Friday, December 19, 2008

Everything counts in large amounts

Today's xkcd comic:

That set me off wondering, what was most influential or valuable in my high school days? Being enrolled in two philosophy courses this semester, I've lately found myself thinking about an art teacher who caught me reading How the Mind Works and how what he said was so far off the mark: I'm definitely not more the philosophy type than the scientist type. If someone who knew me quite well at the time could miss that badly, I wonder how far off the curriculum was? What did I do that really counted during my college career?

Books that counted
Principia Discordia by Greg Hill and Kerry Thornley, Zenarchy also by Kerry Thornley, and T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism by Peter Lamborn Wilson writing as Hakim Bey. Oddly enough, these were all books that I only found out about and acquired due to their distribution on the fledgling world wide web. I can't decide which was more important, but all three influenced me politically and religiously by means of presenting something simple and completely outside the box of 90s revivalism.

The Sandman by Neil Gaiman et al. Made me appreciate both comics and fantasy again and convinced me that they could be written and analyzed at a more theoretical level than I had been exposed to.

How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker. I may not have grown up to be an evolutionary psychologist or even a bona fide cognitive scientist, but it's largely due to this book (and subsequently reading its prequel, The Language Instinct) that I became aware of linguistics.

Classes that counted
Latin: I was a B/C/D English student my first two years of high school. Then I took a semester of Latin and shot back up into the A's where I'd spent my elementry and middle school years. Through making syntactic and semantic arguments explicit, Latin made me interested in the structure of language and convinced me that something was wrong with our language arts education program. I would go on to study English education mostly as a result of this class and reading How the Mind Works.

Music Theory: I didn't go on to study music formally, but that class taught me the vocabulary (literal and musical) behind all the things I had only implicitly known before.

Activities that counted
Jazz band. Playing jazz showed me the horizons of music and kept me from being satisfied with three chord rock (even if I did and still like it).

Reading. Seriously. So many high school students stop reading for fun. I learned a lot that way about dozens of subjects that wouldn't be presented to me in class until college (if then).

Not doing drugs. Yeah, ok, it's no more of an activity than not-stamp-collecting is, but class issues aside, it's amazing the difference in outcomes between those students who do and don't.

Records that counted
I think I'll save this for a future post and go into more detail.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Shorts: It's Tricky

  • Over at Mr. Verb, a state senator-elect in Arizona wants to rewrite the history of good (aka white) immigrants.

  • Over at Echidne, Suzie tackles media language and rape, focusing on the use of victim. Part 1 here and a followup here.

  • Good Math, Bad Math reviews what tautologies are, being a benefit for Dr. Egnor.

Secularism and Anti-Science

This Los Angeles Times opinion piece by David Klinghoffer sparked the interest of Massimo Pigliucci over at Rationally Speaking. I recommend reading them both or at least the latter if you're short on time.

It was pointed out to me at a CFI conference last summer that atheists/secularists/etc devoting too much time to religion. A member or two of the Secular Alliance of IU has spoken up that complementary and alternative medicine should become a focus of ours (a potentially controversial move in this town). I agree and would add that CAM is in general part of larger issues in the public understanding of science.

Anecdotes from Australia and the not-too-long ago study that showed people who reject traditional religion are more likely to hold other paranormal beliefs (such as astrology). A fair number of people do not reject religious beliefs because of the philosophical, scientific, or historical arguments that persuaded many of us. They reject traditional religion because it is pompous, self-righteous, and fails to make the mysterious personal. Criticisms that they frequently lob at science as well.

As seen in the Klinghoffer piece, there's a pervasive belief that science either fails to address or cannot address vitally important aspects of the human condition. While we can easily point out where an individual misunderstands the scientific literature on a topic, what is difficult to persuade mystery-seekers of is that no one can address some of these issues. The failures and blind spots of contemporary science are not a license to invent other explanations or a means to justify of "ancient wisdom."

The critical thinking tools that we use as non-theist naturalists champion are applicable to both religion and paranormal beliefs that haven't been as codified. I am not suggesting that we abandon critiques of religion. I believe religion does need to be opened up to critique, particularly where it interferes in politics, education, and scientific progress. But given the current numbers, we are far more likely to find allies among theists who belief in ghosts than among atheist ghost-hunters.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Shorts: Science Brings Out the Big Guns

Clearing up some open Firefox tabs. Which means it's time for shorts again!

