Archive for May, 2009

How many spoken languages? How many computer languages?

Jeff Shaumeyer wrote recently on my Facebook wall to report that

In another facebook conversation a friend said "I read that there have now been more programming languages than spoken languages of all time." Is this even remotely possible?

Mike Geis immediately fixed on one problem with the claim, the problem of counting languages, whether you're counting human languages (spoken or signed) or computer languages. While we were contemplating these well-known issues (sources that attempt to put a number on human languages give a range — things like "5,000 to 10,000" — and the number of languages listed in the Ethnologue go up with each edition; the 15th edition has 6,912 entries, but a new edition will be out soon, and it's bound to have more), Jeff posted that

the friend discovered that he dramatically misremembered the result he was paraphrasing.

(whew!) but returned to the original claim, saying,

Just by orders of magnitude I found it incredible that more computer languages/dialects could have been created in the last hundred years than the total of spoken languages/dialects that had ever been.

Here's the second problem: "of all time" in Jeff's first message, "that had ever been" in the second.

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Ski Hindi

The first paragraph of chapter 1, "To go", in Katherine Russell Rich's forthcoming memoir Dreaming in Hindi:

The whole time I was in India, I was never confused, though often, for days, I thought I was. "Vidhu-ji," I asked the teacher with the angular face, remembering to attach the "ji," an honorific that could also mean "yes" or "what?" — point of bafflement right there. "Vidhu," I'd repeat, promptly forgetting, "how do I say 'I'm confused'?"

"Main bhram mein hoon," he said: "I am in bhram," and for the rest of the year, I used that sentence more than any other. "Vidhu-ji! Wait! I am in bhram," I'd say, flapping my hand, interrupting grammar, dictation, till he must have wished I'd yank myself out of it, must have regretted the day he ever told me. I was in bhram, off and on, at the school and beyond: when I'd try to ask a shopkeeper in Hindi if he had the thing in blue, for instance, while he stared at me with his mouth half-open, as if he were watching a trick. Some weeks, I was in full-press bhram, in nonstop confusion, or so I thought. It wasn't until I returned to the States that I learned the word's exact meaning: "illusion." The whole time in India, I'd been in illusion.

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From the "words for X" annals

From Ryan Pagelow's cartoon Pressed:

Correspondent Rory Finn, originally a foreign correspondent (before the paper shut the foreign desks down), now gets shunted from one desk to another.

(Hat tip to JC Dill.)

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Glenn Wilson falls off the wagon?

According to Vaughn at Mind Hacks ("The demon drink", 5/29/2009):

Oh dear. It looks like psychologist Glenn Wilson has fallen off the wagon again. From the man who brought you the 'email hurts IQ more than cannabis' PR stunt before repenting, comes the 'the way you hold your drink reveals personality' PR stunt.

This time it's to promote a British pub chain and God bless those drink sodden journos who have gone and given it pride of place in the science section of today's papers.

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Study: hacks often bamboozled by flacks

Steven Woloshin et al., "Press Releases by Academic Medical Centers: Not So Academic?", Annals of Internal Medicine, 150(9): 613-618:

Background: The news media are often criticized for exaggerated coverage of weak science. Press releases, a source of information for many journalists, might be a source of those exaggerations.

Conclusion: Press releases from academic medical centers often promote research that has uncertain relevance to human health and do not provide key facts or acknowledge important limitations.

There's no indication that any of the 200 press releases in their sample was as bad as the infamous "Nobler Instincts Take Time" document from USC that set off a flurry of headlines like "Twitter makes users immoral, research claims". (For details, see "Debasing the coinage of rational inquiry: a case study", 4/22/2009.)  And even further out on the long tail of hooey are the virtuoso flacks who create scientific-seeming news out of little or no research at all.

But Woloshin et al. do conclude that investigators should "review releases before dissemination, taking care to temper their tone (particularly their own quotes, which we often found overly enthusiastic)". This is certainly good advice, though it's not much more likely to be followed than any other good advice that runs counter to its recipients' interests.

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Everybody has smiles on everybody's faces

I like this:

"Everybody is jumping around. Everybody is happy. Everybody has smiles on everybody’s faces,” center fielder Adam Jones said.

