Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Gender-appropriate behavior

I was happily interested in a NYTimes' World article today on a Peruvian high-ranking female mummy discovered buried with items that characteristically appear only in male tombs, along with other items that characteristically appear only in female tombs. The convention-defying burial included both "weaving materials and needles, befitting a woman" and "2 ceremonial war clubs and 28 spear throwers", customary in male tombs. (I assume the journalist intended a null cultural-context restrictor there on the 'befitting a woman' phrase, i.e., 'befitting a woman in the ancient Moche ["pronounced MOH-chay"] society'.)

I was also happily interested to read that physicists can do even more weird tricks with light now. In the context of the previous article (and also because she's quoted in this one), I was reminded of one of my personal heroes: Lene Hau, the first physicist to ever to slow light to a crawl, and ultimately bring it to a complete halt. Can you imagine: she stopped light. How amazing is that! I should have tried to meet her & get her autograph or something when I was in Cambridge last spring, but didn't think of it. Ah well. Maybe some other time.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Notes on the news

First -- hey, look! Everybody down tools! Scientists Have Identified Basic Principles of Communication!

Actually, the title is very odd, given the actual story, which is really about trying to automatically recognize idea devolopment patterns in good writing by extracting content words and doing some computations over their occurrences and interrelationships during the course of a given text. Reading the story, I can't identify any basic principle of communication that's already been identified by this work, unless it's supposed to be the claim that there's hierarchicial structure underlying poor li'l linear language, at a textual as well as a sentential level... but frankly, I don't think these guys are trying to take credit for discovering that! In their investigation they do seem to be mixing genres wildly (Einstein and Tom Sawyer!), so if they do find a commonality in idea development that holds of good scientific writing and good comic novels (but not of bad scientific writing and bad comic novels), they might well have discovered a basic principle of communication. But I'm not holding my breath.

In other news, on Thursday, the New York Times had a story about online gaming on the front page of their online edition:

Online Game Galaxy Gets a New Race of Characters

This is certainly newsworthy to the millions of Warcraft players, but I'm guessing that they already knew about it. Not being much of a gamer myself, I didn't know about it, and don't much care. I was, however, interested to see this upgrade in the newsworthiness of virtual worlds, rating national coverage in the NYT. I guess we're well on our way towards living in the world of Dream Park, where gaming superstars earn like top athletes in popular sports do, and are dissected as celebrities by the national press. Currently, the thing is, as a recent Time article on the new Nintendo video game interface puts it,
"Video games are an unusual medium in that they carry a heavy stigma among non-gamers. Not everbody likes ballet, but most nonballet fans [hey, check out the constituency on that compound! -hh] don't accuse ballet of leading to violent crime and mental backwardness. Video games aren't so lucky. There's a sharp divide between gamers and nongamers, and the result is a market that, while large and devoted...is also deeply stagnant. Its borders are sharply defined, and they're not expanding."

I think this explains why coverage of events in the gaming world (fantasy, video or online) seems to be pretty nonexistent in the established media: gamers have their own sources for news, and non-gamers are aggressively uninterested. Maybe the NYT article is the beginning of a sea change in this regard.

(If you haven't read Dream Park, you might enjoy checking it out — I expect it's still as entertaining as I remember it being, though I don't much care for the cover on the edition in the link above -- I don't remember dragons figuring in the story at all.)

Anyway, another thing that I found a bit weird about the NYT story was its placement in the paper, in the Technology section. As far as I can tell, although the people who play the game are doubtless interested in 'technology', the change to the game that's being covered doesn't seem to involve any actual new hardware or even significant changes to the software platform of the game at all. That is, there's no technology in the story. A lot of newspapers have 'entertainment/lifestyle' sections that I would have thought would have been more approprate for, but none the Times' section headers really fit... video games aren't 'Sports', so that's out; 'Arts' just doesn't seem quite right either, though TV and movie coverage is in there; video games, since participatory, aren't quite an Art, and anyway, Warcraft coverage would probably clash with the dance and theater reviews, and also probably wouldn't reach its intended audience. Science -- no. Style -- no. Health -- uh uh. Not World, not Region... if it had been me, I perhaps would have put it under 'National'. But really a paper needs an Entertainment section for that story, which the NYT doesn't have.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Don't steal this book!

Well, since the Language Loggers are unabashedly shilling their own old-fashioned paper 'book', I figger I can officially endorse the following, a hardcopy of which I rest my eyes upon even as I type. Useful as a paperweight, for throwing at the TV, and even maybe for introducing English morphology to undergraduates (also with some phonological, psycholinguistic, semantic & historical coverage). Will Leben says it's very special. Bart Simpson and eggcorns make cameo appearances. Get one for yourself and one for a friend!


Friday, May 05, 2006


David Beaver over at Language Log wonders how misspellings on a senator's ballot for speaker of the Italian Senate can be unambiguously taken to indicate weakness of support for the candidate. He writes:
"But the fact that the manner of expression departs from the norm does not in itself tell us what that departure signals, only that something is being signaled. The logic of the implicature seems to be: if I can't be trusted to spell the name of your favorite candidate correctly, I can't be relied on for anything."
But it seems pretty transparent to me: If a senator was wavering in his support for the prime minister and his candidate for speaker, and if said senator knows that misspelling the name of the candidate on a ballot is grounds for voiding said ballot (upon challenge from the opposing party), then that senator's (deliberately) misspelling the name of the candidate is a conscious attempt to render his ballot technically questionable, while not actually voting against the candidate overtly—thereby communicating 'I'll vote for your candidate but I don't really want to, and if the other guys are smart enough they can annul my ballot.'

