Seven Weeks to Madagascar

Friday, June 2, 2000

Owen Briggs of Stay Awake has now posted our entire conversation on the subject of new literary forms on his site, and invited further input. Have a look, see what you think, and let him know what you reckon.

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Most of the world's 6,000-plus languages will be gone by the end of the century. Some of MetaFilter's readers don't seem too perturbed by this. I weighed in with an alternative view, which I don't want to leave buried in the MetaFilter archives, so will repost here:

Grumblebee is right, language change is an evolutionary process, but I can't agree that this is just one of those 'sad but true, let's move on' types of events—or, even worse, that it's a Good Thing (as Nyarlathotep suggests). What we're seeing is the cultural equivalent of the current wave of biological mass extinction, and it's every bit as tragic.

Language isn't just an 'add-on' to culture: language is an integral part of culture; the foundation of a culture. Take away the words for describing something, and you forget how that thing works, what it means, and just why it's so important anyway. When the Inuit forget all their words for snow, they will look at snow the way Westerners do, just as cold wet white stuff, and they'll forget how to live in it, and how to adapt to its every subtle variation. Similar things have already happened in all sorts of places where native languages have died out.

You may not be worried about that right now, but it's going to come back and bite us. Those thousands of tiny languages embody all sorts of knowledge about the places they developed in, and when the languages disappear so will that knowledge. Instead of choosing to live artificial Western-style lives, everyone will be forced to, because we won't know how to live any other way.

Do you consider it a tragedy that thousands of medicinal plants in the Amazon are becoming extinct before the wider world discovers their potential uses? Well, it's just as tragic that the cultures that have used them, and the words they use to describe them, are becoming extinct, because they are our guides towards such things. Without them, we're just know-nothings stumbling around in a big green jungle. We won't have the faintest idea what we're looking at. We will inhabit a world of ruins, surrounded by monuments and artefacts made by people we have no understanding of whatsoever. Yes, they still teach Latin in (a few) high schools, but ask the average tourist to read the inscription on a Roman ruin and see how far you get.

You may not care about all this if you assume that your language and culture will be one of the few survivors. But what if it isn't? What would that say about your life and the world you live in and love? Who would remember you?

Or, to express it differently: what if the language of the Web (not HTML, but the language we humans use to talk about the Web) disappeared tomorrow? Would you mourn it? Of course you would, because without it half the sites on the Web would be incomprehensible. Well, that's what half the population of the world is facing right now.

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Thursday, June 1, 2000

Mind you, a Google search for 'hippo netherlands cricket' did turn up this little beauty.

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There's nothing sadder than finding an alluring one-line description on a links page only to get a 404:

Hippopotamus page (Netherlands) A cricket club with a hippo mascot.

Call me crazy, but Dutch cricketing hippos is something I've gotta see.

Found via Hippo World, the Place for All Things Hippo. It's hippopotamosupercalifrajalistic! (Workplace warning: streaming hippo-related music in background.)

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I finally tried this test that all the American bloggers have been trying, seeing that I'm about to look for work in SF. It ranked my best US locations as: Boston (100th percentile), San Francisco (98), Long Island NY (93), Washington DC (91), then NY, Chicago, LA.

Interesting. I've been to a fair few US cities (including all of those except Long Island), and rank my favourites as SF, Boston, Seattle, and Other. (That's the little-known city of Other, Missouri. Ha.) The test ranked Seattle 16th for me. It knows something that I don't! How are Pittsburgh and Newark better than Seattle? And where is Bergen-Passaic, anyway? (New Jersey, apparently.) It's scary seeing there are US cities of over a million that I haven't even heard of.

Mind you, there are five Australian cities of over a million people, and I'll bet most Americans couldn't name all of them.

(Hint: Canberra isn't one of them. Canberra isn't a city. Sure, it has 350,000 people, and a lot of people think it's a city, but it isn't. It's a giant suburb without an urb.)

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A fine new essay on the Fiji crisis by Brij Lal.

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A comprehensive backpacking guide (found via Travelblog).

As part of travel preparations, I ordered a new passport yesterday. The old one still had a year to run, but since I'd already had nine years out of it I figured it wasn't a great loss. I was thinking of scanning some of the more exotic entry stamps from it and posting them here, but whaddayaknow—I haven't. (My parents have come to visit for a week, that's why.)


  • new passport: ordered
  • visa for Madagascar: when the new passport arrives
  • tickets: check
  • vaccinations: check
  • accommodation in Jo'burg: check
  • accommodation in Tana: still to be arranged
  • accommodation after Tana: worry about it when we're there
  • learn Malagasy: uh... yo?
  • brush up on French: erm... oui?
  • trial dose of Mefloquine: June 20th. Eeek.
  • buy French francs travellers' cheques: soon
  • pack up everything we own: this month
  • change addresses, cancel phone and power, vacate house: this month
  • write to friends: still haven't done that
  • finish job: this month
  • get new job and H1-B visa in America: hopefully
  • waste time updating weblog: continuously

It's a fool-proof plan, I tell you.