  • William Lane Craig's Kalam Cosmological Argument received attention from J. Brian Pitts and the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. See it here (requires Acrobat). Craig responded here.

  • Michael Egnor and Steven Novella have been going back and forth over physicalism, neuroscience, and the hard problem of consciousness. See Novella's recent post for the update. Recently, notable philosopher David Chalmers has chimed in to comment on Egnor's misuse of Chalmer's more famous arguments. Egnor responds here.

Heretics on This American Life

A recent This American Life episode focused on the fascinating story of Reverend Carlton Pearson. Pre-final madness kept me from posting this first and Daylight Atheism got to it first. The episode comes highly recommended.

Pearson's ministry's website is here.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Meh continued

It seems meh's dictionary entry has angered some folks at Topatoco. Beware bystander passive-aggressivism.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Creation tripping

I recently went to a Creation Museum with a student group. Check it out here.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Welcome to teh dictionary

A few days back the National Post reported on the addition of meh to the Collins English Dictionary with an article that featured some odd notes on other words from teh internets, notably teh. The tone of the article is mostly "if meh can do it, why not all these other patently silly innovations", but what struck my eye were the items selected and the descriptions thereof.

On teh
Or, there's always the purposely misspelled words, such as "teh," a variation of "the," which is seen frequently on sites like Cute Overload and has the impressive ability to become a gerund, as in: "This is teh suck".
At least the author noticed that teh is purposefully mispelled (at least some of the times). As I noted in my undergraduate thesis (seriously) teh seems to be an indicator not only of definiteness, but of some superlative, unique, or ideal status. Teh suck means something like "sucking as much as possible" (and doesn't include a gerund in any sense I'm familiar with). I'm not sure why Cute Overload was mentioned, but hat tip to them as they brought my attention to the article. This usage seems to be more closely related with online gamers or Anon in my mind.

(EDIT: It appears the gerund comment originates in the Wikipedia entry for teh. In teh suck, teh is part of a nominalized verb phrase, which are normally formed with the present participle and called gerunds. Whether you want to call teh suck a gerund phrase I'll leave up to you, but the article without the head most definitely isn't a gerund in and of itself.)

One odd characterization was the way netspeak uses repeated characters.
there's the intentionally superfluous use of the letter Y to convey a sing-songy form of excitement, as in: "Heyyy! Can't wait to partyyyy!"
Is this really limited to y in anyone else's online idiolect? Surely at least everyone who allows yyyyy... allows other vowels, but I know I've even seen this applied to final consonants.

And one more requisite (possible) misattribution:
And of course, thanks to Perez Hilton, we also have the expression, "Loves it" instead of "Love it."
Didn't this expression originate in teen girl speak? I hesitate to guess, as I'm sure I was a latecomer to the expression. This has to at least predate the Perez Hilton site because I know I've heard Paris Hilton say it on television and I strongly doubt she'd have borrowed it from Perez.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Return of Sunday Music (on a Monday, of course): Classic Rock?

Saturday saw me on a long car ride with several people from the SAIU (report forthcoming). Before we'd even left campus, my mp3 player shuffled its way to a track from the Afro Samurai soundtrack by RZA, and I was immediately asked whether it represented my musical taste. (I think I replied offhandedly that "everyone likes the RZA".) The person asking said something about how she figured I was a classic rock fan. I said of all the music out there, that's probably what I like the least.

And, of course, I thought about that statement through the day and about how idiosyncratic taste can be. I might have forgotten the exchange altogether if I hadn't woken up in the mood to listen to Bat Out of Hell the following day.

"Bat Out of Hell." Meat Loaf. Live.

I've only recently been persuaded to re-listen to Meat Loaf, and as yet, this is the only album of his that I listen to non-ironically. (Bat Out of Hell II earns a few 90s dance party plays on occasion.) Despite the years of punkdom telling me that I should consider it overproduced and bloated, it's actually those operatic and prog aspects of the album that attract me.

