Mysteries of the Dragon Gate

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Looming incongruously over the E4 just south of Gävle is an impressive development bearing the name Dragon Gate. We’ve driven past it once or twice a year since moving to Sweden, on our way north from Stockholm during the summer. Even from road level it looks odd, a massive grey non-sequitur, cheap concrete Chinese architecture hulking up out of the forested sides of the motorway. What the hell *is* it??

Finally, this year, we got to stop there and have a nose around. (A very fringe benefit of a driving with a car seat-averse infant.) The place is a spectacular misfire of an investment. Work started in 2004 on what might some day have been a grand Sino-Swedish cultural hub, with a hotel, restaurants, a museum, and – if Wikipedia (Swedish) is to be believed – a Shaolin temple and kung fu school.

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Instead it became a shotgun wedding of reckless Chinese development and painstaking Swedish beauracracy. Fruitful, not so much. The first phase of building was completed in 2008, some of which was accomplished without planning permission. Now, the hotel and restaurant building stand unpainted and grandly unloved in the middle of acres of paved emptiness.

Signs hand-painted on bedsheets hang askew. The restaurant runs on a skeleton staff (full disclosure: we didn’t eat there, terrible missed opportunity). The gift shop, stacked high with kitsch and tchotchkes, is unstaffed and even lacking a cash register (I guess you pay in the restaurant). Outside, the lofty statue of the bodhisattva Guanyin shows compassion by averting her gaze from the epic folly behind her.

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In recent years, there were two attempts at a grand opening for the hotel, both dogged by rumours of the projects abandonment. But the owner – a Chinese businessman who made his fortune in the mosquito repellant business – has so far been content to keep the venture afloat. At the height of summer, such as when we visited, the Dragon Gate can be seen to entertain as many as tens of people, wandering incredulously from one enormously misguided construction to the next. All of them wondering what on earth happened here. Pondering where all those copies of the terracotta warriors might be hidden. And hoping that the plan to install a live panda never comes to pass.

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Warning: Parental Language

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As the parent of a girl and a boy, both under five, and both Swedish-English, I’ve discovered at least one area where Swedish, despite its much tinier vocabulary, has the edge over English.

Swedish boys possess a snopp; girls, a snippa. That’s standard, pre-school appropriate terminology. English boys have a ‘willy’, though it sounds slightly silly. Or a ‘pee-pee’, though that strikes me as both twee and kinda American.

But for infant English girls? No, the options are all terrible: Mumsnet, surely the holy gospel and iron fisted authority on such matters, proves it. There are arcane, family-specific codewords. There’s the stuffy ‘fanny’, archaic-sounding and confusing to Americans to boot (I promise, I’ll leave American English out if it now).

Worst of all there are the prurient British circumlocutions, the ‘front bottoms’ and ‘lady bits’. FFS. Dreadful. Those seem to be common currency purely because there is nothing else on offer, but I can’t help but think that it’s a strange to set your child out unable to directly name their own anatomies, only approaching warily, through the sanitizing gauze of euphemism.

Sweden didn’t always have snippa to help out us poor struggling parents of girls. No, snopp for boys has been around since… oh, ages! (Note To Self: more research here plz.) Snippa was a relatively recent development, only popularised as recently as 2000, thanks to Anna Kosztovics, a social worker in Malmö. But it’s already established itself as firmly as its male counterpart. A word, fit for purpose, meeting a need that was introduced without much fuss and quickly established itself as the de facto term.

Sensible, practical, and equitable. About as Swedish as you can get.

Slow Learning

Dilatory Autodidact TY SwedishLast week I finished a protracted slog through the pages and exercises of Teach Yourself: Swedish.

“That took a while,” I thought, as I marked the textbook completed on Goodreads. (Yeah okay, logging textbooks on Goodreads, you got me. TBH if they were printed with an ISBN I’d probably have a Goodreads shelf of takeaway menus.)

In fact it took more than “a while”. The start date was March 2012. Back when we lived in Amsterdam. 3.5 apartment moves and five years ago.

FIVE FRIGGING YEARS. (Nothing against the book, it’s fine. Serviceable. Okay.)

I’ve always been a sucker for the stoic will-to-mastery of autodidacticism. Or rather for the *idea* of it.

Self-motivated, me-powered learning! It’s a daydream, one of those poisonous momentum-sapping ones where the fantasy gives a watered-down version of the satisfaction you’d get from the actual achievement, hobbling any real progress. Because that’s the only languge exercise book I think I’ve ever finished.

And language apps are handy, since they’re always pinging at you from your handset. Addictive when they get the gamification right. IMO yer Memrises and Duolingos are lacking, pedagogically speaking: TBH I’ve found them best for building vocabulary,  but the grammar doesn’t stick.

When it comes to educating humans, nothing beats another human.

