Archive for Language and the media

On whether prairie dogs can talk

Ferris Jabr recently published in the New York Times Magazine an interesting article about the field research of Con Slobodchikoff, professor emeritus of biology at Northern Arizona University, on prairie dog alarm calls. The article title is “Can Prairie Dogs Talk?

It is an interesting question. People who have read my earlier posts on animal communication have been pressing me to say something about my reaction to it. In this post I will do that. I will not be able to cover all the implications and ramifications of the question, of course; for one interesting discussion that has already appeared in the blogosphere, see this piece by Edmund Blair Bolles. But I will try to be careful and scholarly, and in an unusual departure (disappointingly, perhaps, to those who relished my bitterly sarcastic remarks on cow naming behavior), I will attempt to be courteous. Nonetheless, I will provide a clear and explicit answer to Jabr’s question.

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Those TED audiences expect to be entertained

And tickets are expensive, so they can be brutal if you offend them — “Pope warns powerful to act humbly or risk ruin in TED talk“, ABC News, 4/26/2017:

[h/t Michael Leddy]

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Explosive semantics

New images of MOAB denotation damage“, Fox News 4/25/2016:

The denotation damage has been estimated at nearly 20 kiloreferences. And the connotation damage, though not yet measured, is believed to be larger than from any explosion in recent decades.

[h/t Glenn Bingham]

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PR push for “Voice Stress Analysis” products?

A Craigslist ad posted 20 days ago — “Seeking a Blog Writer for Voice Stress Analysis Technology“:

We are looking for someone to ghostwrite blog posts and articles for a large company that specializes in computer-aided voice stress analysis technology or CVSA. We want you to primarily discuss the scientific research backing it up and the psychophysiological processes involved in implementing the technology. Basically, we want you to describe how it works, why it works, and why it is an effective technology, with everything backed up by scientific research and facts. […]

We are seeking a motivated, passionate, enthusiastic ghostwriter to craft blog articles ranging loosely from 750-900 words, that are valuable and informative to our target audience. Our audience for this client is law enforcement agencies, military, intelligence, immigration, and any other section of our government or private law practices that will be using investigative interviewing methods to screen subjects.

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Active seeming: dumb grammar fetishism yet again

Last January 21 The Economist actually printed a letter I wrote pointing out that how wirelessly to hack a car was a ridiculous way to say “how to wirelessly hack a car,” and resulted from a perverted and dimwitted obeisance to a zombie rule. But did they actually listen, and think about changing their ways? They did not. I have no idea how they manage to publish a beautiful magazine every Thursday night when they are so mentally crippled by eccentric 19th-century grammar edicts that they will commit syntactic self-harm rather than go against the prejudices of a few doddering old amateur grammarians in the middle 1800s who worried about the “split infinitive.” Take a look at this nonsense from the magazine’s leader in the issue of April 22, about UK prime minister Theresa May’s chances of having more flexibility after the general election she has called:

With a larger majority she can more easily stand up to her ultra-Eurosceptic backbenchers, some of whom seem actively to want Britain to crash out.

Seem actively??

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“Far beyond unconventional levels of dishonesty”

For the Washington Post opinion blog The Plum Line, Greg Sargent wrote: “The events of this week are revealing with a new level of clarity that President Trump and the White House have ventured far beyond unconventional levels of dishonesty.”

Obligatory screenshot:

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Beyond fluff

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VX in Chinese

By now practically the whole world knows that Kim Jong-nam, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s older half-brother, was killed by the extremely toxic nerve agent called VX.  VX is much more potent than sarin, which was used by the Aum Shinrikyo cult to kill 12 people and injure thousands of others in the Tokyo subway in 1995.  Apparently, it’s not clear why this series of nerve agents is called “V” ( “Victory”, “Venomous”, or “Viscous” are some of the possibilities).  Since research on these agents is restricted primarily to the military, not much is known about them in civilian circles.  Whatever the “V” stands for, and besides VX, other agents in the series include VE, VG, VM, and VR.

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Look at me

In his meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, President Trump received contradictory instructions about where to look.

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Malapropism of the week

Jessica Taylor & Danielle Kurtzleben, “This week in Trump’s ‘Alternative Facts’“, NPR 1/29/2017

Less than 24 hours after White House press secretary had spouted numerous falsehoods about inauguration crowd size and more, Kellyanne Conway went on NBC’s “Meet the Press” to defend him. In the process, the counselor to President Donald Trump coined a phrase that’s now deigned to follow Trump throughout his presidency — “alternative facts.”

I imagine that they meant “destined”, not “deigned”.

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The temperature is struggling

I commented back in 2008 on the ridiculous vagueness of some of the brief weather forecast summaries on BBC radio (“pretty miserable by and large,” and so on). I do sometimes miss the calm, scientific character of American weather forecasts, with their precise temperature range predictions and exact precipitation probabilities. In recent days, on BBC Radio 4’s morning news magazine program, I have heard an official meteorologist guy from the weather center saying not just vague things like “a weather front trying to get in from the north Atlantic,” or “heading for something a little bit warmer as we move toward the weekend,” but (more than once) a total baffler: “The temperature is going to be struggling.” What the hell is that about?

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Editing wars at London Bridge Street

As of the time of writing, you only get one hit if you ask Google to show you all the pages on the web containing the word sequence in order legally to minimise. That lone hit leads you to an anonymous leader in The Times (there is a paywall) in which this sentence occurs:

Companies are gaming the system in order legally to minimise their tax liability.

The highly unnatural syntax has the hallmark of having been created or edited by someone who would rather poison a puppy than allow an adverb to intrude between infinitival to and its following plain-form verb. But in this case there is more to the story.

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One last (?) piece of nonsense

Callum Borchers, “Count Obama’s references to ‘I’ and ‘me’ while you can, conservative media“, WaPo 1/18/2017:

For eight years, tracking Obama’s use of the personal pronouns “I” and “me” has been a cherished ritual in the conservative media — one small way to promote the idea that the president is self-centered and therefore out of touch with all the decent, hard-working folks out there. […]

Last week, the Daily Caller dinged Obama for referring to himself 75 times in his farewell address.

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