Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Social networks and languages

Not so long ago, social networks consisted of groups of people that you knew at school, from work or school, that lived in the neighbourhood, etc. You would get to know their likes and dislikes, who their family and friends are, and you might get a chance to see some photos over the course of many months or even years. Now, electronic social networks give instant access to this type of information. Of course, it is filtered - most people choose what they put on the Internet quite carefully. Still, I think it does allow you to get a good first impression. 

I am also quite happy with the possibility of finding long-lost friends (although so far I haven't found any), family abroad (I did hook up with a handful of relatives on the other side of the globe), and getting to know the friends of friends.

But networks are strange things. Where I live, there are four main networks, and they only touch each other marginally. The four are: the native Luxemburgers, people who work in foreign banks, people who work for the institutions, and the Portuguese immigrants who came in the sixties and seventies.  I thought, when I joined Facebook, that I would some magically tap into a vast reservoir of people and cross the boundaries of existing networks. In fact, the opposite has occurred. My collection of Facebook friends (as oppposed to family) is not only restricted to people I know professionally, it is restricted to a very small subset of people I know from or through work. And the subset consists primarily of Hungarians, Maltese and Greek friends. 

When I came to Luxembourg, I remember feeling very much at home with all the other people that were in greater or lesser degree rootless. It was a relief after many years of feeling out of place. But now, thanks to Facebook, I am out of place in my own social network: Hungarian, Maltese or Greek are so far out of my reach I can only throw up my hands and say Oi Vey! 

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Finding socks in the dark

Life is full of big and little mysteries. The big mysteries are the ones that my children ask from time to time: where do we come from, what happens when we die, what is out there at the end of the universe (or, in the immortal words of Buzz Lightyear, beyond infinity)? Great minds spend their whole lives pondering such mysteries. And then there a the mysteries that are too small too warrant any kind of serious investigation. One of mine is as follows. 

Most evenings, as soon as I come home from work, I change into a track suit, which I find more comfortable than the clothes I wear to work. I also change my "day" socks for a pair of white sport socks for the same reason. Then, when I go to bed, I change into pyjamas and leave the track suit on a chair next to my bed. In the morning, I keep my pyjama on while making breakfast, but use the same white socks again. And here's the mystery: the vast majority of the time, I will find one sock either on the floor or dangling from the end of one leg of the track suit pants, and the other tangled with the underpants. This is so systematic that in wintertime, when it is still dark, I hardly ever have to turn on the light to find them. 

The logical explanation for this is that I always take off the pants in such a way as to ensure that this happens (and I am definitely a creature of habit), but I just tried to reproduce the routine (I am in my track suit now), and the outcome was as one might expect: both socks end up at the far end of the pant legs (they only drop to the floor if you lift the pants up). According to quantum physics, the fact that one observes an experiment influences the outcome, but I hardly think that this is the problem here. But unfortunately, as with so many little mysteries, it really isn't worth finding out. 

So I will just leave it at that, and be happy that I can find my socks in the dark. 

Friday, March 13, 2009

Counting worms

For the past two weeks, I have been walking my two girls (8 and 5 years old) to school. And for the past two weeks, it has rained almost every single night. So in the morning, as we walk, we see lots of worms on the sidewalk. (I would have liked to write "crawling with worms" but that would be an over-exaggeration, as well shall see in a moment). In Dutch, we call such worms "rainworms" (regenwormen), but I have explained to them that this is not because they like rain. Quite the opposite: they only come out because their lair or tunnel or burrow or whatever it's called are full of water, so they have nowhere to go but up. 

I was quite happy to see that they were interested, and not really repulsed, by these worms. Each few days we would make a new discovery. There were big ones and small ones, live ones (movements would elicit ear-piercing screeches of combined delight and horror) and dead ones (mostly squashed, and usually white after a few days). But it seems that all in all, they were most interested in seeing how many they could find. So they counted. (For those of you who are statistically inclined, the high score to date is seventy). Of course, quite quickly it became a competition to see who would find each next worm. I did succeed in convincing them that cooperation was better than competition, but this was mostly self-interest: the 500 meters to school can be very long if all they do is argue. But now I have a different challenge: the game has  become so engrossing that they seem much more interested in counting worms that in checking for cars when crossing the road. 

