Archive for October, 2009


The second talk in a workshop on "Natural Algorithms", to be held at Princeton on Nov. 2-3, is Jorge Cortés, "Distributed wombling by robotic sensor networks". But you don't need to be able to attend the workshop in order to learn about this fascinating topic, since the author has recently published a version of the same material. The abstract:

This paper proposes a distributed coordination algorithm for robotic sensor networks to detect boundaries that separate areas of abrupt change of spatial phenomena. We consider an aggregate objective function, termed wombliness, that measures the change of the spatial field along the closed polygonal curve defined by the location of the sensors in the environment. We encode the network task as the optimization of the wombliness and characterize the smoothness properties of the objective function. In general, the complexity of the spatial phenomena makes the gradient flow cause self-intersections in the polygonal curve described by the network. Therefore, we design a distributed coordination algorithm that allows for network splitting and merging while guaranteeing the monotonic evolution of wombliness.

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Alexander of __?

As the Google search suggestions on the right indicate, we generally view Alexander the Great as a Macedonian, and therefore, as the Wikipedia article about him says, a "Greek king".

But according to one of the many contrarian nuggets in Jim O'Donnell's The Ruin of the Roman Empire, this is the wrong way to look at it.

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Four centuries of peeving

Several readers have recommended Wednesday's Non Sequitur:

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Quotative inversion again

Over on his You Don't Say blog, John McIntyre notes a spectacularly awkward sentence from the New Yorker and asks, "Is this a new tic of New Yorker style, or have I just begun noticing it?" The offending sentence:

“Horton, you’re one of the few people New York seems to agree with,” Tennessee Williams, another regional Young Turk who dreamed of changing the shape of commercial theatre, said.

John explains that he knows "there is a longstanding journalistic resistance to inverting subject and verb in attribution" and understands why some writers might be averse to the construction, but objects to a blanket prohibition against this inversion (known in the syntax trade as "quotative inversion"), especially when it leads to tin-eared sentences like one reporting the Tennessee Williams quotation.

It turns out that here at Language Log Plaza we've been alert to the New Yorker's anti-quotative inversion quirk from the earliest days of the blog.

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Ask LL: parents' beliefs or infants' abilities?

Andrew Clegg asks "Is this true?"

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The Gubernator's acrostic mischief

Via The Swamp, the Chicago Tribune's political blog, comes news of an awesome (if spiteful) bit of gubernatorial wordplay from the office of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger:

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Richard Powers on his way to a decision

A few days ago, Kurt Andersen interviewed the novelist Richard Powers on Studio360. You can listen to the whole nine-minute interview here.

In the middle of the interview, Powers breaks into a sequence of declarative phrases with final rising pitch — what's sometimes called "uptalk". Before and after this sequence, which sets the stage for an account of his decision to become a writer, he consistently uses falling patterns. It seems clear that he means the rising contours to have a rhetorical effect. But it's equally clear that the intended effect is not to signal insecurity or to call into question his commitment to the truth of what he's saying. So as part of my on-going campaign to document uptalk — especially non-stereotypical examples — here's a description.

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The 2009 Obama Agenda Survey

Today I got mail from the Republican National Committee — a survey they want me to fill out and (of course) an attached contribution form.   I don't know why they sent it to me, because in spite of their urging me "and other grassroots Republicans" to respond to their survey, I am not a registered Republican.   Maybe it's because my neighborhood is mostly Republican, though our nearest neighbors are bigwigs in the local Libertarian party.  In any case, many of the survey questions contain presuppositions that make them hard to answer.  They don't ask me if I've stopped beating my wife, er, spouse, but they do want to know if (for instance) I "believe that Barack Obama's nominees for federal courts should be immediately and unquestionably approved for their lifetime appointments by the U.S. Senate".

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The Eclectic Encyclopedia of English

Another notice of a recent book, this time Nathan Bierma's Eclectic Encyclopedia of English (William, James & Co.), an assortment of material from five years of his "On Language" column in the Chicago Tribune (no longer a regular feature in the paper, alas). It's meant for a general audience; in fact, a number of the entries originated as responses to queries from readers.

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Complimentary Internet in the lobby

What does "Complimentary High-speed Internet access on the lobby level" mean? You can see the phrase on the website of the Hilton Washington Dulles Airport hotel. Did you imagine it meant that if you opened your laptop on the lobby level of the hotel a wireless Internet network would come up and you could connect for free? Oh, you are so naive. You are not a sophisticated jet-setter like Robert Langdon and me.

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Autistic dogs: teaching instinctual communication?

One of the key examples in Ruth Millikan's influential 1984 book Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories was the "canid play bow". This piece of doggie-language, exemplified in the photo on the right, is "a highly ritualized and stereotyped movement that seems to function to stimulate recipients to engage (or to continue to engage) in social play."

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In the footsteps of Robert Langdon

Language Log readers may recall the link I gave to the Vulture Reading Room discussion of The Lost Symbol on the New York Magazine website, where I made some comments on the extraordinarily heavy use Dan Brown's book makes of redundant (either pointless or already implicit) attributive modifiers. I illustrated from an early passage about renowned Harvard professor of symbology Robert Langdon's arrival at the Washington Dulles Airport: the Falcon 2000EX corporate jet, the soft leather seats in the luxurious interior, the cold January air, the white fog on the misty tarmac, the middle-aged woman with curly blond hair under stylish knit wool hat who babbles boringly to him about his own choice of attire, and then:

Mercifully, a professional-looking man in a dark suit got out of a sleek Lincoln Town Car parked near the terminal and held up his finger.

(No, I don't know which finger.) Well, by a weird coincidence (truth is stranger than even very strange fiction), last night I myself was flown into Dulles Airport at the invitation of people I have not met. And guess what…

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More excitement

In the days following my accidental Annie Lennox sighting in Edinburgh, a gorgeous picture of the honoree in her doctoral robes was published, and I have added it here; don't miss it. And (returning to phonology) Julian Bradfield (who normally studies things like fixpoint logic and concurrent programming, and teaches operating systems and programming, in Edinburgh's School of Informatics) gave a talk on the phonology and phonetics of the utterly spectacular Khoisan language sometimes known as "Taa" but more usually referred to (at least by those who can pronounce the voiceless postalveolar velaric ingressive stop [k!] followed by a high tone [o] and a nasalized [o], which Julian can) as !Xóõ (the ASCII spelling is !Xoon).

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