Fionn Murtagh’s Blog

Themes: information economy, intellectual property, research

The Globish World Language: Restricted Thinking

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I comment here on the rise and dominance of Globish English, in science and research, in literature and culture, and with growing mechanization in certain domains.

First, consider science and research publishing, across the board.  To publish new results, the reviewers need to give their nihil obstat and their imprimatur.  Generally too, in research publishing, one is engaged a lot as a reviewer.  Typically, one reviews many hundreds of submitted research papers each year.

Now back to my own research results.  Not for the first time, recently, a reviewer report on work of mine came back with this issue raised: “The paper is written in a way that makes it difficult to read for average non-native English speakers mainly because of the structure and length of the sentences.”

I was upset but this made me reflect.  Why should it be so that simplified English be used in reporting on research?  Let me bypass what “average” means in such a context, since anyone involved with data will know that atypical and skewed (long-tailed) distributions are not summarized by an average.

In any case, that is of course a reviewer’s role.  My paper was, when revised, accepted and published.  It was dealing with Jürgen Habermas’s political consensus in the Twitter social media context (based on Jean-Paul Benzécri and Pierre Bourdieu).  Given that reviewer’s viewpoint, my first reaction was to go and determine the power law distribution of my written sentence lengths.

But standardized English – what are the implications of one speaking and writing in this Globish language, as contrasted with the language of one’s own thinking.  One’s own train of thought may well be superior to a simplified, mechanized Globish.  This really made me reflect.

In reviewing conference submissions, earlier in 2015, I was using one of the major systems used for conference submission.  It is a great system, Easychair. My reviews for this conference were of course carried out.  I was rather pleased though to have to address a question of language in the following terms.  I do admit, that in a world where we all can, and should, speak a number of languages, I cannot understand what “native” – as in “native language” – means.

Here was what was on the review form, which I completed:

QUALITY OF ENGLISH WRITING: from 1 (lowest) to 4 (highest)

4: Native English

3: Readable Globish

2: Many mistakes but easy to correct

1: Very Poor and must be checked by a native

Then I recalled the following, from Der Spiegel, 45/2014, 3.11.2014:

Interview mit  Kenneth Goldsmith,  53, Dichter und Literaturdozent an der  Univerity of Pennsylvania, über sein Seminar “Wasting Time on the Internet”.  “Mein ganzes Oeuvre dreht sich um das Leben im digitalen Zeitalter.  In meinem letzten Buch zum Beispiel benutzte ich viel kürzere Sätzte – als Reaktion auf Twitter.  Die Technik geht voran, wir Künstler folgen ihr.”   Oder sehen Sie mal hier.

Oh my goodness, shorter sentence length and this time a requirement in  Globish literature!

Next, I noted this.  It is from Le Monde Diplomatique, en janvier 2015, dealing with English being the intermediary language for translation between  languages, leading to nonsense, since sense is destroyed.

“Google et  l’impérialisme linguistique – Il pleut des chats et des chiens”, par Frédéric Kaplan et Dana Kianfar.

Le pivot linguistique anglais participe ainsi potentiellement à un phénomène de créolisation … Actuellement, les modifications introduites par la médiation algorithmique constituent une sorte de sabir, langue de contact, potentiellement éphémère, entre deux systèmes linguistiques.  Mais, alors qu’une nouvelle génération est exposée à ces expressions transformées, les innovations risquent de se régulariser sous la forme d’une langue cohérente et autonome, un créole.  … L’impérialisme linguistique de l’anglais produit donc des effets beaucoup plus subtils que ne le laissent penser les approches centrées sur la “guerre des langues”.  

Here is a further noting of how standardized, banalized and trivialized English (I should refer to it as Globish) has such negative implications.

“How  English Ruined Indian Literature”, by Aatish Taseer, March 19, 2015, in Sunday Review, New York Times.

The Russian critic Vissarion Belinsky felt in the 19th century that the slavish imitation of European culture had created “a sort of duality in Russian life, consequently a lack of moral unity.” The Indian situation is worse; the Russians at least had Russian.

In the past, there were many successful Indian writers who were bi- and trilingual.  Rabindranath Tagore, the winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote in English and Bengali; Premchand, the short story writer and novelist, wrote in Hindi and Urdu; and Allama Iqbal wrote English prose and Persian and Urdu poetry… 

Arising out of the foregoing, the following needs to be expressed in languages other than Globish or Hochenglisch or whatever it is called.

Ursprung und erweitere Entwicklung des Denkens, klar dass das bedeutet eine breite Reihe von Sprachen und von Sprachenkentnissen.

Pour bien encadrer et progresser nos pensées les plus profondes, il faut pallier l’obstacle de la langue de la robotique.  Ceci est donc aussi un appel à la renaissance de la langue anglaise.

