Monday, December 29, 2008

Oh no! Mr. Hat is dead!

From: Dr Usman Bello
To: Jazzschool
Date: Wed, 24 Dec 2008 19:51:22 +0530 (IST)
Subject: My Letter to you reply immediately


Thursday, December 18, 2008

New challenges facing the modern musician

A man came to the school yesterday ostensibly to inquire about our program. He looked thoroughly normal, recently washed hair, etc., with a tweed jacket -- probably a Larry or a Glenn. We'll call him Larry. Jesse had fortune to be the one to speak with him at the front desk, and from my position back in the office I only heard snatches of the conversation, which nonetheless began raising increasingly large red flags as the discourse progressed.

It was an interesting conversation. The guy was definitely a little weird, but there was nothing to specifically pinpoint aside from a demeanor apparently carefully cultivated without the benefit of any understanding of basic social norms -- I consider it something of an accomplishment to be aggressively pompous and worryingly creepy simultaneously. Actually, there was almost a bit of the Senor Cardgage about Larry (aside: Senor Cardgage actually exists, did you know this? I discovered him working at A.G. Ferrari on Piedmont. I am dead serious) now that I think about it.

Anyway, things were going along nicely in said conversation, getting weirder by degrees more or less directly proportional to its duration, when the excerpt I am about to relate occurred. Here is a graph of our perceived sanity of the conversation with respect to time:

The conversation flowed more or less as follows.

Larry: Do you teach your students about the most important thing?

Jesse: [long pause] Um...I'm not quite sure what you mean.

Larry: How not to starve to death!

Jesse: [long pause] Well, I mean...

Larry: [getting excited] Here you are at this college, this college, you know, teaching people, and you don't even teach them...

Jesse: Well, I don't think you really...

Larry: Students need to know, you know! With times changing...our economy failing...

Jesse: Uh-huh...

Larry: ...fuel prices rising...

Jesse: Uh-huh...

Larry: ...the Stargate opening in 2012 allowing us to travel freely through any dimension...

Jesse: Um, I can't really follow you there.

Larry: [nods paternally] Don't worry about it.

So now you know. If you're a musician, don't get left out in the cold when the Stargate opens.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

In search of nomenclature

The burning question of the year is this: what on Earth should Amelia and I do with our names after getting married next October? We could theoretically both keep our hyphenated monstrosities in the short term, but this quickly becomes impractical when the storks start dropping off their parcels.

We were both pretty sure we wanted our family to have one name; but which name should it be? We threw around Brandt and Isaacks for a while without definite decision, and then stumbled onto the idea of botany. A new plant-based name for our family certainly seems up our alley of insanity, so the fun began...

I did some research and drew up a list of a bunch of trees, flowers, herbs and other miscellaneous plants that seemed vaguely possible as surnames (or just too hilarious to leave out), and wrote a program to allow us to see each of our first names with all of the last names at random and rate them. Here's the list we were working with:
Alder, Amaranth, Anemone, Arrowroot, Aspen, Aster, Beebalm, Birch, Bladderpod, Bloodroot, Buckeye, Bugbane, Butterbur, Butterweed, Campion, Caraway, Catchfly, Cedar, Chervil, Chickweed, Clammyweed, Cockscomb, Cockspur, Coltsfoot, Cowcockle, Crowfoot, Crucifer, Dragonhead, Fennel, Feverfew, Fireweed, Flameflower, Fleabane, Foxglove, Galax, Gillyflower, Globeflower, Goldcup, Goldenseal, Goldthread, Goosefoot, Groundsel, Gumweed, Hazel, Helmetflower, Hemlock, Honeysuckle, Hyssop, Kingcup, Larch, Larkspur, Laurel, Leopardbane, Lilac, Linden, Liverleaf, Loosestrife, Madrone, Mandrake, Maple, Mulberry, Mullein, Oxalis, Pennyroyal, Peony, Periwinkle, Pimpernel, Poplar, Primrose, Rhubarb, Rockfoil, Rowan, Sage, Sainfoin, Samphire, Sandwort, Saxifrage, Searocket, Skullcap, Snapdragon, Sneezeweed, Soapwort, Sorrel, Spiderflower, Spruce, Stonecress, Sunflower, Sycamore, Tarweed, Teasel, Tickweed, Toadflax, Trefoil, Vervain, Wandflower, Willow, Wintergreen, Witloof, Woad, Zinnia. addition to both parts of each of our existing names. After we'd both gone through all 200 or so possibilities a few times, I weeded out the bottom 75% for both of us (what? what's wrong with Amelia Sneezeweed? and Searocket is clearly awesome) and we went for another few rotations. The last step was to delete all the names that we didn't have in common, which brought us to the following, in approximate order of compromise mutual preference:


