Archive for February, 2012

Flight

Alexander Burns, "Obama super PAC to advertise in Ohio", Politico 2/28/2012:

The pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action is poised to start airing ads in Ohio, according to a source monitoring the 2012 air war.

Priorities USA has already put down $61,530 in the Columbus media market for a flight running March 1-6. That's a small sum compared with what Republican groups are spending — the Romney super PAC Restore Our Future has a $1,130,750 TV and radio flight running Feb. 27-March 6 — but it's probably going to be enough to drive a narrative Democrats are looking for.

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Distances among genres and authors

Jon Gertner, "True Innovation", NYT 2/25/2012

At Bell Labs, the man most responsible for the culture of creativity was Mervin Kelly. [...] In 1950, he traveled around Europe, delivering a presentation that explained to audiences how his laboratory worked.

His fundamental belief was that an “institute of creative technology” like his own needed a “critical mass” of talented people to foster a busy exchange of ideas. But innovation required much more than that. Mr. Kelly was convinced that physical proximity was everything; phone calls alone wouldn’t do. Quite intentionally, Bell Labs housed thinkers and doers under one roof. Purposefully mixed together on the transistor project were physicists, metallurgists and electrical engineers; side by side were specialists in theory, experimentation and manufacturing. Like an able concert hall conductor, he sought a harmony, and sometimes a tension, between scientific disciplines; between researchers and developers; and between soloists and groups.

One element of his approach was architectural. He personally helped design a building in Murray Hill, N.J., opened in 1941, where everyone would interact with one another. Some of the hallways in the building were designed to be so long that to look down their length was to see the end disappear at a vanishing point. Traveling the hall’s length without encountering a number of acquaintances, problems, diversions and ideas was almost impossible. A physicist on his way to lunch in the cafeteria was like a magnet rolling past iron filings.

I started work at Murray Hill in 1975, nine years after someone staged that picture of white lab coats extending to the vanishing point. And even though my first office was in an unused chemistry lab, I don't recall ever seeing more than an occasional pragmatic lab coat —  whoever staged the photograph was apparently using the same lab-coat=scientist iconography as a couple of generations of cartoonists and movie-makers.  But I can certainly attest to the  value of hallway and lunchroom serendipity.

These days, some of the same serendipitous conversational cross-fertilization comes from random encounters in the corridors and cafeterias of the internet.

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The "sports subjunctive": neither sports-related nor subjunctive

The so-called sports subjunctive (discussed some years ago on Language Log as the "baseball conditional") has been in the news, and was discussed in this post by Mark Liberman. I'm quite sure Mark is right in his interpretation of the crucial example under discussion (Judge Martin did not claim to be a Muslim, he used a colloquial counterfactual conditional with the meaning "if I were a Muslim"); but rarely has a construction been so badly named. "Sports subjunctive" is not a good term; nor is Barbara Partee's "baseball conditional"; nor Mark's suggested "sports conditional". We should resist adopting any of them.

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The baseball conditional in the Zombie Mohammed case

Last Wednesday, the judge in the "Zombie Mohammed" case dismissed a charge of harassment against Talaag Elbayomy for attacking Ernest Perce V during a Halloween parade in Mechanicsburg PA. Mr. Pence, a member of the Parading Atheists of Central PA, was costumed and labelled as "Zombie Mohammed", marching next to a "Zombie Pope" who was not attacked. There's been an extensive discussion of this case over at The Volokh Conspiracy (here, here, and here).

Mr. Perce apparently recorded the hearing (without permission from the judge, whose name is Mark Martin) and posted it on YouTube. Eugene Volokh linked to the recording and noted:

Commenters have queried whether the judge is actually Muslim; I think that at 31:25 in this audio he does expressly say “I’m a Muslim, I find it very offensive,” and not in a context where a “not” seems to be lost or somehow implied; but some commenters disagree, partly based on other passages in the audio — if you’re interested, check out the discussion in the comment thread. Naturally, I think the judge’s condemnation of the victim is out of place (and casts doubt on the judge’s objectivity in his decision about the defendant) whether or not the judge is a Muslim. [NOTE: The judge, in the message below, says he is not a Muslim.]

The question at issue here is not whether the charges against Mr. Elbayomy should or should not have been dismissed, nor whether the lecture that Judge Martin directed against Mr. Perce was or was not appropriate. What I hope to explain is why, if Judge Martin is not in fact a Muslim (apparently he's a Lutheran), he seems to have said "I'm a Muslim".

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Three scenes in the life of "meh"

When I first posted here in 2006 about the indifferent interjection meh ("Meh-ness to society") I never imagined that this unobtrusive monosyllable would provide such rich linguistic fodder for years to come. I returned to it in 2007 ("Awwa, meh, feh, heh") and 2008 ("Mailbag Friday: 'Meh'" on the Visual Thesaurus; "The 'meh' wars" and "The 'meh' wars, part 2" here). But the meh well has hardly run dry: in today's Boston Globe, I have a column on "The meh generation" that sheds some new light on the exclamation's history and current use.

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Filosofia monosillabica

[Tip of the hat to Andrea Mazzucchi.]

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"No less X"

Joe Nocera, "A Revolutionary Idea", NYT 2/24/2012:

Puritans fled to America in the 1600s because they were being persecuted in England for their hard-edged, Calvinist beliefs, and their rejection of the Anglican Church. Having one’s ears cut off for having deviationist religious beliefs was one of the lesser punishments Puritans suffered; being locked up in the Tower of London, where death was a near certainty, was not uncommon.