Feachtas, mar sin, a bheith curtha ar bun i dtreo athbheochan an sacs-bhéarla. Ní  eascraíonn fiontar agus fiontraíocht agus nuálaíocht agus chuile shórt mar sin ach ó theangacha atá saor ó chinniúnt agus ó mhí-ádh na teanga sin.  Ar ámharaí an tsaoil tá teangacha fós ann, mar an Ghaeilge, a bhaineann le foinse na smaointeoireachta an tsaoil s’againne.

Aut viam inveniamus aut ipse viam faciamus.  For further reading and insight – Alex HijmansFrédéric Kaplan.

Written by Fionn Murtagh

2015/08/04 at 00:05

Research Funding: Funding for Outputs, Please, and not for Ego

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Chris Horn has written, “Commercial success, at least in IT, is not driven by the size of R&D spend.” This is very true, in Ireland as elsewhere.

There has been concern expressed in Ireland by various sources recently about the lack of commercial impact from university research. A critical reason for this, from my observations, is that the objective of research funding in Ireland has been far too much focused on ego rather than output.

The former, funding for ego, includes the following, quite dysfunctional aspects from the point of view of the whole system of human capital. It takes the form of funding units of activity that are hermetically sealed off from the natural hinterland in the university system. Included here are:

  • the lack of any role in undergraduate teaching or curriculum,
  • separate physical location, and
  • reporting lines that are outside mainstream university structures.

This is a weakness in current research funding in Ireland, i.e. how the funding is spent on highly profiled yet splendidly isolated activity.

Another dysfunctional aspect is that related and complementary disciplines, and vital supply lines of expertise from various disciplines, have all now been ended, in the limited form that these were once present. Mathematics and astronomy come immediately to mind, where there is enormous negativity among public servants.

This has been backed up by views among senior public servants that are disparaging and dismissive of those disciplines and of the higher education system as a whole. A recent example from the Government of Ireland’s Chief Scientific Adviser: “It’s very difficult to herd cats, but I can certainly change the position of their feeding bowl.” Or another Director-General of Science Foundation Ireland: “SFI funding is social welfare for universities”.

How to achieve commercial and social impact based on scholarship and learning is as follows. In measuring outputs the multifaceted forms of all of these need to be considered. Innovative ways to find and achieve impact on the economy are crucial to both the system outputs and the quantification of the system processes. What is needed is a whole system approach, starting with higher education which has come to be the major context for research and scholarship, and its spin-off and launchpad impact. Hence the importance of the roles of all disciplines in the body of knowledge, and understanding outputs rather than the pursuit of an ego-based system.

  • Portfolio management, across all of education, commercialization and business, scholarship, and public leadership are crucial in order to ensure continuity through natural and strategically planned evolution and growth.

  • Integration, firstly into the higher education system and more generally into the commercial and governance fabric, is vital for sustainability too.

Those are my two foremost requirements for a properly functioning research and scholarship system, that will be productive over the long term. They are my own motivation as a researcher and as a research leader, with a long track record in scholarship and research commercialisation with impact which is non-ego driven. Over time, I have observed just how very wasteful and unsustainable the alternative is.

Research and Scholarship: Onwards towards Sustainability, Success and Stardom

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In some ways, the world of scholarship (highly respected) and research (always with ends in view, never in the abstract) were far more healthy, productive and creative back in the ’70s and beyond in the last century.  The norm for undergraduate courses (in engineering) included company formation, statistics was a well established discipline in its own right (but was disbanded in many universities in more recent decades), and mathematics had its rightful role as the most respected of all disciplines.

The world of research was more viable and sustainable insofar as sustaining one’s livelihood was foremost, and then one’s work was always with ambition and with universal problem solving in mind.

Among the many changes to this idyllic picture (of course, I have looked at some aspects only that outshine much of what is the case now) major funding of research came along in the 1990s, in some instances with beneficial results, but also with very dysfunctional results.

By establishing large research centres that were hermetically sealed off from undergraduate teaching and curriculum development, and mostly in different buildings and sometimes off-campus, not only were external keeps and moats built, but – to the misfortune of these research groups and centres in the medium and longer term – they are entirely cut off from their natural hinterland, and dependent on so-called “soft money”.  In a word, they are entirely unstainable.

The Irish context is a clear case in point.

In regard to scientific research, Dick Ahlstrom in the Irish Times notes that Ireland is “effectively without … a strategy [for scientific research] at the moment, without a long-term sense of purpose or direction that makes it clear where we want to be 10 or 20 years down the line. This is not helpful as scientific research is a long-term activity that yields results in a measured way.”