Amelia's favorite is "Birch." It's a beautiful tree that we both love, very unusual as a name but not weird in that context, and goes well with both of our names (though "Josh Birch" isn't great metrically in my opinion) and all the potential kids' names that we've discussed. Josh(ua) Birch, Amelia Birch, Elinor/Eleanor (Ella) Birch, Imogene (Idgie) Birch, Isabel (Izzie) Birch, Julian (Jules/Jude) Birch, Miles/Milo Birch, &c.

My favorite, surprisingly, and also the only one of these that I could instantly adopt without the slightest tinge of misgiving or regret, also surprisingly, is "Aster." I adore it, for all kinds of reasons -- it seems modern and traditional and earthy and celestial and rural and cosmopolitan all at the same time, and the phonological component hits the spot for me as well. I would love to be Josh Aster. I really am, as I may have mentioned above, surprised to find myself having such a strong reaction to this.

I don't think it's a possibility, though -- although it's in our top ten in common, Amelia doesn't really care for it that much, which definitely tosses it out of the running. If we're both changing our names, feeling gung-ho about our choice is a clear prerequisite.

I find I'm ambivalent about "Brandt." I've never particularly loved the sound of it -- a heavy syllable with a nasal vowel as its nucleus -- and I wouldn't particularly have expected myself to push for it in a situation such as, for example, the one we're now in. In fact, for as long as I've had an opinion I've been a staunch opponent of the ludicrous idea of a woman taking her husband's name, so it would have been an impossibility.

Things are strangely different now, though. I'm having this bizarre conservative feeling that I'd rather like it if Amelia wanted to take my name -- and a new allegiance to "Brandt" and its history, particularly since I'm one of the few Brandts remaining from my line after the Holocaust.

In all truth I really have no idea what we're going to end up choosing, or how we'll manage to come to a decision -- the scales seem pretty evenly balanced in every direction. I think I could probably be okay with any of our top options (Brandt, Isaacks, Birch and Linden) or, of course, Aster...heh heh.

And you should go vote and let us know what you think! Who knows, maybe public opinion will be overwhelming enough to sway the jury.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Mistakery as a measure of fluentitude?

Here's a new one for the books: initiagate. I overheard this yesterday in the context of a jocular conversation shouted across an empty restaurant: "Well, she initiagated it!" I'm assuming this lovely coining is a portmanteau of initiate and instigate, and though the semantic gap it fills in the English lexicon is perhaps somewhat dubious, I still think it's useful to have around, and hilarious in a W sort of way.

Also interesting to me is the fact that the perpetrator (initiagator, even?) of this new term was not a native English speaker. I'm impressed by her ability to make such fluent English-style "mistakes," which raises a point in the definition of fluency that I had never really considered. There are a number of languages I would call myself fluent in, but I definitely don't think my speech errors in these languages are of the same ilk that native speakers would make. I'm intrigued -- I want to learn to speak better bad Polish. Or worse good Polish?

And to continue Adam's and my apparently neverending rant, why does no language textbook or reference grammar touch on this area? It seems a ridiculous oversight, the more I think about it.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Yes, please touch my life with your funds

Back on November 5th, the Jazzschool received the following e-mail:

I am ill and would die, I want to touch lives with my funds through you please respond.
...and a name. Jesse and I are still trying to figure out what this guy's story is. Could he actually be a legitimate, albeit extremely odd, potential legacy donor? Random lunatic? Prank e-mailer? Not a real person at all, but rather some kind of ill-conceived scam attempt? Pure spam? None of the possibilities seem to fit that wonderful sentence completely.

There are so many great things about it. The opening clause, I am ill and would die, simultaneously and incongruously suggests the style of both an unskilled ESL speaker and a 19th-century author. I want to touch lives with my funds through you, ostensibly expressing philanthropic intent, refuses to stop sounding creepy and/or dirty to me no matter how I reframe it, especially when amplified by the desperation of the unpunctuated conclusion, please respond.

Whoever he is, he has already touched our lives with quite a few days of continual mirth.

