Archive for February, 2011

Could Watson parse a snowclone?

Today on The Atlantic I break down Watson's big win over the humans in the Jeopardy!/IBM challenge. (See previous Language Log coverage here and here.) I was particularly struck by the snowclone that Ken Jennings left on his Final Jeopardy response card last night: "I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords." I use that offhand comment as a jumping-off point to dismantle some of the hype about Watson's purported ability to "understand" natural language.

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The WSJ works on the Green Weenie

David Wessel at the Wall Street Journal's Real Time Economics blog asked Alan Simpson what he meant by "give 'em the Green Weenie", and reports that

When he was in the Army, he says, if you were mistreated or given some lousy task, you were said to have been given “the green weenie.” And if it was really bad, then it was “the green weenie with oak leaf clusters.”

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You can help improve ASR

If you're a native speaker of English, and you have about an hour to spare, and the title of this post (or a small promised gift) convinces you to devote your spare hour to helping researchers improve automatic speech recognition, just pick one of these four links at random and follow the instructions: 1, 2, 3, 4.

[Update — the problem with the tests has been fixed — but more than 1,000 people have participated, and the server is saturated, so unless you've already started the experiment, please hold off for now!]

If you'd like a fuller explanation, read on.

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Heavy burtation

One of the most widely discussed aspects of the Grammy Awards ceremony was the painful-to-watch on-camera aphasic episode of Serene Branson, a reporter for CBS news:

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British Movie

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Cantonese Blackberry ad

Chuck Cook, PANDA Group Cooperation Officer of the European Bioinformatics Institute, called to my attention this Blackberry ad that he spotted on the MTR (Mass Transit Railway) in Hong Kong:

Chuck was particularly interested in finding an explanation of zi3 ging3 hai6 nei5 至勁係你 which, as he said, "I still do not understand, despite asking my wife's cousin, a native speaker of Cantonese who is fluent in Mandarin and competent in English."

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Jeopardizing Valentine's Day

I've stolen the title of this post from the subject line of a message from Hal Daumé, who has invited folks at University of Maryland to a huge Jeopardy-watching party he's organizing tonight. Today is February 14, so for at least some of the audience, Jeopardy might indeed jeopardize Valentine's Day, substituting geeky fun (I use the term fondly) for candle-lit dinners.

In case you hadn't heard, the reason for the excitement, pizza parties, and so forth is that tonight's episode will, for the first time, feature a computer competing against human players — and not just any human players, but the two best known Jeopardy champions. This is stirring up a new round of popular discussion about artificial intelligence, as Mark noted a few days ago. Many in the media — not to mention IBM, whose computer is doing the playing — are happy to play up the "smartest machine on earth", dawn-of-a-new-age angle. Though, to be fair, David Ferrucci, the IBMer who came up with the idea of building a Jeopardy-playing computer and led the project, does point out quite responsibly that this is only one step on the way to true natural language understanding by machine (e.g. at one point in this promotional video).

Regardless of how the game turns out, it's true that tonight will be a great achievement for language technology. Though I would also argue that the achievement is as much in the choice of problem as in the technology itself.

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Promoted from a comment on yesterday's post "How Mubarak was told to go, in many languages", this is a protest sign from Italy showing Silvio Berlusconi getting the iconic Italian boot:

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"You can't explain that"

I doubt that it has the staying power of lolcats, but for the moment, people are having a lot of fun mocking Bill O'Reilly's puzzling argument for the existence of God:

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I'll tell you why it's not a scam, in my opinion. Right?
Tides goes in, tide goes out, never a miscommunication.
YOU can't explain that.

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"Give 'em the Green Weenie"?

[Welcome WSJ readers! More here.]

Back on February 6, in an interview on CNN with Candy Crowley, Alan K. Simpson (a former Republican senator from Wyoming who was co-chair of President Obama's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform) said:

If you have a- hear a politician get up and say
"I know we can get this done, we're going to get rid of all earmarks,
all waste, fraud, and abuse,
all foreign aid, Air Force One, all congressional pensions" — pffft!
That's a sparrow belch in the midst of a typhoon,
that's about six eight ten percent of where we are.
So I'm waiting for the politician to get up and say
"there's only one way to do this,
you dig in to the Big Four: Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and Defense".
And anybody giving you anything different than that,
you want to walk out the door,
stick your finger down your throat, and give 'em a-
the Green Weenie.

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How Mubarak was told to go, in many languages

In the New York Times Week in Review this weekend, I have a piece looking at the clever linguistic strategies that Egyptian protesters used to tell President Hosni Mubarak that it was time to go. (There's also a nice slideshow accompanying the article.) Language Log readers will already know about the appearance of "Game Over" in the Cairo protests, as well as the use of Chinese to get the message across, but there were many other creative variations on that theme.

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High-speed railroaded

About a year ago I wrote a post entitled "Suicided: the adversative passive as a form of active resistance."

This construction is still flourishing in China.  Indeed, it is so ubiquitous nowadays as to have lost some of its edge.  While not entirely banal, the frequent usage of the adversative passive has caused much of the raw, critical force that it once possessed to be dissipated through overfamiliarity.  However, when the object of derision or dissatisfaction is one that people are really upset about, the adversative passive can still pack a potent punch.

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Mubarak's poodle

The U.S. diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks offer an unflattering picture of Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, who is now the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and thus the de facto ruler of Egypt. The most widely cited passage, dating from 2008, noted that

__ __ __ described the mid-level officer corps as generally disgruntled, and said that one can hear mid-level officers at MOD clubs around Cairo openly expressing disdain for Tantawi. These officers refer to Tantawi as "Mubarak's poodle," he said, and complain that "this incompetent Defense Minister" who reached his position only because of unwavering loyalty to Mubarak is "running the military into the ground."

This being Language Log rather than International Politics Log, I'm not going to try to evaluate the validity of this perspective, or its implications for the future of Mr. Tantawi or of Egypt. Instead, I'd like to take up some linguistic questions: Did those mid-level officers really call Mr. Tantawi an Arabic version of "Mubarak's poodle", or is this the source's English-language characterization of their attitudes? And where does the whole "X's poodle" business come from, anyhow? When did it start, and who started it? And why "poodle" rather than "yorkie", "beagle", "cocker spaniel", or whatever?

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