Tag Archives: Linguistics

Nursery Rhymes: History’s Most Viral Startup?

(This is a copy of my weekly column for newspapers and radio.)

As the father of a child born in the era between the first and second iPads, I am made acutely aware that technology is driving baby rearing–just as it is driving everything else. But I find the field surprisingly uneven.

Nappies, for example. They’re definitely easier than in my day: Even I can change one. They carry logos of Winnie the Pooh and other lovable characters–all presumably a little surprised to find themselves so close, as it were, to the waterline. There are little adhesive strips on the side and wingtips for extra coverage and flair. All very nice, but I’m surprised not to find sensors, in there to register changes in, er, volume or aroma.

After all, we’ve got digital thermometers, digital bottle warmers, digital breastpumps, digital sterilizers, digital swings. I’ve counted more than 100 iPhone programs, or apps, simply for nursery rhymes. A British company has just launched an application that will let a harried father, marooned at work, recite a nursery rhyme over his iPhone which is then synchronized with a remote iPad application where his bed-ready daughter can watch the simulated action unfold—Jack falling down the hill, Humpty Dumpty falling off the wall, Baa Baa Black Sheep taking orders for wool.

I’m all for this: Walking into a baby store now is little different to walking into an electronics store.  I’d love to see more of this: I already record little ditties that then loop around so I can go wander off and prepare milk, brush my teeth, write columns, before my offspring notices. It’s not exactly quality time but the recording quality is excellent.

The bit that I don’t get are the nursery rhymes. Everything else is so, well contemporary, and we’re singing ditties that go back to the 14th century? Most of them of questionable taste: throwing people down the stairs for not saying their prayers? Cutting off tails? Marching soldiers up and down hills for no good reason?

I wondered whether this kind of thing was what I wanted my little cherub to know about. So I looked into it. Turns out, as you may know, that a lot of these rhymes were politically subversive. Often they were dangerous parodies of the ruling class. By making them look like they were for kids not only made them seem harmless, but made them easier to pass around and thereby spread.

It was then I realised that nursery rhymes were the social media of their day—a way to distribute information through peer networks with some protection from the powers that be. When one of the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 gave a sermon on Blackheath he started, simply, with a two line rhyme, asking whether any ruling class existed in the Garden of Eden: “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” This was easy to grasp and easy to pass on, and the movement grew.

Nursery rhymes as a  harbinger of the political power of Facebook and Twitter? As long as we keep learning the words to Goosey Goosey Gander I guess we’ll have to acknowledge their abiding power. Helped on, a little, by our iPads, iPhones and other digital rearing technologies. I stand corrected: Still going centuries on, nursery rhymes are about as viral a technology as you can get.

Translate This

I’m a sucker for this kind of thing: Translator Boomerang (thanks, Satya), which translates from English into a foreign language and then back again, just for laughs, really (I suppose one could say something pompous about how this reflects the difficulty of translation etc.):

Google Translator Boomerang is a silly little program that uses the Google Translation engine to translate your english text to foreign languages and then back again into english, for some amusing results.

Here’s how it mangles “How are things going? I imagine you’re having an interesting day” (yes, I know it wasn’t that imaginative; it’s early), from Korean and back into English:

How live I you am sending the day when there is this fun imagine the thing

Meanwhile “Dude, where’s my car” returns from Chinese as “My car at a later”. Exactly.

Headsets Get the Bling Treatment

A few weeks back on my WSJ.com column (subscription only; I’ll update you when it’s out on the BBC World Service) I explored the world of bling cellphones, including the Vertu range, the Kathrine Baumann “Wireless Wardrobe” Collection (inexplicably that collection is now password-protected since I last visited), the fancy wooden Mobiado range, and the diamond-encrusted, gold-set Samsung. I guess it was inevitable that headsets would start getting the bling treatment, and here’s the first: the Dimante Pink Bluetooth Headset (via Red Ferret:


The Pama P7008 Bluetooth headset comes with the usual Bluetooth Version 1.2 compliancy, with Headset & Handsfree Profiles, One Button action, up to 5 hours talk time and 200 hours standby, weighs “just 12.7g”, and is the Ideal Bluetooth Hands Free Kit Gift for the Woman in your Life! (it says here).

Frankly I feel insulted. Why can’t us fellas have one? The only problem I can see is that with all that bling on your ear, aren’t you becoming a walking mugging invitation?

Of course you might be asking yourself why a diamond-encrusted handsfree weighs the same as an ordinary headset and costs about the same (£47.95, or $84) as an ordinary headset. That’s because of the $17 Crystal Bling Design Kit which lets you jazz up your accessories — from cellphones to iPods — with little bits of shiny crap, sorry, Crystal Diamante. I think I’m going to bling up my Treo 650.

News: Trademarks, Slaps In The Face and McJobs

 An interesting tale that is not that technology-oriented, but illustrates how stories now tend to unfold in real time, in front of everyone, leaving less and less wiggle-room for companies and institutions involved. Merriam-Webster, The Register says, is revising a web page for its online Collegiate Dictionary after a McDonalds executive complained about the inclusion of the word ‘McJob’. The publisher, however, insists that the two events are not related, and says the word remained in the dictionary and would be restored online.

Update: Microsoft Deny Bursting

 Here’s Microsoft’s take on the Burst.com case I mentioned in a previous posting. Would the correct version please stand up? In a nutshell it comes down to the question: did Microsoft deliberately erase weeks of emails from all servers and backups related to the case?
Winnet.mag quotes a Microsoft spokesman as denying that a judge ordered Microsoft to turn over “missing emails” and said that Burst.com’s account of that part of the trial is inaccurate and groundless. “Their fundamental premise, that there were missing emails from a specific period of time, is simply wrong. [At the hearing, we] discussed a routine discovery issue arising from the fact that not every email sent or received gets saved. [The judge] simply directed us to do a more thorough search of our backup files to search for any emails that, as a matter of business routine, were not saved elsewhere.” This is either spin out of control, or Robert X. Cringely’s version is wrong.

News: You’re a Bad, Bad Owner

 From the This Gadget May Well Tell More Than I Really Want To Know About My Pet Dept, a Japanese company that produced the world’s first dog translator is working on a similar device for cats. An article at ComputerWorld’s website says that Japan’s Takara Co. Ltd. is working on a the Meowlingual, that “will have some of the same functions as the company’s Bowlingual translator including the ability to “translate” cat calls into one of around 200 phrases that are displayed on a built-in LCD”.
There will also be body-language analysis and medical-analysis functions, a new feline fortune telling function and other features that are still under development, said Takara on Wednesday. It is due to go on sale in November this year and will cost ¥8,800 (US$75). Bowlingual, which went on sale in Japan in September 2002, has sold around 300,000 units and an English version is due out in the U.S. in August. Here’s a company that’s already selling it.