Archived entries for Words

Towards the Eternal Conversation

Well, if 2008 was the Year of Facebook, it looks like 2009, judging by what everyone’s been talking about during the first few weeks, will become the Year of Twitter. As much as I like new technology, however, there are certain limits to what I consider to be the sort of useful applications which actually make life that little bit easier, or a bit more fun, which is why I haven’t really “got” the Twitter craze. It escapes me in much the same way that I never felt the need for mobile phone  ringtones. Why bother? You either pick up within two seconds, in which case it’s not so much a “ringtone” as just a “ringt-“. Let it play and by the time we’ve all appreciated your electronic, tinny-sounding rendition of a song that wasn’t much good to start with, the caller has lost patience and hung up. It’s the same thing with those little desktop gadgets you get which tell you what the weather is like; you can click on it to open a new window on your computer or you could, hang on…just open the real window and look outside!
For me, Twitter falls into the same category, into a drawer marked, ‘What’s The Point?’. The buzzword seems to be “microblogging“, the New Thing To Do, which is essentially about publishing short text updates about what’s going on in your life. Each entry is a “status update”, or ‘Tweet“, some of the new terms for telling everyone how you’re doing.

Why, though? Surely this will lead to us all becoming like that mad old man in the train station who mutters to himself about everything that he’s doing because he’s convinced that German spies are still listening in to his every word:

“I’m just sitting down on this bench now.”

“I had chip sandwiches for tea last night, you know.”

“Status code Red, Sergeant! Target seen purchasing a suspicous item, codename “Flapjack”. Ready to roll out the next phase of Operation Platform Three. Stand by, gentlemen.”

The point here is that that something like Twitter doesn’t offer you the sort of social feedback that you would get if you said these sort of sentences in real life, to real people. Without the human checks and balances that let you know when and whether something is worth saying, what’s left is simply a license to report everything that goes on, no madder how mundane or trivial, because it’s been marketed as What the World Wants To Know.

If you believe the hype, your old friends are eager to hear that you got to bed at 2am last night; your distant relatives are now back in touch, thanks to this marvel of modernity, and can rejoice in the news that you’re away right now in your third meeting this morning, “LOL”.

It seems like there’s a sort of dichotomy going on at the moment when it comes to people who are connected to the Internet. On the one hand, everyone seems to be so concerned about online privacy, and about just who has access their personal information, whether they can accept the content of their emails being monitored and so on.

Yet on the other, people are only too willing to divulge their personal lives, whether this is broadcasting information about themselves via their personal profiles on social networks, uploading and tagging their photos, their videos, or, most recently, reporting their every actions and thoughts at regular intervals, all day, every day. You could argue that this latter sharing is “controlled” by the people using the service, but it affects other people “outside the loop” as well. We’ve all, I’m sure, met people who have been told that they are “on” Facebook, even if they themselves have never signed up to the service, because they’ve been tagged in a photo, a video, or somewhere in the maze of all that user-generated content that makes up today’s online communities.

The sheer volume of information that we upload to these sites seems to me to be less about control and more about something opposite, an almost uncontrollable urge to communicate as many things about our lives to as many people as possible.

So what’s next, after “microblogging”? With the way things are going, my guess is that the next phase will be “Omniblogging”, in which users forget even the discreet pauses between updates, until what’s left is just a constant, unedited online stream of consciousness, from every device, all the time, about everything.

By the way, have you heard about that other resource they’ve been keeping quiet about all this time? It’s being used all around the world, by millions of people on a daily basis, and what’s more it’s also completely free to use: it’s called “Silence”.

Left in the dark

EU-Speak

Here are some fine examples of the sort of sentences you can find in EU press releases which might leave you unconvinced that, as the EU’s communications chief Margot Wallström puts it, “communicating with the citizens of the European Union has been a primary concern for this Commission from the very start.” It’s not hard to see how the following extracts indicate that citizens tend to be left in the dark over what the EU actually does:

“The Organic Farming Campaign was developed with an umbrella–style approach that serves the interests of organic operators within the EU and empowers them to actively promote organic farming.”