I can easily do without Led Zeppelin, The Who, Aerosmith, and most of the other bands that get spun on classic rock format stations. I have no desire to hear George Thorogood ever again. (Seriously.) Steely Dan, Pink Floyd, Yes, and others I remain undecided on mostly because I've listened to so little.

In fact, to no small degree, it's seems to be blues rock which turns me off the most,despite my liking the blues (at least up until the 40s). The groups I like from the 60s and 70s tend to move away from the blues roots of their music: King Crimson, Hawkwind, David Bowie, Sparks, Can, Kraftwerk.

A portion of "The Golden Void." Hawkwind.

This song would be right at home sitting next to an allegedly post-rock track like "East Hastings" by Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

But blues influence is an arbitrary line as the likes of Jethro Tull are no strangers to my stereo (not to mention the oodles of soul, neosoul and R&B on my hard drive). Sometimes I think it's the overly "masculine" approach of many classic rock bands. Balls to the wall sound, straightforward lyrics, and lack of introspection (intellectual or musical) is what tends to determine which 80s punk groups I prefer (Husker Du over Black Flag, for example). And yet I can tolerate Iron Maiden and Journey.

As stated in my post on Feist last spring, I think my tastes can be summed up as liking music that is 1) the adventurous and/or 2) well-crafted. On occasion, I'll listen to the best of early Hall and Oates for the latter. On other occasions, I'll listen to the best and worst of Devo for the former. And in an act like the Eurythmics, the two are sometimes joined (though they also had their greatest misses). When it comes to a great deal of classic rock, adventurousness is tossed out with rock conservatism. A group like AC/DC never had to change their basic formula. And well-crafted? Perhaps that's where the infamous guitar noodling on top of a simple three-chord blues patterns removes points: I'd much rather listen to Muddy Waters explore in the 40s than listen to Lynyrd Skynyrd tread water.

This still leaves out an explanation for why I dislike some groups (notably Zeppelin and The Who), but perhaps asking for a complete explanation is too much.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

It doesn't contage the mind: How to write a negative review

A friend passed this along to me. A set of clippings from a Japanese reviewer that are brilliantly inventive in their negativity.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The theys have it

Last night, I came across this passage from midway through A Clash of Kings.
It took him [Weese] only three days to earn the place of honor in her nightly prayers. "Weese," she would whisper, first of all. "Dunsen, Chiswyck, Polliver, Raff the Sweetling, The Tickler and the Hound. Ser Gregor, Ser Armory, Ser Ilyn, Ser Meryn, King Joffrey, Queen Cersei." If she let herself forget even one of them, how would she ever find him again to kill him?
(Ser is "Song of Ice and Fire" speak for a knight's honorific.)

The first time I read the passage, I interpreted both him's as referring to Weese. It was only the oddity of that interpretation that made me realize the pronouns were the generic masculine. Until that line, I had already known that my dialect was incredibly permissive of singular they. Just this morning I found myself using they in a reply to an email which specified the gender of the student I meant to refer to. (I fixed it only to make sure it didn't look like I hadn't read the original email closely.) What I hadn't realized is how much I had come to expect it and what that meant for anaphora resolution. Even removing Queen Cersei from the list doesn't seem to salvage the sentence for me. A generic person - even from a list of guys - is still they to me.

Although it should be said, "how would she ever find them again to kill them" in that context is equally odd because of the them in the preceding clause. The first reading I get is that forgetting just one would mean that the girl would fail at killing everyone on her list. I would have to change the line to something like "how would she ever find that one again to kill them" so that that one intervenes between the two them's.

Ah, the foibles of English, as a German-born violinist I once knew might say.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sunday Music: Curtis Eller

Well! Now that I'm back at my own computer, preparing for school and another all-too-short semester, how about some late Sunday Music?

Curtis Eller. "Sugar in My Coffin." Live at Dr. Sketchy's.

A nice performance that picks up as it goes along and the audience gets involved. A wonderful spoken part in the middle.

