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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Xi Jinping as a living bodhisattva

Everybody's talking about Xi's Buddhist sanctification since it hit the headlines in this article:  "Xi Jinping's latest tag – living Buddhist deity, Chinese official says" (Reuters [3/9,18].

Speaking on Wednesday on the sidelines of China’s annual meeting of parliament, the party boss of the remote northwestern province of Qinghai, birthplace of the Dalai Lama, said Tibetans who lived there had been saying they view Xi as a deity.

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An interesting topic, presented [in French] in a fun way:

[If you have trouble with the Facebook embedding, try this YouTube version.]

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"Projects we need financed": Pittsburghian?

My Wall Street Journal column this week looks at the history of the word rider, inspired by Frances McDormand's cryptic use of the phrase "inclusion rider" at the end of her acceptance speech at the Oscars on Sunday, after she won the Best Actress award for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. (Link to WSJ column here — if paywalled, follow my Twitter link here.) But just before she got to "inclusion rider," McDormand offered another linguistically intriguing nugget. Here's how the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported it:

On Sunday, she asked all of the women nominees in Hollywood's Dolby Theatre to stand and reminded them to tell their stories.
Laughing, she said in the Pittsburgh vernacular, "Look around ladies and gentlemen, because we all have stories to tell and projects we need financed." 

You can hear the relevant bit at the end of this clip.

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Alexa laughs

Now that speech technology is good enough that voice interaction with devices is becoming widespread and routine, success has created a new problem: How should a device tell when to attend to ambient sounds and try to interpret them as questions or commands?

One solution is to require a mouse click or a finger press to start things off — but this can degrade the whole "ever-attentive servant" experience. So increasingly such systems rely on a key phrase like "Hey Siri" or "OK Google" or "Alexa". But this solution brings up other problems, since users don't like the idea of their entire life's soundtrack streaming to Apple or Google or Amazon. And anyhow, streaming everything to the Mother Ship might strain battery life and network bandwidth for some devices. The answer: Create simple, low-power device-local programs that do nothing but monitor ambient audio for the relevant magic phrase.

Problem: these programs aren't yet very good. Result: lots of false positives. Mostly the false positives are relatively benign — see e.g. "Annals of helpful surveillance", 5/9/2017. But recently, many people have been creeped out by Alexa laughing at them, apparently for no reason:

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Of dogs and Old Sinitic reconstructions

At the conclusion of "Barking roosters and crowing dogs" (2/18/18), I promised a more philologically oriented post to celebrate the advent of the lunar year of the dog.  This is it.  Concurrently, it is part of this long running series on Old Sinitic and Indo-European comparative reconstructions:

I will launch into this post with the following simple prefatory statement:

Half a century ago, the first time I encountered the Old Sinitic reconstruction of Mandarin quǎn 犬 ("dog"), Karlgren GSR 479 *k'iwən, I suspected that it might be related to an Indo-European word cognate with "canine" [<PIE *kwon-]).

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The Time of Shedding and Cold Rocks

Linda Qiu, "President Trump’s Exaggerated and Misleading Claims on Trade", NYT 2/6/2018:

Correction: March 7, 2018 Because of an editing error involving a satirical text-swapping web browser extension, an earlier version of this article misquoted a passage from an article by the Times reporter Jim Tankersley. The sentence referred to America’s narrowing trade deficit during “the Great Recession,” not during “the Time of Shedding and Cold Rocks.” (Pro tip: Disable your “Millennials to Snake People” extension when copying and pasting.)

The "satirical text-swapping web browser extension" in question is Millennials to Snake People — source code available on GitHub — discussion in Slate.

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"Inappropriate and inoffensive"

Morphological negative concord? Or just a slip of the fingers?

[link] The Labour Court report does not detail what was contained in the graphic, but stated it “was inappropriate and inoffensive”.
[link] Al Franken, who was also scheduled to appear on the show, has canceled, calling Maher's words “inappropriate and inoffensive.”
[link] The IPSA worker said they found this “deeply inappropriate and inoffensive” but the MP's staff “laughed and agreed” with the term.
[link] Objectors said it was demeaning to women and the privacy of childbirth and was inappropriate and inoffensive.
[link] Access to the Internet is regulated centrally via a third party provider, to ensure that inappropriate and inoffensive sites cannot be accessed.

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Dead mouse admits lying?

"Dead mouse in protein supplement claimant admits lying", BBC News 2/7/2018:

A man has admitted to lying about buying a pack of protein powder containing a dead mouse.

Adam Brenton tweeted criticism of Myprotein Impact Diet Whey seller The Ltd and contacted local press with his claims.

The story was widely republished but "unequivocal" evidence proved the mouse was not present at delivery.

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