The City with the Most Cosmopolitan Skyline in the World—Gets an Update

July 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

519MBW3HVQLIt’s the most globalized, most international, most architecturally inclusive city in the world. The fact that it’s fictional is irrelevant.

It’s Babe’s city, and it’s the setting for one of the best cross-cultural films ever made—Babe: Pig in the City. When Babe and Esme Hoggett travel from their English farm to big-city USA, it’s not just Europe and the Americas colliding. There’s all sorts of collisions between species as well, with—to name a few—humans, dogs, cats, apes, mice, a duck, and, of course, a pig.

A wide shot of Babe’s city shows a wonderfully crowded skyline of landmarks from around the world. There’s the Chrysler Building, Big Ben, the Sydney Opera House, the Eiffel Tower, Christ the Redeemer, and more, all brought together in one metropolis.

Babe’s city was first revealed in  1998, and now, years later, it looks as if several skyscrapers have been added to its horizon. Not only that, but Franklin Templeton Investments has joined the neighborhood. The evidence is the Franklin Templeton commercial “Global Perspective,” which shows the additions of Burj Khalifa, the Petronas Towers, London’s “Gherkin,” and the list goes on. Of course, development comes with a price, as it seems that several structures had to be razed to make room for the new arrivals (Christ the Redeemer’s outstretched arms are nowhere to be seen). Makes sense. Rarely do you have enough real estate available to put in your own Mount Fuji.

So where exactly is Babe’s city? Well, in the movie, it looks as if it’s on the East Coast. And in the commercial, we can narrow it down to an area above Ben Franklin’s left eye. If that doesn’t make sense, you’ll need to watch the ad—and while you’re at it, see how many landmarks you can identify.

Brian Stokle at Urban Life Signs has analyzed the Franklin Templeton commercial and shows some pretty good evidence that the city has been built up on Downtown Vancouver. But I’m not convinced. To my knowledge, Babe has never set foot in Canada. (Visit Stokle’s post, “World Skyline,” for a rundown of the landmarks in the commercial, as well as a shot-by-shot description and other “geeky analysis and research.”)

“Global Perspectives” has been around for a couple years, and I may have seen parts of it before, but it caught my eye two weekends ago when I saw Taipei 101 sporting Benjamin Franklin’s face. That’s not as far-fetched as it might seem: According to a recent China Post article, Franklin Templeton Investments occupies office space in the Taiwan skyscraper. No word yet on when Ben’s face will actually adorn the facade.

(Brian Stokle, “World Skyline,” Urban Life Signs, June 20, 2012; Ted Chen, “Chinese Company to Establish Office in 101,” The China Post, July 5, 2014)

A New Blog: “Putting Words in Our Mouths”

July 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

2250062732_5d9670fba0_zThe Bible has been called the most quoted, most translated, most published, most sold, and most shoplifted book of all time. It is difficult to overestimate the impact of its ideas on Western culture. And, particularly in the translation completed under the direction of King James I of England in 1611, it has had a leading role in shaping the English language and English literature. Alister McGrath, in his book In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture, writes,

No other book has so permeated and penetrated the hearts and speech of the English race as has the Bible. . . . The King James Bible, along with the words of William Shakespeare, is regularly singled out as one of the most foundational influences on the development of the modern English language.

I wrote Putting Words in Our Mouths: A Look at Biblical Expressions in American English with English learners in mind, to teach them the meanings of commonly used phrases and to familiarize them with the stories and concepts of the Bible. Familiarity with the Bible leads to a better understanding of the art, history, music, politics, and customs of English-speaking peoples. The authors of The Bible Literacy Report II state, “Almost without exception, English professors we surveyed at major American colleges and universities see knowledge of the Bible as a deeply important part of a good education.” The report quotes a professor from Northwestern University who calls the Bible the “most influential text in all of Western culture.”

But this doesn’t mean that all English speakers are aware of or understand the Bible’s influence. In fact, serious English-language students who gain a basic knowledge of the Bible may find themselves ahead of many native speakers.

Today, biblical words and phrases—including idioms—appear in informal conversation, news articles, blogs, television shows, movies, popular songs, and literature. Even the word bible itself has a place in modern English as any “authoritative book on a particular subject.” Bible comes from a Greek word meaning “books.” This is because the Bible is a collection of 66 books, written by at least 40 men over about 1500 years. And on the pages of these books are written many well-known stories, some of which take place on a grand scale or involve huge groups of people—such as Noah and the flood, the 10 plagues of Egypt, and the journey of the Israelites to the Promised Land. Therefore, something that is “enourmous or extremely extensive” can be said to be of biblical proportions or on a biblical scale.

