Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Insane, Blind, and Deaf and Dumb

Before throwing any stones in my direction, let me simply say that the Constitution of the Great State of Ohio contains the above words and phrases. I grew up with this sort of language and recall finding the phrase "deaf and dumb" to be somewhat disturbing since "dumb" was and is ambiguous, with its primary meanings being "lacking the ability to speak" and "lacking intelligence." The latter meaning has always been the more salient for me, which is the origin of my problem with it. It was hard not to think of this other meaning even after understanding that "dumb" meant "mute" in that linguistic context. Indeed, I suspect that the there was a time when persons who could neither hear nor speak were seen as dumb in the sense of "lacking intelligence."

The words "idiot" and "insane" have ancient histories going back to a time before there was an English language and will likely continue to be used. However, to its credit, the Ohio Legislature has just passed a bill ridding the Ohio Revised Code of these words. It seems that "deaf and dumb" does not appear.

The Columbus Dispatch writes:
The changes will make Ohio law more sensitive and "help to reduce the stigma of mental illness," said Sen. Robert F. Spada, R-North Royalton.
The sort of legal language that will be "cleaned up" is:
If such building or premises [in which intoxicating beverages are sold] belong to a minor, insane person, or idiot, his guardian having control thereof shall be liable and account to his ward for all damages on account of such use and occupation, and the liabilities for such fines, costs, and damages.
Senator Spada's remark suggests that political correctness was the motivation for this change of language but there are better reasons. The terms "insane" and "idiot" are too imprecise to be of much legal use. Interestingly, in the same issue of the paper, we are told that persons of limited intelligence are not necessarily at a disadvantage when it comes to gaining wealth. So, maybe being an idiot is not all bad.

I have done no word frequency check for the word "dumb" to see which reading of the word is the more salient these days but the Webster's on line dictionary has as its first four meanings, glosses making reference to some problem with speaking, followed by a use I have never heard of, and then giving us a gloss making reference to a lack of mental acuity. The use I have never heard of is:
lacking some usual attribute or accompaniment; especially : having no means of self-propulsion
Though the dictionary puts the reference to a limitation of intelligence far down on its list, I suspect that it is, in fact, the most common in use.

According to About.com, Gallaudet University began not as a university but as an elementary school. However, in 1864, this site claims that President Lincoln signed a bill that authorized this school, to be called the "National College for the Deaf and Dumb," to offer college degrees. Perhaps at that time the meaning "mute" for "dumb" was highly salient when accompanied with "deaf."

Though the legislature will rid state law of the terms, "insane" and "idiot," nothing will be done about the language of the state constitution. Indeed, it is difficult to see how that might happen. The constitution contains a provision for a constitutional convention to be held every twenty years but I can't see that happening. The problem is that holding a convention would open the door to all manner of miscreants. I can see the NRA demanding a provision requiring that every household have a minimum of one rapid fire weapons such as was used on the Virginia State University campus recently. And adding an amendment dictating that each of these phrases either be deleted or replaced with more accurate and less offensive language would create a Catch 22 situation in which in order to rid the Constitution of this language, the Constitution would have to include it.

By the way, on an irrelevant note, if you are one of the people who thinks "a mute point" is what should be said when "a moot point" is what is meant, rush to your dictionary for help.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The ADA vs the University of Michigan

The University of Michigan is being sued by retired veterans for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to significantly increase access for disabled persons as a part of the current renovation of their football stadium. The suit turns on the distinction between a "repair" and an "alteration." Before reading further y0u might want to think what you believe the meanings of these two words are and ask yourself whether each of the following things constitutes a repair or an alteration.
a. Building two multi-story structures on both the east and west sides of the stadium (the language is taken from an official University of Michigan web site.
b. The west-side structure will include an elevated concourse
c. A new press box for media and game operations [will be built]
d. The east-side structure will include an elevated concourse with new concessions and restrooms, and additional indoor and outdoor seating
e. Approximately 83 suites and 3,200 club seats will be added in total
f. Widening seats and aisles and adding seating for mobility-impaired fans
For what its worth, the University of Michigan calls these actions a "renovation" on one university web site and this is a much stronger term than "alteration" The problem is that the Vets want increased access to the stadium in numbers consistent with the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA requires that in the case of any alteration/renovation of any such structure, 1% of the seats must be for, if we use the U of Michigan term, "mobility-impaired fans." Michigan plans to make room for a grand total of 282 places for "mobility-impaired fans." Full compliance with the ADA would result in 1,000 wheelchair-accessible seats, as an SI.com article notes. The problem is that Michigan is desperate to add 83 luxury suites and 3,200 club seats to the structure because these are excellent sources of income. It apparently cannot do these things, as well as increase access to restrooms, and provide seating for 1,000 wheel-chair using fans while increasing the size of the stadium.