I still have yet to pick up a couple of Eller's albums so I can't quite comment on his growth as a songwriter, but I've spun his Taking Up Serpents Again more than a few times in the last year. Like many of the new folk/Americana acts appearing these days, he seems to take a slightly detached (some say 'ironic') approach to his craft. Though his stage presence is full of life, it seems that he typically writes about experiences of others, particularly historical figures (Lincoln above, Amelia Earhart and Buster Keaton also get songs on the same album) or characters immersed in the sort of America one doesn't expect from a NYC native (like the snake handling of the title song).

There's nothing inherently wrong with this. It describes some of my favorite acts as well (Tom Waits, the Decemberists), and there certainly wasn't any shortage of folk, blues and country being written internally within the recording and sheet music industries of the Big City even during the supposed heydays of the genres. But it seems to me that many of these genres are still waiting for another American songwriter who has genuinely lived an interesting life through the highs and lows of our culture and stumbled onto some interesting ground without having searched for it.

Which, of course, brings me to fellow banjoist, John Hartford.

John Hartford. "Steamboat Whistle Blues."

I became a fan of Hartford after hearing only his performance on Béla Fleck's second Tales from the Acoustic Planet in 1999. I bought and borrowed Hartford's 70s albums quickly after as well as his more recent Ed Haley fiddle albums. The man wrote charming, original music that was deeply rooted in tradition and his own obsessions. Despite rarely writing a true love song, everything he did seemed to come straight from his strange, strange heart.

One of the things missing in the NYC trad school is being in touch with the techniques of the old guard. Hartford was a veritable encyclopedia of American traditions, particularly when it came to fiddle and banjo styles. Like the movement from regional traditions to a generic 'celtic music' in the seventies, the movement toward a generic 'Americana' has removed much of the liveliness and diversity. (The same happens in other genres as well. Witness the recent boom in 'gypsy music' that seems ignorant of so much Roma music.)

I can't help but feel with artists like Eller that their banjos are props. It's certainly hard to imagine Eller without his banjo, but something about the way he plays it seems generic and impersonal. His technique is neither traditional nor new. There's few echos of Doc Boggs and even fewer voicings never heard before.

But I'll grant that Eller knows his own voice quite well, but then, the power of a song - the part that makes it iron-clad in Hartford's terms - is often what the song allows others to re-interpret. A rather zen-like strength in bending.

Oh, and Hartford also knew how to kick it up on stage too.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Teachers and Critics

A week ago I returned from the 2008 CFI Student Leadership Conference. Lasting from Thursday evening until Sunday at noon, the conference saw a wide variety of lectures, discussions, and activities. Saturday and Sunday in particular were filled with information useful to leaders of community and campus groups. The three other officers of the IU Secular Alliance who attended and I will have plenty to work on and discuss before September brings about the return of the student body.

Although there were a lot of positive things I could write about (the discussion on representation and diversity could warrant a blog of its own), I felt like there was one leftover thought from Friday's sessions that I needed to exorcise, a thought that briefly came up today during a "Russell's Tea Party" here in Bloomington.

Despite reminders throughout the weekend that the conference was not an atheist conference, during the Friday sessions there was an inordinate amount of war rhetoric, sometimes subtle and sometimes plainly stated in the "us vs them" terms of allies and enemies. I'm certainly sympathetic to the notion that we are engaged in a culture war, but as advocates for a democratic process and reasonable debate, the metaphor seems like an inappropriate way for us to characterize the relationship. Do we really want to play the role of religion's adversary? Is the purpose of the skeptical/secular community to be simply critics and fact-checkers?

I think we have more to offer. We possess the narrative that relates us to our world, and it's not simply a narrative of facts, its a narrative about how we know what we know, about how we are constantly able to learn more, and about how anyone, anywhere, can expand our knowledge about ourselves.

As critics and antagonists, a number of our voices are failing because they speak without listening. Not a small percentage of vocal atheists have a tendency to define the terms of religion for the religious and ignore the many different forms of belief. Just as creationism varies from YEC to Deism, even the various traditions of a single religion like Christianity runs from those who believe they know their god's will to those who treat religion as a learning experience. When some atheists insist that religion is purely dogmatic or based on blind faith alone, it leaves out the many believers for whom naturalism and debates with nonbelievers are means toward understanding their god and our place in creation, and it leaves out those who have had deeply moving personal experiences.

