February 4, 2005

A difference of semantics

Brief entry inspired by Atrios misuse of the idiom a difference of semantics. This is my personal bugaboo, so bear with me.

Igor Mel'čuk was one of my profs in Montreal, and he used to tell this joke, which, I guess, makes a bit more sense in Russian:

A man walks into a doctor's office and demands to be castrated. The doctor says, reasonably enough, that he doesn't do that sort of thing, and besides, why would the guy want to be castrated. To this the man whips out a gun and demands that the doctor castrate him or else. So, the doctor, forced at gunpoint, agrees to do it. He puts the man under and castrates him.

When the man wakes up, the doctor says, "Well, I did what you asked. But why on earth do you want to be castrated."

The man replies, "Well, you see, I have this Jewish girlfriend, and she won't do it with me unless I've been castrated. "

"Don't you mean circumcised?"

The man thinks about it for a moment and says, "Well, doctor, don't you think that's just a difference of semantics?"

The point is that semantic distinctions are terribly important. Most people use the phrase "a difference of semantics" to mean the exact opposite, when two things make no semantic difference.


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February 9, 2005

Change of Status

Ho ho ho...

I have big news and it will lead to more blogging. Don't want to jinx it just yet until I officially know. Ho ho ho.... European social democracy can be a wonderful thing.

I may get the next chapter of Grandpa's memoirs up today. I hope so - I'll be busy tomorrow. I have a dermatology document to analyse first. Right now, I can't stop smiling.


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February 14, 2005

The Hegemonic Lexicon: a first draft

Below the fold is my first draft of my soon-to-be doctoral proposal. I invite - indeed, beg for - comments. I remind everyone that this is a hastily written first draft. It is far from a finished proposal. For example, the title is not transparently linked to the contents.

This, a CV, and two letters of recommendation are now all that stands between me and becoming a doctoral candidate. There's only one more impossible thing to do: I have been asked for two letters of recommendation, and it has been suggested that I really ought to get one from a prof from before my life in Belgium. This poses some real problems. My last bout of education before arriving in Europe was at Stanford in late 2000. Before that, I was at U de Montréal until 1994. My last completed degree before Belgium was an undergrad degree in Physics that I finished (with a pitiful GPA) in 1991. So, either I have to hit up profs who haven't seen me in five years, or ones that haven't seen me in 11 years, or profs I haven't seen in as much as 15 years in a totally different field where I was crap.

The candidate pool:

  • John Koza at Stanford (Good news: He gave me a good grade for a paper that's actually been cited somewhere. Bad news: I took the class by video and saw Koza in person, like, twice, five years ago.)
  • Igor Mel'čuk at U de Montréal (Good news: we got on well. Bad news: my last class with him was incomplete and eleven years ago.)
  • Alan Ford at U de Montréal (Good news: He gave me a good grade. Bad news: The one big paper I wrote for him was total shit, and I'm pretty sure he knew that, and it was some twelve or thirteen years ago.)
  • Carl Helrich at Goshen College (Good news: he was my undergrad advisor. Bad news: He was my undergrad advisor in Physics, at which I was utter crap and got shitty grades. If I'd been less of a stubborn ass, I'd have quit Physics early and majored in something closer to my interests.)

Anyway, I am also soliticing advice on how to approach a prof one hasn't seen in a long, long time - and possibly didn't impress that much - to obtain a letter of recommendation. Any help at all would be appreciated.

So, onward with the one-page proposal:


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February 15, 2005

Africa Correspondence

This is a really long entry. It's been, once again, far too long since I posted from Grandpa's papers. In fact, it's so long that I found out that Movable Type has a maximum post size, and I've had to make some cuts to fit it. But, since my recent change of status, I am going to have more time to blog from now on.

Grandpa was a profligate letter-writer. I am not - something that I hear lots about from my extended family. His correspondence from Africa is compiled in a 364-page red binder, marked "Congo". It covers five years in Africa. Most of Grandpa's letters were in German, but he translated them. I should note that where he uses the word black, I'm fairly certain the original German was Neger - a word that is more accurately translated as Negro. I considered changing it back, but have left the text as Grandpa wanted it. At the time when he wrote these letters, and in the social context he lived in, Negro was an appropriate, reasonable word.

Of course, the manner in which he talks about "blacks" is more revealing than his choice of word. It is clear that no matter how much Grandpa and other missionaries believed in the equality of human souls before God, there is still a wide social chasm separating African natives from white missionaries. Modern missionaries pay more attention to that gap than they did in Grandpa's time. Grandpa was clearly not well prepared for the cultural or ecological shift that a move to Africa entailed.

