Tuesday, March 28, 2006

And Just Put it On

My wife's suggestion as to how to deal with a flat tire on our riding mower was "to buy a new tire and just put it on." Her use of "just" illustrates how we often use this word, namely when we want to minimize something, in this case a suggested course of action. She was treating putting on the tire as being easy. At the time I didn't have a Staples "Easy" button to take care of the problem but she and I conspired to get pressurized can of something that inflates the tire and repairs the hole(s).

What my wife said is like saying "you merely (simply, only need to) buy a new tire and put it on" where the minimization is overt, that is, is carried by the literal meaning of of "merely" or "simply" or "only." Use of merely is like saying you don't have to do much to solve your problem. Use of "simply" is like saying this is a simple job. Use of "only" conveys that all that is required is to perform the suggested action. These more overt ways of minimizing the suggestion are not very polite. Use of "just" more covertly, and thus more politely, suggests that the action required is simple. In general the less direct one is in making suggestions, or making requests, which are very similar, the more polite one is.

When a friend says,
"Could you wait for me? I'll just be inside a minute."
don't be surprised if your friend doesn't come back within a minute or anything like a minute. We recognize this and would likely not complain if the speaker took five or even ten minutes, depending on what our patience threshold for waiting is and how busy we are. Requests for loans commonly include "just." Compare the next two sentences.
Could you help me out until I get my payroll check? I just need $300.
Could you help me out until I get my payroll check? I need $300.
This example illustrates that the "literal" or "conventional" meaning of "just," whatever it may be, is a great deal less important than its social significance. Notice that if "I just need $300" is true, then "I need $300" is true, and conversely, which is to say that "just" does not contribute to the truth/falsity of the assertion. It is there instead to communicate social meaning. You might go to my blogs on "Yes, but..." and The Meaning of Meaning for more on what I mean by the "social meaning" or "social significance" of utterances.

Before discussing this further, let's look at what might be instances of the use of "just" that reflect its literal meaning -- that it is its meaning not its use (i. e., its social meaning or significance). A CNN story had a headline reading
Starr Investigation Costs Just Shy of $30 Million - April 1, 1998
When I did a search for "costs just" hoping to get ads saying something like "Our product costs just...," I got a number of instances like the one just mentioned. We recognize that CNN is rounding off the number, partly to shorten the headline but also because a short number has more "punch" than a long one. I read this claim as but telling us that the real cost is not far from $30 million, perhaps something like $29, 565, 342.89 million, a number that is very unlikely to occur in a headline of a publication. Now see what you make of the following hypothetical headline.
Starr Investigation Costs Just $30 Million - April 1, 1998
I believe you would read this headline as making a political point, in this case that the Starr investigation has been relatively inexpensive and we shouldn't worry our pretty little heads over the cost.

At a liberal web site I found this
Of course the guy who told Congress [the war in Iraq] would cost just 2 billion (a real financial genus -- sic), Bush made President of the World Bank.
I am betting that the person who made this claim to Congress didn't say
The Iraq war will cost just 2 billion.
This would be to suggest that 2 billion bucks is not a lot of money and suggesting such a thing would be the political equivalent of lighting a stick of dynamite and sticking it in one's mouth. Again, the social significance or meaning rears its head.

Another example of the social meaning or significance of the use of "just" in an assertion can be found in the following Wikinews statement.
A survey carried out by BBC Wales has revealed that the contents of a school meal in Wales cost on average just £0.49 per pupil.
Interestingly the BBC news headline of the page Wikinews sends us to was quite different.
School meal average '48p a pupil'
The number was different and there was no editorializing as to the priceyness of the meals by minimizing it. Wikinews, like Wikipedia, is a free source of information, including, it seems, some editorializing along the way. I gather that anyone can contribute to these projects. I haven't looked at all deeply into this but I suggest not relying any too heavily on the accuracy of the information. As we have seen, the facts can be a tad off and we get some editorializing.

The word "just" is quite popular. The Nike Corporation (not a link to Nike.com uses the slogan "Just Do It," which is a species of suggestion. Al Davis, the owner of the Oakland Raiders, is famous for his injunction, "Just win, baby." A Google search of "just win baby" yields a large number of sports sites. The fact that this Al Davis statement has been used by others for years seems to demonstrate that it resonates with people. The Nike use is an injunction something like"you can do this thing you want to do, so shed your fears and do it." The fact that they have used the injunction for years suggests that it too has resonated with a lot of people. It wouldn't shock me to learn that Nike learned from the Al Davis statement.

"Just" also occurs in popular songs. The "Spin Doctors" who had a meteoric rise with its first album, containing the song "Two Princes." It concludes
Marry him or marry me,
I'm the one that loves you baby can't you see?
I Ain't got no future or a family tree,
But I know what a prince and lover ought to be
I know what a prince and lover ought to be....

