April 4, 2004

Why does David Brooks hate America?

Brooks latest in the Times really deserves a full-bore trashing. Brooks has a way of indulging the notion of Zeitgeist in a way that - on rare occasion - actually leads to some insight. It's hard for somone from my class to read Bobos in Paradise without some sense of self-recognition. But most of the time, this willingness to eulogise whole classes of people as if they could be treated as a single person is the sort of nonsense that gives those of us trying to develop more coherent conceptions of social identity a bad name.

I have not had a lot of time to blog lately. The next chapter from Grandpa Martens has been half finished for two weeks. I don't have time to do for Brooks what he deserves. But, I will point to some particularly problematic bits:

Nor do the standard critiques of suburbia really solve the mystery of motivation -- the inability of many Americans to sit still, even when they sincerely want to simplify their lives. Americans are the hardest-working people on earth. The average American works 350 hours a year -- nearly 10 weeks -- more than the average Western European. Americans switch jobs more frequently than people from other nations. The average job tenure in the U.S. is 6.8 years, compared with more than a decade in France, Germany and Japan. What propels Americans to live so feverishly, even against their own self-interest? What energy source accounts for all this?

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April 8, 2004

Means and Ends

I have a piece of code doing a terminological analysis of a million words of text from air conditioning manuals this morning. Since my code is not running in linear time, this means I have a bit of free time at my terminal before the long weekend. So, I put a little something up on AFOE from the book I'm reading.


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Formal grammar and information theory: together again?

I'm not sure how many of my readers are into hybrid mathematical linguistics. My guess is circa three. But, if you are, I'm currently reading Formal grammar and information theory: together again? by Fernando Pereira at UPenn. He lays out, explicitly, the false assumption behind the rejection of empirical methods in linguistics and the presumption of poverty of stimulus in language learning:

In the last forty years, research on models of spoken and written language has been split between two seemingly irreconcilable points of view: formal linguistics in the Chomsky tradition, and information theory in the Shannon tradition. Chomsky (1957)'s famous quote signals the beginning of the split:
(1) Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.
(2) Furiously sleep ideas green colorless.

[...] It is fair to assume that neither sentence (1) nor (2) (nor indeed any part of these sentences) has ever occurred in an English discourse. Hence, in any statistical model for grammaticalness, these sentences will be ruled out on identical grounds as equally `remote' from English. Yet (1), though nonsensical, is grammatical, while (2) is not.

[...] Chomsky concluded that sentences (1) and (2) are equally unlikely from the observation that neither sentence or `part' thereof would have occurred previously (Abney, 1996). From this observation, he argued that any statistical model based on the frequencies of word sequences would have to assign equal, zero, probabilities to both sentences. But this relies on the unstated assumption that any probabilistic model necessarily assigns zero probability to unseen events. Indeed, this would be the case if the model probability estimates were just the relative frequencies of observed events (the maximum-likelihood estimator).

Since I am primarily interested in estimating the probability of unique, novel linguistic productions (e.g. the probability that sentence X is a translation of sentence Y when I have neither seen X nor Y before), it is very fortunate for me that Chomsky's fair assumption about statistical models of grammaticality is completely, utterly, irretrievably wrong.

Update: Heh, heh, heh. I just got to a good bit on page 7:

Using this estimate [bigram probabilities] for the probability of a string and an aggregate model with C = 16 trained on newspaper text using the expectation-maximization (EM) method (Dempster, Laird, & Rubin, 1977), we find that

p(Colorless green ideas sleep furiously) / p(Furiously sleep ideas green colorless)  ~=  2 x 105.

Thus, a suitably constrained statistical model, even a very simple one, can meet Chomsky's particular challenge.

So, in what must be a first in the history of linguistics, Pereira actually goes out and calculates just how much more probable Chomsky's impossible but grammatically correct sentence is when compared to a grammatically incorrect one. Tell your students, your friends, your co-workers: Colorless green ideas sleep furiously is at least 200,000 times as probable a sentence as Furiously sleep ideas green colorless.
 


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April 13, 2004

Alternate Universe SF as a form of Intellectual Masturbation

Once upon a time, when I was a bit younger and a good deal more smart-assed, I used to call alternate universe SF "intellectual masturbation." I felt it was quick, harmless, moderately pleasant and ultimately completely empty and unfulfilling. However, much like the teenage boy who would like to substitute a real, living girlfriend for his right hand and some smut magazines, I regularly pleasured myself with volumes of speculative revisionism in the privacy of my own room, despite a desire for more sophisticated entertainments. Since those days, I have mellowed somewhat. I no longer hold such negative views of alternate history fiction, but I also don't read it very much anymore.