In this press release on organic farming, what on earth do the words “developed with an umbrella-style approach” actually mean? Does anybody use this sort of language in real life? If your next-door neighbour called and told you that “I think we can sort that problem of your faulty wiring/creaking stairs/farting cat with an umbrella-style approach, John”, you’d think the poor man had finally lost his mind. Try as I might, I can’t for the life of me picture what an “organic operator” might be, short of some sort of root vegetable manning the phone lines.

Have you heard what’s on the programme for the Ambassadors Event for 2008 European Year of Intercultural Dialogue? Well, keep this to yourself, but apparently “going beyond an exchange of opinions, this event will illustrate dialogue between artists through creative performances – through music, film, art and literature.” Anyone understand that last part? You can’t relate to this kind of language, in the same way that it’s pretty unlikely that you’d relate to someone who, on walking out of a spectacular concert, and turned to their friends and said, “Man, that was amazing, the way those guys managed to illustrate dialogue through creative performances, it totally blew my mind.”

Fishermen might have trawl nets for fish, it looks like they also need them to understand how EU policies are affecting them. Member states need to step up and improve their maritime policies, says the EU, so according to this press release from July, “the Commission proposed to Member States that they should inject an integrated approach into their domestic maritime governance, which will better equip the EU as a whole to achieve its ambitions for preserving and exploiting the potential of the oceans and seas in an optimized fashion.” How you inject an approach, let alone an integrated one, (“Now brace yourself for this, dear, I’m just going to inject an integrated approach towards tidying the bathroom cupboard.”) is beyond me. Why simply “make the most” of the Summer holidays when you can be “preserving and exploiting the potential…in an optimised fashion”?

Ironically, it is another press release on “How to reconcile the national and European dimension when communicating Europe”, that manages to sum up the conclusion of this post in a surprisngly clear and concise manner. The European economic and social committee (EESC) quite rightly said that more needs to be done at the national and local level because “It is impossible to communicate to 500 million Europeans from Brussels.” What the EESC also points out, however, is that what is badly needed is for the EU “to use clear and simple language.”

You never know, it might improve, if the EU’s communication departments take the time to think about whether or not what they’re actually writing makes sense.

To put it another way, using an EU phrase, if “the integrated thinking which is at the heart of this policy permeates into policy-making and executive action.”

Confrontations with the Clinically Insane

I think it might be a wise idea if I carry a card around with me. Unlike a business card, which usually makes its appearance after the champagne and chit-chat (“Ha ha, yars, yars, you must come round and look at the tennis lawn sometime”), it would be the first thing I hand to other people. For their own safety. It would serve to lessen the impact when they find themselves, sometime later, in the sort of situtations in which the most prominent thought seems to be, “Why on earth didn’t I just stay at home and tidy the kitchen?”

The card would, in other words, act as a sort of personal disclaimer. A wallet-sized ‘You Have Been Warned’ notice. It would say something along the lines of, “Being friends with Matt carries certain risks. It is likely that you will encounter people several stations too far from Sanity Central. Stay alert.”

It had, up until yesterday, been a relatively “nutter-free” existence in Brussels. Most people I met were fairly stable, apart from, say, the people who decide to fix you with a solemn stare for the entire metro journey, or anyone who’s a member of ITS. Yesterday afternoon, after a walk exploring the area just north-west of where I live, I decided to meet my friend, a Spanish girl called Pilar, for a coffee at Grand Place. It was just after 5pm.

We met near the market, and were walking down one of the streets, looking for somewhere that was fairly quiet, away from the Bank Holiday crowds. As we were walking, a man passed us and spontaneously produced a gesture that looked like he was swatting away a fly in front of him…very violenty. Pilar and I exchanged a look, and we turned around out of curiosity, as you do when these things happen. As it happens he had also stopped, about fifteen meters away, and was looking at us.