Said, if you want to call me baby
Just go ahead, now
And if you like to tell me maybe
Just go ahead, now
And If you wanna buy me flowers
Just go ahead, now
And if you like talk for hours
just go ahead, now
Ohh baby
just go ahead now
This group spun off the charts rather quickly, not making a dent with its third album. The Cure has a very painfully selfish song I Just Need Myself. Check out how this song ends.

I know that I don't love you but I tell you that I do
But I only buy you flowers if I want anything from you
You think that if you'll leave me it will put me on a shelf
But I don't need you girl
I just need myself.

I just need myself (3x)
I just need.
Notice that the use of "just" in "I just need myself" in this song is very different from its use in the Spin Doctor's song. In the Cure's use it is little different from "only" and is insulting to the intended recipient. In the case of the Spin Doctor's song, we have a use of "just" that constitutes a grant of permission.

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Sunday, March 26, 2006

Spelling and Spelling Bees

The Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee has begun weeding out spellers at the local level. The finals have become moderately compelling television viewing, especially at the end when the pressure is at its highest. Who doesn't remember the kid who slowly toppled over to his side while standing in front of the microphone. He may be the first person in history to fall sideways while fainting. I can't remember whether anyone caught him or not but my admittedly faulty memory says that after returning to an upright position, he spelled his word correctly. It was one of the funniest things I have ever seen, a response that can be admitted because the kid wasn't hurt. There is a great deal of pressure on these kids. That is okay with me so long as the pressure doesn't come from the parents but from the competition itself.

I come today not to celebrate this Bee but to debunk it as a largely anti-intellectual enterprise that celebrates form (the graphic composition of words) over content (meaning). Before defending this surely unpopular position, let me say that learning to spell at the level these kids have to does force them to understand English word morphology (that is, word composition) to some degree, to learn the linguistic origins of words, and to learn what dictionaries say the meanings of these words are. However, this isn't a sufficient payoff to justify the time and effort these kids put into learning to spell words they will never use again.

Those who are familiar with my blog Incomprehensible Language may recall my claim that it is possible to know the meanings of all of the words of a sentence and still not have a clue what the sentence means. My example was drawn from a physics doctoral thesis at Ohio State:
In practice, almost all reverberation mapping data has been insufficient to constrain the transfer function, and reverberation analysis has instead relied on cross-correlation techniques.
The problem I faced is that to understand that sentence you have to understand astrophysics at some level. I have had the same sort of experience when tuning in some born again preacher's radio show while on the road where some very odd things are said, things like "I am in the Lord" (I'm not sure this is a meaningful born again utterance but it illustrates the problem). If you don't understand the theology of particular born agains you are unlikely to understand some of what they say. That's assuming these things actually do mean something.

In many cases, words refer to observables and it is the job of parents and others to teach kids the names for various observables. Such words presuppose z theory of how to individuate objects and, more interestingly, how to individuate actions. Check out this Temple University web site on early child language development, where we find a characterization that illustrates what is involved in learning to individuate actions.
Action Categorization : To form a foundation for verb learning, children must first be able to parse an event to find an action, distinguish between actions, and form categories of actions.
It has been a long time since I studied epistemology but some sort of nontrivial theory of knowledge is presupposed to account for our learning to individuate objects and actions. I am thinking of Hume's challenging the notion of causation, saying it is not derivable from our sense perceptions but we don't want to get into that here.

So, we come now to the spelling bee and the sometimes very obscure words these kids have to spell to win. Take the word "florin." I suspect that the vast majority of you all could spell this word correctly on hearing it (you might want to put an "e" in for the "i," however) but have no idea what it means or even from what field of human knowledge it derives its meaning. I asked my wife, who is at the tail end of a course certifying her as a Master Gardener and she didn't know. The word list you can access through this blog's title link says it refers to "a genus of sweet-scented herbs with narrow tubular red, white, or yellow flowers." Knowing this, I guarantee you that I wouldn't be able to reliably identify one after surveying a large herb, flower, and weed garden. The kids are told what any word means since they have to deal with homonyms which have different spellings as in "sun" and "son."

