Archive for June, 2023

The spiny terminological conundrum of ekhidna and ekhinos

[This is a guest post by Stewart Nicol]

Greek particles

I am a zoologist and comparative physiologist who has worked extensively on the monotremes, the platypus and the echidna. I have been putting together some notes on the naming of the these animals. After originally being placed in the genus Myrmecophaga with the other, totally unrelated, anteaters, the echidna was given the specific name Myrmecophaga aculeata (prickly anteater) by George Shaw in 1792.  It was named Echidna histrix by Georges Cuvier, misspelling Hystrix (Greek for porcupine). In 1811 Johann Illiger published an overhaul of the Linnaean system and replaced Cuvier’s genus name Echidna with Tachylossus (fast tongue) making the full binomial Tachyglossus aculeatus. The Genus name Echidna would have had priority but it had previously been applied to a genus of Moray eels, so the echidna became Tachyglossus aculeatus, but popularly known as the echidnaCuvier doesn’t say why he used the name echidna, but the general assumption is that it alludes to a monster in Greek mythology , ἔχιδνα or ekhidna, half woman (mammal) and half snake (reptile), because the echidna was believed to combine characteristics of reptiles and mammals. Unfortunately, the word ekhidna is very similar to the ekhinos (ἐχῖνος) which is the Ancient Greek word for hedgehog, and appears in the names echinoderm and echinacea because they have spines, giving rise to the misapprehension that the name echidna means spiny.

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The AI threat: keep calm and carry on

Three weekends ago, I delivered a keynote here:

New Directions in Chinese Language Education in the 21st Century

The Eighth International Conference on Teaching Chinese as a Second Language

Swarthmore College, June 9-10, 2023



    AI — Artificial Intelligence

    DT — Digital Technology

    IT — Information Technology

    DH — Digital Humanities

    AGI — Artificial General Intelligence, where machines supposedly can accomplish any intellectual task that a human can (to me that's a pipe dream)

(given for present and future reference and use)

Title "Aspects of AI and digital technologies in Chinese language teaching"


In recent decades, language processing hardware and software have progressed at an astonishing rate, one that is geometric rather than arithmetic.  The opportunities these advances offer and the challenges they pose require our thoughtful attention and careful response, lest the machines get out of control and affect our students in detrimental ways.  DeepL, ChatGPT, and other constantly evolving technologies possess enormous power to manipulate language, power that we can utilize for the enhancement of Chinese language pedagogy.  On the other hand, we must monitor and adapt this potential in such a manner that it fits our purposes and meets the needs of our students. 

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Cooperative creation with Generative AI

A couple of weeks ago, John Hansen tried "an experiment to see if I could successfully combine random and seemingly unconnected topics into one poem", and reported the results on Medium. This experiment was quickly reproduced by Adrian CDTPPW, Block Wife, and Robert G. Longpré.

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Flash sale

Ben Zimmer spotted this interesting street sign in the New York Times photo essay, "DMs from New York City" (June 26, 2023).

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Today I learned a new word

The new-to-me word: assembloid.

It occurred in the second (of 20!) bullet points that the blurb for a new publication, Brain Organoid & Systems Neuroscience Journal, lists under the heading

Specific areas of interest include, but are not limited to:

  • Brain organogenesis and Neuronal cultures
  • Methods for generating brain assembloids

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Touring the Turing Test again

The buzz about Large Language Models has re-ignited interest in Alan Turing's famous 1950 article "Computing Machinery and Intelligence". Two interesting recent discussions: Jessica Riskin, "A Sort of Buzzing Inside My Head", NYRB 6/25/2023, and Mustafa Suleyman, "The Coming Wave: Technology, Power, and the Twenty-first Century's Greatest Dilemma", Random House 9/5/2023.

