millionaire-heiress Leila Makkonen is a stick-figure of an egotist, for whom nothing is more important than looks and men, and status. She's also a horrifying lush. Annukka Ahlqvist is her well-meaning, but unfashionable friend whose parents still own a dairy farm and whose appetite in both food and men disgust Leila. So far, the premise sounds pretty predictable, doesn't it? Yet, the stories managed to be absolutely hilarious, and often the dialogues were peppered with poignant bits about homophobia, how advertising preys on the ones with low self-esteem, and even bigger political issues such as the European Union and Finland's role in it. Then they'd immediately get back to silly dialogue that would just escalate into worst possible scenarios. The characters are kind of like two female versions of David Brent. Unfortunately I can't translate the bits I like the best, because Leila uses very, very bad language in them... But here are a couple of tamer excerpts:

Leila and Annukka are at a neighborhood pizza place:
Leila: Well there you finally are! I already managed to down one drink, I was so thirsty. What would you have, the usual?
Annukka: Yeah, thanks.
Leila: Gianni! Una cerveza and eine kleine cocacola! Bitte hurry, chop chop!
Annukka: Wow, people can really tell you've traveled the world.
Leila: I like to keep up my language skills.
Annukka: And it's so nice for the Italians to hear their native language here in cold Finland.

Annukka is getting ready for her graduation ceremony from the aromatherapist course...

Leila: Move it! What are you going to wear?
Annukka: I'm already wearing it.
Leila: Oh my god. I thought that flower-patterned salsa dress was your home outfit.
Annukka: No, it's not. Just this Saturday I bought it from the second hand store for exactly this event. Imagine, it was only 20 marks! They asked for 25, but I haggled off a fiver, because there's a stain on the chest. But ta-daa, I put this butterfly brooch over it and you can't see the stain anymore.

It's one of those things that are probably funnier when you hear them or you hear the voices acting the play out in your head...

27. Kutsuvat sitä rakkaudeksi by Arno Kotro ("They call it love")
Arno Kotro. I vaguely remember a column he wrote for the major teachers' union paper (he is a teacher himself) that smacked of anti-feminism: it was one of those writings exploring the reasons why boys are not doing as well in schools as girls are, and instead of really looking at the reasons, he basically blamed it on feminism and women teachers emasculating and favoring girls (My school years were peppered with statements like "Women can't chew gum and walk at the same time" and even at college level, I had a teacher tell in front of a class full of women how she wished we'd stayed at home and made babies, and had given "boys a chance" to get into the university. So I wasn't exactly agreeing with Kotro's statements.) His odd arguments made me vow that I'd never read his stuff. I had totally forgotten my sentiments when I got this three-poem book from a friend of mine, and surprisingly ended up reading it in one sitting. Save for the strawmen arguments against feminism at the center of the book, I really enjoyed the poems.

The book is in three parts, each a poem of its own: first is about him falling in love, the second leads into the breakup, and the third is about post-breakup meetups, friendships and moving on (or the inability thereof). I often don't read poetry because majority of poetry just has not done much for me, but then sometimes there are poets who have these amazing sentences that make me think, "Huh, I never thought it that way--but that's the best way to describe it." Pablo Neruda is someone I could read endlessly, because his poems are so raw and delicious. I would read more of Kotro because of his word plays that instead of making me laugh and think how smart he is, they make me feel terrifyingly sad. Quite the opposite of the way puns and plays on words usually are used. Also, I felt like this was a brave book to write as it obviously is very autobiographical (or is it?), and it sounds very honest in its examination of feelings of love, betrayal and obsession.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

On bilingualism and dictionaries

My work stole me away from the Internets for a while, but I'm back! Unfortunately, work also slowed my reading down a bit, so here are the only books I have finished recently...

23. Bilingual: Life and Reality by François Grosjean

A great, great book for everyone who is interested in bilingualism, is bilingual, or is someone who is struggling to figure out a good way to raise their children bilingual or maintain their own bilingual abilities. The author refers to his more academically written book for more information, analysis and statistics while this book is kept very accessible on purpose.