And yes, the Malagasy word for 'yes' really is 'yo'. (Yo! Get on down to the hip and happenin' Great Red Island, where we got lemurz in the hood and malaria for tha muthaz!)

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Feed posted a thoughtful essay a few weeks back about the trend in mainstream cinema of mining the science-fiction theme of multiple identities. Worth a read, and somewhat related to the topic of literary works that change (see below), which could be a better way of handling such themes than a traditional novel or a film.

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Wednesday, May 31, 2000

Another comment on self-publishing fiction on the web (with actual facts and figures!). Found via him finding me via Zeldman. (This comment brought to you by Shameless Reciprocal-Linking Enterprises.)

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I like Owen Briggs's ideas about using new technologies to create new ways of telling stories. A book that changes its stories subtly as time passes in the real world would be a fascinating read. Something like Neal Stephenson's A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, without the didactic overtones.

The hard part, of course, would be writing it. It takes long enough to write one version of a novel—how much longer to write dozens, all carefully extrapolating from the base version? And unless the story was science fiction or fantasy, the author would have to do that updating in real-time, if his or her fictional world was to remain a believable reflection of the real world. It would be a lifetime's work.

Perhaps such a task could only properly be handled by a team of writers; it could become an ongoing group effort, like a long-running television series.

I'm put in mind, once again, of David Gelernter's wonderful analogy between building the elements of cyberspace in the 21st century and building cathedrals in the middle ages. These things—the Internet, the Web, operating systems, software—are much bigger than any one person. Individuals can still make their own unique contributions, but the things that attract the most attention will usually be collaborative efforts.

I guess it was ever thus, but in the creative arts we've liked to pretend that an individual can do it all on their own and still end up bigger than Jesus. After all, Vincent Van Gogh painted alone, Leo Tolstoy wrote alone, and Bob Dylan wrote and played his early music alone. The romantic image of the artist starving in a garret still holds its sway.

But Van Gogh would have remained an unknown without the efforts of others—first his brother, then galleries and the wider art world. Tolstoy would be unknown without publishers, reviewers, librarians. Similarly Dylan and the music industry.

More to the point, many of the most prominent artistic works of today would be unthinkable without a large collaborative effort. Whose movie is 'Being John Malkovich'? The director's, the scriptwriter's, or the actors'? (The producers'? The studio's?)

Pace my earlier comments about self-publishing, the Web is no different. Individuals can get their work up there, but it takes others to get the word out there. That's why we all race off to portals to submit our sites. That's why we indulge in shameless reciprocal-linking.

But again, the sites that attract the most attention are almost always collaborative efforts. It's surely no coincidence that one of the most popular weblogs is MetaFilter.

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A fascinating conversation has been taking place over the past few weeks at Dreamless, a site for web designers, about how best to steer the average surfer to good independent sites. The whole thread is worth reading (starting here and continuing here) if you're a web designer, developer, or 'independent content producer'.

One of the first tangible outcomes of the discussion is a new site, Astounding Website Magazine, which will feature reviews of good independent sites. It's only a placeholder page at the moment, but should be worth watching. The idea is not simply to provide links and a paragraph saying 'it's cool', but longer, more considered pieces, akin to lengthier movie or book reviews.

It's a good idea, one that various people have tried on their own sites, but which probably will work best as part of a collaborative effort, with some sort of peer review involved. My own attempt to do this at Speedysnail didn't get far out of the starting gates, because of the usual time constraints—it takes effort to write a good review, and I had other things I wanted to write—and because I realized that a few lonely site reviews sitting here won't achieve much. But a larger effort should, with any luck, attract more attention for each review than dozens of individual efforts could.

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Tuesday, May 30, 2000

'A 1999 study showed that, out of 25,000 common English words, more than 90 percent had already been registered as a dot-com' (found via Twernt). Hmmm... damn! still seems to be available... is a front for AltaVista, whee... is—oh, ha ha, very funny.

So, it is, then. Now I've just got to think of something to sell there. Bunks for campervans?

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Monday, May 29, 2000

Suva is now under military rule. Thanks to a 48-hour curfew, Fijilive is no longer updating. Australians and Americans have been advised to leave the country, or at least Suva. Coup figure-head George Speight has threatened to murder President Mara's daughter if there is any attempt by the military (the non-Speight faction, one assumes) to free the hostages.

It is painful to watch all this. In 1993 I interviewed about thirty political figures in Fiji, many of whose names you will have seen in the various news reports of this whole affair. Some of them are currently inside the parliamentary compound with Speight, as either his sidekicks or his hostages.

I vividly remember one of Speight's current cronies telling me that Rabuka had got it all wrong with his 1987 coup. He should have made a clean break, this person said, and chucked all the Indians out of Fiji. Not because of any threat to the chiefs or the land, mind you, but because they held too many places in business and the civil service—places that ambitious urban Fijians were keen to occupy.

It's a grim day when a once-democratic country looks set to follow the example of one of the worst dictators of the twentieth century.

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Phew. Just heard that the iMac is okay again. Sounds like the old 'leave it for twenty minutes and switch it back on again' trick worked.

