Tag Archives: Winston Churchill

The vocoder, the linguistic robot and the Dead Rabbit

This is how it didn’t happen: Winston Churchill is at home tapping his toes to his favorite Afrika Bambaataa number. The robot-like distortion of the vocals means that Britain’s most famous cigar afficionado cannot make out the lyric. “Hmm,” he thinks. “If only FDR and I could speak through a device like that during our top-secret transatlantic phone conversations.”

Writer Dave Tompkins will tell you how it really went down in this week’s pod (For one thing, Afrika Bambaataa was seven years old when Churchill died). Tompkins’ book tells the the story of the vocoder, from World War Two-era voice scrambler to Hip Hop toy.  Along the way, it was used to give voice to daleks, the mortal enemies of British TV sci-fi hero Doctor Who.  You may laugh, but for my generation of Brits, who grew up on Doctor Who,  daleks were way scarier than Darth Vader.  And just like Darth Vader, it was all about the voice.

Also in the pod: English teachers in South Korea don’t come cheap. Schools often have to fly them in from abroad, and then house them. The Hagjeong Primary School in Daegu is trying a cheaper alternative: a robot.  The rotund yellow and white device — think of it as a benign dalek — is  hooked up via teleconference to the Philippines, where an English teacher conducts the class through a video monitor. (I don’t know whether the robot’s “face,” a picture of a female, is a photo of the outsourced Philippino teacher, or just a generic image).  The students like the robot and its teaching style,  though it may be many years before its effectiveness can be measured. Check out this video.

Press freedoms ebb and flow around the world. We ran a report recently on the improved situation in Tunisia. In China, authorities  relaxed limits on the foreign reporters before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Now, with the uprisings in the Middle East and a would-be uprising in China, many foreign reporters are hounded, even roughed up, by the Chinese government. We check in with our correspondent Mary Kay Magistad.

Finally, the “marketing genius” who transformed the fortunes of the German herb-and-spice flavored digestif, Jägermeister.  This was a drink originally marketed to German hunters (Jägermeister means  senior forester or gamekeeper). But how many German hunters are there? Company executive Günter Mast decided a rebranding was in order. The rest is barely-remembered history, an alcoholic haze of campus parties, fuelled by mixed drinks with names like the Jägerbomb, the  Mexican Afterburner and the Dead Rabbit.

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Photos: Wikicommons, Jason Strother

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Diplomatic insults, click languages, Harry Potter in France, and cucumber season

chavezThis week, the nuanced — and sometimes not so nuanced — world of diplomatic insults: we hurl a few your way, coutesy of Hugo Chavez, Hillary Clinton and Winston Churchill. There’s also an overheated exhange in the British parliament between then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and leader of the opposition Neil Kinnock, which goes something like this:  insult (Thatcher), outraged indignation (Kinnock), quasi-retraction (Thatcher).

We follow this with news of so-called click languages. My colleague David Cohn has been finding out about these and he’s posted some thoughts and links in the science section of The World’s website. Here’s the headline: linguists have figured out how to decipher and classify clicks— and some languages have a huge number of of them. Just as well that the linguists are discovering this now. Some of these languages are about to kick the bucket. You can listen to the sounds of one of them here.

cucumberNext up, that underestimated vegetable the  cucumber.  Norwegian is one of several languages (Dutch, Polish and German are others) that appropriate the word cucumber to describe what we English speakers call silly season. That’s the time of the year — now, as it happens — when we in the news media resort to covering shark attacks,  dogs reunited with their owners, and astronauts’ underwear. (Actually, we do these stories year-round, but during the silly season, they wind up on the front page). Norwegians and others supposedly put  cucumber harvest season on their front pages. No wonder newspapers are in trouble.

Finally, many French fans of Harry Potter novels read the books in English. Or at least they did before the books were translated into French.

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