On The Fine Art of Compromise

This year I have celebrated (and blogged about) both Pi Day and Tau Day.

If you read slightly between the lines of my Tau Day post, you may have correctly got the impression that, in principle, I’m in favour of the idea of  τ, which is the  same as 2π (i.e. the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its radius), as the more fundamental constant (mainly because it gets rid of the factor 2 in quite a few formulas and therefore renders them a little bit more concise and beautiful) but, because I tend to be (or at least think of myself as) quite pragmatic (or maybe it’s because I’m a pessimist), I don’t see any great likelihood of τ replacing π in general usage anytime soon (and, looking on the bright side, at least π gives us the opportunity to make jokes about pumpkins).

With all that in mind, it’s perhaps not surprising that I particularly enjoyed today’s installment of the xkcd comic.

Of course, pau isn’t a Greek letter.  According to my favourite fount-of-much-knowledge, however, it is an alternative name for bao (aka baozi), a type of Chinese steamed bun which, co-incidentally cropped up in an episode of Firefly (just to link this into yet another recent post on my blog).  Therefore, if we were to adopt the compromise solution of pau instead of pi or tau, we could celebrate by eating bao (and perhaps watching Firefly, or at least the episode “Our Mrs Reynolds”).  It’s an unfortunate linguistic coincidence that the word bao sounds very much like the Welsh word baw, meaning mud and often used as a euphemism for certain other similarly coloured but somewhat less pleasant substances, as in the phrase baw ci (“ci” being Welsh for “dog”).

There is apparently also an Indian bread, from Goa, called pau, and a Hawaiian feather skirt called a pāʻū.   These could also make an appearance in a celebration of Pau Day.

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Old and new friends

I recently came across a cool quote along the lines of:

A new book is like a new friend.  An old book is like an old friend.

I’ve no idea who said it, and I’m not even sure where I found it (though I think it was in a book I was looking at), but I think it’s worth thinking about.  In honour of my former life as a mathematician, I’ll leave that as an excercise for the reader. 🙂

It’s not actually books that I particularly want to talk about today, although my main point applies just as much to narratives of all forms as to the specific TV series that I’m relating it to.

That TV series, which I happen to think is just about the best one ever (possibly even better than Doctor Who, although I’d say they are sufficiently different to defy a straight comparison, and both mighty fine), is Firefly.  It’s one of the works of Joss Whedon, probably best known as the guy who brought us Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and can be roughly summed up as a Western in Space (or a cross between the Western and Sci-Fi genres), although that label doesn’t really do it full justice.  It focuses on the lives of a group of 9 people who fly around between planets and moons (many of them recently terraformed and resembling frontier towns of the American West in the 19th century, with a curious admixture of more modern technology) in a Firefly-class spaceship called Serenity. If you want to know more about Firefly, you can check it out on Wikipedia (in the article linked a couple of sentences back, amongst others) although I’d recommend actually watching it (and the follow-up movie, Serenity – though I’d definitely try to see the series first) if you get a chance.

One thing I particularly like about the Firefly universe (or ‘verse, as they usually refer to it in-universe) is the blending of eastern and western cultures, one manifestation of which is the way that phrases of Chinese liberally pepper the mostly English speech of the characters that we meet (and, although neither language is named within the show, it is fairly clear that both are meant to represent themselves – presumably as they would be spoken in several centuries’ time by the descendents of those from earth-that-was who have settled in the far reaches of the galaxy (or possibly even an entirely different galaxy – the location and timeframe are not specified).  Since I’ve been having a go at learning a bit of Chinese this month, it gave me  a perfect excuse to dig out my Firefly DVDs and watch them again.

This is at least my third, and probably my fourth or fifth, watch-through of Firefly, and the first for at least a couple of years.  As with revisiting an old, familiar and well-loved book (to link tenuously with where I started) it does indeed feel very much like getting back in touch with an old friend.  And that has led to my musing, not for the first and almost certainly not for the last time, on the difference between encountering a story for the first time and re-encountering it on subsequent occasions.

Firefly is quite a good example of this difference because it has quite a few twists and surprises that jump out and catch you on the first viewing in a way that they never can again (assuming you’re not blessed with a sufficiently bad memory to entirely forget what happens by the next time you see it).  I don’t want to say too much for fear of spoilers but, for example, in the pilot episode (called “Serenity” and not to be confused with the later movie) the crew pick up several passengers; it soon becomes evident that one of them is a bad egg but there is plenty of misdirection thrown in so that, until the last possible moment, you don’t know which one it is. There’s also a section in the same episode in which one of the crew members is seriously wounded and it’s not clear whether or not they are going to pull through.  When you watch the episode for the second time, or even if you come to it for the first time after having seen later episodes (as actually was the case for those who watched the original TV broadcast since, for various reasons, the pilot wasn’t actually aired until near the end of the series), you know (or at least have a good idea of) the answers to those questions, since you know who’s going to be flying on Serenity for the rest of the series.

(Incidentally, there was only one series made because the network executives pulled the plug on it after that; given how popular it later became I suspect that a few of them must have come to regret that decision.)