It tackles all the most pervasive myths about bilingualism in both adults and children, such as that bilingual children will develop slower than monolingual children, or that being bilingual means you have to be a perfect speaker of two languages and anything else is not true bilingualism. For the author, bilingual is a person who uses every day (more or less) two languages. Because most people use different languages in different situations--such as one at home and one for official business--it automatically means that they cannot be perfect in both languages. Or rather, a person who is perfect in all the languages he or she is using is a rarity. As a personal example, I can talk about computers easily in English, but I was totally screwed back in Finland when we were trying to buy a motherboard. I had no idea what it would be called in Finnish--the language I had been primarily using up until my twenties!--and not only that, I had a hard time even explaining what I wanted to the shopkeeper without sounding like a dimwit (plus he tried to sell me a hard-drive when I knew for sure that's not what I wanted, so he didn't seem to know what was going on, either...). I realized that there was no Finn in my life with whom I would have talked about computers as extensively as I had done in English. The reverse happens when I try to talk in English about, say, building structures: not only are homes often built differently in the US and Finland and thus would require different vocab, I just had not had an opportunity to talk to anyone in English about building materials before someone asked me whether Finns sauter their pipes... The problem was not that I don't understand the concept of sautering--it's that I had never heard that word before in English.

I had never dared to call myself a bilingual before because of these myths: how could I be truly bilingual when I was not raised bilingual at home or in my living environment. I was told, even on college level, that if the language you have learned was learned at school, you can't call yourself bilingual. I can't be a true bilingual because there are situations where I don't know the vocabulary. I can't be a true bilingual because I have an accent. Reading this book was a huge relief for me and a revelation: duh, of course I am bilingual because I communicate in two languages on a daily basis. That's all you need. What a relief!

24. The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of "Proper" English from Shakespeare to South Park by Jack Lynch

After the fairly dry history of how the first English dictionaries came about (except the part that disses Samuel Johnson in very delicious terms!) the book dives straight into the debate of what is proper English and what is not, and who are to blame for some very nonsensical rules. The best parts of this book were the sections where Lynch discusses why English spelling reformation will never, ever happen although it should, and why criticism of non-standard Englishes like AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) usually is nothing more than attempts at trying to thinly veil one's classicism and racism in academic concerns on the status of "proper" language usage. Somehow when a black person says "I axed" it's an infuriating bastardization of language, but it's fine if Samuel Johnson has so said and written back in the day.

Also, Lynch takes on people who believe that English language is going to hell in an iPhone docking station because of the language kids use in text messages. Curiously enough, the much-advertised high school essay that was full of gr8ts and LOLs has never been found, and Lynch deems it nothing but a "a friend of a friend of mine once saw..." urban legend. It seems that kids still do understand that most of the time there is a time to use the standard English they learn at school, and that it's fine to play around with language in other venues. As an example of this, Lynch mentiones LOLcats, where you take a picture of a cat, and photoshop a caption onto the picture in ungrammatical English. Although some academics have gotten their ascots in a twist over this and see lolcats as definite proof of English's downfall, Lynch reminds people that lolcats creators know how English language works, and they write badly on purpose. If lolcats peeps really did not know how to write standard English, they would not be able to write hilarious captions where horrible sounding English has a logic (such as use an -s plural for irregular plurals, like in my favorite lolcat where a budgie stands in a plate of mac and cheese, saying "IM IN UR MACARONIS WARMING MY FEETS.")

Oh, and about the English spelling reformation. I did not know about this: apparently the reason why English spelling is so messed up is because the first printing presses used only letters found in Latin. People were too lazy to hew additional letters to match English sounds, and thus they ended up discarding letters like the thorn and frantically tried to come up with letter combinations that would reflect the same kind of a sound. Tut tut. Also, one of the reasons (and you should check out the book for the rest, because they are all fascinating!) for the spelling reform failing is that people are not aware of how they pronounce words, and thus they would not be able to produce in writing accurately what they say (reformers want English to be written the way it's pronounced.) Most people would think that to make plurals out of dog and house is the same: you just add an -s. But when you now pronounce the new words, the -s is pronounced differently in these words. For houses it's more like a z. So, I guess after spelling reform, people would be spelling house as haus or hauz. Additionally, there would be even more variety because spelling reformers seem to have forgotten that there is no one English in existence: there is a ton of variety. Even within the United States. So in order to start implementing a "one letter-one sound" rule for English, they would have to choose one lucky variety of English that everyone would need to learn to pronounce in order to communicate with each other in writing. Otherwise, writing would be nonsensical because every dialect would write words down differently (just think of a simple word like house: haus, hauz, aus, oos, haas...). Had the printing press boys just carved those extra letters and used them in printing English texts, we would not be in a mess where a kid is lauded nationally for being able to spell a word correctly upon hearing it...

Lynch has a very level-headed approach to English language, especially when it comes to varieties: we should not be talking about "bad" English if someone does not speak like we do. Instead, we should talk about appropriate English, because not all varieties of English--including standard English taught at schools--are appropriate at all times.

Let me have a fan-girl moment here. Lynch <3