August 5, 2004

Long day, bad joke

Couldn't resist. From H4x0r Economist: k33ping d3m0cr4cy l33t 51Nc3 1987.


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Sick, Sad World

A friend of my mother's died yesterday.

Truthfully, he was not someone I knew very well. After my father died, my mother and brother moved back to Canada while I stayed in Indiana. This friend was someone she came to know after returning to Canada. So, I can't claim to be greatly traumatised. Still, it's always a bit of a blow when someone you know, someone you've seen alive and in the flesh, someone who has a name and a voice, dies. It makes you take a good hard look at things.

It's a lot harder on Mom. This was someone who had been a part of her life for over a decade. He was chronically ill and was staying with my mother because at the end he had nowhere else to go. Mom's like that. She takes in strays.

I bring all this up because I'm not feeling very cynical right now.


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August 12, 2004

Sprach und Sommertheater - German spelling reform and linguistic ignorance

Germany, as I have learned via Taccuino di traduzione, is implementing a spelling reform and it seems this reform is facing resistance.

More over on A Fistful of Euros.


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August 13, 2004

Seeing language through a lexical lens

My recent post at AFOE on the German language reform, along with a discussion on Language Hat and It's Ablaut Time, has inspired me to do this post. My professional roots are in several highly heterodox schools of linguistics, and some of the solutions found in them seem relevant to the topic at hand.

David over at It's Abluat Time starts his post with this:

I used to think we could talk intelligently about the grammars of languages by starting with the assumption that grammars are designed for communication. The more I look at actual languages, the less I believe that this is the case. While languages obviously serve as media of communcation, they are in many ways ill-suited to this task. Grammars are too complex, too byzantine, too intricate, and indeed too beautiful, to be optimal codes for communcation.

I'm inclined instead to have a problem with the notion that grammars are designed at all. Like Language Hat, I've never been able to develop much enthusiasm for Esperanto, in part because of this very problem.

Since the rise of the structuralists, mainstream linguistics has not thought highly of artificial languages. The main reason for this is the belief that the true object of study for linguistics is the vernacular, and that any sort of role in managing language problems is a sort of unscientific prescriptivism. While I think this is no longer an appropriate attitude for linguistics, I too don't think very highly of Esperanto.

Esperantists talk at great length about how easy their language is to learn, but the simple truth is that it is very hard to learn and effectively impossible to use "correctly." Esperantists also have a long history of complaining about how poorly Esperantists speak Esperanto. But the reason Esperanto is doomed in its current form is because Esperantists believe that language is, in Steven Pinker's words, words and rules which are internalised by the speaker. I don't think that it is any such thing. A language is the set of things a community of speakers does to communicate linguistically.

It is that belief, and the claim that the above is not a circular definition, that places me far outside of the linguistics mainstream.


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August 17, 2004

Only 18 out of 45 phonic generalizations met the criteria of usefulness

According to the New York Times, Theodore Clymer died last month. He was an important figure in American elementary education, one who reached the end of his life every bit as controvertial a figure as when he did his most famous research.

The title of this post is a direct quote. It is his most famous conclusion.

Before the 1960s, most early childhood literacy education focused on certain folk beliefs about the phonetics of English spelling. For example, how many of us have heard that when two vowels are next to each other, you only hear the first one? Not that many I suspect. It used to be a common rule taught to every first grader, until Dr Clymer showed that the exceptions to this rule are so numerous that the rule is of diminishing value.

This was the begining of the end for phonic reading in the US, which is kind of ironic since Clymer himself advocated a more modern form of phonics for most of his career.


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When linguists get snarky

Long term readers will, of course, know that I am not a great fan of Chomsky's, and not more enthusiastic about Steven Pinker. Consequently, I can not help but giggle at Semantic Composition's review of the latest from that comedic duo Pinker and Jackendoff, and their latest reconstruction of Chomsky's latest incarnation.


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August 18, 2004

I hate math

Actually, I don't hate math half as much as having to write papers about it. I am up to my nads in logarithms, sums and dot products right now. It's not even hard math, it's just mind bogglingly dull to have to explain.

So why, oh why, come August every year, do I start to contemplate taking a shot at this? I mean, this would be logical, and would make loads of sense in light of my career to date. Heck, I got a mention at KU Leuven. I could qualify for a doctoral programme there and never even have to deal with a foreign language. But no, I gotta do everything the hard way.