Deploying that slowly-absorbed book-learning, that app-jacked rote learning, in conversations with Real People. Or signing up for lessons, group or one-on-one, where it’s harder to skim over exercises, or worse, let them slide. For, say, five years.

In truth, it’s a mix of inputs that is best. Practice in the wild is always critical, courses are great. TV, radio, films, books and podcasts too, though they’re best absorbed with some attention, even if intermittent.

The apps and lonely exercise books of the self-learner have their place too, whether it’s by providing new vocabulary and grammar to test out, or explaining the why behind language you might already be using.

But ivory tower learning in solitude just makes the whole process needlessly hard. It’s like training for MMA with shadow boxing only – how much training would you feel was enough before you ever stepped into a cage?

 

Scrubbing the Likes

Do you delete your old social media posts?

These things were meant to be ephemeral, right? Blips of consciousness that would be gone in an instant.

But the value of Facebook, Twitter et al – their market value – is of course based on retaining all that instantaneous, inconsequential information. Accreting an ever more detailed data picture of you: your life, loves, needs and desires. Your political leanings

Which is why FB and Twitter make it ball-achingly hard to delete those old posts. The “post” button is large and easily accessible, the delete option hidden in sub-menus and shrouded in a mass of confirmation pop-ups.

And deleted posts have a habit of lingering, depending on how you search for them. My Twitter profile currently shows two pages of tweets, but the counter tells me I still have 1,200 of the bastards, lingering out there like the half-baked nonsense that they were. Are.

My old posts are embarrassing, mildly, but offensive to me alone. They ARE inconsequential. But I still believe that if they’re ephemeral, they should eventually disappear, like a fart in a gentle breeze. Deleting them though, takes ten times as long as making them in the first place.

It feels vaguely psychotic, going through and unliking friends’ updates, deleting tags on old party pictures. It’s obsessive, a collosal waste of time, and feels like the world’s most passive aggressive gesture – if, of course, your friends were even to notice. I *hope* none of my connections regularly audits the likes on old posts to see who has retracted their previous tiny endorsements and affirmations.

And it’s one thing to delete a like of a funny status update. Birthday wishes, well, will they really be missed? Congratulations on a birth, that’s a little harder. And messages of support after bereavement? That one I have trouble with.

The fast track of course is to delete your account. But while I’m happy to delete an entire blog (and they do all get deleted, sooner or later), abandoning an FB or Twitter account would mean losing all those connections – connections which would be a huge pain to remake when setting up a new account.

I don’t know what the answer is here. Am trying to wean myself off that g–d– Like button. (Woo.) Otherwise I’m stuck in a timesuck loop of manually deleting old posts, which I hate, but not quite as much as leaving all that data up there for FB in particular to monetise.

Seriously, can’t we just start paying for this shit? $0.99c a month? Hell, I’d pay the full dollar if it came with a bulk delete button.

Three Swimming Elk: Telling Lessons in Swedish

I’ve been slogging my way through a Swedish course on Duolingo. I don’t know whether the French course, say, uses the same examples. But I suspect not.

The nature questions are heavy on Swedish flora and fauna – pines and spruce, wolves and elk. The supernatural ones are lousy with trolls and gnomes.

  • Vi såg tre simmande älgar (“we saw three swimming elk”).
  • Ett fullt troll tittade in genom fönstret (“An ugly troll looked in through the window”)

There are those characteristically inexplicable language course headscratchers. I’m fairly confident I’ll never need to tell a Swede that “a turtle came swimming” (En skölpadda kom simmande). But on the whole you’re less likely to stumble across surrealistic whimsy than you are the kind of thing you expect from Henning Mankel. Antalet mord i staden har ökat: “the number of murders in the city has increased”, indeed.

The most arresting examples, though, sit squarely and morosely in Bergman territory:

  • Hennes moster är döende (“Her aunt is dying”)
  • Din fru kommer att ha tagit alla dina drömmar från dig (“Your wife is going to have taken all your dreams from you”)
  • Gav du henne en rakhyvel? (“Did you give her a razor?”)

And the unbeatable:

  • Det är jag som är Döden (“It is I who is Death”)

For the sake of my emotional equilibrium, I’m not sure I can carry on with this course for much longer…

Serenity When? Serenity Now?

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I started writing this post ten days before the US election. The premise was that it’s massively unproductive to worry about things we have no control over: football results, Brexit, that US election I mentioned.

… worry is a dividend paid to disaster before it is due…

– Ian Fleming, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”

The aim was to quit the “read the entire internet” impulse that fretting encourages. Stop skim reading every article. Stop following inflammatory tweets back to the shithive of alt-right white supremacist scumbaggery they dribbled out of.

