Archive for Changing times

Militarism and Pacifism Among Phonemes

A recent request from Steve Anderson led me to borrow from our library its copy of the Proceedings of the Third International Congress of Phonetic Sciences, Held at the University of Ghent, 18-22 July 1938. (Why the scanned book isn't available from Google Books or from the Hathi Trust isn't clear to me…)

There are many curious and interesting features of this volume, such as the fact that most of the participants from Germany are cited in the List of Members as "Delegate of the German Government", e.g.

BACH, Prof. A., Drachenfelsstr., 1, Bonn a/Rhein, Germany. (Delegate of the German Government.)
FEYER, Miss Ursula, Eulerstr., 21, Berlin N. 20, Germany. (Delegate of the German Government.)
FISCHER, Prof. W., Englisches Seminar, Universität Giessen, Ludwigstr., 19, Germany. (Delegate of the German Government.)

I saw no analogous identification of scholars from other countries, though perhaps I missed a few.

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They triumphs?

Farhad Manjoo, "Call Me 'They'", NYT 7/10/2019:

The singular "they" is inclusive and flexible, and it breaks the stifling prison of gender expectations. Let's all use it.

I am your stereotypical, cisgender, middle-aged suburban dad. I dabble in woodworking, I take out the garbage, and I covet my neighbor's Porsche. Though I do think men should wear makeup (it looks nice!), my tepid masculinity apparently rings loudly enough online and in person that most people guess that I go by "he" and "him." And that's fine; I will not be offended if you refer to me by those traditional, uselessly gendered pronouns.

But "he" is not what you should call me. If we lived in a just, rational, inclusive universe — one in which we were not all so irredeemably obsessed by the particulars of the parts dangling between our fellow humans' legs, nor the ridiculous expectations signified by those parts about how we should act and speak and dress and feel — there would be no requirement for you to have to assume my gender just to refer to me in the common tongue.

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Great but not good? "Put a pulse to the hooter"

From "CLAUDE E. SHANNON: An Interview Conducted by Robert Price, 28 July 1982":

[Shannon is talking about a visit to Alan Turing in Manchester in 1950.]  So I asked him what he was doing. And he said he was trying to find a way to get better feedback from a computer so he would know what was going on inside the computer. And he'd invented this wonderful command. See, in those days they were working with individual commands. And the idea was to discover good commands. And I said, what is the command? And he said, the command is put a pulse to the hooter, put a pulse to the hooter. Now let me translate that. A hooter is an English, in England is a loudspeaker. And by putting a pulse to it, it would just be put a pulse to a hooter. Now what good is this crazy command? Well, the good of this command is that if you're in a loop you can have this command in that loop and every time it goes around the loop it will put a pulse in and you will hear a frequency equal to how long it takes to go around that loop. And then you can put another one in some bigger loop and so on. And so you'll hear all of this coming on and you'll hear this "boo boo boo boo boo boo,"[CS vocalizing in a sing-song fashion] and his concept was that you would soon learn to listen to that and know whether when it got hung up in a loop or something else or what it was doing all this time, which he'd never been able to tell before. That was a great idea, but I don't think it was really a very good idea. That command seems to have disappeared from the vocabulary. [laughs]

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Contextualized Muppet Embeddings

Over the past few years, it's been increasingly common for computational linguists to use various kinds of "word embeddings".

The foundation for this was the vector space model, developed in the 1960s for document retrieval applications, which represents a piece of text as a vector of word (or "term") counts. The next step was latent semantic analysis, developed in the 1980s, which orthogonalizes the term-by-document matrix (via singular value decomposition) and retains only a few hundred of the most important dimensions. Among other benefits, this provides a sort of "soft thesaurus", since words that tend to co-occur will be relatively close in the resulting space. Then in the 2000s came a wide variety of other ways of turning large text collections into vector-space dictionaries, representing each word as vector of numbers derived in some way from the contexts in which it occurs — some widely used examples from the 2010s include word2vec and GloVe ("Global Vectors for Word Representation").

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Danmu

Kendra Schaefer, "China's 'barrage videos' are chaotic af — and say a lot about loneliness", The Next Web 10/11/2018:

"Hey, I know," said someone in a design meeting once. "How about we let users post live comments as they watch their favorite shows. Then we could scroll those comments across the viewport so they cover the entire screen, like a curtain of enthusiastic verbal abuse?"

"HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!" laughed alternate reality me, "Who hired this asshole?" […]

That's a conversation between hundreds of users, laid over the top of a video player, while the video is playing. Someone implemented that. Someone institutionalized that chaos, and what's worse, they did so with great success. The feature is called danmu(弹幕), and it's the hottest thing going in Chinese streaming media UI.

