Archive for February, 2010

Annals of opaque sports metaphors

On NBC's "Meet the Press" this morning, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty grasped for a baseball metaphor in this exchange with David Gregory (see the end of this video clip), and came up with the proposal that the Republicans "need to be not just the party of saying, 'We hope President Obama continues to kick it in the dugout'." Here's the context:

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Another approach to media relations

Today's Dilbert suggests a way for engineers to deal with product planners and marketing types, which many potential sources in technical fields will recognize as a tempting strategy for dealing with the press:

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Metaphor of the week

William J. Broad, "Doubts Raised on Book's Tale of Atom Bomb", NYT 2/20/2010, discusses a minor scandal of historical documentation: the descriptions of a claimed "secret accident with the [Hiroshima] atom bomb", revealed in a recent non-fiction best-seller, turn out to have been based on lies and fabrications.

That part didn't especially surprise me, but this quotation brought me up short:

“This book is a Toyota,” said Robert S. Norris, the author of “Racing for the Bomb” and an atomic historian. “The publisher should recall it, issue an apology and fix the parts that endanger the historical record.”

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Divergent histories of languages and genes

Charles Darwin saw the history of languages as a model for "descent with modification" in biological evolution; and researchers from Thomas Jefferson to Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza and beyond have been excited about the idea of combining linguistic, biological, and geographical evidence to shed light on the history of human populations.

Most recent linguists and anthropologists who are knowledgeable about such topics have been skeptical about how close we should expect linguistic and biological descent to be, in general. There are many ways, both wholesale and retail, for people to end up speaking a language different from the language of their ancestors, and similarly many ways for genes to flow from one speech community to another.

A recent contribution to the skeptical side of the discussion is Hafid Laayouni et al., "A genome-wide survey does not show the genetic distinctiveness of Basques", Human Genetics, published online 1/16/2010.

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Here is one of today's top headlines on the AP wire:

GOP's 2012 hopefuls crowd town they loves to hate

The same headline is currently being used online by the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, USA Today, the Guardian, Yahoo News, and many other news sites. The Twitterati were, of course, quick to pick up on the grammar problem (here, here). It's been to corrected to "…love to hate" by a few outlets already, however (like the Houston Chronicle).

Hard to say how this one slipped by so many editorial eyes. Perhaps an earlier version of the headline had "loves to hate" agreeing with "(the) GOP," such as "2012 hopefuls crowd town GOP loves to hate," and then a last-minute change in word order loused up the agreement.

[Possible background influences for the verb choice range from Gershwin ("I Loves You Porgy") to Gollum ("We wants it, we needs it").]

[Update, 4 pm EST: The AP has now corrected the headline.]

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The population memetics of un-ed-ing

English freely allows past participles to be used as pre-nominal modifiers, and in the natural course of events, such participle+noun combinations often become collocations or fixed expressions: fried chicken, pulled pork, mulled wine, hard-boiled eggs, rolled oats, cracked pepper, combed cotton, wrought iron, dropped ceiling,

English speakers also tend to weaken or omit final coronal consonants, a process that linguists call t/d deletion: thus [lɛf] for left.  Although t/d deletion is stigmatized, in fact all normal English speakers do it some of the time, at least in some contexts.  As a result, fixed expressions that start out as participle+noun are sometimes re-analyzed so as to lose their -ed ending.  This happened long ago to ice(d) cream, skim(med) milk, pop(ped) corn, wax(ed) paper, shave(d) ice, etc. It's happened more recently (I think) to ice(d) tea, cream(ed) corn, and whip(ped) cream.

A few weeks ago, reader JM reported one of these that's new to me: "bake goods" for baked goods, in a flier from his son's school.

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Not ready to tiger Tokyo: tweets from Japan

At the very hour when, a few days ago, Victor Mair was posting his piece about Valentine's Day in Japan (I Tiger You), I was at ground zero for the event: the candy section of the biggest department store in Tokyo's Ginza district. I have never seen anything like it. Excited young women by the thousand buying up all the chocolate and other candy that industry could pack into pink and white heart-bedecked boxes and bags. What an incredible coup the candy manufacturers have made out of this celebration of girlfriendhood and boyfriendhood. The ratio of refined sugar and teenage girls to oxygen had reached danger level in the confined space of the department store basement, and I fled from this stampede of candy lust, escaping into the cold afternoon air. I'll tell you a secret: I simply cannot bear Tokyo.