That's in the locker room after the Baltimore Orioles' season-high fourth straight win — a happy change of mood after a string of losses. They started the season, surprisingly, in first place in their division; now they've been in last for quite a while, but they've gotten in some new players, mostly rookies, who have started out strong.

So is repeating the quantifier instead of putting in a bound-variable pronoun a marker of exuberance? Since I'm an Orioles fan, I'll happily accept it!

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Where does our information come from?

A graphical answer, courtesy of Blake Stacey:

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Linguists who count

An editorial by Miranda Robertson in the Journal of Biology ("Biologists who count", 8(34), 2009), starts this way:

The importance of mathematics in biology is a matter of perennial debate. The squabbles of early 20th century geneticists on the value of mathematics to the study of evolution have recently been revisited in Journal of Biology [Crow, "Mayr, mathematics and the study of evolution", JBiol 8(13) 2009], and the 21st century has seen an explosion of information from various -omics and imaging techniques that has provided fresh impetus to the arguments urging the need for mathematical competence in the life sciences [Bialek and Botstein, "Introductory science and mathematics education for 21st-century biologists", Science 2004, 303:788-790]. While there can be no question about the contribution of mathematics to many fields in biology, there is a curious tendency on the part of numerate biologists (often immigrants from the physical sciences) to insist that it is an essential part of the equipment of a biologist and none should be without it. This seems, on the evidence, extreme.

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A Traveling Campaign Slogan

Imagine my surprise yesterday when (after 21 hours of traveling involving four airports in three countries) I stumbled toward baggage claim in the Tallinn airport and saw a photograph of Barack Obama on the side of a large trash can, next to this legend:

Yes We CAN

Jah Meie Oskame!

I passed the first trash can without quite registering this rather surprising ad; then my brain caught up with my eyes, so I inspected the next trash can carefully, and wrote down the Estonian words. Later I asked one of my kind Estonian hosts what Jah Meie Oskame means — not surprisingly, it means "Yes We Can" — and what the link given on the ad ( was about. Turns out to be an ad for recycling. Not, say, an exhortation to dump the U.S. President in the trash. Whew.

I was too jet-lagged yesterday to register much else, but at the opening reception for the conference — the 12th International Conference on Minority Languages — I learned that the three distinctive lengths of Estonian consonants and vowels are not always indicated in the orthography, and I was told that (some dialect of?) the Finnic language Livonian has FIVE distinctive lengths of consonants and vowels. I think it was Livonian. It was certainly a five-way length distinction in either consonants or vowels, or both. But possibly I merely dreamt this, or maybe they were kidding me. I am very gullible even when I've had some sleep.

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Women's happiness and pundits' accuracy

Following up on yesterday's discussion of Ross Douthat's column on women's liberation and women's unhappiness, I thought that some people might find useful to look at the underlying data in a more quantitative way. So I downloaded the whole General Social Survey dataset from here, and pulled out the columns corresponding to the variables "year", "sex", and "happy": some  summaries are below, and if you want to do your own analysis of this subset of the data, a .csv file is here.

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In the comments on "Logical prescriptivism" (5/25/2009), where the inconsistency of "myself" vs. "himself" was under discussion, the fact that it's "thyself" rather than "theeself" came up.

But in addition to 15,869 instances of "thyself", Literature Online finds 19 instances of "theeself", all from 19th century drama or from dialogue in 19th century novels. And the authors include Dickens, Trollope, and Twain.

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New pronoun issues on Facebook

In the beginning, Facebook used singular they to refer to members who hadn't specified their gender. Then, people complained, and Facebook listened. (Feel free to google {facebook pronoun} for a taste of the back-and-forth.)

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The happiness gap is back

According to Ross Douthat's latest column for the NYT, "Liberated and Unhappy", 5/25/2009:

[A]ll the achievements of the feminist era may have delivered women to greater unhappiness. In the 1960s, when Betty Friedan diagnosed her fellow wives and daughters as the victims of “the problem with no name,” American women reported themselves happier, on average, than did men. Today, that gender gap has reversed. Male happiness has inched up, and female happiness has dropped. In postfeminist America, men are happier than women. [emphasis added]

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