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The joys of correspondence

In response to the discussion of "Realistic limitations" on telephone conversation, Anne Cutler sent in a link to her 1989 New Scientist article "The new Victorians":

"My dear Hooker," wrote Charles Darwin to Joseph Hooker on 6 March 1844, "I will not lose a post in guarding you against what I am afraid is … labour in vain." This urgent warning went by post, because Darwin had no option: he had no telephone. What the Victorians did have, however, was a pretty efficient postal service, and they made good use of it. Look at the fat volumes of Darwin's correspondence. Hooker was only one of many fellow scientists with whom Darwin exchanged letters at a rate that seems to us prodigious. Victorian scientists bombarded one another with ideas, results and opinions, and all by mail.

By comparison, we write few such letters. But now, quietly, a new age of scientific correspondence is opening, and what has brought it about is a new kind of mail: electronic mail.

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Chinaperson

When I started taking Mandarin in the fall of 1967, one of the first words we learned was "Zhōngguó rén 中國人".  A classmate of mine translated that as "Chinaman", provoking our teaching assistant to reprimand him severely, saying that it was a racist term, and to give him a stern lecture about the history of anti-Chinese discrimination in the United States.

Now a West Virginia candidate for the US Senate, Don Blankenship, has fallen into the same trap by referring to the Asian-American father-in-law of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as a "China person" (see here, here, and here for news reports).

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DACA litigation, the "illegal/undocumented alien/immigrant" issue, and a surprise

In the recent decision enjoining the suspension of DACA (but giving the government a 90-day mulligan), the court referred to the people who are affected by DACA's suspension as "undocumented aliens" rather than "illegal aliens," and it dropped a footnote explaining why it made that choice:

Some courts, including the Supreme Court, have referred to aliens who are unlawfully present in the United States as "illegal" instead of "undocumented."  See, e.g.,  Texas  v.  United  States, (explaining that this "is the term used by the Supreme Court in its latest pronouncement pertaining to this area of the law"); but see  Mohawk Indust., Inc. v. Carpenter (using the term "undocumented immigrants"). Because both terms appear in the record materials here, and because, as at least one court has noted, "there is a certain segment of the population that finds the phrase 'illegal alien'  offensive," Texas v. United States, the Court will use the term "undocumented." [pdf (citation details omitted)]

Although the court didn't similarly decide to use immigrant instead of alien, that may well be due more to the fact that alien is a frequently used term in the context of immigration law than to any view about the term's possible offensiveness.

The first case mentioned in the footnote, Texas v. United States, is the decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit that had enjoined the DAPA program (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, which was related to but separate from DACA, which stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). That decision used the term illegal aliens rather than undocumented aliens, but like Tuesday's DACA decision, it explained its choice of terminology.

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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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On when listening is better than talking: A call for contemplation and empathy

The following is a reply from Emily M. Bender, Natasha Warner and myself to Geoff Pullum's recent posts (A letter saying they won, 12/4/2017; Courtesy and personal pronoun choice, 12/6/2017).


Respected senior linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum recently used the widely-read platform of Language Log to remark on the fact that his grammatical tolerance of singular they only goes so far (A letter saying they won, 12/4/2017). For Pullum, singular they cannot be used in reference to a personal name; example sentences such as Kimi said theyi were going to the store are ungrammatical for him. This fact is not in dispute, nor is the fact that this is a salient grammaticality judgment for Pullum. What is in dispute, however, is the appropriateness of a series of choices that Pullum has made in reporting this grammaticality judgment. Those choices have clearly hurt people. The following is an effort to explain the hurt that these choices have caused and to give Pullum — and everyone from his defenders to those who don't see what all the fuss is about — another opportunity to respond with contemplation and empathy as opposed to defensiveness and continued disrespect.

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Greetings of the times

The following are new forms of greetings that are circulating in Beijing on the heels of a major child molestation scandal at an elite school, the forced eviction of migrant workers, the convictions and suicides of ranking politicians, and perpetual fears of social instability.

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Neglected email

Some charmingly reflective and sincere writing in the latest xkcd comic as Cueball types a reply to a long-neglected email correspondent:

Dear Kevin,
I'm sorry it's taken me two years to reply to your email. I've built up so much stress and anxiety around my email inbox; it's an unhealthy dynamic which is more psychological than technical. I've tried one magical solution after another, and as each one has failed, deep down I've grown more certain that the problem isn't email – it's me.

Regardless, these are my issues, not yours; you're my friend, and I owe you the basic courtesy of a response. I apologize for my neglect, and I hope you haven't been too hurt by my failure to reply.

Anyway, I appreciate your invitation to join your professional network on LinkedIn, but I'm afraid I must decline…

The mouseover alt text says: "I would be honored, but I know I don't belong in your network. The person you invited was someone who had not yet inflicted this two-year ordeal upon you. I'm no longer that person."

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The SISSILY countries

Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Yemen. We're going to need an acronym, in case we forget which are the seven countries on the blacklist. And Language Log is here for you: we have prepared one. Somalia-Iran-Sudan-Syria-Iraq-Libya-Yemen: SISSILY. We can refer to them as the SISSILY countries. And to convince you of the threat they pose, I have prepared a table of the statistics for all of the terrorist murders that the evil citizens of those countries have perpetrated so far. The table is below. I warn you, the data are rather shocking.

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