The language of the ADA is being interpreted in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). The term "alteration" is defined in the CFR as:
as a change to a place of public accommodation or a commercial facility that affects or could affect the usability of the building or facility or any part thereof. It further states that alterations include, but are not limited to, remodeling, renovation, rehabilitation, reconstruction, historic restoration, changes or rearrangement in structural parts of elements, and changes or rearrangement in the plan configuration of walls and full-height partitions.
I have not found a nice neat characterization of what constitutes a "repair," but it is a pretty straight-forward concept, especially when contrasted with how the CFR characterizes "alteration."

When Ohio State renovated its stadium, it lowered the field thereby adding seating below what the original stadium provided and erecting an outer shell around the stadium (recall Michigan's "two multi-story structures" on the stadium's sides) that, in combination with the old shell, allowed both for increased seating above the level of the original stadium, as well as adding a giant press box and high priced luxury suites and high priced luxury seats just below the boxes. The athletic director did that while bringing the stadium up to code in regard to providing wheel-chair access as well as greater access to restrooms for women. There was no effort to evade the requirements of the ADA or other requirements of the law. Notre Dame also renovated its stadium by adding an outer shell to allow for an increase in seating as well as adding a nicer press box. Notre Dame also acted in accordance with the dictates of the ADA and other statutes. Ohio State and Notre Dame are two of Michigan's greatest rivals, but unlike their rivals, Michigan manifestly does not want to sacrifice overall seating as the result of adding luxury suites and luxury seats by creating more spaces for disabled persons.

I think that by anyone's common sense interpretation of the meanings of "alteration" and "repair" what Michigan proposes to do is not at all a repair but is instead an alteration or even renovation of the stadium. Ohio State some years ago did a sizable repair of the concrete face of the stadium for safety purposes (it didn't want chunks falling off onto the heads of fans). Such an action is a clear case of a repair. Adding seats to a stadium as Ohio State and Notre Dame did, and Michigan proposes to do, is a clear case of an alteration. Adding types of structures that did not exist in the stadium as it was before the renovation occurred, such as luxury seating and luxury suites, is another quite clear case of an alteration.

The University of Michigan may also be playing a word game by using the term "seating for mobility-impaired" fans, as opposed to "providing wheel-chair access." I am mobility impaired in that I use a four wheel walker that has a seat on it when I need to go long distances. For the last two years Ohio State has provided me access to the "rich people" elevators that go to the highest part of the stadium as well as a spot on a wide concourse that serves as the first row of the highest level of the stadium. My walker takes up about the same room as a folding chair. But, since all of the seating on that concourse is temporary (non-mobility-impaired people use temporary folding chairs), Ohio State would be able to meet a substantial increase in demand for seating for wheel-chair using fans. It is unseemly for a major university to play word games just so it can make more money.

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Monday, April 16, 2007

A Note on "Ho"

A number of whites have brought up the apparent wide spread use of "ho" in rap music and wonder how it is that it is okay for blacks to use "ho" but not whites. You would have be a pretty dumb white person to suggest that somehow the use of "ho" by rappers legitimizes its use by whites but the question of why Imus is catching heat for using this word in the absence of equally harsh criticism of its use by rappers is worth pondering.

As I noted in my previous blog, no respectable black person would use "ho" in a derogatory way to refer to a woman unless, perhaps, they were very, very angry, an emotional state in which unfortunate things are often said. I Googled "ho" with some other terms to zero in on it and ran across an interesting post by a linguist, Doug Wilson. He notes that "ho" is sometimes meant to refer to women generally though it is derogatory. I suspect this is the way in which Imus meant to be using it. Wilson also notes that "bitch" is used that way as well. Indeed, I will never forget a canoing trip I took with three other men many years ago in which one never used any word other than "bitch" to refer to women. I pointed out my unhappiness at this way of speaking but it was clear I was dealing with a recently divorced, very angry redneck (whom I had never met before) and nothing short of a beating would get him to stop using it and I didn't want to get tossed into a Canadian jail on assault charges.