I am a terrible speller. I learned this when I got my first word processor that did spelling checks. After learning this, I thanked the Linguistic Department's secretary for correcting all my mistakes when she typed my first book and my papers. If I forget to use the spell checker Blogger provides me, I can guarantee that there will be misspelled words that aren't just typos. This doesn't bother me a bit. English spelling is ridiculous and learning to do it properly is surely a good thing but it is a total waste of a child's time to force, encourage, or abet a child's trying to win spelling bees. This involves an enormous expenditure of time unless the kids have photographic memories. This is an anti-intellectual enterprise since it doesn't involve learning anything of any great importance. Their time would be better spent trying to learn some mathematics, physics, chemistry, and other worthwhile disciplines. Indeed, I would love to see Scripps-Howard trash its spelling bee and create Math Bees, Physics Bees, Chemistry Bees, or perhaps, a single Math and Science Bee, perhaps identifying a set of texts that would form the basis of the test questions. What this nation needs is more mathematicians, scientists, and engineers, not more spellers. [For the record, the Blogger spell checker identified about 15 problem words. Some words like "agains" as in "born agains" aren't really words so Blogger objected to it. Only three words were actual misspellings and all of these were typos. Unfortunately, if you have a typo involving a word you have capitalized which isn't normally capitalized, Blogger provides an uncapitalized version. Of course, if you can't spell pretty well even a spell checker won't save you. In adding this addendum, I originally spelled this word as "adendum." I can't honestly claim this was a typo. Double letters have always been my downfall.]

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Thursday, March 23, 2006

A Higher Law

Fundamentalist religious people like to talk about there being a higher law than the laws of human kind. Muslims take this to an extreme by basing the Sharia entirely on the Koran whereas Christians take a more piecemeal approach by demanding specific laws such as those making abortion illegal or by fighting against new laws that provide groups like gays protection from discrimination. Like religious zealots, I too believe in a higher law than the Constitution, namely the Declaration of Independence.

Kelly, a lawyer who both comments on my blogs and has a blog site of his own, has commented on my claim that the right to privacy is guaranteed both by the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble of the Constitution. He claimed that "the Declaration of Independence is not a source of law of any kind."

At another site, it is claimed, based on a search of Findlaw claims that though there were a hundred references to the Declaration of Independence, "not one single case can be found where the authority for the holding in that case was the Declaration of independence." So, this site seems to side with Kelly.

In fact, both Kelly and the claim just cited are clearly false. In Cotting v. Godard, 183 U.S. 79 (1901) we find:
The first official action of this nation declared the foundation of government in these words: 'We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.' While such Declaration of principles may not have the force of organic law, or be made the basis of judicial decision as to the limits of right and duty, and while in all cases reference must be had to the organic law of the nation for such limits, yet the latter is but the body and the letter of which the former is the thought and the spirit, and it is always safe to read the letter of the Constitution in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence.
This passage elevates the Declaration of Independence over the Constitution in saying that "it is always safe to read the letter of the Constitution in spirit of the Declaration of Independence." Clearly, then, any "strict constructionist" like Kelly who likes to take the Constitution literally should see the Declaration of Indpendence as his guide to interpretation.

Ironically, in the Dred Scott case that fully legalized slavery, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney took the position in regard to
the phrase, "all men are created equal," that "it is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this Declaration. . . ."
Here we find the Declaration of Independence being cited as if it had the power to determine how the Constitution should be interpreted for the Chief Justice takes pains to assert that it is clear that this language was not meant to provide equal protection to slaves. Of course, today, we would interpret the Declaration of Independence as including anyone in our borders except illegal aliens and even they are given some rights.

The only reasonable interpretation of the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution that replaced it is that they codify the basic principle that 'We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.' In my opinion, it is the principles of the Preamble that both Americans and others see as defining who we are. Now, I am not too excited by the religious language included here, but it is clear that those who founded our country intended that people be treated equally and this to me means that if persons who are heterosexual through no fault of their own are permitted to marry and enjoy the legal benefits of marriage then persons who are homosexual through no fault of their own should also enjoy these rights. Similarly, just as the government gives me, a male, full rights to control my own body -- to get a tattoo, to have one of my kidneys cut out of my body so it could be implanted in another person, or have a vasectomy or even cut off my balls, then women should be permitted to have an abortion if they want. The thing that pisses me off most about laws abridging the right of women to have abortions is that men are the ones making this decision for men control every legislature in the country. They would never tolerate an intrusion into their lives of this magnitude.

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Saturday, March 18, 2006

Is the US a Free Country?

After quite some years of Right Wing Religious ranting, we are seeing the sour fruits of their efforts, the making of a New American Order in which the Bill of Rights and the right to privacy are under attack. South Dakota has outlawed all abortions except in the case of a pregnancy being a threat to the mother's life. The fact that the Little Bush had just successfully appointed two Right Wing or Conservative (I didn't look closely for the more I can ignore what the Bush administration is up to, the happier I am) Justices to be members of the Supremes was no doubt not an accident of timing on the part of the S. Dakota legislators. That and all the other efforts to strike down Roe v. Wade constitute strike one.