This is very true since the ending of the previous SSTI plan, Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation 2006-2013, that foresaw the doubling of PhD numbers by 2013 – why is an open question, but my own view always was that the great majority were to take up employment in Irish companies and corporates worldwide. The evidence is there that such has not happened.  As regards strategy, this has been replaced by a content-free framework, that has given carte blanche to significant misdirection of the ways and means used for public funding in this domain.

The upshot too is that in Ireland, “big business is putting its cash into overseas universities“.  This is very evident to those of us who work outside of Ireland.

In a clear and prescient article, Chris Horn has pointed to the looming crisis.  “What now for an Irish strategy for the multinational sector?”  He draws a balance sheet: “Why are there no […] debates on an urgently sought and new industrial strategy, and no visionary articulation from any of our political parties nor leaders? Where are our national industrial strategists and planners?”  This article by Chris Horn needs to be known as a key reference for our immediate future.

As is often the case, Finfacts has its hand on the pulse of what is going on, and calls a spade a spade.  It is super important to be clear about research for what, research of what.  Failing that, there is just the pure spin: “Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) has an audacious or delusional new target: ‘in which Ireland in 2020 is the best country in the world for scientific research excellence and impact.'”

As Finfacts notes, “it’s striking how little policy making has changed since the economic crash.”  It is indeed audacious and delusional to put off to 2020 what needs to be addressed and acted on right now.

I will return to my theme of how research and scholarship can thrive and blossom, and overcome the delusional and dysfunctional nature of (some of) the powers that be – coupled with their wasteful and wanton, even destructive, inability to address our burgeoning challenges.


Written by Fionn Murtagh

2013/08/14 at 00:02

Maurice Coakley’s book, “Ireland in the World Order: A History of Uneven Development”, 2012

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With the long sweep of history from late mediaeval times through to the North Atlantic financial crisis [p. 167] post-2008, this book was and is compulsive reading, instilling throughout a need to know what would happen in the end!

Maurice Coakley’s narrative starts in the late mediaeval world. The Protestant Reformation both boosted literacy and was based on a tradition of a literate laity. The Catholic Counter-Reformation also motivated greatly literacy. A major difference between the Irish Pale (region of English overlordship around Dublin) and the Scottish Lowlands, was that written contracts had become common in the latter [p. 62]. Literacy became a necessity for social position and advancement [p. 73]. That is in keeping with an interesting book dealing with Scottish history in terms of the polarity between dúchas and oidhreacht (the latter is heritage; the former has no straightforward translation in English; perhaps what comes closest in meaning is German Heimatliches):

Allan MacInnes, “Clanship, Commerce and the House of Stuart, 1603-1788”, Tuckwell Press, 1996. (See this online site.)

The roots of the present often enough go back to certain specific historical times, and Coakley focuses on the 14th century economic and social crises of feudalism. He sees a resurgence of an agrarian pastoralism in Ireland and expands greatly on this, in the interrelationships between Gaelic social order, Anglo-French society in Ireland, English monarchial overlordship, and property rights from social collectivities or individuals/families.

Coakley draws out from this a great deal that is hugely insightful. I liked this depiction relating to a much later Ireland in the 1930s: “… small-farming communities … a world in which agricultural labour is still largely collective and cooperative. If these smallholders were culturally conservative – religious belief and seasonal patterns rhymed – they were not politically conservative, and their social outlook included a strong egalitarian streak.” [P. 154] This characterizes well people of my parents’ generation.

Coakley has some comments on Irish intellectual life on p. 155 (and for political expression, p. 162), which I would highly commend, to be read in the context of his narrative.

So what then is the end of the narrative, that I could not wait to arrive at?

  • Productive investment of accumulated wealth [p. 211].
  • Employment policy an explicit policy objective rather than an indirect outcome of growth [p. 206] re European Union – CAP, Common Agriculture Policy, the only area where EU sought to establish a common social model [p. 176].

Coakley’s tour de force has most interesting views on language, verbal and written, that may carry over – my view is that implications ensuing will certainly carry over – into our online world, and changing practices and opportunities in publishing and dissemination of information, with social and economic drivers, and meaning and relevance of a high level in the social and economic context.

Coakley’s encyclopaedic and far-sighted understanding of language, verbal and written, and trajectory into contemporary processes and practices and innovative possibilities, has much to be commended.

Written by Fionn Murtagh

2013/07/30 at 22:03

An Innealtóireacht i gCroí-lár Ár dTodhchaí Uile agus Ní Leor an Eolaíocht Amháin

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Tagaim go hiomlán leis an méid a dúirt Pádraig Ó Rodáin, PJ Rudden, uachtarán ar Chumann na nInnealtóirí (Engineers Ireland), in aitheasc a rinne sé ag “An Roth” le déanaí.  Ní féidir le nuálaíocht a bheith ann sa gheileagar agus san tsochaí go ginearálta gan ról lárnach don innealtóireacht.   Chun postanna a chruthú, caithfear go mbéadh an t-innealtóir i lár báire.    Ní leor an eolaíocht amháin. 