I invite you to join me on a journey through the Bible, using common English expressions as our stepping stones.  We’ll start at the best place possible . . . in the beginning.


The format of Putting Words in Our Mouths is simple. Each word or phrase is introduced with its definition and a sample sentence showing how it can be used in conversation. Then an explanation of the word/phrase’s origin follows, along with the biblical passage from which it comes. Where it differs from the more modern translation, I’ve included in brackets the expression in its King James version.

I will be adding expressions as time permits, moving from Genesis to Revelation. You can view all the posts in order by clicking on Browse All Entries in the right-hand column. You can also look for specific topics by using the search field.

(Wachlin, Mary, and Byron R. Johnson, The Bible Literacy Report II: What University Professors Say Incoming Students Need to Know, Bible Literacy Project, 2006)

[photo: "Used Bible," by Doug 1021, used under a Creative Commons license]

Storytelling: The Bosphorus Bridge between Cultures

July 10, 2014 § 1 Comment

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At one end of Istanbul’s Bosphorus Bridge, says Elif Shafak, is a sign that says “Welcome to Europe.” At the other end, another sign reads, “Welcome to Asia.” Shafak, the most widely read female author in Turkey, knows well this city that spans the Bosphorus Strait and connects two continents. She also knows well the push and pull of Eastern and Western cultures in Istanbul. She writes in Time Asia:

East and West are not water and oil. They do mix. And in a city like Istanbul they mix intensely, incessantly, surprisingly. That can leave the city confused about its identity. We Turks like to brag about straddling past and present, East and West, but we are not quite sure what we mean by that. We think of these two civilizations as boroughs we can go in and out of randomly. . . . But things are not so simple.”

Expanded Circles: Elif Shafak

Shafak has lived out her own cross-cultural experience. Born in France to Turkish parents, she was later raised by her mother in Turkey. Then, after her mother became a diplomat, they moved to Spain, Jordan, Germany, and back to Turkey.

Everywhere I went,” she says in a TED Talk, “The Politics of Fiction,” “I felt like my imagination was the only suitcase I could take with me. Stories gave me a sense of center, continuity, and coherence, the three big Cs that I otherwise lacked.”

While living in Madrid, Shafak attended an international school where she was the only Turk. While she describes the school as “a miniature United Nations,” it was not “a cosmopolitan, egalitarian classroom democracy.” Rather, she first encountered cultural stereotypes there. In her later moves with her mother, she saw more and more the general human penchant for retreating into “cultural ghettos”:

Now we all live in some kind of a social and cultural circle. We all do. We’re born into a certain family, nation, class. But if we have no connection whatsoever with the worlds beyond the one we take for granted, then we too run the risk of drying up inside. Our imagination might shrink; our hearts might dwindle, and our humanness might wither if we stay for too long inside our cultural cocoons. Our friends, neighbors, colleagues, family—if all the people in our inner circle resemble us, it means we are surrounded with our mirror image.

Shafak’s tool for helping break us all out of our cocoons is her fiction. She is the author of a number of novels, including The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi, which bridges 13th-century Persia and present-day Boston, and Honor, which tells the stories of Kurdish twins, one who grows up to live in London, the other staying in a small village in Turkey.

I’m not saying that fiction has the magnitude of an earthquake,” says Shafak, “but when we are reading a good novel, we leave our small, cozy apartments behind, go out into the night alone and start getting to know people we had never met before and perhaps had even been biased against.”

Intersecting Journeys: O. Z. Livaneli

I have not read any of Shafak’s novels, but I did recently finish Bliss: A Novel, written by O. Z. Livaneli in 2006. (It was made into a film in 2007.) Livaneli, like Shafak, is one of Turkey’s most prominent and most-read authors. And, like Shafak, his works often investigate the meeting of cultures.

In Bliss, the cultures are embodied by three characters: Meryem is a fifteen-year-old from a small Turkish village. After being raped by her outwardly pious uncle, she is shunned by her community. Then she is taken to Istanbul by her cousin to be killed. Cemal, a soldier, newly returned from fighting rebels in the mountains, is the cousin chosen to carry out the “honor killing.” And Irfan is a Western-educated professor who abruptly leaves his wife—and his wealthy lifestyle—to sail the Aegean Sea. It is on his journey that he meets Meryem and Cemal.