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Language and meta-language

Or maybe it should be text and meta-text. Anyhow, John D. Muccigrosso wrote to point out something that's obvious in retrospect, namely that all those pages that say "This page intentionally left blank" are thereby not, in fact, left blank.

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"It doesn't entirely unjibe"

Jane Velez-Michell interviews Amy Bishop's friend Rob Dinsmore (this segment begins about 4:58 into the video clip embedded after the jump):

JV-M So police say, Rob, they called nine one one on the neighborhood kids a whole bunch of times, that she stopped an ice cream truck from coming into the neighborhood, she was upset about the dirt bikes, about the uh motorized bikes, about any bikes, um and she would- apparently they would even videotape the kids in their neighborhood uh to try to intimidate them. Now does that jibe with the person you know?
RD: Um it doesn't entirely unjibe. The um she used to complain about that neighborhood all the time, and now it's a very insular little neighborhood, it's like a a little circular drive or a- a cul-de-sac or something, the way I remember it, …

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A couple of days ago, when I posted about Nicholas Kristof's take on the electrophysiology of politics, I limited my discussion to a 2008 Science article about the relationship between physiological reactions to "threatening images" (like a spider on someone's face) and political attitudes towards "protective policies" (like immigration). Thanks to a couple of enterprising readers, I found a readable .pdf of a 2009 manuscript from the same (University of Nebraska) laboratory, which Kristof also discusses, on the relationship between physiological reactions to "disgusting images" and attitudes towards "sex items" like gay marriage. And as promised, I have a bit more to say after reading it.

Taken together, the two papers are more convincing than either one alone, since the combined results call into question the idea that the measured physiological differences might simply be due to the greater uneasiness of (more conservative) townies being hooked up to electrodes in a university laboratory, compared to (more liberal) university faculty, students, and staff. But the second paper confirms some of the concerns that I had about the size of the effects in the first paper. And it also shows that I was off base when I wrote that "This is not a case of egregious journalistic misunderstanding or over-interpretation". In particular, Kristof doesn't just exaggerate, he directly contradicts the 2009 paper's findings when he writes that

Liberals released only slightly more moisture in reaction to disgusting images than to photos of fruit. But conservatives’ glands went into overdrive.

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Sex-change surgery and universal grammar

[Guest post by Neal Goldfarb.]

The United States Tax Court recently decided that payments for sex-reassignment surgery are deductible as medical expenses. Among the 15 judges, there were six separate opinions, with five of the judges dissenting. Most of the debate dealt with questions like whether Gender Identity Disorder is a “disease” (a key term in the statue) and if so whether sex-reassignment surgery, which doesn’t change the patient’s subjective sense of gender identity, constitutes a “treatment” for the disease (ditto).

Those are issues with interesting linguistic dimensions, but what I want to talk about here is a different aspect of the case: the dispute about how to interpret disjunction under negation—i.e., how to interpret expressions such as I don’t know anything about linguistics or tax law (with don’t signaling negation and or signaling disjunction).

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Annals of human-computer interface improvement

In the old days, when a proposal was ready to go out from my university to NSF or NIH or whatever, a pile of paperwork was circulated around so as to get the needed cascade of signatures: principal investigator, department head, budget office, and so on. A couple of years ago, the office of research administration replaced this inefficient process with a new web-based system.

Such systems can be a great thing. Several years earlier, NSF automated its submission procedures via a system called "FastLane", and in my opinion, it's been a big success. Submission, reviewing, and reporting have become much easier. The system is pretty much self-explanatory, and there are good help pages for aspects that may be confusing.

But our new internal review software was different.

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Future perfect continuous passive?

Yesterday's Dinosaur Comics explores the far reaches of verbal morphosyntax in English:

(As usual, click on the image for a larger version.)

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