That's assuming that the Italian public is right in assuming the misspellings are deliberate—that the candidate's name is not in fact so obscure as to be easily accidentally misspelled, and that after the second vote, any previous honest misspeller had paid attention to what was going on and corrected his error on the third ballot.

But this brings me to a new version of the Nigerian spam letter that I received a couple of days ago. Excerpted text is below. Note in particular the bolded bits:
Good Day:

I am Tony Fred Williams I am 14 years old I live in Manchester(UK) before my father die, now I live with my mother in Scotland. my late father Mr. Fred Williams was a Contractor in Manchester(UK) before he die in a car accident last years July 25th 2005. he left £50Million (Fifty Million Pounds) in his account before he die. The £50Million is in (First Union National Bank UK)...

I could have tell my mother to assist me to collect the £50Million for me but my mother and father has devoured before my father die and my father told me to not have anything to do with my mother I don’t even want her to know because what my father told me before he die was true...

...The MD CEO (First Union National Bank UK) told me to look for some body that is honest and old enough so that he can send the £50Million to the person account immediately.

I will give you is contact so that you can contact him to enable him send the £50Million to your provided account immediately...

Best Regards
Tony Fred Williams
This is one of the less plausible versions of the letter I've received, and not just because it offers me millions of pounds free and clear. It's because of mistakes in the English. They're not the mistakes that a 14 year old from Manchester might make. (There are some of those too—absence of punctuation and capital letters in some places, a space between 'some' and 'body' rather than 'somebody' in a couple of places, and failure of 3rd person agreement in other places (mostly in the excised bits—lack of agreement could well be the norm in some dialects).) Rather, they are mistakes that practically scream 'non-native English speaker'. In particular, failure to use the appropriate tense with 'before he die', the wrong participle form in 'could have tell', absence of infinitival 'to' in 'enable him send' (if a 14-year old English speaker knows how to appropriately use 'enable' he knows it takes an inifinitival complement). Also a couple of other weird things: use of 'devoured' for 'divorced' (probably spell-checker error--but a weird one not to catch, for a native English speaker), and use of parentheses around "(First Union National Bank UK)" with no apparent motivation—it's like the author had an acronym in there at first and then took it out without remembering to take out the parentheses—but that's implausible because it happens twice in the email.

From the widow of a deceased Nigerian Finance Minister, these kind of mistakes really add plausibility—they're clear ESL errors, and communicate appropriate degrees of foreignness for that backstory. But from an orphaned 14-year old purportedly in Manchester, I think they're just weird, and communicate 'Fraud!'.

But really it's the millions of pounds that's the key tip-off.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Compound construal

This morning I got on a flight out of Honolulu Airport (and yes, visiting Hawai'i is just as great as you think it is, at least, if you think it's great), and, waiting to check in, I saw the following sign:

Now, compounds are famously not too compositional in their internal interpretations. If alligator shoes are shoes made of alligators, then what are nurse shoes made of? But I'll eat my hat if (what I think is) the intended interpretation of this compound is actually grammatically available.

What it's supposed to indicate, I think, is that people who have checked in online (i.e. on the web) should stand in line here to drop their checked luggage (bags) off with airline personnel. But I don't think that scenario makes that location describable as a web bag drop.

If the constituency is [[web bag] drop], then on the intended interpretation, 'web bag' should be able to refer to a bag whose owner has checked in on the web. But I don't think it can. IMHO, a 'web bag' would have to be a bag made of webbing, or a bag for carrying webbing, or a bag one bought on the web (as opposed to a bag one bought in a store), or a virtual bag, akin to a virtual shopping cart, which presumably wouldn't need to be dropped at this location.

If the constituency is [web [bag drop]] then it's even worse; sounds like a virtual (i.e. on the internet) location for dropping bags, which presumably also would have to be virtual in order to be able to virtually dropped. (I'm ignoring meanings for 'drop' here like 'drop of water', which would open up a whole bunch of other possible construals, even though I didn't ignore alternative interpretations for 'web' above. So sue me). I think that's pretty much a colorless green ideas situation in the context of an actual airport.

So anyway. just a note. I usually tell my students that English N-N compound interpretation is as free as the wind blows, a wide-open interpretive nexus wherein pretty much any association between the two nouns, given a sufficiently rich context, is enough to license the compound as interpretabale (although of course there are preferred and frequent such relations, which tend to spring to mind in out-of-the-blue contexts). So different from the relationship between a predicate and its arguments, I tell them. Interpreting the relationship between two Ns in an NN compound gives one a feeling for what it might be like if language was just linearly strung together content words without hierarchical structure, I hyperbolize madly.

But here I think the intended interpretation just ain't there, despite a horrendously rich environmental context that did in fact enable me to divine what it was supposed to be. Hmm!

And just for bonus material, here's a hotel counter that amused me a few days ago:

As opposed to the Horrible Activities Center? I bet they don't get a lot of business, on either constituent structure.