Suleyman's book won't be released until 9/5/2023, so it's interesting that several outlets have blurbed one of its ideas ten weeks early: Brad Stone, "AI Leader Proposes a New Kind of Turing Test for Chatbots", Bloomberg 6/20/2023, and Sawdah Bhaimiya, "DeepMind's co-founder suggested testing an AI chatbot's ability to turn \$100,000 into \$1 million to measure human-like intelligence", Business Insider 6/20/2023.  Based just on Business Insider's title, Suleyman's proposal puzzled me, since we don't usually think of machine-trading systems as measuring intelligence — at least not the intelligence of the system rather than its designer. But in fact Suleyman has something different in mind, more along the lines of  an extended "shark tank" competition:

In describing his proposal, Suleyman argues that there’s a misplaced focus in the tech industry on the distant possibility of achieving artificial general intelligence, or AGI: algorithms with cognitive abilities that match or exceed humans’. Instead, he said the more achievable and meaningful short-term goal is what he calls artificial capable intelligence, or ACI: programs that can set goals and achieve complex tasks with minimal human intervention.

To measure whether a machine has achieved ACI, he describes a “modern Turing test” — a new north star for researchers — in which you give an AI \$100,000 and see if it can turn the seed investment into \$1 million. To do so, the bot must research an e-commerce business opportunity, generate blueprints for a product, find a manufacturer on a site like Alibaba and then sell the item (complete with a written listing description) on Amazon or

Suleyman expects AI will pass this more practical threshold sometime in the next two years. “We don’t just care about what a machine can say; we also care about what it can do,” he writes. And when that happens, he says, “The consequences for the world economy are seismic.”

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Tasting History

That's the name of a viral YouTube channel that I had never heard of, and now a popular book that Barbara Phillips Long called to my attention:

My son gave me a copy of Tasting History, by Max Miller, which takes very old recipes and gives modern approximations of them. The book is handsomely printed, well illustrated, and fun, with a wide range of random food trivia and loads of food history. You might find it intriguing.
There's a raspberry shrub recipe from 1911; I seem to recall Language Log having a post about shrubs and their origins.
There are also ten recipes credited to the Near and Far East, including recipes from Egypt, Baghdad, the Mughal Empire, India, China, Korea, and Japan.
So far, I have only read part of the book, although I paged through the whole thing. I did like this quote:
They say "history is written by the victors," but in my experience, history is written by those who write stuff down, and food is no exception.

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The scatology and physiology of push and pull

Having just written about "Drainage issues" (6/25/23), with a graphic depiction of what causes the problem with the drainage system in question, I am emboldened finally to answer a question that one of my graduate students has been asking about for several years.  Namely, why do Chinese say "pull poo / shit / excrement" (lāshǐ 拉屎 / lā dàbiàn 拉大便)?  What's the logic of that usage?  How can one pull excrement when one defecates?  Wouldn't it make more sense to say "push" (tuī )?  Think about it.  A bowel movement involves peristalsis,

the involuntary constriction and relaxation of the muscles of the intestine or another canal, creating wave-like movements that push the contents of the canal forward.
(Oxford Languages on Google; emphasis added)

And what do doctors (and husbands) always say to a woman in labor?  "Push", of course.  And the baby comes out from the birth canal.

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AI for Akkadian

Article by Melanie Lidman in The Times of Israel (6/17/23):

Groundbreaking AI project translates 5,000-year-old cuneiform at push of a button

‘Google Translate’-like program for Akkadian cuneiform will enable tens of thousands of digitized but unread tablets to be translated to English. Accuracy is debatable.

Opening and key paragraphs:

Cuneiform is the oldest known form of writing, but it is so difficult to read that only a few hundred experts around the world can decode the clay tablets filled with wedge-shaped symbols. Now, a team of archaeologists and computer scientists from Israel has created an AI-powered translation program for ancient Akkadian cuneiform, allowing tens of thousands of already digitized tablets to be translated into English instantaneously.

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RobWords on eggcorn

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Non-wheat food

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Drainage issues

Photograph taken in Hong Kong:

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Use chili sparingly

From AntC:

Seen in a very typical (but delicious) corner eatery in downtown Hualien, Taiwan.

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