Archive for October, 2009

Freakonomics: the intellectual's Glenn Beck?

The new Freakonomics book is about to come out (called Super Freakonomics, natch), and Marginal Revolution thinks it's great: "a more than worthy sequel, a super sequel you might say." So does Bryan Caplan at econlog: "Overall, it's better than the original." Time Magazine thinks it's "very good — jauntier and more assured than their first".

But not everyone is convinced: negative voices include Ezra Klein, "The Shoddy Statistics of Super Freakonomics", WaPo, 10/16/2009; Matt Yglesias, "Journalistic Malpractice From Leavitt [sic] and Dubner", 10/16/2009; Bradford Plumer, "Does 'Superfreakonomics' Need A Do-Over?", 10/16/2009; Andrew Sullivan, "Not So Super Freak", 10/17/2009.

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Stream to the yak-fest meld

Ellis Weiner has a very funny "Shouts and Murmurs" feature in The New Yorker this week (October 19): it's an imagined memo from a marketing assistant at an understaffed publishing company, laying out a marketing plan for a new book. Those who have published books and filled out author's marketing questionnaires will smirk at slight exaggerations of things they actually recall reading ("We can send you a list of bookstores in your area once you fill out the My Local Bookstores list on your Author's Questionnaire"); but there is worse to come.

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Rude word

Michael Quinion reports in his latest World Wide Words (#661, October 17):

TWINKLE, TWINKLE, LITTLE TWINK  It's amazing what you can learn from e-mail error messages. The issue last week was blocked by one site in the UK because it had a rude word in the message body. Do you recall reading any rude words? I don't remember writing any. It transpired that the offending "word" was in the title of a nursery rhyme I listed: Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. The filtering system spotted the first five letters of the first word and pounced. I had to look it up: TWINK is gay slang (I quote Wikipedia) for "a young or young-looking gay man (usually white and in his late teens or early twenties) with a slender build, little or no body hair, and no facial hair."

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Ockham's broom

Yesterday in the Journal of Biology, the editor introduced a new series (Miranda Robertson, "Ockham's broom"):

Although it is increasingly difficult to gauge what people can be expected to know, it is probably safe to assume that most readers are familiar with Ockham’s razor – roughly, the principle whereby gratuitous suppositions are shaved from the interpretation of facts – enunciated by a Franciscan monk, William of Ockham, in the fourteenth century. Ockham's broom is a somewhat more recent conceit, attributable to Sydney Brenner, and embodies the principle whereby inconvenient facts are swept under the carpet in the interests of a clear interpretation of a messy reality. (Or, some – possibly including Sydney Brenner – might say, in order to generate a publishable paper.)

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No respect

A note from Bob Ladd:

Yesterday I received a complimentary copy of Intelligent Life, the Economist's foray into general magazine publishing.  One of the feature articles was entitled "The last days of the polymath?", with profiles of a few people who "know a lot about a lot" and ruminations on the age of specialisation.  The article includes a little box entitled "Living polymaths: who qualifies?", which lists about twenty people who were regarded as qualifying for that title in an informal office poll of staffers at the Economist and Intelligent Life.  The list includes a number of names that LL readers might have been expected to come up with, including Jared Diamond, Douglas Hofstadter, and Noam Chomsky (no Daniel Dennett, though).

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Sentence fragments?

Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky writes to me, following up on my Maurice Sendak "half-sentence" posting (which I'll have more to say about in a while):

… if I knew how to encourage sentence fragments, I would go for that. Opal's sentences go on for*ev*er. And if I type them for her, and she's watching, and I try to put a period in, so there's a shorter sentence even though it starts with "And"? She says "No, that's not right, it's part of the same sentence. Didn't you hear the 'and'?" Fortunately she doesn't usually watch me type, allowing me to punctuate things as I see fit.

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Missing link: the early years

In a comment on my post "Metapun", John S. Wilkins traced the phrase "missing link" back, conceptually if not literally,  to the  "great chain of being" metaphor featured in Alexander Pope's 1744 Essay on Man:

[…] On superior powers
Were we to press, inferior might on ours;
Or in the full creation leave a void,
Where, one step broken, the great scale's destroyed:
From Nature's chain whatever link you like,
Tenth, or ten thousandth, breaks the chain alike.

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When did U.S. presidents make us an 'is'?

In response to my recent posts "The United States as a subject" and "When did the Supreme Court make us an 'is'?", Rich Rostrom sent the following essay, reflecting some research he did a few years ago.

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National Language versus Mother Tongue

Grace Wu sent me a photograph taken at Taipei Storyland, shown at the right (click on the image for a larger version).

The characters running down the right side of the picture read as follows:

"I want to speak the national language, not the topolects."

In other words, "Let's speak Mandarin, not Taiwanese, Hakka, Cantonese, etc."

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Stephen Colbert on Olympia Snowe (Colbert Report, Oct. 14):

We are now one step closer to a nightmare future where everyone has health insurance. And I will tell you who I blame: Maine Senator Olympia Snowe, the only Republican who voted in favor of the bill. And folks, I am angrier than an Eskimo… because I have 300 words for Snowe, and I can't say one of them on TV.

(Hat tip: Greg Howard.) The title for this post is lifted from the Twitter feed of Michael Covarrubias (aka Wishydig):

Susan Collins, R-Maine has hinted at a 'yes' vote. and only linguabloggers have "snowe-clone" in their repertoire of bad puns.

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When I tried to read Dilbert this morning, showed me this instead:

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How NOT to Learn Chinese Characters

There are many ways NOT to learn Chinese characters, but one that I just found out about today is probably the worst, even worse than T. K. Ann's Cracking the Chinese Puzzles.  It was written by Alison Matthews ("a statistician who has worked in the oil, aviation, tourism, medical and software industries") and Laurence Matthews (author of books that claim to help you find Chinese characters fast) and is called Learning Chinese Characters:  A revolutionary new way to learn and remember the 800 most basic Chinese characters.

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News flash: bogosity need not be conscious deception?

In the celebrated libel case brought by the British Chiropractic Association against Simon Singh, Singh has won a round in court. Or rather, he's won the right to appeal a previous loss in court.

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