He was standing next to a builders’ skip, inside which were broken up blocks of concrete. One of which, he picked up, and made as if to throw the block right towards us. At this point, Pilar grabbed my arm and screamed. Maybe this is what he was hoping for, because he didn’t throw the block at us, but continued to stand there with it raised in his hand, staring with malice. At the time, I was at a complete blank, I just stood and stared at him, gripped with fear and disbelief; of course, the moment we felt sure he wasn’t going to throw it, we got out of there like lightning.

Shaken, we found a cafe – the criteria having been narrowed down to, “somewhere, anywhere” – and gradually were able to joke about it; the event would become “something to tell the grandchildren.” It got me thinking, however, that perhaps I ought to advise the people I meet to consider something in addition to my personal details: some personal insurance.

(Regarding my journalism training, this last week, among other things, I’ve been dealing with serious organised crime.)

Fringe benefits

It was time, on Friday, to get a haircut. My hair had grown to the point where it could have housed a small family of birds for the winter; something had to be done. So off I went to the nearest hairdressers, and thus the ordeal began…

“Bonjour, Monsieur. How would you like it cut?”

 (Remember this is in French and my vocab on hair terminology is somewhat limited…) “Well, it’s too thick, you see, so I’d like it thinner.”  

“Right. Do you want it layered?”

“Layered? Er…can I just have it cut?”

“Well what sort of style did you have in mind?”

 “I was hoping to go for the “Now I Have Less Hair Than When I Came In” look that seems to be-”

(Of course now she’s giving me a look that I do not want to see on someone grasping a pair of sharp scissors, so I stop talking. Sharpish.)

“You already have layers, Monsieur”

 “Of course I do! Silly me! You see, sometimes you forget, don’t you? Forget to take the rubbish out, forget to feed the cat, forget your hair is layered….”

“How much length do you want me to take off?”

“Well, actually, can I…sorry, please could you keep it quite long, if that’s alright?”

“I’ve got a better idea”

(Oh, Christ. Here it comes. Skinhead. Mohican. Just A Fringe.)

“Just let me cut it.”

 Well, it was a fantastic haircut, in the end. I wish all hairdressers could be like that from the beginning, instead of making me feel like I’m taking part in some sort of Hairdressers’ Mastermind.

Speakers

bruges.jpg 

 Lovely day out to Bruges on the weekend. The pictures, as usual, can be seen here.

I’m helping to cover this month’s plenary session in Strasbourg, and it’s got me thinking about speakers, speeches and the incredible range of ability when it comes to speaking to a group. I was at a meeting last week and listened to a fantastic talk for journalists by Michael Shackleton on the complicated process that is the co-decision procedure. By leaving out much of the jargon, and by keeping up a really enthusiastic attitude throughout, Mr Shackleton was able to get across just why the procedure was so important for the division of power here amongst the European institutions. 

On the other hand, I remember being in another meeting about three weeks ago, and listening in astonishment to someone who managed to speak for about 10 minutes and at the same time managed to say absolutely nothing. I was supposed to be taking notes, and I kept asking myself, after every few sentences, “What has he actually said?”

Sometimes it reminds me of this “management-speak” that you get on a lot of recruitment posters for big companies. You know the sort of thing I mean:

“Kick-start YOUR career by helping us to find strategic solutions tailored towards a client-orientated global financial leader.” 

“This (grinning idiot, pictured jumping in a field, in his suit, with his work mates) could be you. You too can a key player in developing an innovative, people-centric management system for today’s commitment-driven, asset-focused businesses. Reach further, faster.”

The only thing I’ll be reaching for is the dictionary.

Young and, er, wild…

A quick trip to Cardiff for an interview for a place on the postgraduate diploma course in journalism – and, in response to the forthcoming question, I think it went OK and I’ll probably find out next week – and, at the Youth Hostel, I got my suit out of the suit bag…only to find it had crumpled inside. I had got up especially early that day in order to first wash then iron a shirt for this interview, so I was pissed off. “What’s the point of you being a suit bag” I fumed (at the suit bag) “if all you’re going to do is abandon your duties?! Well? No, don’t just shrug your shoulders like that. That’s not going to get the creases out of my shirt now, is it?”
I’m glad no-one entered the dormitory right then and caught me arguing with my suit bag.