To avoid such strawmen, we need to let the religious be in charge of their own definitions. We need to become aware of the disagreements between theists and begin our work there. The most important questions we can ask are "how do you know this?" and "how would you know if you are wrong?" More likely than convincing believers to deconvert is the possibility that we can convince believers that they can gain a better understanding of their religion if they adopt an improved method of verification. Contemporary disagreements show that the problem of communication isn't just an abstract proof, it's something religious groups and individuals struggle with daily. It's at the very heart of the translation issues that divides denominations and keeps grammars in Biblical Hebrew in stock at Christian bookstores.

In fact, that's a prime example of an area where we can do better. Everyday people are interested in learning more about the life of Jesus and early Christian history. This has spurred The Da Vinci Code and the many books that debunk it into the bestseller lists. With all of the multiple theories put forward, one can't help but find some common ground with any particular individual, no matter what they believe: at least some version of the Jesus story must be false in their view. The question is how they determine which are false and which are true and why their preferred theory passes those tests.

In American education, there has long been an on-and-off focus on constructivism: the concept that complex ideas aren't memorized so much as they are reconstructed within the mind of an individual student as they become familiar with the evidence and continuously evaluate the idea. In a constructivist's classroom, students are treated less as robots being fed code and more like miniature scientists set on the task of demonstrating some claim. It shifts the instructional focus from "ix X right?" to "how could we know X?" Many of the topics that come up in a religious debate are best served by the constructivist approach, especially as neither side typically has access to all of the data. We cannot show that Jesus never existed (if we even wanted to), but we can help show that if we accept the evidence for a life of Jesus as described in the Gospels it would lead us to criteria that demand we accept many other claims about the ancient and modern worlds that many Christians would be reluctant to accept.

Of course, this approach has the possibility of appearing smarter-than-thou, as if we are educators and possess all the answers. But this is a misunderstanding of both education and our position (albeit not a misunderstanding held by believers alone). We do not have the answers and never will. Skepticism isn't founded on statements like "Bigfoot doesn't exit" or "remote viewing is bullshit." Modern skepticism is about questioning the validity of the processes and reasoning that lead to claims and the acknowledgment that human psychology is predisposed to think irrationally without safeguards. A war narrative seems inappropriate for what should be a negotiation between multiple voices in a secular, democratic state. We are not here to combat the religious. We are here to show how effective homespun science is uncovering reality.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Sunday Music: The Pogues

The Pogues. "The Body of an American." Studio version in lieu of the classic SNL performance. Lyrics here.

If I did a chronologically ordered series on the bands that changed my life (or at least my conception of music), R.E.M. would beat out The Pogues by a few years. If it was ordered by importance of effect, my current obsession with American roots music of the 1920s and 30s would probably force me to place some other artists higher on the list. But there is absolutely no question that the first time I heard If I Should Fall From Grace With God left an incredible and probably permanent impression on me that colored my last years in high school and first few years of my undergraduate days. I would study Irish mythology, write papers on the likes of Joyce and Donleavy, and even start my own celtic punk band, The Sods, all as a result of semi-randomly checking out IISFFGWG from the local library.

So bear this as warning that my characterization of The Pogues and their importance in the Grand History of Everything might be slightly overstated.

Despite the literary references of MacGowan's lyrics and the eight-person arrangements of their middle period, The Pogues made the (still newly named) celtic music scene seem far less cerebral and "artsy" than the 70s folk-rockers which I had rediscovered in my parents' record collection. The Pogues were at once intellectual and yet stubbornly low-brow. Like a pub quiz penned by Behan.

Although polls on email lists and message boards tend to favor Red Roses for Me and Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, the lineup that recorded "Body" and IISFFGWG was my favorite. They went on to record two subpar albums (although there really are some hidden gems inside Peace and Love), but I'm willing to defend their experimentation and excesses as the very same aspects that made them great. At the time considered one of their faults by folk purists, that they worked with nontraditional instruments (piano accordion, five string banjo, drum set) only added to their originality. Even when they tried on other genres ("Fiesta", "If I Should Fall...", "London Girl") it rarely felt like they were falling into the trap of doing things the way they've always been done. (Well, except for throwaway recordings like the Sex Pistols knock-off "Hot Dogs with Everything"...) Each album, each song, the band reinvented itself. Much unlike many "pure" folk bands, the interplay between Finer, Fearnley, and Woods in particular stands out as the three seemed to negotiate their roles song-by-song rather than filling parts by rote. (And if the SNL version were available, one would be able to hear Woods' characteristic cittern noodling around the melody as he reinvented his part once again in live performance.)