Cuireann sé sin i gcuimhne dom an méid a dúirt Chris Horn tráth.   Bhí Chris mar uachtarán chomh maith ar Chumann na nInnealtóirí.  Dar le Chris, sna hochtóidí agus na nóchaidí bhí an-rath ar shaothar an IDA i leith chuideachtaí ilnáisiúnta ag teacht go hÉirinn.   Sna chéad deich mbliana  den mhílaois seo, bhí an-rath ar SFI ó thaobh eolaithe ag teacht go hÉirinn.   Agus sna deich mbliana againn anois, ní foláir nó go mbéadh fiontraithe ón gcoigríoch ag teacht chun a bheith i mbun gnó in Éirinn.    I mo bharúil féin, ciallaíonn sé sin go bhfuil géar-ghá ann chun go mbéadh meon na hinnealtóireachta go tiubh, smior, doimhin, lárnach i ngach uile gné den gheileagar agus den tsochaí.

Bíodh mar sin an innealtóireacht i lár an aonaigh againn agus i gcroí-lár na todhchaí agus na sochaí ar aon. 


Moore’s Law, the Rise of the Data Economy, and the Problem of “Dirty Data”

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In the piece on “Are Greenpeace attacking the younger generation and their ‘dirty data’?”, I found the discussion interesting as to whether data centres were “dirty” or not, in the sense of using energy that is high in CO2 or equivalent greenhouse gases.    In that British Computer Society blog post, the rates of growth are looked at in the data economy, the ability of computational technologies to respond, and then just how green this computational response is, in practice.   Let’s have a closer look at this. 

First I will touch on compute power and space.   Moore’s Law refers to the doubling of processor, storage, and related computing capability every two years.   Hence the compound annual growth rate, or CAGR, for doubling every two years, is 41.42% per annum.   

Hydropower is “the most widely used renewable resource for clean power generation across the globe”, and stable, flexible and inexpensive, as noted by ”Hydropower continues to account for major share of renewable power through 2020”.   A CAGR for hydropower in the period 2011-2020 is estimated as 3.6%. 

Moore’s law and hydropower indicate just well we can do to handle data growth. 

Citing from “IDC Releases First Worldwide Big Data Technology and Services Market Forecast, Shows Big Data as the Next Essential Capability and a Foundation for the Intelligent Economy”, that discusses an IDC (International Data Corp.) report on the Big Data Economy to 2015:

“IDC defines Big Data technologies as a new generation of technologies and architectures designed to extract value economically from very large volumes of a wide variety of data by enabling high-velocity capture, discovery, and/or analysis. Further, the study segments the Big Data market into server, storage, networking, software, and services segments.”

Compound annual growth rate (CAGR) is looked at in this IDC report, and for 2015 it is estimated at 44% CAGR for Big Data deployments, and up to 61.4% CAGR for storage.    Servers and software are less, being estimated respectively at 27.3% and 34.2%.  

So – my conclusion, echoing the Greenpeace and “dirty data” discussion above: the soaring rise of the data economy, and in particular storage, point to high growth of up to around a CAGR of 60%.  Technology as expressed by Moore’s law can only partially keep up with this pace – 41%.   Renewable power generation, as represented by the leading category of hydropower, is incapable of doing the job alone, in the green and global picture.   The growth of data outstrips greatly computing technologies and green technologies. 

So we have something of a conundrum here: just how do we handle our data economy, while avoiding or mitigating the data economy’s “dirty data” side?   Potential answers: nuclear, hydrogen, a battery miracle.   Or the Spirit of Ireland solution. 

Momentous Change in Research Process

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The last few years have seen very great changes in research process. Some of these changes are accelerating by the day. One facet is at issue here, powered by economics and demographics.

Research results in all manner of outputs. For three and a half centuries, a very prominent form of research output has been a delimited or demarcated textual description that is laid out in a relatively standardized way. That’s the research article.

The big changes of interest are the “meteoric” increase in authorship by our Chinese colleagues, and the enormous increase in research journals coming from India and also from Western publishers.

A useful overview of the data is presented in Elsevier’s Editors’ Update. See in particular “The Rise of Asia: A Research Profile”.

China, it is noted there, has 1.4 million researchers and compound growth of 24% per year over the past ten years in number of papers published. Hardly a week goes by, I find, that there is not an invitation to be an author or an editor or, often enough, to be editor-in-chief, of a new journal.

As always great change goes hand in hand with significant new opportunity.

Written by Fionn Murtagh

2011/10/02 at 17:03