Epic eye-roll

Everybody's talking about the eye-roll of the century, the eye-roll that has gone wildly viral in China.  It's undoubtedly the most exciting thing that happened at the Two Sessions of the National People's Congress (NPC) that began on March 5 and will most likely end soon.  It was a foregone conclusion that President Xi Jinping would be crowned de facto Emperor for Life and that his "thought" would be enshrined in the constitution.  What was not expected was a brief but epochal roll of the eyes on the part of one female reporter, Liang Xiangyi 梁相宜 (dressed in blue — I'll call her Ms. Blue or [Ms.] Liang), when another female reporter, Zhang Huijun 张慧君 (dressed in red — I'll call her Ms. Red or [Ms.] Zhang), went on too long and too effusively with her fawning question to a high-ranking CCP official.

You see, everything at the NPC is supposed to be scripted and orchestrated.  There aren't supposed to be any surprises.  Yet, as you can see for yourself, Ms. Liang could not hide her true emotions, which are painfully evident at 0:36 in the following 0:44 video — with an increasingly dramatic buildup to the moment of her monumental recoil:

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Learning curves: up and down, steep and shallow

Daniel Drezner, "Five thoughts about the firing of Rex Tillerson", WaPo 3/13/2018 [emphasis added]:

There is no signature idea or doctrine or accomplishment that Tillerson can point to as part of his legacy. He was woefully unprepared for the job on Day One and barely moved down the learning curve. His incompetence undercut his ability to advance any worthwhile policy instinct.

My reaction on reading this passage was that Drezner should have written that Tillerson "barely moved up the learning curve". As we'll see, this opposition in directional metaphors is apparently a cultural difference between psychology and economics, or maybe among a more complicated set of academic subgroups.  And while I was looking into this issue of directionality, I was reminded of another curious quirk of learning-curve metaphors that I've been meaning to write about for a while, namely the inverted meaning of "steep".

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Dung Times

There's a roundly execrated publication of the CCP called Global Times in English.  The Chinese name is Huánqiú shíbào 环球时报.  Associated with the People's Daily, it is infamous for its extreme, provocative, anti-Indian, anti-Japanese, anti-Western (especially anti-American) editorials and articles.

Now it seems that some Indian Tweeps are referring to the Global Times as "Gobar Times", using Hindi  gobar गोबर ("cow-dung") to mimic the sound and the sentiment the name evokes. A tweet by Donald Clarke calls our attention to this fecal phenomenon.

Here it is in use.

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Anti-MSM sentiment in Sichuan

Photograph of a slide shown during a lecture at a university in Sichuan:

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Overheard just now…

…in Alta, Utah, where I'm conducting field research into how many words skiers have for snow, evidence of the polysemousness of Twitter:

Do you want to know what her Twitter is? [Apparently meaning 'her Twitter handle']

I have a Twitter. [By the same guy, apparently meaning 'a Twitter account']

Extra added bonus: I'm writing this on my iPad, and the autocorrect suggestion for polysemousness was polysemous nests, which for some reason I kinda like.

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The end of the line for Mandarin Phonetic Symbols?

Just as all school children in the PRC learn to read and write through Hanyu Pinyin ("Sinitic spelling"), the official romanization on the mainland, so do all school children in Taiwan learn to read and write with the aid of what is commonly referred to as "Bopomofo ㄅㄆㄇㄈ "), after the first four letters of this semisyllabary.  The system has many other names, including "Zhùyīn fúhào 注音符號" ("[Mandarin] Phonetic Symbols"), its current formal designation, as well as earlier names such as Guóyīn Zìmǔ 國音字母 ("Phonetic Alphabet of the National Language") and Zhùyīn Zìmǔ 註音字母 ( "Phonetic Alphabet" or "Annotated Phonetic Letters").  From the plethora of names, you can get an idea of what sort of system it is.  I usually think of it as a cross between an alphabet and a syllabary.