So I had the interview in a shirt that had more creases than Keith Richards, but I hope they were paying more attention to articles rather than attire. I had a really nice evening following the interview, actually. At the YH when I got back there were a load of teenagers and my first thought was “Well that’s just great, isn’t it? A tiring and testing day and now a noisy rabble to contend with. Fantastic.”

Actually, though, they were all surprisingly well behaved, and as I was cooking my dinner and hadn’t yet been stabbed by one of the sharp meat knives, I struck up a conversation with a few of them and it turns out they were all Danish, on a school trip to find out about the UK. We ended up chatting for a good while, me telling them about my work in the Parliament and about the great times you have at university, and they told me all about Denmark and their school. It was a fascinating couple of hours. Eventually their teacher came in and reminded them that they were supposed to be in bed 15 minutes ago. They all lept to their feet, apologised to him profusely and scattered upstairs. It could have been such a different set of circumstances, with them coming back at 3 in the morning having been out all night finding out whether beer or wine bottles have the best impact when thrown against a shop window. They had, in fact, been sitting around a table, politely making conversation, and had forgot about the time. I was impressed.

Today I have been mostly…learning about the co-decision procedure and sampling Greek food and wine at a reception.

Still Life

Sardinia

Just back from Sardinia, where I joined my family who were staying near Stintino, in the North West of the island. As we went out of season, both Stintino and the surrounding area were deserted, giving the place a very “League-of-Gentlemen” feel: “Lei è locale?”

It reminded me in a way of where I come from, North West Wales. Beautiful scenery, absolutely packed with people in the summer months, and a bleak emptiness in the winter months. I began to wonder what would pass for news in Stintino, what would get the locals chatting excitedly in the shops, cafes and by the post box:

“Man Drops Keys Down Drain”

“Last Night’s Full Moon: Exclusive pictures inside!”

Speculating on what might constitute headline material in this remote part of Sardinia reminds me that North West Wales has itself produced some memorable “news” items recently:

Man rang 999 to report cold meal

Man gets breakfast tattoo on head

There comes a time when Scrabble clearly loses its appeal…

Taking risks…

With Marta at the Commission press area

 

Security seems to be this week’s theme. I wrote an article about security at football matches for the briefing before the plenary session in Brussels, and in the report the committee called for the establishment of national football information centres, which would exchange personal information with the police about high-risk supporters, in accordance with domestic and international rules governing the exchange of information.

I also forgot my identity pass twice this week, the second time much to the amusement of the man on the security desk:
“Do you mean, you’ve lost your ID badge? So you need to get a new one?” asked the security guard, wearily.
“No, sorry…I’ve just forgotten it, that’s all.”
“Wait a minute…didn’t you forget it yesterday as well?” he inquired, a slight grin forming at the corners of his mouth as he savoured the moment.
“Yes” I replied, sheepishly.
“Hang on, so you’ve not lost it” he continued, “Just forgotten it again. Yesterday…and now today.”
“That’s right, yep. Sorry…” I said. “If you think about it, though, forgetting things makes life a bit more exciting, in a way…”
(Rule 1: Don’t try and be funny in another language.)
“What? I don’t understand. Forgetting things is exciting?” he asked, bewildered.
“No, what I meant was, if you got everything right all the time, wouldn’t life be so boring?”
(I should have just shut up.)
“Do you like getting things wrong? I don’t understand.”
“No, I don’t like getting things wrong, exactly, but solving problems like forgetting stuff…makes life a bit richer.”
“Problems make life richer? Are you crazy?”
“Probably, yes. Could I have a Visitor’s Pass now, please?”

