Archive for November, 2011

Crash Blossom of the day

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"Don't you know it's not just the Eskimo"

Last month, in the post "'Words for snow' watch," I reported that Kate Bush's new album (out Nov. 21) is called 50 Words for Snow. I wrote, "It's unclear at this point exactly how Eskimos will figure into Bush's songwriting, but it's safe to say they'll be in there somewhere." Today, thanks to NPR's stream of the album, I've listened to the ethereal title track, and the Eskimos are indeed in there, but perhaps not in the way you'd expect.

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Not long ago I went out to see Cockney comedian Micky Flanagan perform at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh. (One man alone on stage with one microphone. His two-hour mission: to seek out new laughs and new ways to mock civilization; to boldly zing where no man has zinged before. Standup is the bravest of all the performing arts that don't involve a high wire.) Hearing that East London dialect again (I grew up in the London area) was like slipping into a comfortable old pair of shoes.

Flanagan says he was in a posh Italian restaurant in London and ordered the bruschetta for a starter, and the waiter had the nerve to correct his pronunciation. He had said -sh- for the -sch- part, and of course there were glottal stops where the geminate [t] should have been: [bɹʊˈʃɛʔɐ] is how he said it.

"Bruschetta, said the waiter; "Not broo-SHET-a: [bru&#x02C8sketta]. In our-a language, is pronounced, [bru&#x02C8sketta]."

And in a flash Flanagan retorted: "Yeah? Well in our language it's pronounced 'tomatoes on toast'."

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"… long before humans mastered language"

Martin Robinson, "Piles of ancient rubbish could prove incredible temple that's 6,500 years older than Stonehenge was actually a house", Daily Mail 10/19/2011:

It has long been considered the world's oldest temple and even thought by some to be the site of the Garden of Eden.

But a scientist has claimed that the Gobekli Tepe stones in Turkey, built in 9,000 BC and 6,500 years older than Stonehenge, could instead be a giant home 'built for men not gods'.

Ted Banning, a professor at the University of Toronto, has branded it 'one of the world's biggest garbage dumps,' with piles of animal bones, tools and charcoal found there proving that it was an ancient home rather than a religious site. […]

The incredible site was put up long before humans mastered language or skills like pottery or metal work, making it one of the true wonders of the world pre-dating any previously discovered religious site by 1,000 years. [emphasis added]

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Could Lincoln have furled his brow?

The Prologue of Martin Dugard and Bill O'Reilly's new book (Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever) begins like this:

The man with six weeks to live is anxious.

He furls his brow, as he does countless times each day, and walks out of the Capitol Building, which is nearing completion. He is exhausted, almost numb.

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Speech-based "lie detection"? I don't think so

Mike Paluska, "Investigator: Herman Cain innocent of sexual advances", CBS Atlanta, 11/10/2011:

Private investigator TJ Ward said presidential hopeful Herman Cain was not lying at a news conference on Tuesday in Phoenix.

Cain denied making any sexual actions towards Sharon Bialek and vowed to take a polygraph test if necessary to prove his innocence.

Cain has not taken a polygraph but Ward said he does have software that does something better.

Ward said the $15,000 software can detect lies in people's voices.

This amazingly breathless and credulous report doesn't even bother to tell us what the brand name of the software is, and certainly doesn't give us anything but Mr. Ward's unsupported (and in my opinion almost certainly false) assertion about how well it works:

Ward said the technology is a scientific measure that law enforcement use as a tool to tell when someone is lying and that it has a 95 percent success rate.

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Nuclear Proliferation 101

Gene Buckley was surprised to learn that the U.N. is projecting a grade of A- for Iran's bomb work:

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Adam Kilgore and Juan Forero, "Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos kidnapped in Venezuela", Washington Post 11/9/20111:

Wilson Ramos, one of the Washington Nationals’ most promising young baseball players, was kidnapped at gunpoint Wednesday night from his family’s home in Venezuela, leaving the team in a state of shock and raising questions about the safety of playing in a country ravaged in recent years by kidnappings and street crime. […]

In a crime and safety report this year, the U.S. Department of State described kidnappings in Venezuela as “a growing industry.” In 2009, according to an estimate in the crime and safety report, “there was an alarming 9.2 incidents of kidnapping per 100,000 inhabitants in Venezuela.” […]

Many of the kidnappings that take place in the country are so-called “express” kidnappings, in which armed men drive a victim around and take money from him before releasing him. The Department of State crime and safety report stated that “groups that specialize in these types of crimes operate with impunity or fear of incarceration.” [emphasis added]

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Doing without language

As you know, I undertake the arduous task of covering the vast universe of movies for Language Log. (This at least is the way I write up the paperwork that gets all my cinematic entertainment charged to the Language Log corporate expense account on a fully IRS-defensible basis.) The film I saw today, one of the best political dramas in ten or twenty years, has a humbling lesson for linguists, in a sort of zen way.

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Berlin 9

Today and tomorrow I'm participating in the Berlin 9 Open Access Conference, at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Bethesda MD.  This afternoon I'll be giving a talk in a session on "Transforming Research through Open Online Access to Discovery Inputs and Outputs".

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Drones and passivity

People keep going on about the passive voice and revealing that they don't really know much about what it is. I have commented on this so often that some readers have written to beg me to stop. To the sensitive souls who just couldn't bear to be told one more time about a case of this sort: stop reading now. Use some self-discipline. Do not go on. You do not want to hear about what Daniel Swift, a teacher of English composition at Skidmore College, said about drones in Harper's Magazine recently. Really you don't. Stop reading now. Click to another page. Find something nice by Mark Liberman to read.

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No excuses!

From reader Paul Sleigh, the crash blossom of the week: "Mansell guilty of missing businessman's murder", ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) News, 11/7/2011. Paul offers a lesson in Australian manners:

Obviously, if you tell someone you're going to be attending a businessman's murder, you damn well better be there on time! None of this "I missed my train" rubbish!

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Generic comparisons

Last Friday, I heard Sarah-Jane Leslie talk about "Generics and Generalization":

Generic sentences express generalizations about kinds, such as "tigers are striped", "ducks lay eggs", and "ticks carry Lyme disease". I present and review emerging evidence from adults and children that suggests that generics articulate cognitively default generalizations — i.e., they express basic, early-developing inductive generalizations concerning kinds. Further evidence suggests that these generalizations don't depend solely on information about prevalence. For example, "ticks carry Lyme disease" is accepted, but "books are paperbacks" is not, despite the fact – well-known and acknowledged by participants – that paperbacks are much more prevalent among books than Lyme-disease-carrying is among ticks. Similarly, both adults and preschoolers understand that, e.g., only female ducks lay eggs, yet they are more likely to accept "ducks lay eggs" than "ducks are female". Rather than depending solely on information about prevalence, these primitive generic generalizations are sensitive to a number of content-based factors, such as whether the property in question is dangerous or otherwise striking (as in "ticks carry Lyme disease"), or is an essential or characteristic property of the kind (as in "ducks lay eggs"). This suggests that our most basic means of forming inductive generalizations about kinds is not guided by prevalence alone, but also reflects our nature as learners.

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