Friday, November 21, 2008


I received the following fax at work this morning:

I'm flabbergasted. How is this even possible? I can't believe that Baja Fresh would actually send out such bizarre and incompetently written fax spam, but it's equally improbable that any other party would have undertaken it for heaven knows what purpose. Either way, that's some pretty impressive bad English.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Waiting for the train

With nine years of BART-riding experience now under my belt, I feel it necessary to make a statement about how people line up to wait for the train. For those unfamiliar with the BART system, each train car has two doors, and the edges of the platforms are marked with black to inform you as to where the aforementioned doors will be when the train stops.

As you might presume, people tend to cluster around these door areas when waiting -- not much sense in waiting, for example, near the middle of the train, and having to relocate to the rear of a mass of people who have more wisely been waiting near the door once the train actually arrives. I've come to the conclusion that there are two possible successful strategies in Waiting Technique:

1) Neat lines (e.g. Rockridge). People line up in single file in front of where the train's doors will be. The earlier you arrive, the better your chance of a place near the front of the line and therefore a seat on the train. Deviations from the system are punished by angry frowns by everyone else on the platform, and very possibly being blocked from entering the train until the end by the combined effort of the boarding line.

2) Total chaos (e.g. Downtown Berkeley until recently). No rules, no etiquette; your likelihood of getting on the train first is directly proportional to your pushiness and/or ability nonchalantly to get in front of everyone else. People tend to form semicircles against the platform's edge and then all attempt to cram inwards once the doors open.

Plan 1 is undoubtedly more orderly, but 2 works just fine as well and I've observed general harmony either way. What DOESN'T work, and now we come to the purpose of today's diatribe, is a combination of the above systems. This is the current culture that prevails at Bayfair where I wait for the train every morning, and it is beginning, ladies and gentlemen, to chafe.

In system 1.5, between about a half and two thirds of the waiting public feel the need to stand in a neat line, but the rest wait to the side and merge with the front of the line when the doors open. The thing I don't understand is why anyone is still lining up. It's not doing them any good, because there's no sense of fairness like at Rockridge: the person who lines up nicely is less likely to get a seat on the train because of all the folks cutting in at the front of the line. Since this happens every day at every door, one wonders what on Earth the incentive could be to keep being "nice."

What we're basically seeing here is a small-scale dramatization via our system of social norms of the concept of the Evolutionarily Stable Strategy (ESS) from evolutionary theory. An ESS is a strategy or combination of strategies that can't be invaded by competing strategies because deviations from the norm are punished by a reduced payoff for the deviator. At downtown Berkeley, for instance, anyone who lines up is virtually guaranteed to get on the train last; likewise, at Rockridge, anyone who doesn't line up is virtually guaranteed to get on the train last.

So what in god's name is going on with Bayfair? Is it in transition between the two types, just waiting for one of them to get strong enough to tip the strategy permanently? I sort of don't think so, because I've been watching this for about a year now and I can't say I've noticed any shift at all in the frequency of the two factions. I do have a theory, however.

Because this game is being played, as I mentioned, in the world of human social expectations instead of that of gene survival, there are some other forces in effect that change the rules. When I first started waiting at Bayfair in the morning I was immediately struck by the ludicrousness of this situation and resolved not to put up with it -- I would not be "nice" and line up because, damn it all, I had a long ride ahead of me and I wanted a seat! But the horrible internal social pressure I felt was eventually too much, and I now find myself lining up even though I know it's completely futile and I just wind up grinding my teeth in frustration with the assholes who keep cutting in at the front of the line.

So maybe everyone in this lining-up subset of Bayfair culture fully realizes how utterly pointless it is, but is nevertheless completely unable to restrain himself from trying to align with the perceived correct social behavior.

How do I fix this? Can I stage some kind of nonviolent protest? I'm afraid I might lose it one of these mornings and start berating people in Polish or something.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Jeane, if you're ever in Vilnius should consider renting an apartment from Regina Bulovienė instead of getting a hotel room. They're beautiful and spacious and right in the middle of the Old Town, and very reasonably priced to boot (at least they were in August 2005).

+370-5-2619-098 (home)
+370-685-31-893 (cell)

And now maybe I can finally stop carrying her damn business card around in my wallet.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Another one

...this time perhaps even stranger:

The Welsh in the above sign does not, in fact, say "Cyclists Dismount." What it does say is "Bladder Inflammation Tip Over."