While the genuine surprise of the first encounter can never be repeated (without some form of amnesia), things are not all bad from there on out as (certainly in the case of something as good as Firefly – both in terms of story and production values) there’s a lot of goodness to be had on repeated viewings.  For one  thing, you get to notice cunning foreshadowing of certain events and to appreciate details that previously eluded you.  One small example is in a scene that takes place in an early episode (“Safe”) in which a couple of the characters find themselves at a dance taking place in a field on one of the planets they visit.  There is a small band playing the music for the dance and it was only on my latest viewing I noticed that one of the instruments in the band was a balalaika!

Whereas some books, films, TV series or whatever are things that I start out only marginally impressed (or, in some cases, completely unimpressed) by and only gradually come to appreciate deeply, and others are ones which I enjoy encountering once but wouldn’t want to revisit (or, perhaps, I do revisit them and find the reality failing to live up to my memories), Firefly is a series which I fell in love with pretty much at first sight (and certainly by the time I was halfway through the series for the first time) and which I continue to enjoy and anticipate enjoying for a long time to come.

A little Chinese with me

This month I will mostly be learning Irish and Chinese.

That is, the relatively small proportion of my time which is spent on languages other than Welsh and English (both of which I use on a regular basis) will be mainly divided between these two languages.  I’ve looked at both languages several times in the past, and continued to find quite fascinating, but never got very far with either of them.

At the start of October, I decided to set myself a challenge of doing a bit of Irish every day for a month, largely with a view to getting a handle on singing in the language.  While I wasn’t quite as systematic in my approach as I set out to be, I did manage to give myself a bit of exposure to Irish every day throughout the month, whether it was working through lessons in one or more of the Irish textbooks I’ve acquired over the years, watching Irish language TV programmes online (on the TG4 website) or listening to lots of songs in Irish and attempting to sing a few of them.

In fact, the month has gone so well that I’ve decided to try to keep my Irish going for a bit longer on a more-or-less daily basis.  Rather than go for intensive study, I’m just trying to do a little bit at a time and let it gradually seep into my brain.  It’s a bit different from how I’ve tried to study languages in the past but may turn out to be an effective method.  Even if I never become fluent in speaking Irish, I’ve already managed to get a lot more enjoyment out of Irish songs than I had without understanding the language at all, so it certainly hasn’t been a wasted effort.

One thing I learned fairly recently is that the way (or at least, a way) to say “I speak [insert name of language]” in Irish is Tá [language] agam, which literally means “There is [language] with me”.  For example, I could truthfully say Tá Breatnais agus Béarla agam (I speak Welsh and English) and Tá beagán Gaeilge agam (I speak a little Irish).  Alternatively, I could say Tá mé ag foghlaim Gaeilge (I am learning Irish).  Sadly, as yet, I can’t say very much else, but it’s getting there slowly.

Originally my plan, assuming the successful completion of my one-month Irish challenge, was to put that language on a back burner for a while and choose another language to concentrate on instead for November, then another one for December, etc.  As mentioned, I decided to keep going with Irish until I’ve got a slightly firmer grip on it but, never one to be content with doing just one thing for too long, I’ve decided to simultaneously make a start on the language I had selected for this month’s study, namely Chinese (specifically, Mandarin).

This has a reputation for being a fearsomely difficult language to learn, although I think the main difficulties are to be found in the tonal nature of the language and the writing system.  Grammatically, it seems to be relatively straightforward, although quite (excitingly) different from any other language I’ve studied.

The tone system is often taken to mean that the same word means different things depending on how you say it.  For example, quite famously, the word ma can mean either mother or horse (or a couple of other things), distinguished only by the tone (ma with a high level tone is “mother”; I can’t remember off-hand which tone is used for “horse”).  Actually, it’s better to think of them as completely separate words and this is how they would, apparently, be viewed by native Chinese speakers.  The tone of each word has to be learnt as part of the word itself, but really that should be no more problematic than learning the gender or inflection of words in other languages.  The fact that I have a fairly musical ear should help quite a bit too.

The Chinese writing system is, unquestionably, complex but it is also quite fascinating.  Fortunately there is a standardised romanisation system (pīnyīn) that means you don’t necessarily have to master the written language in order to get a good handle on spoken Chinese.  I am aiming to have a go at learning to read and write the characters as well as to understand and use the spoken language.

More so than most languages, I suspect Chinese is one that benefits hugely from having a teacher rather than trying to learn solely from books and other self-study materials.  Fortunately my friend Simon, who runs the Omniglot website as well as the Bangor Language Learners’ Conversation Group (formerly known as Bangor Polyglots), is a fluent Chinese speaker (having done it, along with Japanese, for his degree) and, since we are usually meeting at least twice a week at the moment, he will be able to give me a hand with the language.  He’s also lent me a couple of textbooks that I will be using in addition to my own resources for Chinese study this month.

I’m certainly not expecting to be fluent in Chinese or Irish by the start of December but I hope to have a better grasp of both languages by then than I do now (which shouldn’t be too hard).  I’ll then have to decide whether to stick to these two languages or move onto something else, either revisiting another language that I’ve looked at in the past or trying something completely new and different.  Perhaps I’ll see if I can get going a system whereby I have two main languages on the go each month, replacing one of them every month (i.e. I’d do Chinese and something else, perhaps Italian, in December then, say, Italian and Swahili in January and perhaps Swahili and a bit more Irish in February, etc.)?