These days, there are many Pogues imitators with neither the passionate genius of MacGowan nor the musical skill of the other members. Brutish, cartoonish meldings of generic celtic melodies with generic punk bands are no strangers to stages at places like the Warped tour. So much did the jock-rock version of "paddy punk" disillusion me that I more-or-less abandoned playing any sort of celtic music for years once I quit The Sods (and although there were other issues, it probably had some effect on my lack of motivation for finishing the second album).

When I began playing accordion with The Staggerers this summer, I rediscovered how much I loved The Pogues. Even after ten years of fandom, I'm still able to learn from them. The St Pat's day ruckus and "Fairy Tale of New York" karaoke at Christmas time really does the band no justice.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Shorts: The John Tierney Experience

Friday, July 11, 2008

Shorts: Ignorance, mathematical and linguistic

  • "Number as a cognitive technology: Evidence from Pirahã language
    and cognition"
    - to appear in Cognition. Wherein the authors consider the effects of one's lingua mater upon the system with which one pursues and internally represents the mathematical arts. A paper remarked upon recently by Mark Liberman of Language Log Plaza.

  • Is Linguistics a science? - SGU forums. A debate on the matter between individuals with various levels of informed consideration. Including one long-winded post by the present author.

  • "I like feeling stupid" - FemaleScienceProfessor. An analysis of the role of ignorance and an acceptance of it in the motivation of scientific inquiry.

  • Naomi Baron: "Always On" - The Diane Rehm Show. A discussion upon technology facilitated communication and its potentially overstated devastating effect on the disposition of common working people toward proper English grammar.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Sunday Music: Devo

Devo. "Love Without Anger." 1981. From New Traditionalists.

"Why believe in things that make it tough on you?"

Devo is one of those bands almost everyone knows (largely thanks to "Whip It") but few know much about. They have the same sort of cleverness to their act that make TMBG so endearing to geeks and The Decemberists either adorable or intolerable. On the surface, their shtick was based around advertisement depictions of American life, retro-futurism, reductionist lyrics, and cheesy synthesizers, but the act was always more than a gimmick. At the core, Devo has always been a performance art criticism of the "everything is ok, please keep shopping" reaction to the evils of the modern world. In the particular case of their founding, in reaction to Kent State.

Complete with their own corporate anthem, Devo's public persona was used to parody the consumerist lifestyle and at other times to deliver indictments with all the suppressed anger of young John Lydon. Devo's political messages were too often buried under unfamiliar geek references (early computer culture, The Church of the Subgenius), minimalist lyrics, and as much camp The B-52s' wardrobe department. Yet, aside from its usefulness as a means of keeping the act entertaining, the gimmicky nature of their proto-culture jamming was in the end their most effective form of critique.

A few months back, the problem of sincerity in music was debated over in The Onion's AV Club forms. The point was being made that Ryan Adams' bizarre, attention grabbing public persona was in many ways more sincere than other songwriters of our time. Steve Hyden argued that we don't actually want sincerity. While discussing the dourness in early TMBG lyrics in the Gigantic documentary, John Linnell made a point that its often more moving to hear someone hide their feelings than to bear them all in publicly and openly. Sincere or not, Devo's ability to take their fear, anger, and depression and turn it into a comic theory of humankind's devolution is where their art lies.

Other classics: Freedom of Choice, Beautiful World, and the sarcastically anti-evolutionary Jocko Homo. Also: Weird Al's spot-on parody/tribute Dare to Be Stupid.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Shorts: On the discriminating tastes of the modern reader

  • Nurture Your Inner Psychic - No Paranormal Powers Required! - Inkling Magazine. The secret to astounding mentalist feats revealed chiefly in the separation of personal sensibilities from the evidence under consideration.