The FCC has slammed CBS with a 3.6 million fine because an episode of the pro-FBI show, Without a Trace, depicted teenagers in various modes of undress thereby suggesting that a teenage orgy was occurring but gave no fine to a broadcast of Oprah where a graphic discussion of sex acts that go on at certain teenage parties occurred. Apparently, the FCC actually believes a picture is worth a 1,000 words. I saw the episode of the CBS show and do not recall any depictions of humping or even fully exposed breasts or pricks or even butts. Moreover, the show did not endorse what was going on. Allegedly, Oprah introduced to America the concept of a Rainbow party where every girl wears a different color of lipstick and they perform oral sex on the boys leaving a rainbow of color on their pricks. It is further alleged that Oprah
introduced the [above mentioned] concept to uninitiated adults on an episode that also defined "hoovering," "booty calls" and "salad tossing."
Color me uninitiated. I think I know what "hoovering" means (if it means oral sex provided for the benefit of a female) and I know what "booty" refers to (if it refers to one's rear end) but I don't know what "booty calls" (anal sex?) are nor what "salad tossing" is. In my view, Oprah's introducing overt, graphic verbal depictions of sex acts should have been vastly more offensive than the CBS FBI show to these guardians of American over-the-air morality. So why was Without a Trace fined and the Oprah Show (or whatever it is called) not fined? In my opinion, Oprah's show (timed perfectly in Columbus, Ohio so that kids would be out of school and therefore able to watch it) could only have educated naive teenagers about all the fun they are missing and giving them a primer as how to spice up their parties. This entire FCC crusade is a species of McCarthyism if understood as an effort by the Right Wing and Conservative species of human being to silence those who differ from them in regard to moral beliefs and actions resulting from such beliefs. So, the FCC has taken a pitch for strike two.

This morning, I read in my Columbus Dispatch the Right Wing columnist Thomas Sowell saying "free speech never has meant speech free of consequences." Sorry, Sowell, that is precisely what it means. He should have said "free speech has never meant that all speech is free of consequences. If I suffer consequences for saying President Bush is an evil man, then I am being denied free speech. Let's test that now. I, Mike Geis, assert that George Bush is an evil man. If you see no more blogs you will know that I have either died or was arrested for defaming the President. Actually, Sowell was bitching about professors using captive audiences to present and perhaps even advocate their political or other agendas when these are not relevant to the course material. He is not obviously wrong about this.

There is one context in which a professor or high school teacher should speak out on a sociopolitical matter and that would be in stating an objection to being forced to introduce the Non-Theory of Intelligent Design in classes. All such a teacher need do is point out that Creationism is not a theory in any useful sense of the term because it has no empirical consequences. The Theory of Evolution does and Creationists delight in pointing respects in which it seems to be wrong. That is fine. That is playing by the rules of scientific investigation. But the Non-Theory of Intelligent Design has no empirical consequences, that is it makes no claims of the form, "Since fully-fledged humans who could speak languages were created by God, if you look at place P (in the world, in the human body, or wherever else you like), you will see O (some observable).

Speech is not free speech if you are forced to say something you don't believe. This effort to force Creationism down our throats is strike three. It is damn good thing life in America isn't like a baseball game or we would be out.

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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Use of Simplification in Scientific Research

There is an approach to science according to which the path to enlightenment is one in which one simplifies some complex real-world problem in some way and researches the resultant problem, and then adds some complexity and researches the resultant problem, and so on and so forth, gradually working up until one has accounted for the problem as a whole. One expression of this approach is found in Pat Langley's Power Point presentation of an outline of a talk on Herbert A. Simon’s views on how research proceeds in science.
Science is a gradual process. Build incrementally on your previous results, extending them to cover ever more phenomena.
This is a mind-bogglingly naive account of how any but lollipop scientific investigations proceeds.

There is some recent research that nicely illustrates the hazards of simplification in science, especially simplification by people unqualified to engage in it. This research alleges that different sorts of language structures are processed in different parts of the brain. I have access only to a press release from the Max Plank Society which you can access through the (title link. One doesn't need to know any more about this research than is presented in the press release for the purposes of this blog.

This research holds to the followoing view of the syntax of human languages:
When analysing language rules (syntax), one discovers two fundamentally different grammatical patterns. A simple rule governs the establishment of typical (probable) connections between words, like between article and noun ("a song") in contrast to article and verb ("a pleases"). The probability for a noun to follow an article is very high, while the probability of a following verb is very low. However, in order to understand longer sentences, a complex structural model is required - what is called a "hierarchy". Hierarchical dependencies serve to connect parts of a sentence - for example "around" an inserted subordinate clause: "The song the boy sang] pleased the teacher". The Max Planck study aimed to compare brain activities during the processing of both models - simple "local probability" and complex "hierarchy".
Reading this is like deja vu all over again." Back in my grad schoold days, grammars consisting of local probability rules were referred to as "Finite State Grammars" while grammars conaining hierarchical rules of the particular sort the Max Planck folks studied were referred to as "Context Free Phrase Structure Grammars." Neither has anything whatever to do with the grammar of German or Chinese or any other language and Noam Chomsky set about trying to demonstrate that grammars of much greater power were required to account for human languages.