Older folks will remember Dick Gregory's writing a book he titled "Nigger" hoping that he could rid the word of its negative connotations by such a linguistic ploy. It didn't work, of course. I suggest your read the back cover for a very entertaining, possibly not entirely truthful story.

What Gregory tried to do with "nigger" does happen to other words. In fact, the word "ho," used to refer to women generally, albeit in a derogatory way, has been liberated from being synonymous with "whore." But, as Wilson notes, even a black rapper would not not likely use the term to address his grandmother or mother ("Look, Ho, you need to get out of my face"). It hasn't become that liberated.

The word "ho" developed due to a process we find in the South generally, and in African American English Vernacular (AAEV), of r-dropping at the ends of words (including before word-final consonants). So, "car" becomes "ca" and "park" becomes "pak." This happens in Boston English and in British RP ("received pronunciation") as well. However, as anyone who has listened to British RP and in Boson and Southern English, and AAEV will note that identical words will not sound exactly the same in these four dialects due to various factors including the possibility of the "lost" r leaving a trace in how the preceding vowel is actually pronounced. An Ohio State phonetician showed me spectrograms of words with r's immediately following vowels which demonstrated that they do have an effect on how the preceding vowels are pronounced and that some vowels seem not to have following "r's". My recollection is that the vowels in "pet" and "pat" cannot be followed by "r". You may be able to find counter-examples (and if so please share them in the comment area). The upshot is that as 'r's" are lost in different dialects, the effects "r's" have on preceding vowels might be lost to different degrees and different ways in different dialects. This is a very complicated issue and phonetics is not by any means my strong suit -- I arguably don't even have a phonetics suit -- and so I will stop while ahead (I hope). In any event, in AAEV, "ho" seems to have no trace of the "lost" "r". Thus, "whore" becomes "ho."

[Edit: On second thought, it occurred to me that "pear" might contain the vowel of "pet." At the time I wrote the blog, I was thinking it might be the vowel in "paid." This illustrates the difficulties in identifying vowels before "r," at least for me.]

So, in AAEV, there would seem to be at least two conventional meanings of "ho," namely "whore," and "woman" with the latter having derogatory connotations on a scale from mildly derogatory to vilely derogatory. Just how derogatory it is would depend on the context and the relationship between the speakers. I have heard/read it said that there can be no "affectionate" uses of "ho" but that simply isn't true. It would require a very close relationship and an informal or even intimate context. Right now I am reading a novel by Carol O'Connell in which one male detective sprinkles "you bastard" into his conversation with another detective. This is the way of talking I have in mind.

So, the answer to the question, "Can a white person use "ho"?" is "yes," provided that she and the other woman have a very close relationship, reciprocally use it, and they are in an informal or intimate context. It was reported to me some 10 or more years ago by some African American children in a high school in Oklahoma City that the kids used "ho" in reference to males as well as females. How widespread that is I do not know. As to such a use, I say, "Why not?" What's good for the goose is good for the gander, as the saying goes.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

"Nappy Headed Hos"

Everyone knows about the Imus "shock jock" reference to the Rutgers women's basketball team as consisting of "nappy headed hos." What is rarely commented on is how he came to say that. It arose out of a short dialog with his producer that went
"That's some rough girls from Rutgers," Imus said. "Man, they got tattoos ..."
"Some hardcore hos," said McGuirk.
"That's some nappy headed hos there, I'm going to tell you that," Imus said.
The construction of Imus's last utterance reminds me of the verbal behavior of grade school boys with each "kid" building on the insulting remarks of the other. But Imus and his producer went further, also calling these women “jigaboos and wannabees.” Back in my youth, "jigaboos" was a notoriously racist term. The "wannabees" reference would have been to the fact that they were newly in the Championship game while their opponents, Tennessee, has made a habit of winning the Championship. It has been noted by some writers that the Tennessee players were more "clean cut" in their appearance.

The presence of these tattoos was clearly the trigger that set Imus off on his ill-fated linguistic journey that has so far resulted in a two week suspension (without pay?) from CBS radio and the decision by MSNBC to stop simulcasting the show on television. I suspect the Fox "fair and balanced" cable news channel will pick the show up. What really interests me is whether or not all the big time politicians and journalists and sports figures Imus regularly had on the show will continue to show up. I would think that they would not.