Why on earth did I ever sign on to do statistical, mathematical, computational linguistics, a field that I knew damn well was going to involve copious amounts of math? What ever possessed me to think it might be a good idea to get a trade where advancement was likely to involve further math education? Did I learn nothing from the life story of Gregor Cantor?

Apparently not. Some days, I think I must be trying to drive myself past the bend.


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Why shop teachers are the answer

Henry Farrell over at Crooked Timber has an interesting piece up commenting on Drezner commenting on a Wall Street Journal piece that neither Henry nor I has read through lack of having coughed up the money to see it.

Less frustrated now, let me make a few points.

The deficit in skilled machinists has been a problem since the 80s. One of my Dad's coworkers - a university professor - quit his job to work as a machinist in a custom interior design shop. Why? Turns out skilled machinists in the 80s in Jersey could pull down $40 an hour, and the state university system couldn't compete. A prof's salary at the time could easily be under $30,000. Before the '89 recession, some outfits that Dad sent his students to for interships were importing machinists from the Philippines. His teacher-ed students often quit the programme to go work in better paid machinist jobs.

Actually, machinist work isn't quite as specialised as all that. It is skilled work, but moving from one set of machinery to another is not quite the intensive retraining that a shift from office work to industrial work would be. It does require some investment, and because the machines themselves may be quite expensive and rare, this training is traditionally an employer-born expense, as Henry points out. However, before an employer will hire you and train you at considerable cost, they often would like to know that you have some aptitude for the work and some basic knowledge of the trade. This entry-level knowledge was traditionally acquired at a trade school, a vocational school, or a high school shop class.

I know all this because my father was a high school shop teacher.


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August 23, 2004

Pirahá and the art of mathematics

Via Language Log and Crooked Timber, I take note of a Reuters dispatch over here and a brief in the Science section of the WaPo here.


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Towards a Critical Theory of Physics

Via Three Toed Sloth, I see that there is something of a fuss brewing over the anthropic principle's role in cosmology following the distribution of a paper criticising it as inhernetly unscientific.

The argument is made on Popperian grounds, and as Cosma knows I have some fairly serious problems with the Popperian approach. Indeed, Smolin's resumé of the grounds for defining science as identical to falsifiability point to my problems with it.

This point is so basic to how science works that it is perhaps worthwhile taking a moment to review the rationale for it. Few working scientists will disagree that an approach can be considered scientific only to the extent that it requires experts who are initially in disagreement about the status of a theory to resolve their disagreements - to the fullest extent possible - by rational argument from common evidence. As Popper emphasizes, science is the only approach to knowledge whose historical record shows over and over again that consensus was reached among well trained people as a result of rational argument from the evidence. But - and this is Popper's key point - this has only been possible because proposed theories have been required to be falsifiable. The reason is that the situation is asymmetric: confirmation of a prediction of theory does not show that the theory is true, but falsification of a prediction can show it is false.

If a theory is not falsifiable, there is the very real possibility that experts may find themselves in permanent disagreement about it, with no possibility that they may resolve their disagreement rationally by consideration of evidence. The point is that to be part of science, X-theorists have to do more than convince other X-theorists that X-theory is true. They have to convince all the other well trained scientists who up till now have been skeptical. If they don't aspire to do this, by rational arguments from the evidence, then by Popper's definition, they are not doing science. Hence, to prevent the progress of science from grounding to a halt, which is to say to preserve what makes science generally successful, scientists have an ethical imperative to consider only falsifiable theories as possible explanations of natural phenomena.

But this emphasis on coming to a consensus by rational argument is precisely what weighs against a Popperian metatheory of science.


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A Chaotic Neutral Left

I can't write today.

God knows I tried. I have six, maybe seven pages of complete shit. This is the best so far:

It is relatively easy to extract a distribution of probable translations for individual words or segments from a corpus of aligned texts. Each word or multiword term W in a corpus C = {C1, C2, C3, ...} has a distribution vector DW which is determined as follows:
[Insert lame-ass formula from Salton 89 here]

In principle, the best translation - or at least the most likely one - the target language segment with the distribution vector that maximises the cosine between the two vectors. In reality, however, this calculation is fraught with difficulties.

Gaaahh!

Anyway, I'm taking out my handicaps on the blogoverse. Deal.


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August 25, 2004

Tariq Ramadan denied visa to teach at Notre Dame

Over at AFOE


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August 31, 2004

Daniel Pipes: Another good reason to learn French

I did a number on Daniel Pipes over at AFOE.


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