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Candidate for careless Whorfian nonsense of the year

Earlier today, I discussed (or at least linked to) a serious econometric study arguing that the morphology of future time reference is meaningfully correlated — perhaps causally correlated — with the distribution of attitudes towards "willingness to take climate action" ("The latest on the Whorfian morphology of time"). A short time later, with the radio playing in the background as I worked, I heard an extraordinary example of (what I take to be) the sort of media-buzz nonsense that gives discussions of linguistic relativity such a bad reputation among serious people.

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The latest on the Whorfian morphology of time

Take a look at Astghik Mavisakalyan, Clas Weber, and Yashar Tarverdi, "Future tense: how the language you speak influences your willingness to take climate action", The Conversation 3/7/2018, which is a re-presentation for a general intellectual audience of a technical paper by the same authors that appeared a month earlier,:Astghik Mavisakalyan, Yashar Tarverdi, and Clas Weber, "Talking in the Present, Caring for the Future: Language and Environment", Journal of Comparative Economics February 2018.

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Don't skunk me, bro!

At Arrant Pedantry, Jonathon Owen continues the conversation about begs the question (Skunked Terms and Scorched Earth). Citing my previous post Begging the question of whether to use "begging the question", Jonathon describes me as writing that "the term should be avoided, either because it’s likely to be misunderstood or because it will incur the wrath of sticklers." I wouldn't put it that way; I did quote Mark Liberman's statement to that effect, and I did note that I had, in an instance I was discussing, decided to follow that advice, but I don't think I went so far as to offer advice to others.

As it happens, I'm meeting Jonathon for lunch (and for the first time) later today. I'm in Utah, where the law-and-corpus-linguistics conference put on by the Brigham Young law school was held yesterday, near where Jonathon lives. So I will have it out with him over the aspersion he has cast on my descriptivist honor.

Despite my peeve about Jonathon's post, it's worth reading. He discusses the practice of declaring a word or phrase "skunked".  As far as I know, that is a practice engaged in mainly by Bryan Garner, who offers this description of the phenomenon of skunking: “When a word undergoes a marked change from one use to another . . . it’s likely to be the subject of dispute. . . . A word is most hotly disputed in the middle part of this process: any use of it is likely to distract some readers. . . . The word has become 'skunked.'”

Jonathan writes, "Many people find this a useful idea, but it has always rubbed me the wrong way." He explains:

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The elegance of Google Translate

When I was in graduate school, some of my best friends were mathematicians.  I was always intrigued by their approach to problem solving.  They told me that merely solving problems was not satisfying to them.  Rather, their goal was to solve problems elegantly.

This morning, I was reminded of the modus operandi of mathematicians when I asked Google Translate (GT) to render a short passage of German into English.

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AI hallucinations

Tom Simonite, "AI has a hallucination problem that's proving tough to fix", Wired 3/9/2018:

Tech companies are rushing to infuse everything with artificial intelligence, driven by big leaps in the power of machine learning software. But the deep-neural-network software fueling the excitement has a troubling weakness: Making subtle changes to images, text, or audio can fool these systems into perceiving things that aren’t there.

Simonite's article is all about "adversarial attacks", where inputs are adjusted iteratively to hill-climb towards an impressively (or subversively) wrong result. But anyone who's been following the "Elephant semifics" topic on this blog knows that for Google's machine translation, at least, spectacular hallucinations can be triggered by shockingly simple inputs: random strings of vowels, the Vietnamese alphabet, repetitions of single hiragana characters, random Thai keyboard banging, etc.

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Characterless future

Browser extensions sometimes can cause unexpected problems, e.g.:

"The Time of Shedding and Cold Rocks" (3/7/18).

Often, however, they can be very helpful if they do what you want them to do.

Jonathan Smith writes:

Do you use the web browser Chrome? If so try adding the extension "Convert Chinese to Pinyin (Mand)". It does a decent job converting Chinese-language web pages to word-spaced pinyin (with tone marks if desired) so one can pretend one lives in a characterless future :D

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Usefully strong language

Today's Random Crab:

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