What is clear from the television interview with the coach and her players is that these kids (four are college freshmen) are perfectly presentable, articulate young women. Perhaps Imus isn't aware of this but female college basketball players tend to stay four years and have much higher graduation rates than do male basketball players. On seeing these young women discuss how hurt they were by his remarks I began to think that two weeks in a stockade in Central Park would be a more appropriate punishment than a suspension.

One thing that embarrasses me is that on watching "Pardon the Interruption," a usually entertaining (because funny) sports talk show hosted by Tony Kornheiser (white) and Michael Wilbon (black), both very well educated sports writers for the Washington Post and long time friends was their confession that their initial reaction and comments focused solely on the racial implications of what Imus said. They completely missed the gender implications. Alas, so had I. I have often believed that we will solve our problems of race long before we solve our gender problems in the United States. This little confession illustrates the nature of the problem of how dimwitted smart men can be about gender issues.

Not only is "jigaboo" a powerfully insulting term, but so also is "nappy headed," also a term that is familiar to me from my youth. This leads me to think that Imus must have suffered some serious linguistic brain damage in his youth.

One issue I have heard people raise is how is it okay for blacks to refer to women as "hos" but not for whites? There are two answers. The first, is that decent black men and women do not use the term "hos" in derogatory references to black women. The fact that black rappers might do so is hardly license for whites to use the term that way. The second answer is that people who are close to each other, especially men, will often use derogatory expressions as signs of solidarity or even affection, as when one man, seeing an old friend for the first time in a year or more, might say, "John, you old son of a bitch, where have you been keeping yourself?" I can see a black woman using "ho" in a similar way. I don't think Imus was expressing solidarity or affection for these women.

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Friday, April 06, 2007

The Use and Misuse of Science -- Global Warming

In my last blog, I talked about a particular misuse of language/linguistics by Work and Pensions in the UK, that is, by a government ministry. In this case it was the use of Voice Stress Analysis devices to ferret out fraudulent benefits claims. The problem is that Voice Stress Analysis devices have been proved in at least one study to be slightly less than 2/3rds accurate In this blog I want to turn to another story in the Guardian Unlimited that describes a misuse of science that is even more pernicious..

The headline of the story of interest is "Scientists issue bleak forecast for warming world." In this case a panel of scientists put together a report on climate change for the UN's intergovernmental panel on climate change though only one author, Neil Adger, a scientist at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia, is identified, but others appear to have been involved.

The misuse of science that this article describes consists off governments revising the results of scientific research and thinking for purely political reasons. The article says,
"release was delayed by arguments between the scientists, who wrote a draft based on published evidence, and some government representatives present, who must agree the final text and insisted some of its conclusions were watered down."
This is a misuse of science that is very, very troubling. For some time, the Bush Administration routinely issued papers downplaying the dangers of global warming and the role of humans in generating greenhouse gases. In one notorious case, a scientific report on global warming was edited by a Bush Administration official who had no scientific training. When this fact was made known, he was forced to leave the government but immediately got a job with an oil company, as the article just referenced and Gore's movie/speech both mentioned. We expect the minions of George Bush to do this sort of thing because the truth is always subordinated to the interests of business in his administration. But it is especially disturbing to discover that the UN is not above issuing reports edited to suit the interests of specific governments. The UN does not have a lot of credibility as it is. Thanks to this action, it has less.

There is an inevitable conflict between science and government. Scientists need the funds governments can provide to do their research. Unfortunately, these scientists must often kowtow to the governments that support them when they deliver up the products of their research. The Soviet Union practiced this sort of thing on a daily basis. But it is one thing for scientists working on contracts to develop weapons funded by the defense department to stick to the specifications the defense department gives them but quite another when scientists funded to do research that assesses dangers to the human race, to say nothing of the planet as a whole, are forced to revise their work to satisfy political concerns before publication. It is especially disturbing when it happens at the international level.

The most telling feature of Gore's movie/speech is that a study of randomly selected articles on climate change showed that every single one of them were of the opinion that global warming is a reality and that we humans are contributing to it but a study of the news media shows that half or more (can't remember exactly) of the stories on global warming represented scientists as split on the issue. This is a rather frightening prospect when you think of it. The oil companies and others with an interest in maintaining the status quo in regard to the production of energy for transportation, industry, and the heating and cooling of buildings and our homes seem to have had more influence in determining public opinion on climate change than have scientists. I urge everyone who has not seen Gore's movie to do so. It is surprisingly entertaining considering Gore's reputation for being as charming as your average statue.