  • Sex Difference Evangelists - Slate. An exercise in death-defying skepticism wherein one discovers a minority of women have "female brains." Marvel at the speed at which innatists draw conclusions from non-replicated studies, if you dare!.

  • The Paranoid Style in American Science - Slate. Wherein the inductive and unsettled nature of science is found to be a prime target for the incredulous and their transported goalposts.

  • Actual Infity - gyre & gimble. Being a description of different means of conceiving the infinite, and further evidence of a promising new blog.

  • Geese from Barnacles - Laelaps. A humorous tale of misadventures in the natural sciences.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Atheists, fundamentalists, and the rest

I forget who leveled the accusation, but I've heard it said that atheists tend to acknowledge and respond to fundamentalist branches more than religious liberals. If I remember correctly, this was said to be particularly true of the "New Atheists" (a term that seems to mean "atheists I don't like" to believers). Despite polls showing that at least some fundamentalist like beliefs are more common than many liberals admit, I felt some sympathy for the claim. Certainly an issue with someone like Hitchens is the non-empirical approach to religion that overlooks religious diversity. One doesn't get a glimpse of either the breadth or depth of human religious experience from his writing, and for that apparent lack of understanding, his arguments suffer.

Yesterday PZ Myers pulled out the stops and picked apart an interview with Karl Giberson with the same fervor one expects from him. Read it if you haven't.

Quoth PZ:
He is not a literalist looking for a bearded man in the sky described in the bible, but instead has this vague metaphorical notion that if he melts down the bible in the philosophical flux of his personal beliefs, he'll be able to extract something ethereal and true from its words — a beautiful, loving, personal god who thinks he is really, really important and wants to give him eternal life in a paradise. That's his Madonna-in-a-pita, his credulous imposition of an expected pattern on the swirling chaos of generations of ravings and noise and poetry that is the Christian faith. I suspect he is sincere in his delusion.

[...] It's all pareidolia, pure and simple, and there is no reason given that we should respect that — it's simply assumed that all matters of faith deserve reverence.

Once literalism is abandoned, all that seems to be left is one's intuition, which leads to self-serving bias. From my outsider perspective, it seems as if liberals take from the literature that which they feel is true. When the supposedly Big Questions are discussed, I don't see the important questions being asked:
  1. How do we know this is true?

  2. How would you know if it wasn't true?

Considering the number of supernatural explanations for events that we have eliminated, I don't see how a supernatural explanation for what Giberson experiences as religion is any more likely than a supernatural explanation for Our Lady of the Cheese Sandwich.

Though their targets are often literalists, the questions on the epistemology of religious claims asked by even the least empirical of the New Athiests seem to apply. Why not Zeus or the Flying Spaghetti Monster? How do we know we can trust your intuition and not that of someone else? What methods of evaluating sources apply in syncretic or salad bar practices? Outside of an extremely liberal position like that of many Unitarians, it seems to me that even a liberal Christianity has its basis in at least the Gospels being true, and as Greta Christina points out, it's not clear to me that even these are accepted in full even without questioning their historical worth.

Personally, I don't mind others practicing their religions so long as they respect the rights of others to do - or not do - the same. I've backed off from religious topics in part because I feel the need to regroup and find a strategy that allows nonreligious and the liberalists to fend off the literal-minded together. But at the same time, I think our culture is ready to progress to a period where we can be publicly skeptical of any public figure who claims to know answers to the Big Questions. It's not about being hostile, it's about uncovering the truth and acknowledging the limits to our knowledge.

Conclusions only acquire worth through the method used to reach them. It's not clear to me that the religion of someone like Giberson represents anything more than wishful thinking, and I don't see any reason to respect it intellectually.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Idealizing the Language-Thought Connection (Pseudolinguistics and Ideal Languages, Part 4)

The as-yet unaddressed topic in this series is the phrase "ideal languages". Nearly as commonplace as the belief that one's community doesn't speak a dialect (though neighboring communities do) is the belief that one's mother tongue is somehow more eloquent, more precise, more logical, or somehow better by another measure than other languages. I do not use ideal language in the Early Modern sense (though I hope to write on that phenomenon in the future), but rather in the sense of a pride (often national or religious) associated with some tongue.