Lest you think this is too ridiculous to even be possible, one theory has it that "cyclists" was mispelled and changed by an automatic spell checker to "cystitis" before being sent over to the guy in the office with a Welsh dictionary.

Anyway, wow. And I thought Wells Fargo was bad with their big fancy sign saying "Comerciales Atención" for "Business Services." Incidentally, here's a BBC article about the heavy goods vehicles sign.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Welsh is even weirder than we thought

Behold a typical bilingual sign in Wales:

So apparently the English in the above sign translates into Welsh literally as "I am not in the office at the moment. Please send any translation work." No wonder I'm having trouble building up my fluency when these are the kinds of idioms I have to come to grips with.

P.S. I think it's absolutely hilarious that Amelia's reaction to my Welsh journal entry was that it was some kind of weird code. Welsh definitely wins my contest for the strangest Latin-based orthography.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Not the shoes!

On a whim, I put on a random selection of Carter Family songs as I was opening this morning at work. One that I hadn't heard before is called "Cannonball Blues," and has the following wonderful line in it:

My baby's left me, she even took my shoes.

I love this because it packs such a huge amount of meaning into those nine words, even though (or maybe because) that meaning isn't overtly stated. If I rephrase this to be less subtle, it loses all its power: My baby's left me, she took everything I own, I have nothing left, or whatever. I doubt I would ever have noticed my revised line, but as it was, it really hit me -- wow! His shoes, even! Ouch! Somehow this way the sense of his having lost absolutely everything really comes across.

So what's the deal with shoes, anyway? I guess they're such a basic utilitarian thing everyone needs just to spend a day in civilization that to be deprived of them seems like the final decimation. I'm curious what other words, if any, we could put in that slot to elicit a similar emotional reaction.

My baby's left me, she even took my mattress.
My baby's left me, she even took my stove.
My baby's left me, she even took my guitar.
My baby's left me, she even took my guitar picks.
My baby's left me, she even took my alarm clock.
My baby's left me, she even took my extension cord.
My baby's left me, she even took my asthma inhaler.
My baby's left me, she even took my glasses.

I dunno, some of these seem to pack no punch at all (stove), while others just seem too mean and not disinterested enough (asthma inhaler). My favorites in the bunch are alarm clock and glasses, but I'm still not impressed. Apparently shoes have some special psychological value I had never realized. I give thanks to the Carter Family for my continuing education.

Addendum: Amelia's recommendation is pants -- My baby's left me, she even took my pants. I feel like this is getting pretty close, but here's the thing I'm realizing about shoes that make them so special: unlike most of these other options, they don't have a lot of emotional baggage attached to them. If she takes his asthma inhaler or glasses, for example, the act seems cruel and petty, and she appears genuinely to wish him injury. Taking his pants likewise seems cruelly embarrassing, as our hapless protagonist will likely have to appear in public unclothed unless a phone somehow got left behind in the rubble.

But shoes don't seem particularly cruel, nasty, injurious, embarrassing, etc., at least to me -- sort of emotionless, in fact. She dispassionately, coolly, calmly took every last thing with her when she went; she exists less as a person, and more as a symbol of the now emptiness of his life and total bewilderment as to what to do next.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


In another valiant and heretofore unsung effort to free itself from the shackles of whose, English has produced one more revolutionary in the person of Ben Wenet, who on August 22nd, 2008, was observed to state:

"I have a friend that's mom lives there too, so..."

This is largely the same strategy we saw with Micole Arny, except that she chose what's as the relative pronoun instead of that's. The thing that I find particularly remarkable about this, though, is that the possessor in this clause is animate -- I would have expected a whose to slip out much more easily in this type of situation than when the possessor is inanimate as in Micole's example.

I have a theory: it could be bunnies. OR, perhaps less controversially, that whose is being increasingly considered to have been pushed into a register where it feels inappropriately formal outside of a literary context. It seems obvious to me that users of English are desperately searching for something to replace it with, and trying all kinds of different options (all of which are perfectly reasonable from a cross-linguistic perspective, it might be worthwhile to note). Two other strategies that I haven't commented on yet throw away the relative pronoun (and gap) entirely: my mother's, e.g...

"...houses that their insulation isn't thick enough..."

And, embarrassing though it is to have to admit him to the vanguard of linguistic change, John McCain's, at least on September 26th, 2008:

"We have a defense system that the costs are completely out of control."