A linguistics course site at Michigan State University provides some information on finite state and context free grammars as well as a very remarkable claim. I appologize for going technical on you folks and also being typically wordy. The claim is:
English is just like anbn [Note: any number of a's followed by the same number of b's, as in the Planck "heirarachical" rules -- Mike]
(2) a. The cat died.
b. The cat the dog chased died.
c. The cat the dog the rat bit chased died.
d. The cat the dog the rat the elephant admired bit chased died
The MSU folks have entered a minefield. Clearly, if uttered aloud (reading doesn't count here), speakers of English would instantly understand examples (2a) and (2b). The problem is that we fall apart when we encounter (2c) and (2d). They are flat out not acceptable. The question is, then, "Are they grammatical?" Some say that they are and some say that they are not. And some people like me don't care one way or the other.

The more important question is whether or not English is "just like anbn" type languages. The answer is, "No, of course not." Compare the b-c examples above with the following:
(3b) The cat that the dog chased died.
(3c) The cat that the dog that the rat bit chased died.
We have added just the word "that" and the nasty consequence of doing this is that these new sentences are not of the form anbn. Why do I say this? To force these sentences into the anbn procrustean bed we will have to say that "that the dog" and "that the rat" are units or constituents of these sentences and they are not. A phrase like "the dog" is a noun phrase and is a unit or constitutent of these sentences. The sequence "that the dog" consists of "that" plus a noun phrase and is not a phrase in and of itself. In these sentences "that" can be thought of (for our purposes) as a pronomial element that functions as (or refers back to) the direct object of the verbs "chased" (3b & 3c) and "bit" (3c). In short, in (3b) we have something like the following gross organization "(the cat (that (the dog) (chased e)) died)" where "e" is a "place holder" serving to indicate what the grammatical function of "that" is in the sentence. In this case, "e" is in direct object position and "that" functions as the object of the verb. It is an abstract element that is not pronounced. However, I should note that there have always been people who believe in a sharp distinction between the various components of a linguistic description who would argue that the function of "that" in our sentence is not a syntactic matter, but rather involves rules of semantic intepretation that will link "that" to the verb "chased" in some appropriate way. In my opinion, this is nonsense, but I can't go into that here. I'm just warning you of this possible critique of my position.

Consider a sentence like "the boys left town who are being chased by the cops" and "the boys left town who is being chased by the cops." The former is grammatical but the latter is not. In this case we have a nonlocal dependency between the plural noun phrase "the boys" and the verb "are" way to the right. This sort of sentence cannot be produced by context free rules (nor by finite state rules for that matter).

We (sensible) linguists have long since abandoned thinking about the syntax of natural languages in these terms. We stopped sometime in the mid-sixties if not sooner. This, unfortunately, has not stopped the brain researchers of the Maz Planck Society from studying how humans process finite state and context free "syntactic" rules. They get a result as one can see from the link above but the results they get tell us nothing about human natural language processing. Why? Because they left out all of the really interesting stuff. The press release says:
The advantage of experimenting with artificial grammars - as opposed to naturally spoken grammars - lies in the fact that other elements of language (semantics, phonology, morphology) do not have additional influences on neurological processing.
This is anything but an advantage. In fact, if one is interested in human language understanding one must absolutely take "other elements of language" into consideration. See my book, "Speech Acts and Conversational Interaction" for proof of this.

In that book, I cite an example of a phone onversation in which a male is trying to get a female friend to pick him up where his car has stalled and take him to the bank he works at so he can open it up. The interesting thing is that in this conversation, no reference is made to someone's giving another person a ride and no overt request is made. Moreover, the woman does not overtly reject the request. The entire conversation consists of indirect communication. The need for a ride is communicated (if I may be permitted a simplification) by "My car is stalled...and I'm up in the Glen" followed by "And I don't know if its possible but see I haveta open up the bank in Brentwood." The response is "Yeah, I know you want... and I would but except I've got to leave in about five minutes." I have heard a tape recording of this conversation and it is unremarkable sounding (i. e., doesn't sound deviant in any way) though it is, as we shall see, a quite remarkable conversation.

This is a very important conversation for understanding human language processing. We have a ride request with no mention of a ride nor is a request overtly made. All the requester does is state a problem that he hopes his friend can solve. The responder communicates that she knows what he wants but provides a reason why he cannot solve the problem. We may usefully flesh out his request as "My car is stalled...and I'm up in the Glen" followed by "And I don't know if its possible for you to pick me up and give me a ride to my bank but see I need for you to give me a ride because I haveta open up the bank in Brentwood." We can flesh out Marcia's response as follows "I know you want a ride and I would give you one but except I can't give you a ride because I've got to leave in about five minutes." Somehow the people involved in this conversaton know how to go about filling in the blanks and this requires, as I demonstrate in my book, reference to a cognitive representation of the essential elements of requests, even something as specific as ride requests, and a mechanism for interpreting what is said in terms of this cognitive representation, relevant facts about their past experiences, and the present context (e. g., that it is early in the day). This is what we might call the "hard language processing problem."

