Archive for Language and the media

Himba color perception

Below is an email message from Steve Mah, posted with his permission. It follows up on my post "It's not easy seeing green", 3/2/2015, about the experiment on Himba color perception shown in the 2011 BBC documentary "Do you see what I see?" (video available here).  I've also appended an earlier email from Jules Davidoff to Paul Kay, telling essentially the same story:  This striking "experiment" was a dramatization, and the description of its "results" was invented by the authors of the documentary, and not proposed or endorsed by the scientists involved.

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It's not easy seeing green

The whole dress that melted the internet thing has brought back a curious example of semi-demi-science about a Namibian tribe that can't distinguish green and blue, but does differentiate kinds of green that look just the same to us Westerners. This story has been floating around the internets for several years, in places like the BBC and the New York Times and BoingBoing and RadioLab, and it presents an impressive-seeming demonstration of the power of language to shape our perception of the world.  But on closer inspection, the evidence seems to melt away, and the impressive experience seems to be wildly over-interpreted or even completely invented.

I caught the resurrection of this idea in Kevin Loria's article "No one could see the color blue until modern times", Business Insider 2/27/2015, which references a RadioLab episode on Colors that featured those remarkable Namibians. Loria uses them to focus on that always-popular question "do you really see something if you don't have a word for it?"

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We play Haydn until the sun comes up

Kevin Knight wrote that "our approach to syntax in machine translation is best described in D. Barthelme's short story 'They called for more structure'", and a few days ago, Jason Eisner described what Kevin meant. So in the same spirit,  here's Donald Barthelme on the past future of journalism,  originally published under the title "Pepperoni" in the New Yorker, in the 12/1/1980 issue, and reprinted in Overnight to Many Distant Cities, 1983, under the title "Financially, the paper. . ."

Financially, the paper is quite healthy. The paper's timberlands, mining interests, pulp and paper operations, book, magazine, corrugated-box, and greeting-card divisions, film, radio, television, and cable companies, and data-processing and satellite-communications groups are all flourishing, with over-all return on invested capital increasing at about eleven per cent a year. Compensation of the three highest-paid officers and directors last year was $399,500, $362,700, and $335,400 respectively, exclusive of profit-sharing and pension-plan accruals.

But top management is discouraged and saddened, and middle management is drinking too much. Morale in the newsroom is fair, because of the recent raises, but the shining brows of the copy boys, traditional emblems of energy and hope, have begun to display odd, unattractive lines. At every level, even down into the depths of the pressroom, where the pressmen defiantly wear their square dirty folded-paper caps, people want management to stop what it is doing before it is too late.

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More on Boca Raton vs. Boko Haram

Following up on yesterday's post about Representative Paul Gosar's substitution of "Boca Raton" for "Boko Haram" ("Boko Haram, Boca Raton, whatever", 25/16/2015), I wanted to check the recording, since I know that journalist's direct quotes are often unreliable. I found the interview here (Paul Gosar interviewed by Carol Costello on CNN's Newsroom, Tuesday 2/10/2015; complete audio here), and transcribed the relevant Q&A:

Carol_Costello: If- if- if the family um I- I believe ISIS asked for a ransom for Kayla, should the U.S. government have considered that?
Paul Gosar: Well here's your problem, once you start doing that, then everybody, every American citizen traveling abroad becomes a- a subject
in regards for kidnapping and then the plight of we see uh
how much money has been uh cap- captivated in the Boca Raton uh uh group
uh there's liberties and freedoms that we have here in- in the United States
and it's a very hard choice but uh there's- there's consequences when we leave around the country, but that's why we have to hold people accountable for the injustices they do to humanity
um
but there's got to be a consistent policy, it's- it's heart breaking and heart wrenching
to see that people would attack those who only give the very best of humanity
uh for the plight of those people in war-torn areas
um or suffering debilitating diseases but
uh this makes it very very difficult uh on behalf of the- the security of this country and the future of- of terrorists

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The latest word soup from the Bloomberg headline crew

Bloomberg News headlines, as we've observed in the past, often sound like they've been written by someone with a bizarre journalistic strain of aphasia. Consider, as representative samples, "Ebola Fear Stalks Home Hunt for Quarantined Now Released" and "Madonna Addicted to Sweat Dance Plugs Toronto Condos: Mortgages." The latest specimen is especially inscrutable:

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The Shanghai Stampede: incident or accident?