Some years ago, when mobile phones were just becoming quite the fad in Argentina, in spite of (or perhaps because) the elevated cost. A man was killed crossing the road. Witnesses reported that it was because he was so engrossed in his telephone conversation. It was soon discovered, however, that the phone was a cheap plastic imitation. Moral of the story: vanity can be deadly. But so can curiosity, as the proverbial dead cat will tell you. So I keep close to my kittens, just in case. And in the meantime I have the secret hope that they will find a horribly disfigured worm on the crossing. That would really help me convince them to pay more attention. 

Postscript: I took a different route back from school, to check whether the worms were all coming from the building site next to my daughter's school, but no. We are completely surrounded by worm country. 


Saturday, March 7, 2009

Brain vs. body

A few days ago, another of my colleagues complained about the many ways the world is changing for the worse. He has been campaigning for some time now against the loss of a strip of beach near his place of birth in Asturias, and was quite upset because it seems this battle, like so many other battles to preserve our natural or cultural heritage, is lost. As he talked, I got the impression that he felt he - like many campaigners - was only one of few who cared. I think however that many people care, and might even just as feel as strongly about these issues, but have accepted them as a fact of life. 

I also care about these issues, but I tend to look at the big picture. I see all these changes as the inevitable result of our own success as a species (measured in terms of population). Virtually everything we complain or worry about - loss of natural habitats, pollution, climate change, extinctions, etc. etc. - can be blamed on the fact that there are so many humans. To paraphrase Agent Smith in Matrix: like some viruses, we are reproducing so quickly that that we risk killing off our host. 

The problem is twofold: on one side, reproduction is hard-coded in our programming. It is so much a part of us (and of any living organism), that it could easily be called the meaning of life. On the other side, we are also quite good at manipulating our environment so as to accommodate more humans, which reduces the need for us to do anything about the main cause of our problems (overpopulation), thereby in fact only making things worse. 

This is analogous to the problem of traffic congestion. For many years, it was claimed that we could rid ourselves of traffic jams if only we had more and wider roads. What in fact happened was that the amount of traffic increased, filling up all the new wider roads until the traffic congestion was the same (or worse) because the improved throughflow made it possible for people to move further away from their place of work.  

But knowing what the problem is and doing something about it is something else entirely. Most people (myself included) have very little intention of putting their money where their .... is. 

Which reminds me of an old joke of a Protestant preacher who in his sermon lectured on that little piece of flesh that was at the root of all of mankind's problems. This to the discomfort of most of his congregation. And it got worse when he suggested he tell them what that piece of flesh was called. And much worse - blushes and grumbles all around - when he asked them "Shall I show that piece of flesh to you?!?" Upon which he stuck out his tongue. 

Monday, March 2, 2009

Wistful whistling

Luxembourg, we who live here like to joke, only has two seasons, and both are cold and rainy. It is one of the few places in the world where you can suffer from winter depression in Springtime. But this afternoon was uncharacteristically mild. The sun remained a UFO (unseen floating object) as usual, but several parts of the sky were actually blue. 

So I whistled while I walked to my car. On the way, I passed several people. Now I am not a bad whistler, but I tend to go for tunes that I invent on the spot, which means, like in jazz (the imperfect art), that there is always a chance that it will go horribly wrong. This is why I cannot help checking people's reactions while I whistle. But for the most part, no-one ever seems to mind. In fact, several people have remarked that it cheers them up. 

A few days ago, in Amsterdam, I saw someone singing out loud while walking in a busy street. The singer was not drunk, and he could hold a tune, but the reactions of others there was much more along the lines of "singing in the street is just not done". Of course, Amsterdam being known for its tolerance, no-one would actually say this, but you could see it on people's faces. 

So what is the difference between whistling and singing? The only one I can think of is that singing is much more intimate. It doesn't matter how much of your soul you put into whistling, you will always bare more of it by singing. But that only begs yet another question, namely, why does that make us uncomfortable? Is it perhaps because it could be seen as an invitation that we do not want to acknowledge (I'm baring my soul, now it's your turn)? 

I'm not sure, but I think I will stick to whistling. And when I really feel I have to sing outdoors, I will make sure no-one is around.