The fact is that English is not a context free language and the fact that some English sentences can be wedged into the anbn mold while kicking and screaming, not every kind of English sentence can. Moreover, as my ride request example demonstrates, one must, if one wants to understand language processing, take into consideration the "other elements of language" the Max Planck folks feel free to omit.

We come then to the issue with which we began, namely the idea that science proceeds through simplification of a "hard" problem to the point that one can get traction with it, i. e., make it an "easy" problem, and gradually work up to the "hard" stuff. The following illustrates the sort of "linguistic" (snigger quotes) examples the Max Planck people dealt with (in short, meaningless baby talk):
The simple rule involved alternating sequences from categories A and B (e.g., AB AB = de bo gi ku); the complex rules on the other hand required hierarchies to link both categories (e.g., AA BB = de gi ku bo).
In my opinion, the sort of language processing study that the Max Planck people are engaged will not end up contributing anything to our understanding of human language processing, that is, we will not be able to work up from easy stuff like studing how people process "linguistic" (snigger quotes again) examples like "de bo gi ku" and "de gi ku bo," which occur in no language on earth to examples like "Yeah, I know you want and I would but except I've got to leave in about five minutes." And you can take that to the bank. In my opinion, it is sometimes easier to understand the "hard" problem by addressing it head on. In the case of the ride request, doing so forces one to understand that cognitive and contextual information is critical to understanding language and to understand language understanding.

For those interested, there is a study comparing how humans vs certain nonhuman primates handle such phenomena as interested the Max Planck people. I suggest you go to The Language Log for links as well as discussion.

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Friday, March 10, 2006

The Advantages of Being Middle-Class

Professor Annette Lareau of Temple University, author of Unequal Childhoods, takes the view that black and white children with a middle-class background outperform working-class children in the adult world because they develop a greater capacity to interact verbally with adults as a result of their being greater talk and negotiating with parents in middle-class homes and because their parents put them in a variety of adult-supervised activities that are often unavailable to the children of working-class and poor homes for financial and other reasons. I read about this first in the Columbus Dispatch in an op-ed piece by David Brooks. The headline was instructive: "Working-class kids held back by lack of verbal skills." I love this. It suggests that working-class kids have no verbal skills at all.

Most of us linguists who care about the sort of issues that interest Lareau must feel like we are experiencing what Bill Murray's character did in Groundhog Day. From time to time educators and sociologists and others who know little or nothing about language and verbal development come up with some version of what Professor Bill Labov, a sociolinguist at the University of Pennsylvania, has called the "verbal deficit" theory. Interestingly, much of Bill's research, like that of Professor Lareau's. was done in Philadelphia, but he focused on Black English Vernacular.

Labov focused a good deal of his field work on inner-city black children. In 1972, he published the book, Language in the Inner City: Studies in the Black English Vernacular. Unfortunately, others with little or no linguistic knowledge were also taking a look at Black English Vernacular with some alleging that there were nontrivial numbers of Black children who could barely form a complete sentence. I once heard or read a paper by someone who replicated the "experiments" of those who came to these conclusions, usually whites, of course, and got an entirely different result. He was himself Black and instead of being White and standing or otherwise positioning himself in a dominant position relative to children he studied, he sat on the floor with him. The children opened up with him with a flood of language. It seems that they had plenty of complete sentences to utter.

This "verbal deficit" theory got some purchase when a variety of well-known people like Nobel Laureate William Shockley, a physicist at Stanford University, decided that his status as a physicist entitled him to comment publicly on linguistic issues dealing with race. To give you an idea of his sociopolitics, he once openly suggested people with IQs lower than 100 should submit to voluntary sterilization. Naturally linguists like Labov tore into him and other nitwits like him, dispelling their linguistically incompetent views with actual research. An important element of the counterattack was a chapter in the Labov book mentioned above called, "The Logic of Nonstandard English."

Obviously, Professor Lareau is not as ignorant as the Columbus Dispatch's headline writer (or that of the New York Times if headlines travel with syndicated articles) nor of the nitwits who advanced the verbal deficit theory we dealt with back in the 70's and 80's.