I don't know that we have enough data to start making conclusions yet, but this much is clear to me: something is on the move here.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Meddyliau o'n caban wrth y môr

(Nod: heb eiriadur!)

Neithiwr gofynnes i Amelia os ydy hi am fod yn briod da fi, a ddwedodd hi "ydw," wrth gwrs. Doedd hi ddim y dydd o'n i'n planu i'w ofyn, ond oedd y lleuad yn olau iawn pam oedden ni'n cerdded yn ôl o'r lle ble oedden ni'n eistedd yn y dŵr ac doedd dim gen i ddewis. Dw i'n gobeithio oedd hi'n hoffi'r ffordd wnes i hi -- dw i'n moyn gofyn, ond mae ofn arna i. :)

Ac mae hi'n hoffi'r ring yn lawer, mwy na i mi allu gobeithio -- mae hi'n dweud "e'n berffaith!" Ac mae'n ymddangos byddan ni'n briod rywbryd -- fi ac Amelia, pwy basai wedi ei chredu flwyddyn yn ôl? Dw i'n meddwl tai'r dewis da oedd e -- does dim cwestiwn mod i'n ei charu hi, ac ydyn ni'n dda iawn together -- dan ni i gyd yn hapus iawn, ac mae'n trafferthion ni'n anymddangos fis ar ôl mis. Dw i'n credu tai'r byw dw i wedi eisiau trwy fy nyddiau i gyd ydy hwn. Dw i'n hapus.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Y cofnod dyddiadur cyntaf yn Gymraeg

Dw i'n eistedd ar y trên ac yn meddwl. Dw i'n teimlo'n drist, ac wn i mo'r rheswm. Mae'n wir bod Amelia wedi bod yn absennol yn ystod yr wythnos gorffennol, ac mae hwnna'n anodd i mi; ac mae gen i blanau mawr (ti'n gwybod beth ydw i'n eisiau dweud) i'r penwythnos nesaf, ac mae'n siwr fod hwnna'n mwyhad fy ing i. Dw i'n moyn i bopeth fod yn berffaith...

Nac ydw, dydy hwnna ddim yn wir. Dim perffaith, dw i mond eisiau iddi deimlo'n hapus i fod gen i -- dw i am foyn teimlo bod hi yna gen i, dim yn teithio mewn lle arall. Ac mae ofn arna i bydd hi'n aros i mi ddweud y geiriau mawr, ac yn ofydus amdani, ac fydd hi ddim yn gallu cael blas ar yr amser.

Ond beth dw i'n gallu gwneud? Mond aros, bod yn ei charu hi, ymlacio -- bydd hi'n fwy hawdd iddi hi ymlacio hefyd.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Not a big surprise

You are a

Social Liberal
(81% permissive)

and an...

Economic Liberal
(6% permissive)

You are best described as a:


Link: The Politics Test on Ok Cupid
Also : The OkCupid Dating Persona Test

Monday, September 29, 2008

Wikipedia: Bulgarian arouses feelings of incontinence

I stumbled across this text in Wikipedia about a year ago and was flabbergasted: this is clearly far too good to be true. I've permalinked it just in case, but remarkably this error (if error it is — my Bulgarian isn't good enough to know for sure) still stands today. Just think of the conlang possibilities! Forget Sapir-Whorf, why can't language directly influence one's physiology? I want verb morphology that induces euphoria, syntactic structures that cure headaches, phonemes that draw one's thoughts inexorably to memories of childhood crushes.
The subjunctive mood is rarely documented as a separate verb form in Bulgarian, (being, morphologically, a sub-instance of the quasi-infinitive construction with the particle да (da) "to" and a normal finite verb form), but nevertheless it is used regularly. The most common form, often mistaken for the present tense, is the present subjunctive ([пo-добре] да отидa, [po-dobre] da otida, "I had better go"). The difference between the present indicative and the present subjunctive tense is that the subjunctive can be formed by both perfective and imperfective verbs. It has completely replaced the infinitive and the supine from complex expressions (see below). It is also employed to express opinion about possible future events. The past perfect subjunctive ([пo-добре] да бях отишъл, [po-dobre] da byah otishul, "I had better gone") refers to possible events in the past, which did not take place, and the present pluperfect subjunctive (да съм бил отишъл, da sum bil otishul), which may be used about both past and future events arousing feelings of incontinence, suspicion, etc. and is impossible to translate in English. This last variety of the subjunctive in Bulgarian is sometimes also called the dubitative mood.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Demonstrative deixis in Catalan