Thus, I was somewhat amused to come across this article from last Wednesday's Guardian by one Tristram Hunt, who "teaches history at Queen Mary College, London." I found it from my hit logs, because of a link posted to me from a rec.arts.sf.written discussion:

Pasting over the past

Far from being a harmless intellectual pursuit, 'what if' history is pushing a dangerous rightwing agenda

Citing as their inspiration the Gwyneth Paltrow character in the film Sliding Doors, a ragged bunch of rightwing historians have clubbed together to issue a new compendium of "what if" essays. Conrad Black, a man facing a few counter-factuals of his own, asks: what if the Japanese had not attacked Pearl Harbor? David Frum, the former Bush speech-writer, wonders: what if Al Gore had won the 2000 presidential election (I thought he did). And John Adamson indulges the dream of Cambridge dons down the centuries: what if Charles I had won the English civil war? [...]

The conservatives who contribute to this literature portray themselves as battling against the dominant but flawed ideologies of Marxist and Whig history. Such analyses of the past, they say, never allow for the role of accident and serendipity. Instead, the past is presented as a series of milestones in an advance towards communism or liberal democracy. It is the calling of these modern iconoclasts to reintroduce the crooked timber of humanity back into history.

The unfortunate truth is that, rather than constituting a rebel grouping, "what if" history is eerily close to the mainstream of modern scholarship. The past 20 years has witnessed a brutal collapse in what was once called social history. The rigorous, data-based study of class, inequality, work patterns and gender relations has fallen away in the face of cultural history and post-modern inquiry. [...]

Instead, what we are offered in the postmodern world of contingency and irony is a series of biographical discourses in which one narrative is as valid as another. One history is as good as another and with it the blurring of factual, counter-factual and fiction. All history is "what if" history.

No doubt, new right legionaries such as Andrew Roberts and Simon Heffer would be appalled to be in the distinguished company of those postmodern bogeymen, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. And they have partly atoned for their sins with a traditional Tory emphasis on the role of great men in history. For "what if" versions of the past posit the powerful individual at the heart of their histories: it is a story of what generals, presidents and revolutionaries did or did not do. The contribution of bureaucracies, ideas or social class is nothing to the personal fickleness of Josef Stalin or the constitution of Franz Ferdinand.

But it is surely the interaction between individual choices and historical context which is what governs the events of the past. As Karl Marx put it: "People make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past." [...]

Moreover, as Professor Richard Evans has noted, in this work there is as much a sense of "if only" as "what if". This is history as wishful thinking, providing little insight into the decision-making processes of the past, but pointing up preferable alternatives and lamenting their failure to come to pass. [...]

But "what if" history poses just as insidious a threat to present politics as it does to a fuller understanding of the past. It is no surprise that progressives rarely involve themselves, since implicit in it is the contention that social structures and economic conditions do not matter. Man is, we are told, a creature free of almost all historical constraints, able to make decisions on his own volition. According to Andrew Roberts, we should understand that "in human affairs anything is possible".

What this means is there is both little to learn from the potentialities of history, and there is no need to address injustices because of their marginal influence on events. And without wishing to be over-determinist, it is not hard to predict the political intention of such a reactionary and historically redundant approach to the past.

The citation of the hated "pomos" is pretty cliché. I haven't read a great deal of Foucault and have read virtually nothing of Derrida, but this isn't exactly the message I get from most scholarship that falls under the post-modern label. I think it's just a cheap shot, labelling the looney right with the mark they worked so hard to villify. But, I think the whole critique being offered here is a bit harsh, and I want to examine the underlying claim a little more closely.


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Language education for the 20th 21st century

Since I seem to have more readers interested in language than I thought, I think I might just post more material on it. I should note, for those who don't read the comments, that my discovery of Fernando Pereira was also blogged by Mark Lieberman at Language Log back in October. We're not exactly at the cutting edge of the literature here at Pedantry.

But, that brings me to today's topic, inspired by this post over at Language Log:


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In defense of linguistic prescriptivism

I'm having a low productivity day. I have a coding problem that is just hounding me, something that simply will not run fast enough and requires a fairly big rethink. I'm avoiding getting into it in hopes that a flash of inspiration will come to me on the toilet or something.

Remarkably, this strategy actually works well. I actually had a dream last night where the solution to the whole problem came to me. It was beautiful and simple - something so transparent that I knew instantly it would work, something that would have been obvious to Kolmogorov or Chaitlin if they had only been terminologists. Unfortunately, I woke up and couldn't remember any of it.

So, until this flash of genius comes back, assuming it wasn't just the Tandoori chicken I made for dinner talking, I have some time to blog. There's so much work here that I've been putting off. The link list is a mess - out of date, doesn't reflect the people who link to me or are even still blogging, is missing a bunch of folks I do read; Grandpa is still on his way to Africa; I have a bunch of books I'd like to review; I have a couple of posts up on AFOE; there must be something new to say about this mess in Fallujah...