It reminded me of my first day at the Parliament when I managed to get into the main building without first registering for my ID card. As I was walking away from the first introductory meeting, the lady who was showing us around asked me where my ID card was. I told her I hadn’t got it yet, and after a short, puzzled pause she asked me how I had managed to enter the building without an ID card. Was I escorted by another member of staff?
“Not exactly”, I replied. “I just walked in.”
Maybe this answer would have carried less of an impact had I been clean-shaven, and without my a large rucksack covered in environmental campaign badges…
(The football security article – I wrote the second half- can be read here.)

From Sitting in Seminars to Sipping Champagne

European Parliament

 

Quite a busy first few days of properly getting stuck into my traineeship! The general atmosphere at the moment is hectic, with a police presence everywhere because it is the first meeting this year of the European Council (the Heads of State/Government of the Member States) on the 8th-9th March.

 

I drafted, as my first task, an article from a 27-page report on corporate social responsibility, and I’ve also produced my first genuine piece of work, a summary about the (slightly lighter, 17-page) report about the role of local authorities in the development process. I’ve been to a couple of introductory meetings, and also to an equal opportunities award ceremony, then on Wednesday afternoon I went to a three-hour seminar for journalists on Women Politicians and the Media. Wednesday evening, there was a nice social gathering for all the new stagiaires (work experience people) at a bar near the Parliament, and it was a great to chat with people of the same age, from all over Europe (I was only there for a couple of hours but had a good talk – sometimes in French, sometime in English – with a couple of Italians, a German, a Spaniard and a man from Finland).

The multilingualism is something which is particularly noticeable in the canteen at lunchtime. If you stop for a while, and just listen to the general buzz of conversation going on around the room, it’s almost impossible to make out what any individual is saying; anyone who might want to try and get a snatch of Parliament gossip would have a pretty tough job.

Today was International Women’s Day, so after registering at the Parliament’s library this morning I joined a small gathering in our building, where we had champagne and bread with olives and tomatoes as our own little celebration of the event. My champagne glass kept getting re-filled as I was talking to people, so in the end I’d had about three or four glasses of champagne and was feeling much more light-headed than when I entered the room!

My supervisor clearly has my best interests at heart, and, perhaps having anticipated my eager acceptance of champagne before midday, had already thought of a cunning plan to bring me back down to earth.

“If you could proof-read this before this afternoon” he said, handing me the Briefing document for next week’s Plenary Session. It was 40 pages long.

 

(By the way….you can find my article here.)

iCame…iSaw…iConquered

Heard about Apple’s new iPhone? Hard to avoid it, really. How about the man behind it (and chief executive of Apple), Mr Steve Jobs?

If you don’t know anything about him, it certainly seems like certain newspapers are trying their best to make sure people know what a great person he is.

In the Guardian a few weeks ago I saw an article about him, and here are just a few of the phrases the author used:

“Yet it’s an amazing experience to take part in a briefing with Steve.”

(So a meeting with Mr Jobs is up there with Skydiving and tripping on Acid, then.)

“…customers’ reverence for him usually overwhelms any hostility”

(Replace “customers” with “followers” and hey, it could be Jesus.)

“When Steve enters a room, everything stops and attention turns to him.”

(What, does he walk in without a head? Hideously deformed? Also, note that everything stops, apparently. Time itself, it seems, cannot continue without his permission.)

“When he walks in you get the feeling that he has sucked all the other thoughts out of the room.”

(That’s not really a good thing, though, is it? I mean, what use is a board meeting with a group of human vegetables, no longer capable of original thought?)

I mean, fair enough, he’s made Mac a cool brand to own (though from my experience a Mac is a bit like having a shiny silver toothbrush with no bristles…) and, of course, I’m sure the Korubo tribe of the Amazon own iPods by now…but all this emotive talk is a bit too flattering for just one person.



Copyright Matt Williams© 2006–2014. All rights reserved.

RSS Feed. This blog is proudly powered by Wordpress and uses Modern Clix, a theme by Rodrigo Galindez.