Once upon a time (a time which still continues further south towards València) Catalan had a three-way deictic opposition in its demonstratives analogous with este/ese/aquel in Spanish and hic/iste/ille in Latin: that is, with one form corresponding to each of 1st, 2nd and 3rd person. This scheme is outlined below:

pronoun adjective adverb
1 açò aquest aquí
2 això aqueix allí
3 allò aquell allà

So in this system, aquí = "here by me," allí = "there by you," and allà = "over there by someone else." This obviously differs from the English system in that 2nd and 3rd person have merged with us, giving us only here = "here by me" and there = "there by you" or "over there by someone else," which seems only natural, given that I'm a native English speaker.

Modern standard Catalan also merged two of its persons, though in a totally different way which confounds my English-speaking brain: 1st and 2nd person now share a form. This gives the following paradigm:

pronoun adjective adverb
1/2 això aquest aquí
3 allò aquell allà

This means that when you point at something your interlocutor is holding and ask after its identity, you have to say Què és això? = "What's this?" It's not too terribly difficult to imagine how this might happen -- as Amelia points out, until very recently any referents of això were likely to be in the same room, or at least within view, as opposed to referents of allò which would universally have been further away and possibly not visible. It's a reasonable, fairly natural grouping, on the face of it.

Things get weird in the modern age, though, particularly where the telephone is concerned. For example, since 1st- and 2nd-person deictics share the same form, you have to use aquí = "here" to refer to the location of the person on the other end of the phone! A question like Què passa aquí? is ambiguous -- it could mean either "What's going on here where I am?" or "What's going on over there where you are?" It's easy to imagine some ridiculous ensuing conversations: No, no, no pas aquí, sinó aquí!

So how does the ambiguity get resolved? You can't use allà because that would imply a place unconnected to either party in the conversation. I have to imagine that there must be some conventionalized circumlocution -- aquí amb mi or aquí a prop de mi vs. aquí amb tu or aquí a prop de tu or whatever. And if so, this would be incredibly ripe for grammaticalization, perhaps even yielding another three-way deictic opposition once the forms have fossilized and reduced phonetically and all that good stuff.

Of course, this is my English-speaking sensibility talking, which can't imagine not being able to distinguish lexically between locations on either side of a phone call. It would be interesting to observe how this really works in Catalan-speaking areas -- maybe they don't have a problem with the ambiguity. Good for my armchair-phililogist complacency to remind myself that "natural" and "reasonable" are extremely subjective concepts...

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Koa online at last

Koa, an IAL project I've been working on for about nine years, has now got a blog devoted to it here. There's also a link to it over on the right, but maybe you hadn't noticed yet...

Anyway, this new forum is incredibly exciting for me, and I've been being unusually productive now that I don't have to hold all my new ideas in my head simultaneously while I think about them. Serious kudos to Amelia for the idea.

Loa la po sisi! ...keka ta halu ko opi ti?

(or would that be Keka ta lu opi ti? Something for the blog.)

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

NEVs and San Leandro living

In the unlikely event that there's anyone I haven't told yet, Amelia and I are going to be moving in together this summer. Or, more accurately, I'm going to be moving into her house in San Leandro. Yes, yes, I know, San Leandro isn't usually the first place on one's list of, say, vacation destinations, but the thing is that it's a really neat older house that she actually owns, with a huge back yard with fruit trees and oodles of garden space, and we're going to have bees and chickens and it's all going to be pretty spectacular.

However, San Leandro is still very much a suburb, and the nearest cute tea shop is in Alameda about eight miles away -- kind of too far even to bike on a daily basis, at least with my schedule. Grocery stores are also not exactly what I'd call "walkable," and though I don't personally shrink from the two-mile walk to and from the BART station, I imagine my friends would be more likely to visit me if said visit were not punctuated by said walk.

SO, if I'm going to be living in San Leandro, which I am, the conclusion is that I need a car. But I really don't want a car -- that is to say, one of those things that you pour expensive flammable substances into, the which you subsequently set fire to and dump the resultant smoke into the air in order to make it go -- so Amelia suggested that I look into Neighborhood Electric Vehicles. I'm not totally sure if she was serious, but the more research I do, the more it seems like this is exactly what I need. For longer (or faster) trips we can figure out how to trade her Camry (or maybe Prius someday soon, please please please?) back and forth, but for the vast majority of driving I would be doing, a cap of 35 mph and 40-45 miles would be absolutely fine...especially considering the fact that it would be virtually free to operate.