Lareau based her study on the children of two schools. Count them. One. Two. How many schools are there in America? Lots. Maybe 50,000. Lareau obviously worked with a very tiny sample. Moreover, it does not take into account the effect of later higher education on those children from working class and poor families on their linguistic and intellectual development. Not all a child learns is learned at home or as a result of a parent's (soccer moms and pops) pushing them into all sorts of activities directed by adults. The problem, of course, is that there is a well-known built in bias against speakers of nonstandard English by K-12 teachers and a bias against children of the poor that is built into standardized tests, from the SAT to the Wonderlich test given to athletes who want to go pro. Recently we learned that the Heisman Trophy winning quarterback of the National Champion Texas Longhorns scored 16 out of a possible 40 and it was opined that he may drop in value to pro teams on draft day because of this score. Of course, a smart manager of a pro football team will simply get the tapes of his two consecutive performances in the Rose Bowl (against the University of Michigan and the University of Southern California) and replace the Wonderlich score with these tapes. Talented is as talented does, Forest Gump's mother probably told him.

The use I wish to make of Lareau's work (which should not be taken as an endorsement of it) is to further an argument I have often made to people, almost invariably White, who scorn poor people, including especially poor blacks, because they have failed to take advantage of the wonderful opportunities America provides, whereas they themselves have gotten what they have as a result of hard work.

Yeah, right. Their hard work. Such people are usually White and male and had middle-class parents who provided the environment Lareau speaks of and provided financial help during their college and immediate post-college days. Moreover, such people usually came from families with one or more members who have earned college degrees so college was not an alien notion for them as they grew up. Contrast that with a poor black inner city kid. I don't need to recite the limitations they are saddled with. They are well-known. Assume that they have the opposite background to that of middle-class White and Black kids and also have additional disadvantages heaped upon them, including growing up in crime-ridden areas where education is not valued. If I may be trite, success breeds success and failure breeds failure.

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Saturday, March 04, 2006

Names for Military Actions

Jennifer referred to "Operation Just Cause" in a comment and this reminded me of a friend's telling me that the loftier the name of a military operation, the less morally lofty it will be. He was retired from the military and I think he was mostly trying to be funny but there is a kernel of truth to what he said.

Before going further, let me say that I am neither a pacifist nor against the military per se. The latter more or less does what the Commander in Chief tells them to. Sometimes though the military, or, perhaps more accurately, members of the military do some pretty nasty things on their own. However, as citizens, we are responsible for everything our government or its representatives do and taking a close look at what they say and do is inherently meritorious.

So, what was "Just Cause," some of you younger sorts might ask who haven't read J_G's comment? It was an operation in Panama to depose and arrest Noriega and demobilize his thugish military and paramilitary forces the latter, interestingly, being called the "Dignity Battalian." This Op seemed to many to be quite problematic and there were jokesters who exploited the name "Just Cause" by asking the question, "Why did we invade Panama?" and then answering it with, "jus-cuz," the casual speech pronunciation of "Just Cause." There do seem to have been some good reasons for this invasion but the fact is that we invaded a country and captured its leader and that is normally thought not to be a very good thing to do. After our long history of military interventions south of our border (recall the Monroe Doctrine, as imperialist a doctrine as one will ever find), it is hard to see any use of military force south of our border as legitimate.

Moreover, Just Cause followed upon "Operation Urgent Fury," in which the US military mounted an operation in Grenada, one of the tiniest countries we have ever invaded. This Op was so flawed in its execution that a documentary on it might seem like a comedy of errors with a plot something like "The Mouse that Roared" but with reversed roles for the USA and the little country. The plot would include the US PsyOps folks setting up "Spice Island Radio" and include calling the Op as a whole "Urgent Fury." The comic payoff would involve American medical students who presumably couldn't get into US medical schools kissing and hugging our soldiers as they were being rescued. I think a lot of people thought that rescuing the students was the point of Urgent Fury but it wasn't. It was part of our efforts to limit the influence of Cuba. But coming so quickly after Reagan's hasty retreat from Beirut after the very unfortunate and savage terrorist bombing of a Marine barracks it looked like a face-saving action both for Reagan and the military.

Compare names like "Operation Just Cause" and "Operation Urgent Fury" with such names as "Desert Shield" and "Desert Storm" from the first Iraq war. These are not especially colorful, as is consistent with the (surely false if pushed very hard) theory that the colorfulness of the name for an Op is in inverse proportion to its worthiness. When Little Bush named his Iraq war "Operation Iraqi Freedom" you had to know that there was something fishy about what he was doing (no WMD, no ties to Al Queda, no trucks with portable chemical weapons labs, etc.) One thing Little Bush has accomplished and that is to make his Dad look good by comparison. Big Bush's Iraq War combined with the Northern and Southern "No Fly" zones combined with UN pressure on Saddam to get rid of his WMD actually worked. At the time we invaded, his army was totally ineffective and would not have been able to invade any country or harm the Kurds in the North and the Shiites in the South, and he had no WMD.

Your homework is to think about what the following Ops names might mean and then find out what they were:
1. Operation Allied Force
2. Operation Restore Hope
3. Operation Deliberate Force
I would argue that they are consistent with the principle that the loftier the name, the less worthy the cause. Maybe you disagree. I wonder if there are any counterexamples to this principle that you know of, i. e., an overblown name for a just action or a modest name for an unjust one? There surely are some. You have to believe that some really bad thing was given a modest, unassuming name at one time or another just to distract us from looking closely at it.