This post is slightly different in format than previous ones. The notes in brackets are Grandpa's notes, unless I have marked them otherwise. The long expositions in blockquotes are mine. The letters that were not written by Grandpa are marked with the name of the author in brackets at the beginning.


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February 17, 2005

MDL in Linguistic Modeling: Version 2.0 of the doctoral proposal

Less math, more linguistics, slightly shorter, fewer different things at once. And many thanks to Cosma Shalizi for comments in e-mail.

To read, click the "more" button. And once again, please comment.


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February 18, 2005

It's kind of annonying...

...when you realise that suddenly a lot more people are reading your blog, only to discover that 90% of your visitors are googling for pictures of Phoebe Cates.


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Wrote a first draft of my CV

One more thing that needs to be done for the doctorate.

Man, it's depressing to see your life boiled down to a few pages. The current version is five pages long, but I'm going to reorganise it down to two. It lists every school I've attended since I was 13 - eleven schools in total - and every job I've held for more than a month since I stopped delivering newspapers - eight jobs total. And for all that, I have just two completed degrees - one useless and one with honours - and a disturbingly short list of real professional accomplishments. I came up with four of those, but one of them is "keeping my mental health despite considerable adversity" - that will probably not be on the final version.

I look like a total dilettante, which isn't totally false, but my record is mostly the product of wanting to go to school to do exactly what I'm trying to do now and having to choose between it and paying my rent.

Most of it could just be cut, like my work as a cowboy boot salesman and my pizza dispatcher job. I'm debating whether or not to post it. Probably not.

Of the profs I've sent requests for letters of recommendation to, I've had exactly one response. It was from the prof least likely to give me one and it was a flat "no". Fair enough, I was one student in an enormous cattle class five years ago. It's not reasonable to expect the guy to even remember me.

But I haven't heard back from my profs in Belgium either, and that's beginning to give me the nerves.


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February 22, 2005

It's official

I'm joining the ranks of the unemployed. I knew this was coming for a couple of weeks, and I've been expecting it for longer.

But, there's good news on the PhD front. The prof whose recommendation can most help me has agreed to write a letter for me.

There's still no financing, and that worries me some. I don't want to create the appearance of a burden on my wife. I know she worries about being the single breadwinner, even though her pay is awfully good for Belgium. Her contract expires in a couple of years, and even though I suspect she'll be a good candidate for a permanent post, it's not guaranteed.

I need to find some funding, if nothing else to reduce her stress.

I've been considering my options:

  1. Try to convince the Belgian unemployment authorities that the best thing they can do for my long term earning potential is to pay me unemployment while I'm in school.

    This has the advantage that it comes to some 60% of my last pay and comes without other attached strings. The downside is that I have been told that they never, ever, do it for doctorates.

  2. Not tell the unemployment office that I'm doing a doctorate, pretend to be looking for work, and try hard to appear completely inexperienced and monolingually English so that they can't find me a job.

    Upside: 60% of my last pay. Downside: Dishonest, probably illegal and there is an easy to find paper trail to show that I'm doing it.

  3. Try to get funding from scholarship organisations.

    Unfortunately, I missed the fall deadline in January. I'm not eligible for developing world scholarships, and I'm not hard up enough to qualify for means-tested assistance. It may be an option in spring though.

  4. Find an assistanceship or research project.

    Tried that. So far, no luck, but there are some prospects for next year. I have a few more cards I can play on that front though. I haven't even gone to the computer science or EE departments yet. The projects that most fit my background are not a option for a while, so I'm not too optimistic.

  5. Going back into the text business: translating, copywriting, copyediting.

    Downside: The money is really inconsistent.

  6. Look for part time and temporary work.

    The problem is that I am too damn old to abandon any sense of dignity and wait tables. Besides, I doubt that most service jobs would be interested in having me. I can't and won't put in the kinds of hours that short term tech work entails, and I'm too old to peddle my phone skills as a receptionist.

    I've been contempating trying to get a Trinity TESOL certificate or a CELTA - it can be done as a 4-week training programme for €1000-2000 - and peddling myself on the private education market. If I can do English and math, I think I have a decent chance of making it work, and it adds to my resumé. Besides, I've done that kind of thing before and that's basically how my mom makes a living. The certification makes it a lot easier to get paying gigs in regular schools.

Any thoughts on the matter?

(I know, blogging here has been awfully self-centred for a while. But, getting fired is really demotivating at the office, so I expect to get back to serious blogging in the immediate future.)


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