At first the novel tells three seemingly unrelated stories, each from a distinct viewpoint. Then, as the characters come together, their stories, and their perspectives, intertwine. The settings are varied as well: the shack where Meryem is imprisoned, given only meager food and a rope for hanging herself; the dangerous mountains where Cemal kills ruthlessly so that he won’t be killed; and the university offices populated by the colleagues whom Irfan despises. And then there are the locations that bring them together and expose them to people of still other backgrounds: the train compartment on the way to Istanbul, the chaotic city center and its decrepit surroundings, the home of an eccentric retired ambassador, and the close quarters of Irfan’s rented sailboat.

Through it all, the three have their worlds expanded, in dramatic and often very painful ways.

The Gift of Bridges

Thankfully there are storytellers around the globe such as Shafak and Livaneli, authors whose works juxtapose cultural differences and uncover similarities. These writers allow us to pick up their books and step outside the mirrored walls of our houses and onto bridges that traverse oceans and connect cultures.

By walking these bridges, we reach distant shores, and when our feet touch foreign ground, we find signs that read, “Welcome,” even when it’s not so simple.

(Elif Shafak, “Pulled by Two Tides,” Hurriyet Daily News, August 13, 2006, first published in Time Asia, August 7-14, 2006)
[photo: "Bosphorus Bridge," by Simon Q, used under a Creative Commons license]

Have Glasses Will Travel

July 3, 2014 § 2 Comments

Hey, kids, the next time somebody makes fun of your glasses, just tell them you’re going places. (Then show them this commercial from Glasses.com.)

“The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.” —Eden Phillpotts, A Shadow Passes, 1918

Don’t Know Your Malayalam from your Malay? Try Listening with Your Eyes

June 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

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First, let me introduce you to The Great Language Game. Created by “data scientist” Lars Yencken, this online challenge presents you with a series of audio clips that you try to identify from the list of language names given below each one. The better you do, the further you go, and the lists get longer. It’s a little bit of easy. Of course that’s French and not Mandarin! It’s a little bit of impossible. That’s really the name of a language? And it’s a lot of fun.

Go ahead and give it a try. It doesn’t take long. I’ll wait for you.

I’m thinking I could get a higher score if I could see the people speaking. It would really be great if they were wearing their national dress (think Miss Universe pageant). OK, that’s a bit much, but it might help a little even if I could see just their mouths. Of course, being familiar with the languages at hand is the biggest factor. But it make sense that looking at the way people speak should help us distinguish one language from another. You don’t need to have a PhD to figure that out. Actually, you don’t even have to be in preschool.

Kids See the Darndest Things

Janet Werker, director of the University of British Columbia’s Infant Studies Centre, has long been studying babies’ abilities to recognize different languages. Her research shows that infants as young as seven months old can hear the difference between languages by listening to grammar patterns. Werker was also part of a team, led by one of her students, Whitney Weikum, showing that even-younger babies can see the difference.

The group of researchers showed four-month-olds—from English-speaking households—silent videos of bilingual speakers using English or French or switching between the two. The babies were more interested and watched the videos longer when the speakers alternated languages.

When they tested six-month-old infants, some from monolingual homes and some from English-and-French-speaking homes, the results were the same. But when they showed the videos to eight-month-old babies, only the ones from bilingual homes continued to be able to distinguish the languages.

According to the researchers, this suggests that older “monolingual” babies lose their sensitivity to visual cues in language recognition because they no longer need them. “Bilingual” children, on the other hand, keep their ability longer, because they still need it as they learn two languages.

So if we lose that skill with age, how can those of us getting along in years work on regaining it? Welcome the lip-reading computer.

And Computers See Even More

If I had a computer that could read lips, I’d just sit back and watch it in awe. But five years ago a team of scientists at the University of East Anglia’s School of Computing Sciences couldn’t leave well-enough alone and gave their lip-reading computer the ability to recognize languages. Stephen Cox, one of the team’s leaders, says that their work is “the first scientific confirmation of something we already intuitively suspected—that when people speak different languages, they use different mouth shapes in different sequences.”

The group, using “statistical modeling,” studied the mouth movements of 23 bilingual and trilingual speakers. The result is a technology that can distinguish between a range of languages—from the similar to the widely different—including English, French, German, Arabic, Mandarin, Cantonese, Italian, Polish, and Russian.

So it seems that with practice, and a little technological help, we should be able to see the difference between spoken languages even if we can’t hear them. Why, we might get to the point where our looking-without-listening skills could rival our ability to listen with our eyes closed.

But We Don’t Need Our Eyes to Hear, Right?

Well, maybe it’s time to revisit The Great Language Game for a reminder of how imprecise our listening skills can be. Or if that isn’t sufficiently humbling, take a look at the following video on the “McGurk Effect.” Also called the “McGurk Illusion,” the phenomenon was discovered by accident as Harry McGurk and his lab assistant, John MacDonald, both of the University of Surrey, were studying how infants develop their perception of speech.

