Archive for September, 2011

Uptick in spam comments

Stock markets are down around the world, but the flow of spam comments continues to increase. Three weeks (21 days) ago, our spam comments counter stood at 1,008,782. As of this morning, it's at 1,140,742, for an increment of 131,960 in 21 days. This is 6,284 per day, or 2,293,591 per year.

I've long since given up scanning the spam trap for real comments that the automatic algorithms have caught by mistake, though I'm sure that there are still a few of these. (Note that even if the false alarm rate is very low, say a tenth of a percent, there would still be a half a dozen innocent victims a day. I believe that in fact the rate is a bit lower than that, but it's not zero.)

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Vanity plates, writing systems, and the sexualization of tofu

Whitney Calk submitted a request to the state of Tennessee for the following license plate:

According to Nick Carbone, "Tennessee Veggie Lover's Vanity License Plate Banned for 'Vulgarity'", Time 9/16/2011:

A Tennessee woman just wanted to share her love of vegetarian eating. The state thought she was expressing her love for a more explicit activity.

It's a battle of semantics – implied spacing, really. Whitney Calk innocently (or perhaps not) requested a vanity license plate from the state of Tennessee, one that read “ILVTOFU.” But her personalized plate reflecting her fondness for bean curds was rejected on the grounds of "vulgarity.” There's nothing vulgar about tofu, right?

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Any questions?

Today's Dilbert picks up the theme of obtuse interpretation of quantifier domain restrictions, recently featured (less succinctly) here in "Shel Silverstein's hot dog and the domain of 'everything'" and "Dogless in Albion".

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Sequoyah's syllabary, from parchment to iPad

In a great use of comic art, Roy Boney Jr. has created a graphic feature for the magazine Indian Country Today about the history of the Cherokee syllabary developed by Sequoyah in the early 19th century. Boney begins with the syllabary's inception and early use, and continues all the way through technological developments like the Selectric typewriter and Unicode standardization. Check it out here.

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The big deal

The following signs are posted in the rest room of a cafe in the fashionable Houhai district of Beijing:

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Shel Silverstein's hot dog and the domain of "everything"

A posthumous collection of Shel Silverstein's poems and drawings has just been published, with the title Every Thing On It. That's also the title of a poem contained in the collection, and Buzzfeed reproduced it in a post today. The verse displays the kind of lightly subversive wordplay that Silverstein is famous for.

I asked for a hot dog
With everything on it
And that was my big mistake,
'Cause it came with a parrot,
A bee in a bonnet,
A wristwatch, a wrench, and a rake.
It came with a goldfish,
A flag, and a fiddle,
A frog, and a front porch swing,
And a mouse in a mask—
That's the last time I ask
For a hot dog with everything.

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English grammar quiz

9 Chickweed Lane for 9/20/2011:

Reader AB asks:

As a non-native speaker, I find the use of both 15-foot and 15 feet within the same text balloon puzzling (third panel). Is there an explanation?

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"Most number of"

Reader RG was surprised to see this in a BBC News item ("Violin world record broken in Taiwan", 9/18/2011):

A group of 4,645 violinists broke the world record for the most number of violins played simultaneously.

This sense of (the) most is presumably the superlative of many, and thus "the most number of violins" means the same thing as "the most violins". One motivation for adding the "number of" part may be that (the) most is also the superlative of much — in that case people sometimes specify "the most amount of". Thus another BBC News item, "Matthew Arnold pupils get chocolate for energy saving", 6/15/2011:

Matthew Arnold School was rewarded for saving the most amount of energy on Oxfordshire's School Switch Off day.

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Visual aid for the final serial comma

If you ever have trouble remembering a minimal contrast for the final serial comma, a.k.a. the Oxford comma, here's a little visual help:
Oxford CommaStrippers, JFK, and Stalin
(via Jeff Bishop)

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How supernatural, preternatural, or unearthly beings sweeten their coffee

Spotted by Oliver Renwick's wife, while waiting for a train in Fes, Morocco:

Oliver's comment:

I don’t think I’ve heard the word ‘wight’ outside of Tolkien, and I don’t understand, even with a machine, how you could get ‘wight’ from ‘blanc’. The only conclusion I can come to is that we actually had a human translator who didn’t know how to spell ‘white’ and yet thought they were qualified to continue with a translation that now appears on who knows how many tens of thousands of sugar packets.

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Non-markovian yawp

Now that I've got morning internet access again, and the semester is more or less underway, it's time for another Breakfast Experiment™.

In "Markov's Heart of Darkness" (7/18/2011) and "Finch linguistics" (7/13/2011) , we learned that Joseph Conrad's paragraphs are more markovian — at least in terms of their distribution of lengths — than zebra finch song bouts are. So I wondered about length distributions in some other sources — pause groups in conversational speech, and lines in Walt Whitman's poetry.

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Can grammar win elections?

That's the title of a recent paper by Caitlin Fausey and Teenie Matlock that appeared in the journal Political Psychology. It's a heartwarming title, one that permits me to dare to dream of that better day when political parties will divert rivers of cash to linguistics departments, when a grad student will be able to defend a thesis on applicative constructions in East Asian languages one day and take up a lucrative job as Washington policy wonk the next, and when volumes by Noam Chomsky and Richard Montague will be pressed into the hands of military personnel charged with the task of winning the hearts and minds of residents in troublesome, volatile nations.

The paper stems from recent interest in the persuasion sciences about the fact that how a message is expressed often has a startling impact on the choices and behaviors of its audience. Most of the attention has been lavished on questions of lexical choice, or on whether a message is framed as involving gains rather than losses. But these are happy days, and persuasion research seems to be taking a more adventurous turn, with investigators beginning to tackle questions involving finer points of semantics and their grammatical correlates.

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Aid from the Magic Kingdom

Will legendary beings step in where the politicians have failed?

"Missouri: Flood Damage Dwarfs Repair Budget", NYT (AP) 9/15/2011.

Reader AG, who sent in the tip, hopes so. He's been fantasizing about those flood damage dwarfs, toiling with little fiscal hammers and tongs at their forges in the caverns of the Ozarks.

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