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Thursday, March 02, 2006

Our War President

I just learned that someone I know who is in the Ohio National Guard will be getting his orders for another tour of active duty -- his third, I believe, the last being in Bosnia. This time he goes to Iraq where, in his specific job, he will be exposed on a daily basis to RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) and IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), which are, by and large, the weapons that are killing civilians and American forces in Iraq.

In doing this, Bush is violating a long time policy of the Department of Defense (i. e., War) not to call up National Guard units for more than one out of every five years. At some point during the Iraq war, this policy was changed to two out of every five years. There are a variety of reasons for this, the biggest two being force reductions after the end of the Cold War and a need for many more troops in Iraq than Rumsfield and Bush had thought they could get away with thanks to their total failure to understand what they were getting us and them into (recall the looting, the inability of the US led forces to protect the people and rebuild and protect the infrastructure, the totally unexpected insurgency, etc.)

What is interesting is how the Department of Defense (i. e., War) interprets the "2 out of 5 year" active duty limitation. I give you the words of Army National Guard Lt. Gen. Clyde Vaughn:

What a lot of folks don't really pay attention to is that we regenerate a certain percentage of our force every year; you know, those new recruits and folks that come in from the (other ) service and so on, and that's about 18 percent across the line. So when you start to look at that in broad terms, and if it were flat-lined over five years, you'd say, well, 90 percent of your Soldiers are almost all new in five years. That's true. So, you see, once every five years, we come real close to regenerating the whole force anyway. What ends up staying in your force over that period of time are the people that want to stay there, which are your leaders, which is the way it ought to be.

It is clear that no individual soldier is being given a "2 of 5" year limitation on active duty service. Rather, the DOD is using a statistical interpretation of that limitation. If there is a turnover of 90 percent of a given National Guard unit over five years, then, indeed, it can be called up every other year for five years and not exceed the limitation. After year one, 5/5ths will have served one tour but 1/5th will leave the Guard. After year two, spent back in the USA, the unit will lose an additional 1/5th. So, when it is recalled in year 3, only 3/5ths of the original group will still be in the Guard unit. After year 4, also spent in the USA, the unit will lose an additional 1/5th of its original size, leaving just 1/5th of the original group. When this unit is deployed in the fifth year, the only group that will be on its third tour will be the 1/5th that was there in the first year. And these, says the Good General, would be "the people that want to stay there, which are your leaders." He didn't say "officers," he said "leaders." The leaders will, of course, be the most experienced people. Unless they are total screw ups, they will all be in leadership positions of some sort. They are what college sports coaches call the "senior leadership" of their teams.

Now, the General isn't saying literally that he knows this "turnover" is going to happen in the way I have just described. He makes no such claim. He only provides a interpretation of the "2 of 5" year limitation that "sounds good." That Bush and the DOD are engaged in lying to Guard members, the parents, spouses, children, and you and me is clear enough. However, it is my understanding that when this Ohio unit is called up, it will be called up for a minimum of one year. Not a maximum. A minimum. So, the lie grows like Pinocchio's nose.

One other aspect of this that is disturbing is that Bush seems to have promised that only "volunteers" are going to be sent to Iraq. I have found no document confirming this promise. However, it is not the individual soldier who will be doing the volunteering. It is the Generals who lead them. Tell me a National Guard General who would not volunteer his troops and I'll tell you a National Guard General who doesn't want a promotion. Perhaps someone can confirm or disconfirm this alleged promise. Bush is guilty of so many errors of judgement and outright lies that we don't want to be accused of piling on by adding another lie if it isn't a "true lie."

Let me note in passing that General Vaughn should be given the 2006 George Orwell Language Award for his use of the verb "socialize." I give you
That had been socialized with the TAGs
we socialized and worked with the states
What in living hell does this verb mean to this man? That they had had tea parties with the TAGs and the states?

What really chaps my butt is that Bush and Cheney, both of whom dodged the draft during the Vietnam War, continue to send Americans to Iraq to die in a monumentally stupid war. The irony in this context is that Bush dodged the draft by getting Daddy's help securing enlistment into the National Guard at a time when virtually no Guard members ever served in combat and enlistments were essentially frozen. In 1956, after the Korean War, the military made a terrible blunder by allowing people to enlist for an 8 year National Guard term with no active duty requirement -- not even basic training. Being naive, I, as a high school senior, was conned by a friend into joining the Oklahoma National Guard to make sure that I didn't get drafted out of college. Dumb me. White, middle-class, college-enrolled people did not get drafted in those days. But be clear about this: I was engaging in draft dodging. The difference between Bush and me is that I used the National Guard draft-dodging ploy during a time of peace, not war.

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