On New Year's Eve, a fatal stampede broke out on the Bund in Shanghai.  Many people died (see below for a discussion of the total number) and many more were injured, some seriously.

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Stylometric analysis of the Sony Hacking

The question of who was behind the hacking of Sony peaked a couple of weeks ago, but it is still a live issue.  The United States government insists that it was the North Koreans who did it:

"Chief Says FBI Has No Doubt That North Korea Attacked Sony" (New York Times — January 8, 2015)

James B. Comey, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said on Wednesday that no one should doubt that the North Korean government was behind the destructive attack on Sony’s computer network last fall.

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Computers to become 10 times more powerful in 2015

With respect to to a headline in the Washington Post yesterday (Jason Samenow, "Weather Service forecasting computers to become 10 times more powerful in 2015", Washington Post 1/5/2015), Eugene Volokh writes:

My first thought:  Come now – how would computers generally become 10 times more powerful just in the span of a year?  (In the span of five years, according to Moore’s law, maybe).  

My second thought:  Since when is the Weather Service forecasting trends in computing technology?  

My third thought, shamefully after I clicked on the link:  Ah, it’s the Service’s computers used for forecasting that are going to be upgraded to top-of-the-line models.

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Chinese-French dictionary

The obligatory screenshot:

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Location Man

Following up on Andy Bodle's exegesis of headlinese, we should take a look at the Florida Man meme:

Florida Man is a Twitter feed that curates news headline descriptions of bizarre domestic incidents involving a male subject residing in the state of Florida. The tweets are meant to be humorously read as if they were perpetrated by a single individual dubbed “the world’s worst superhero.”

Headlines beginning "Florida man" are indeed often bizarre, though not always domestic. From the current Google News index:

"Florida man causes hospital fire by smoking crack while hooked to oxygen"
"Florida Man Accidentally Kills Self While Threatening Wife’s Dog"
"Florida man leads police on 90-minute chase in stolen front-end loader"
"Florida Man arrested for stealing 6.5 pounds of cow tongue from Wal-Mart"
"Florida man fakes heart attack to steal Barbie car from Wal-Mart"
"Florida man busted for cooking up meth in park restroom"
"Florida Man Plunges Through Bakery Ceiling In Failed Robbery Attempt"
"Florida man dies after falling from ropes course at shopping mall"
"Florida man accused of cutting puppy's ears off"
"Florida man steals chain saw by sticking it in his pants, police say"
"Florida man jailed for forcing his girlfriend and three children to live with dead body while he claimed the deceased woman's social security benefits"
"Florida Man pisses on living room floor during family Thanksgiving dinner"
"Florida Man Takes Saddest Mugshot Ever After Riding His Bike Drunk Through a Taco Bell Drive-Thru"

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The moos you can moo

Geoff Pullum, always forthright, looks at some typical journalistic anthropomorphisms about animal communication and calls them "lies" ("Now it's cows that use names (sigh)", LLOG 12/20/2014):

The bottom line is that when it comes to language, journalists simply make stuff up. They are shockingly careless in all sorts of ways (in accuracy of quotations, for example, as Mark has pointed out many times), but when it comes to animal language it's far worse than that. They actually print what are obviously lies, even when the text of the same article makes it clear that they are lying.

I was curious about the background of this case, which as Geoff notes is a particular instance of a generic class of untruths, so I looked into it a bit more closely.

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Sony hacker language

Everybody is in a tizzy over the hacking of Sony Pictures.  Most people assume that North Korea was behind the hacking, which caused Sony Pictures to withdraw "The Interview" shortly before it was supposed to open in theaters.

Some of the coverage: "U.S. Intelligence Connects North Korea to Sony Hack: Reports", Newsweek 12/17/14; "A Look At North Korea's Cyberwar Capabilities", Huffington Post 12/18/14; "Obama May Have Forced Sony To Release 'The Interview'", Business Insider12/20/14.

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Now it's cows that use names (sigh)

According to a sub-headline in Full-Time Whistle, new scientific research has shown that "Cows and their calves communicate using individualised calls equivalent to human names."

How interesting. Cows have enough linguistic sophistication to employ the high-level device of personal naming? Let us delve into the details just a little, without moving away from the article itself.

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