After a bunch of comparison shopping, it looks like the Kurrent by American Electric is my best bet. And it's nice that I would actually be able to afford it with my new job.

I don't know for sure if this is really going to happen, but I'm pretty excited about the idea. Some photos:

Saturday, May 3, 2008


Trying to record oneself playing a musical instrument is officially the most frustrating activity of any kind ever. I swear I can play Valse à Bruno with my hands tied behind my back ordinarily, but with the camera rolling I can barely get through three measures without making the kinds of mistakes that are just too bad to soldier through. After half an hour of trying, Ossie and I are spent. Arr, gah, bleah, eeeeeeee, and other noises of exasperation.

The Celtic Bandoneon

I'm trying something new here. I really want to dig in and figure out my bandoneon so I can start doing all kinds of cool complicated two-handed stuff, but I think I need to slow down and concentrate on getting a feel for the arrangement of the notes. For the moment, then, I'm going to try focusing on one hand at a time, playing all the Irish tunes I know -- they're fun, short (for the most part) and diatonic, which is the perfect combination.

So this is my first attempt to play "Scatter the Mud." It's in something like Eb Dorian because I feel like the usual A is a bit screechy on the free reeds. I'm going to try really hard here not to be apologetic (except for forgetting the repetitions on the B part -- oops) and just say that you can basically tell what I'm trying to do, and I look forward to posting another video when I've really got it figured out. Anyone interested in backing me up with guitar/bouzouki/fiddle/tin whistle/Irish flute/bodhran/kazoo?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

An input-optimization puzzle

As I was walking home the other day I was thinking about the way predictive text input works on cell phones, and how it's simultaneously cool that, because of the fact that only a tiny frequency of the possible combinations of our 26 letters are actually used as words, with only 8 symbols we're capable of entering English text without a great deal of difficulty, and irritating that a lot of common words have duplicate input sequences: soon/room, of/me, he/if, etc.; and the less frequent but still aggravatingly abundant book/cool, mind/mine/nine, cast/cart/bart, good/home/gone/hood/hoof/hone/goof, and on and on.

For reference, the way my cell phone (I assume this is a standard at this point?) groups the letters is as follows:

2 - abc
3 - def
4 - ghi
5 - jkl
6 - mno
7 - pqrs
8 - tuv
9 - wxyz

Well, I found myself thinking, what if we weren't required to disperse the letters across the keys in alphabetical order? Couldn't there be some kind of optimized arrangment such that the numbers of duplicated sequences would be dramatically reduced? I figured that I would be in a good position to try this out, having spent a lot of time thinking about the frequency of letters in English.

To this end, I read the TWL (US Scrabble) dictionary into a database and set up some automatic calculations to derive cell-phone input sequences for all the words. As it turns out, the standard layout has about 27,000 duplications out of the approximately 163,000 words in the dictionary (16.5% duplication). This shouldn't be hard to beat, right?

As it turns out, my optimism (and ego) was unwarranted. My first attempt gave me 33,000 duplications (20%), significantly worse than the baseline. After about a half hour of tinkering I managed to get it down to 25,000 (15.3%), which salved my wounded self-confidence but still was not nearly as good as I had hoped.

There must be some principles that are going to underlie any successful attempt. One is clearly that no two vowels (including y) should appear on the same key. Another one that I embarrassingly only discovered after the aforementioned half hour is that consonants frequently used in derivation and inflection should also not coincide, notably d, s, r, n.

So here's the challenge: can you come up with a scheme that's better than the 16.5% baseline standard, and/or better than my 15.3% best so far? If you send me your letter groupings, I'll feed them into my program and post the results here. Maybe together we can figure out the Grand Unified Theory of Duplication Avoidance in Cell-Phone Text Entry. Or something.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Pass the meme

Given that I've now seen this both on the Bluff post office wall and on Oona's blog, I can officially class it as being EVERYWHERE, so I'd better post it too so I'm not left out.

I would just like to say that I would live here in a heartbeat. Does anyone know the story of this...uh...complex?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Down with emphasis

I have decided I am seriously fed up with language reference works' indiscriminate use of the word "emphasis" (and related forms). The thing is that the term is essentially without meaning, except insofar as it seems to indicate that something is happening that the author lacks the sophistication, patience or intelligence to explore or describe adequately.