But, nah, I thought, why not dredge open another controversial can of worms. I figured I should either explain why I think Dave Sim is a genius because the last issue of Cerebus came out last month, or I should defend prescriptivism. So, I flipped a coin and decided to defend linguistic prescriptivism.

I'm lying. No, I didn't flip a coin. I'm a couple years behind on Cerebus anyway. I hear he's gone from misogynistic to homophobic over the last few years. I still think he's a genius, but I've never claimed that genius isn't fully compatible with being a flaming loon.

I just saw Mark Lieberman's post over at Language Log and thought it merited a comment or two:

A Field Guide to Prescriptivists

[...] Like bacteria transferring genes, prescriptivists -- whether sensible or idiotic -- mix and match ideas about usage. The resulting distribution is far from random: different prescriptive memes are more or less compatible with one another, and with other aspects of critical morphology, ideological metabolism and intellectual history. However, the result is not a nice Linnaean taxonomic tree either.

I don't think anyone can yet plausibly claim to have found memetic DNA, if such a thing is even possible. However, we can identify some key elements of prescriptivist metabolism, in terms of five different motivations that may be given for strictures about usage:

  1. Tradition -- how our forebears talked. Innovation is degeneration.
  2. Fashion-- how an admired group talks. Deviation is alienation.
  3. Universal grammar -- how one ought ideally to talk. Inconsistency is illogical.
  4. Standards -- how we should agree to talk. Variation confuses communication.
  5. Revelation -- how God taught us to talk. Alteration is transgression.

Particular cases are usually a mixture of these. Such metabolic processes may cooperate or conflict depending on details -- thus an appeal to fashion may point in the same direction as an appeal to tradition, or in the opposite direction, depending on whether the prescriptivist admires the old ways or prefers the latest thing.

These are all very substantial, unscientific and unfounded fallacies which serve as a poor basis for prescriptivism, except for numbers 2 and 4.


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Truth or Photoshop?

I'm sceptical of this:

[Via Silt.]

Update: Turns out my scepticism is unfounded. This page confirms that it's legit. You can purchase products so labelled at the aforelinked-to website. And I thought it was weird when I bought a T-shirt in Canada labelled "MADE IN TURKEY / FAIT EN DINDE".
 


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April 15, 2004

The Politics of Prioritisation

One of the benefits of being on European time is that I can see the blog posts from late at night on the American West Coast before most of the rest of the anglophone world. So, I see the top post at Oregon based Alas, a Blog is something that might, but has not yet, kicked up a shitstorm.

Hierarchy of Needs

During a recent conversation about political opinions, the topic of "mixed" political opinions came up -- meaning, those people who are socially liberal and fiscally conservative or vice versa. Now, I'm sure most of you here will already know that I believe being liberal both socially and fiscally is the best way to change the world for the better; however, if given the limited choice, is it better to be socially liberal or fiscally liberal? I have experience with both types of people, and I've given the subject a bit of thought over the years, and I've come to the conclusion that, on the whole and all else being equal (and assuming this will still only apply to a some people, not all people), I think it's better to be socially conservative and fiscally liberal.

Perhaps this will come as a surprise to a great many people (or, perhaps not). Certainly, a lot of the issues that are most near and dear to my heart would fall under the "social" label (liberal views, of course). It's not that I think these issues are "less" important (most of the time) -- and taken on an individual basis, there might be a lot of times I'd think the opposite was true. There are always exceptions.

OK, well, maybe for me there are a few issues that I feel are, while extremely important, simply not as important. The environment, animal rights, and gay marriage are three such issues that come to mind. Yes, yes, extremely important, I know. I really do. But I don't think they are as important as certain fiscal issues such as fair welfare benefits, affordable healthcare, affordable childcare, a living wage, to name a few. Given the choice between supporting a candidate who was pushing for more restrictions on corporate pollution (and/or for legalizing gay marriage) but in favor of the welfare "deform" of the type that Clinton & Gore enacted (or worse, stronger "reform") and the candidate who was pushing for a living wage, affordable healthcare, and affordable (quality) childcare but in favor of lessening restrictions on corporate pollution (or against gay marriage), I'd vote for the latter in a minute. [...]

A lot of my reasoning for this belief comes from Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs theory. [...]

Like the Hierarchy of Needs, I feel that there are certain issues which must be addressed and rectified before we can seriously work (to the full benefit of everyone) on other issues. Fighting for most social causes is incredibly important -- indeed, necessary. But when our most basic needs, both as individuals and as a society are not being met first, we can't really work on those other important issues.

There's another reason for my opinion -- also based on the Hierarchy of Needs. The fact is, if we want to enact social change in our society, we can't do it alone. We need others to be fighting that fight with us. [...]

I think Bean is right in the sense that abstract freedoms almost always take second fiddle to fundamental needs. But I have to question whether she really knows what this sort of thinking has gotten other folks into.