Let me remind you all of one thing. The human race has just one option as a home. Though I love to watch Battlestar Gallactica and selected other scifi shows, it is impossible to travel faster than the speed of light or to "jump" from one place in the universe to another. Therefore it is impossible for us to pick up and move to another planet. In fact, right now, we know of no other planet that we can move to. So, for two reasons, if not more, we are stuck on Earth. It would be the height of folly for humans to make Earth inhospitable for human life.

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

Voice Risk Analysis

The on line edition of the Guardian newspaper, Guardian Unlimited, a British publication had a story claiming that insurance benefit claimants are "to face lie detector tests" using Voice Risk Analysis technology. John Hutton, who is Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in the UK, is the person responsible for this introduction of this so-called fraud detection device. He says
"Our investigators are successfully using sophisticated 21st century techniques to stop criminals. The introduction of this cutting-edge technology will be another weapon in the battle against benefit fraud."
Use of phrases like "sophisticated," "21st century technology," and "cutting edge," must make all British citizens jump with joy at this resourceful high tech bureaucrat.

The article notes that insurance companies have been using this technology "for years" to weed out "fraudsters." Of course, if it has been used for years, that could mean it is not a 21st century technology but merely a 20th century technology and that it surely by now not "cutting edge." Actually, a little digging into the research on Voice Stress Analysis devices shows them to have very dull edge.

The fact is, first, that pieces of voice risk analysis equipment are not "lie detectors." They have much lower reliability than lie detectors and, as we all know, even lie detectors are not accepted in American courts as proving the truth or falsity of claims by defendants and witnesses. I don't know whether the Brits accept them or not.

I have searched for the most recent research on the accuracy of voice risk analysis machines and the most recent I have found and can get access to is a paper called "Evaluation of Voice Stress Analysis Technology," written by Hopkins, C.S., et al, published in Proceedings of the 38th Annual Hawaii International Conference in System Sciences, 2005. In this study, voice samples containing claims known to be true or false, were submitted to five different Voice Stress Analysis devices and five different device operators, three of whom had 26 or more years of law enforcement experience.

Brits will, I think, be unimpressed with their results for the strongest claim they could make is that these devices were more accurate than flipping a coin (my choice of language). I give you here the raw results of the study.
What we see here is that 198 true statements were coreectly determined to be true but 118 true statements were incorrectly determined to be false. We also see that 127 false statements were correctly determined to be false but 73 false statements were incorrectly determined to be true. In short, 37.3 per cent of the true statements were adjudged to be false and 36.5 per cent of the false statements were adjudged to be true. These five machines were therefore more or less equally good/bad at sorting out true and false statements. I wonder if the consistency of the devices in dealing with true and false statements will be comforting to citizens of the UK. Of course, we Americans are surely in much the same boat at least in the case of private insurers.

The authors of the paper note that polygraph and voice stress analyzers, are not “lie detectors,” contrary to the Guradian headline quoted above, "Benefit claimants to face lie detector tests," but then editors of on line and print journals do tend to prefer lively leads into stories to attract attention to strictly true ones. I illustrated this preference for the the lively in my blog Present Tense in Journalism.

I am less concerned with the "little white lies" of journalists than with the use and abuse of language by law enforcement and businesses. There are numerous ways in which this occurs ranging from judges forcing the use of transcripts of audio tapes to a jury's listening to the tapes themselves to "admissible" instances of the use of hearsay evidence. The problems with the latter is that there is overwhelming proof that people cannot recall any more than the gist of what they hear and that any given person's take on the gist of what someone has said will be highly unreliable due to the fact what what we take someone to have said reflects our contextual expectations in the context in which we hear it and the fact that memory for what people say and do is notoriously unreliable. As I noted in a footnote to my blog The Evolution of Language -- III that my wife once said something like "The grass has sprouted and I need to take the netting off," but I heard something like, "The grass has grown and I need to mow it," my error being due to what I had seen on letting her dog out while she was out of town. This may be an extreme case of mishearing but mishearing is as comonplace as speaking itself.

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