It’s bad enough when you need help to identify languages, but simple, basic letter sounds? I give up.

(Whitney Weikum, et al., “Babies Able to Tell through Visual Cues when Speakers Switch Languages,” ScienceDaily, May 25, 2007; “Lip-Reading Computers Can Detect Different Languages,” University of East Anglia, April 22, 2009;”The McGurk Effect: Hearing Lips and Seeing Voices,” Haskins Laboratories)

[photo: "Hear No Evil," by McBeths Photography, used under a Creative Commons license]

“Solitude”: Familiar but Often Forgotten

June 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

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Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s famous poem is also published under the title “The Way of the World.” It may be the way of the world, but it does not have to be our way.

SOLITUDE.

Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone;
For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,
But has trouble enough of its own.

Sing, and the hills will answer;
Sigh, it is lost on the air;
The echoes bound to a joyful sound,
But shrink from voicing care.

Rejoice, and men will seek you;
Grieve, and they turn and go;
They want full measure of all your pleasure,
But they do not need your woe.

Be glad, and your friends are many;
Be sad, and you lose them all;
There are none to decline your nectar’d wine,
But alone you must drink life’s gall.

Feast, and your halls are crowded;
Fast, and the world goes by.
Succeed and give, and it helps you live,
But no man can help you die.

There is room in the halls of pleasure
For a large and lordly train,
But one by one we must all file on
Through the narrow aisles of pain.

(Wilcox, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Poems of Passion, W. B. Conkey, 1883)

[photo: "Solitude," by murielle29, used under a Creative Commons license]

Facebook Is, Like, a Big Deal

June 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

5133070639_e19172367b_mWelcome to the new Clearing Customs, with a new look, a new logo, and a new Facebook page!

I heard Facebook is getting kind of popular, so I thought it was about time this blog got on board. (Actually, I’ve been posting to Facebook on my personal site for some time, but now I’ve created facebook.com/clearingcustoms and will switch over completely soon.)

Your likes are appreciated.

8 Keys for Reaching the Facebook Masses

Facebook. It’s a big deal not just in the US, it’s a big deal all over the world . . . except in the four countries that, according to Mother Jones, currently are at least trying to block it: China, Iran, North Korea, and Vietnam.

The Guardian reports that at the end of 2013, there were 1.23 billion people in the world using Facebook, with 556 million of them getting it on the go, using smartphones and tablets to access the site every day.

Reaching all those people, and getting them to respond, doesn’t have to be hit or miss. According to a new study released by TrackMaven, there are 8 keys to Facebook success (and maybe they’ll help my blogging out, too):

1. Thursday is the most popular day for posting on Facebook, but posts on Sunday get the most interactions. (check)

2. 88% of posts include photos, and they garner 37% more interactions than posts without.

5133070639_e19172367b_m 5133070639_e19172367b_m 5133070639_e19172367b_m 5133070639_e19172367b_m 5133070639_e19172367b_m (check, check, check, check, check)

3. 67.3% of entries are written at or below the 5th grade level, with the highest percentage (17.5) composed at a level comprehensible by an average first grader. Facebook is easy. Facebook is fun. Facebook is easy and fun. (got it)

4. About 94% of posts have 49 or fewer words, but posts with 80 or more words average twice as much engagement as those that are shorter. (already there)

5. Share is the most effective call-to-action word for garnering interactions, compared to pleaselike, and now. I thought I would share this with you, so please share it with others. Share and share alike, I always say. (done)

6. 84% of posts have no hashtags, but those that do get more audience engagement. #Seven #hashtags #is #the #most #effective. (#saynomore)

7. Likewise, for maximum interactions, seven exclamation points—That’s right!! Seven!!!—is the best number! (great!)

8. And, now, are you ready for the last one? Are you sure? OK, here it is: The best amount of question marks is—are you really ready?—nine. Can you believe it? Do you agree? Yes? No? Maybe? (could it be any easier?)

Hey, now that I know the secrets of Facebook, maybe I should take a look at that Twitter-thing.

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(Dana Liebelson, “MAP: Here Are the Countries That Block Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube,” Mother Jones, March 28, 2014; Jemima Kiss, “Facebook’s 10th Birthday: From College Dorm to 1.23 Billion Users,” The Guardian, February 3, 2014; The Marketing Maven’s Guide to Facebook, TrackMaven, 2014)

[photo: "Like," by Adam Fagen, used under a Creative Commons license; illustration: "Facebook Like Button," by Patrick Nouhailler, used under a Creative Commons license]

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