Yet Winthrop and the other Puritans did not arrive on the shores of Massachusetts hungering for religious freedom. Rather, Winthrop’s “city on a hill” was meant to be, in Barry’s words, “an authoritative and theocentric state,” no less tolerant of any deviation of Puritan theology than England had been toward the Puritans.

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Facts and fables

In this week's NYT book review section, Jennifer B. McDonald offer a fascinating and well-crafted review of what sounds like an interesting book ("In the Details: ‘The Lifespan of a Fact,’ by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal"):

Under consideration in this essay is “The Lifespan of a Fact,” which is less a book than a knock-down, drag-out fight between two tenacious combatants, over questions of truth, belief, history, myth, memory and forgetting. In one corner is Jim Fingal, who as an intern for the literary magazine The Believer in 2005 (or it might have been 2003 — sources disagree) signed on for what he must have thought would be a straightforward task: fact-checking a 15-page article. In the other corner is D’Agata, who thought he had made a deal with The Believer to publish not just an article but a work of Art — an essay already rejected by Harper’s Magazine because of “factual inaccuracies” — that would find its way to print unmolested by any challenge to its veracity. “Lifespan” is the scorecard from their bout, a reproduction of their correspondence over the course of five (or was it seven?) years of fact-checking.

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I think he means it

Last week, I discussed Senator Rick Santorum's plan to prevent government interference in education by imposing a federal requirement for accreditation of ideological balance in teaching ("A new opportunity for linguists", 2/20/2012). I saw this a major source of new jobs for linguists, though I also worried about the impact on the teaching loads of conservative faculty members, and also on the possibility of the vetting process being outsourced to the large pool of experienced and under-employed accreditors in places like the former Soviet Union and its satellites, where up to a quarter of university staff were on retainer to accreditation agencies such as the Stasi or the KGB. In the end, though, I decided that neither the opportunities and the perils were serious, since the proposal was really just a joke, meant to make liberals think twice about things like Title IX constraints on sex inequalities in collegiate athletics.

But Thursday evening, Senator Santorum gave a long interview to Glenn Beck; and at around 33:50 of the version on YouTube, they discussed at some length the idea of enforcing ideological balance in higher education. And this version didn't sound like a joke.

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DARE

Time to celebrate the appearance of the last volume (5) of the Dictionary of American Regional English! Brief account on my blog, here; more extensive account on DARE's site, here.

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Passive-aggressive maybe, but not passive

You're the prime minister of Australia. (Well, you're not, actually, but this is my little rhetorical way of plunging you imaginatively in medias res. I want you to imagine that you're the prime minister of Australia.) Your foreign minister is a former prime minister that you ousted from the leadership in 2010, and now a bitter rival who looks like he's plotting to get back the leadership. You haven't been exactly assiduous in publicly rebutting criticisms of him emanating from your wing of the party, because frankly you wouldn't piss on him if he caught fire. He suddenly decides, while on a trip overseas representing the country, that he's had enough of the insults and attacks, and it's time to make his play. So he resigns his ministerial post and announces his resignation to a press conference at 1:30 a.m. in Washington DC so as to catch the 6 p.m. news in Australia.

Your mission, should you decide to accept it: to say something prime-ministerial about his accomplishments in office without giving one iota of extra support to his candidacy now that he's quite clearly going to come back to Oz and challenge you for your job. What do you say? You don't want to say that he achieved anything, yet you have to uphold the foreign policy record of your government. Is it time for the passive construction?

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The third life of American Exceptionalism

"Restoring American Exceptionalism" has recently become an important Republican slogan. It's a featured theme for Newt GingrichRick Santorum, and Glenn Beck.  Mitt Romney and Ron Paul at least bow in its direction, as do Rick Perry and Sarah Palin. Last month, there were hundreds of "Restoring American Exceptionalism" events during National School Choice Week (Jan. 22-28, 2012), under the leadership of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, founded by David H. Koch.

The odd thing about this is that "American Exceptionalism" was originally a Communist doctrine motivating a moderate and reformist approach to revolutionary organizing, developed and fiercely argued in the 1920s and 1930s; and the term was revived, with a similar meaning but a different motivation and emphasis, by liberal political scientists and historians in the 1950s.

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Thought experiments on language and thought

Keith Chen's recent proposal that the grammar of tense marking in a language has a causal effect on future-oriented financial and health behaviors is too intriguing to resist talking about. In fact, it reminds me of the words of a prominent linguist who once announced during his talk: "The explanation in question is almost certain to be false. However, if it were true, it would be incredibly interesting, so we have no choice but to explore it."

I'm not sure that this is the best argument for, say, how research funding should be allocated. At least, I've never had the guts to put that in a grant proposal. But if Language Log isn't the place to explore almost-certainly-false-but-incredibly-interesting-if-true ideas, then I don't know what is.

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It's All Grammar (the inventory)

On my personal blog, an inventory of postings (mostly from Language Log) on IAG (It's All Grammar) — here — with the proposed technical term garmmra.

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Pausal epenthesis in Brussels

I happened to have the TV going in the background during the press conference where the new Greek bail-out was announced, and it struck me that at an event about Greek sovereign debt, held in Brussels,  Klaus Regling (German), Christine Lagarde (French),  Jean-Claude Juncker (Luxembourgeois) and Olli Rehn (Finnish) were all speaking English. Nor did I notice any native speakers of English among the reporters who asked questions (in English) afterwards. This is is now completely normal, of course.

But sometimes completely normal things seem temporarily strange, and I had this experience while listening to Olli Rehn's remarks, when it occurred to me that international affairs have become a wonderful opportunity to study non-native pronunciation of English.

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