It tends to come up a whole lot in discussions of syntactic structures: in a Latin clause, for instance, any arrangement of S, O and V is theoretically possible; and according to all my textbooks, the choice of order is largely one of emphasis. Which means what, exactly? Are we talking about topicalization? Focus? Or some other kind of pragmatic consideration? Hell, as far as we know all kinds of factors might conceivably be involved in a fluent speaker's choices, including, for instance, how she feels personally about the constituent in question. How can a learner possibly know, or even guess, how to start using this "emphasis" correctly?

In the case of Polish, for example, although SVO is typically the least marked order, VS is statistically very likely to show up unmarkedly in intransitive clauses. This simple fact would be likely to remain completely mystifying and opaque to anyone other than a trained linguist examining a large amount of data, yet would be easy at least to mention in passing rather than allowing it to be subsumed within that abyss of "emphasis."

So...what "emphasis" means is, apparently, "when you are fluent someday, you will understand." And I know that, to some extent, there is a lot about language that works this way, as much as we try to quantify and explain everything; but I feel certain that we could be doing a better job than this.

Turkish provides some particularly egregious examples, such as the fact that any word can be repeated, ostensibly to "emphasize" it. On this Edip Akbayram CD, four of the twelve track names have a repeated word:

* İnce ince bir kar yağar (adjective: a fine/graceful snowflake falls)
* Yakar inceden inceden (adverb/prepositional phrase: it burns intensely)
* Dumanlı dumanlı oy bizim eller (derived adjective: our village is full-of-smoke)
* Sev beni beni (pronoun: love me)

This clearly extremely productive process extends to verbs as well. From Elementary Turkish by Lewis V. Thomas:

baktım "I looked (stared)"
baktım baktım "I looked hard (stared and stared)"

There is obviously a lot going on here -- the repetition seems to have different effects with different parts of speech, and in different contexts. In some cases verbal aspect may be involved ("stared and stared?" isn't that perseverative or iterative or something?); sometimes there may be semantic effects; in sev beni beni in seems like it may be a pragmatic issue, showing topicalization or contrast. Yet none of my books mention it with more than a sentence; nor do they dig deeper than to call it a matter of "emphasis." Yet I am convinced that, given its frequency, even an intermediate learner would need to understand how to interpret and produce this structure appropriately -- and that it is much more important than, say, the (rarely used) past subjunctive, which gets a full treatment spanning pages in one of these textbooks.

Perhaps the worst ever use of this concept I have encountered in the world of linguistics is not in syntax or morphology, but in phonology, in reference to the so-called "emphatic" consonants of the Semitic language family. When I first dabbled with Arabic, I struggled mightily to understand what to do with these "emphatic" coronals. Should I say them more clearly? With more air pressure? At longer duration? This is usually what is meant by "emphasis" in this language of ours when it refers to sounds. But no, no. Arabic "emphatics" are not louder, harsher, stronger, etc.; they are simply pharyngealized. To my ear they actually sound less emphatic than their "normal" counterparts. Here more than ever "emphatic" means nothing more than "somehow different, with the footnote that I cannot articulate to you what I am talking about."

The real shame in all this is not just that the authors of our language reference works lack scholastic rigor -- it's that this vast area of "emphasis" is actually incredibly fascinating, and important, but gets all but ignored by our theory of language instruction, displaced by mountains of charts and paradigms. I want to know what is going on when Turks repeat words! But how will I find out? Maybe I will have time to live in Turkey and become fluent so that I can learn through osmosis, but there are so many other things I want to do with my life; I am sad that I may never know.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Le grand chagrin

Well, I suppose it was inevitable sooner or later, and if it had to happen I am at least glad that it was another linguist, and my girlfriend to boot, who was responsible for cleaning my clock. Even so, I'm still sort of reeling from the shock.

So yes, I think it's about time I made the official announcement that Amelia has beaten me at Boggle, thereby becoming the only person ever to have done so. Rounds, that is, not whole games (yet), but still -- this past weekend we had one round that was 22 to 7, and another that was something like 12 to 3.

Clearly this is completely unacceptable, and I'm going to have to go back into intensive training or something. Yes. Up at 5 AM every day, a glass of raw eggs, and two hours of Boggle practice. Reading the OED from cover to cover couldn't hurt either.

Just prior to the aforementioned series of discomfitures: note the shameless "I'm about to embarrass yo' ass" look on her face.