Now that I think of it, I had an iMac-near-death experience a month or so ago, which fixed itself the same way. So what is this? Some hidden feature of Mac OS 9?

Every now and then, your iMac will seemingly die, accompanied by kchoong noises and strange screen colours. Don't worry, it will be fine the next time you turn it on: we're just keeping you on your toes here at Apple. It's all part of Thinking Different.

So what happens when Mac OS X arrives? Whenever you have a zip drive error and a fatal crash, will OS X boot up a Mac OS 9 shell that looks all pink and goes 'kchoong! kchoong!' while you keep typing happily away in Eudora? And if it's a hardware problem, is only the Mac OS 9 window affected? ('Why is that quarter of your screen all melty-looking?' 'Oh, that's where I had AppleKchoong running under OS 9.')

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Heroes, No. 1

Twenty-one was one of the happiest years of my life. I was finishing off my degree, and by lucky coincidence all my lectures and tutes were jammed into Tuesdays and Thursdays, leaving five days of the week where I didn't absolutely have to go into uni. Because of that, I was able to read more in that year than ever before or since. There's nothing like sitting down next to a heater in the middle of a Tasmanian winter, starting a book at 10 am or so, and finishing it at 5 or 6 pm.

That was the year I discovered one of my heroes, George Orwell. His clear and incisive writing style was an inspiration to me, and is the standard by which I've measured my own writing ever since. Whenever I see a 'web style guide' telling people to 'write shorter' for the Web, I think that what they should be doing is pointing people to 'Politics and the English Language'. It's not about whether you write 10,000 words or 1,000: it's about making every word count.

Having lived through the 1984 hype of 1984, I avoided his most famous novel at first. Instead, I read his non-fiction: Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier, Homage to Barcelona—all of them alive with the grit and texture of life in the 1930s. From there, I ploughed through most of the Collected Essays. Orwell made the concerns and problems of the '30s seem as real to me as if they were happening that day. To a child of the latter half of the Cold War, his accounts of the years leading up to WWII were much more readable and immediate than the endless war-reminiscences of late-twentieth-century popular culture.

I'm glad I read his non-fiction first, because it spelled out so unequivocally where his sympathies lay. When I finally read Animal Farm I was amazed that anyone could misread it as a right-wing piece. It's surely one of the enduring injustices of the 1950s that a man who fought against Franco was left with a lasting popular reputation as an anti-communist.

I never did get around to reading 1984 or his other novels (though I saw the film of the eponymous year). I meant to save them for last; but then my glorious reading year gave way to Honours, and I discovered another literary hero.

Orwell died on 21 January 1950. One of the worst aspects of the extension of copyright in the UK and US from life plus 50 to life plus 70 years is that it will be 2020 before his works can be made available through Project Gutenberg.

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Shit. Jane just called from home and said that our iMac just died. It crashed, and on rebooting went 'kchoong!' and now the screen is all pink and the mouse doesn't work. This is not what we need right now.

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Sunday, May 28, 2000

Some say that too much inter-blog-linky-love ruins weblogs. I agree: you can have too much of a good thing. That's why I always keep links to other blogs out of mine. That's right: you won't find me doing any gratuitous linking around here. No sirree.

(Okay, so they aren't all blogs, strictly speaking—or even loosely speaking. So sue me.)

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Ohmygod. It's frickin'-even-more-freezin':

Sunday in Canberra was very cold and cloudy with showers, falling as snow in the afternoon. Winds were fresh to strong west to northwesterly. The maximum temperature at the Airport was only 4 degrees which is the lowest May maximum on record. The previous lowest May maximum was 6 degrees in 1949.

Now I know that some of you hardy North Americans will just laugh and say '4 degrees Celcius—that's nothing. It was -20 here last winter'. Yeah, and you stayed inside your North-American house with double-glazing and industrial-strength walls and burned off half of the Alberta oil-fields to keep things nice and cosy. But we're here in this crappy Canberra rental property with one layer of brick between us and 4 degrees. Man!

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Once or twice a year I write a vaguely-amusing form-letter to all my far-flung friends to let them know what I've been up to. I know, I know, form-letters are bad, and it's so much better to write a nice personal note by hand. But you try writing the same thing out long-hand two-dozen times. (Can't do it, can you. You've forgotten how to write in long-hand. It's all this computer's fault.)

While contemplating what to write in my next one ('Hi! I've chucked it all in and am heading off to the jungle to eat grass. Seeya!'), I've been looking through my past efforts. One year, just for a change, I actually drew (or rather, scrawled in my worst draft-quality style) a cartoon-letter folded up into an A5 leaflet. A couple of panels seemed particularly relevant when I saw them today:

Hilarious two-panel cartoon with a particularly amusing chameleon.

(Now you know why I don't write my letters out long-hand.)

The letter was dated 8 April 1996. Okay, so we got a little side-tracked along the way. But we're going now, I swear! We bought the permethrine-impregnated mosquito net on Friday and everything.

Maybe I should have called this blog 'Four Years to Madagascar'.

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