Reading every viewpoint and counter-viewpoint on a subject doesn’t leave you better prepared to absorb the consequences of an outcome you don’t have any control over. That view/counterview thing? Horribly overdone. Depressing to see news outlets follow up with the counter-opinions, because often it seems so forced. (“OK, who wants to write an opinion piece saying Bowie was shit? Come on, someone has to write this thing…”)

In praise of disengagement? Sort of. This is tacking pretty close to the serenity prayer.

Anyways, history overtook my sluggish blogging (that’s how fast I blog, at a sub-historical pace), and the US somehow elected a candidate who makes more false statements than true ones. As I lazily pondered how Facebook and Twitter had played a disastrous role in the dissemination of bullshit during Brexit and the US election, the media duly decided to get riled about fake news.

What of serene disengagement in 2016, then? Disengagement from the internet, I hasten to add, not from “real life”. The last thing we need now is disengagement from reality. Ever think: if we’d all stayed off Twitter and Facebook in 2016, and instead had talked to our less politically-aligned relatives, we might not be now suffering the spittle-flecked, oddly angry, victory shitposting of the Brexiteers and Trumpkopfs? Even without social media we would still have been appalled by the atrocities in Syria, still mourned Bowie and Prince.

I stand by the point that over-reading is unproductive. It’s a one-way street, a dead-end download that will likely go unanalysed and unsynthesised, which will never be shared except in an angry diatribe to a colleague with better things to do.

This isn’t a solution for the awfulnesses we’ve subjected ourselves this year. It’s a modest contribution to your own mental health not to pore over things, obsessively, until you lose your grip on what they actually mean. Don’t read the comments. Don’t feed the trolls. Twitter sparingly. Facebook for event invites and birthdays only.

As for King Troll, all I can do is trust in the survival instinct of the US people, and have popcorn on hand in case of impeachment. Regarding the disengagement policy, I’m convinced that the most constructive thing people could do is unfollow Trump on Twitter. Can you imagine how much more effectively he could be scrutinised if we weren’t wasting time evaluating his tweets by the normal standards of political/civil discourse, instead of dismissing them out of hand as the deliberate misinformation they are? Imagine how that fragile ego would take a plummeting follower count…

 

PS The one topic I did manage to disengage from in the latter half of the year was football. I’ve avoided the brief, addiction-forming highs of the wins and the days-long toxic fug of defeats. It’s easier, living outside the UK, but I’ve seen a few results by accident, or knee jerk click-impulse. On the whole I honestly feel that if anything it’s helped my mood. (I reserve the right to revise this opinion if Arsenal win the League.)

 

Google Translate and Plato

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So you’ve seen this news [New Scientist/Wired], right? That the Google Translate AI has supposedly invented a new internal language to help it translate language pairs it hasn’t learnt. Having been taught English <> Japanese and English <> Korean, it can then do the job for Japanese <> Korean.

The headlines position this as the AI inventing its own internal language, or interlingua, to handle those conversions. Every article notes the difficulty in anyone knowing exactly what is happening in there, the deep learning that’s going on inside the AI. (Engadget had the slightly more nuanced report on this, further from the “invented a language” headline.)

An invented language? That’s one interpretation. But if a language consists of signs, symbols that exist in the world, is that the best description for the process?

So Google Translate learns that English table means both Spanish mesa and Swedish bord. Does it then need to tell itself:

IF table = 1010101011101 = bord
AND table = 1010101011101 = mesa
THEN bord = 1010101011101 = mesa

?

That’s not how we meat-sacks use language. It skips over another interpretation, lacking from the reporting I’ve seen so far, which is either totally thrilling or utterly chilling, depending on whether or not you’re looking forward to the ascendancy of Skynet.

I (and I’m willing to assume you too) have an idea of a table, based on years of experience:

  • It’s a flat surface atop a number of legs (often 4);
  • It’s usually (not always) around thigh height;
  • Most are made of wood, or metal, or plastic;

All these things contribute to a mental representation of [table]: a confluence of images, physical experiences, language labels, and a heap of Venn diagrams of different properties that coalesce around the label of table. A lot of overlap with something like [chair]; less – but some – overlap with [dog]. A mess of connections and firings in the neural pathways, impossible to pin down, even while it’s possible to see where they cluster.

The Platonic form of a table, if you like. That is what’s triggered when I hear the English or Spanish or Whateverish word for [table]. English is my mother tongue, but if I were to translate a Stockholm restaurant reservation for a Spanish speaker, the mental process wouldn’t be “(Swedish) bord = (English) table = (Spanish) mesa”. It would be “bord <> [idea or Platonic form of the table] <> mesa”.

Look at that map up top again. That string of Japanese word/concepts on side, the English string on the other, the Korean somewhere in the middle but tending closer to the Japanese. The whole forming a neat oval, a cluster of meaning. OK, so the AI only has language input, there are no sights/feelings/memories of [stratosphere] associated, not yet.

But what if that oval, that pattern of pinpricks of understanding, represents the rough formation of a Platonic form; an AI idea?