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I know that feeling

Billmon is where I was on 9/11, except I had to go to my orthodontist that morning. I'd have rather been off fishing too.
 


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April 16, 2004

Peace in our Time

I've got a new piece up on AFOE about this so-called truce offer from Osama bin Laden.
 


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Maybe I should write that post about air traffic control sooner rather than later

This just came over the wires:

Airliner Has Near Miss Over Brussels

BASEL, Switzerland - The Swiss national airline said Friday that one of its aircraft came within 65 feet of a small plane during its approach to Brussels airport.

The smaller plane crossed in front of the Jumbolino, a four-engine commuter jet, 6,000 feet above the Belgian capital city on Monday, said Dominik Werner, a spokesman for Swiss International Air Lines.

The Swiss plane, which was en route from Zurich with 38 passengers and five crew on board, landed normally after the incident.

The pilot, who gave the estimate of how close the planes were, informed civil aviation authorities in Belgium and Switzerland, Werner said.

Swiss newspapers reported that the pilot of the ultralight had illegally entered Brussels airport airspace and that an investigation was under way.

I live underneath the main daytime approach to Zaventem airport. The wife and I are at work, but I still would not have appreciated coming home to find a Swissair flight in my kitchen.

Update: Jeez, how lysdexic can I get? This all happened Monday, which makes it worse. Monday was a holiday. I was at home.
 


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April 18, 2004

Le d├ęsordre, c'est l'ordre moins le pouvoir

From here.

The whole thing makes me intensely homesick. On the other hand, I share the ambiguity the photographer behind this is expressing. Winnipeg is an underestimated city. There is more there than meets the eye. I know virtually every spot he's photographed, and each has a hidden history that is sometimes only hinted at, like the old ads you can still see on the sides of buildings in the Exchange district. Yet, it does not give me the pangs that Montréal's more lived-in quarters can evoke.

Still, for those of you reading Grandpa's autobiography, but have never seen WInnipeg, this photo essay may help illuminate the place Grandpa lived. I'm working on the next chapter today.
 


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April 19, 2004

Speaking of alternate universes

...take a gander at this:

In case of war with the United States, Canadas coal imports from this country would be cut off and her railroads and industrial activities seriously handicapped. If Blue controlled the Quebec area and Winnipeg, Canada's railroads and industries dependent upon "steam power" would be crippled.

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April 20, 2004

A Francophone President in the White House?

A new piece up on A Fistful of Euros.
 


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April 22, 2004

But I haven't used "von" in my name in years!

Des is making fun of something. I'm not sure what it is, but I have the suspicion it might be me. :^)


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Small victory of the day

Someone, in the comments on another blog, quoted something to me from Wikipedia that I had put there in the first place. A small victory to be sure, but a first for me.


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April 29, 2004

Bad week for blogging

I've been up to my nads in ginormous hash tables and functions that won't %#!&ing run fast enough. And Allegro LISP... how in smeg do you get Allegro LISP to return memory to the operating system?

The one fast UNIX I have access to is being monopolised by other, more immediately revenue producing functions, so everything takes five times as long. Therefore, there hasn't been much responding to comments, or posting or even reading blogs.

On top of that, the wife is off to San Diego for a month tomorrow morning, so things have been a mite hectic at home. She's been trying to get my dot-debts refinanced at a non-usurous interest rate, so we can pay off my American banks before Greenspan raises interest rates and the dollar shoots up. It's a little weird to have my personal life actualy depend in such a direct way on the business news. Weird, and a little disturbing. I don't exactly appreciate the power Alan Greenspan has over my life, especially since not only did I not vote for him, no one voted for him.

Also, we bought a new - and desperately needed - car this week: a Citroën G3, a car with a sort of resemblance to the famous "Deux Chevaux" in the same way that the new VW Beetle resembles the classic Bug. If you happen to know something bad about the G3, please, for the love of God, don't tell me. The papers have been signed and if we've made a horrible mistake I just don't want to know.

At least this week I feel that I've made some real progress. My code runs - slowly - and actually does the things that it is supposed to.

I have discovered something new this week that I cannot find documented anywhere in the information retrieval or corpus linguistics literature, something so obvious and so easy to implement that I don't think I can possibly be the only person to think of it. It works. So far, it works brilliantly and really, really fast. It's just possible that I'm the first person ever to face this problem directly - having a monolingual term discovery algorithm that works well enough to use for bilingual term translation discovery - but I doubt it.

And, to top it all off, I have exams next month. The luisterexam in Chinese was yesterday, the Russian one was last week. The rest starts in three weeks: Russian, Monday the 17th; Chinese, Tuesday the 18th; Russian oral, Wednesday the 19th; Chinese oral, Tuesday the 25th.

If that seems masochistic to you, imagine how it seems to me. Why do I do this to myself?

Sorry to rant. Just... it's been a long week.
 


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