In the same way that we note how obsessed Eskimo are with snow (they aren't really) or the way we puzzle over how Germans can have a word for that (its the morphology, dummkopf), we sometimes speak with pride about aspects of our own language. By a little folk reasoning through the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, those aspects become aspects of the national culture as well.
French has a very logical structure, therefore one can't help but reason logically when speaking French.

Italian is a beautiful language, therefore Italians are beautiful and/or great admirers of beauty.

The reasoning can even be turned against speakers of other languages.
German is an angry sounding language, therefore Germans are an angry people.

If one accepts that language and culture influence thought and one also accepts certain generalizations or stereotypes about a group or language, then such conclusions follow. In folk linguistics, one passes over details such as the sounds of German being spoken outside of parody or war movies or that the structure of French is a hodge-podge of over a thousand years worth of conflicting trends.

Sometimes the object of affection is not even the national language. Though I didn't address it at the time, this sort of reasoning appears to lie behind much of the writings on Edenics that I looked at when researching that post. As it seems to be tacitly assumed, if the ancient Hebrews were YHWH's chosen people and he communicated to them through their language, then studying the language can bring us closer to god. Hebrew, the Adamic language, and angelic languages have had their admirers over the centuries as well, and like Mozeson, more than a few have attempted to show the connection between them and their native tongue. One sees the same thing in other aspects of culture. Medieval Irish monks prefaced pagan myths with stories of Noah's flood and how some of his descendants settled Ireland. Such ideology is not always so innocent, however. In the present day, Hindu nationalists have placed great emphasis the Indo-European background of India and the Indo-Aryan origins of the Hindi language as a distinction between their culture and that of Muslims in the region.

In the next post in this series, I will look at the so-called Alphabet effect. You can read the first chapter of the book by the same name at the author's homepage and, I'm somewhat embarrassed to say, a review of mine from several years ago on Amazon.

Shorts: Talking apes and dancing robots

Catching up on the RSS feeds, here are some posts that stuck out:

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Sunday Music: They Might Be Giants

They Might Be Giants. "They'll Neeed a Crane." From Lincoln.

I spent most of today packing, driving, unpacking and, at various times, eating. Consequently, words and screens hurt my brain right now. I spent most of the trip listening to the buildup to the finale of The Amber Spyglass on audiobook and yesterday's SGU podcast, but this CD got a little limited play too.

Sunday, June 22, 2008


Tis summer vacation here, and I've been keeping busy with music and other things that tend to happen offline. (Such as re-reading the larger part of The Sandman.) As a consequence, I haven't been keeping abreast of either traditional news or the blagosphere.

I do intend to continue the pseudolinguistics series of posts. I was hoping to acquire some reference material from local used bookstores these last two months, but that plan failed. While I wait to order a few books, I will probably delve into the world of angelic languages for a post or two.

Sunday Music: The Boswell Sisters

The Boswell Sisters. "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" (Rene/Rene/Muse). Clip from a Fleischer film by the same name.

I don't have much to say on this one. I spent the early afternoon putting together a comp of Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings, and somehow ended up listening to the Boswell Sisters. I couldn't find a link to the entire cartoon this video is from. You can see a touch of the always-recognizeable early Fleischer look as cartoon versions of the sisters run to the bench. Reportedly, Eddie Lang is the guitarist. Some of the runs definitely sound like his touch.

The Boswell sisters represent the aspect of the 20s and 30s that I like the most: oftentimes songs had genres but bands and musicians didn't. You were just as likely to hear minstrelry from a group of female white pop singers as Broadway showtunes from a poor black harmonica player. The brilliant and surprising arrangements, the tight harmonies, and the astonishingly talented sidemen (like Lang) are just cherries on the top. Unfortunately, being of that time period was also the group's undoing: aside from Connee's solo work, the sisters mostly stopped performing once they married.

For more information on the sisters, check out Including a few poorly recorded but educational podcasts on musicological aspects of the Sisters' sound. A few other YouTube treats:
  • A version of their frequent opener, "Heebie Jeebies."

  • A humorous short film with the sisters, "Close Farm-ony."

  • A cover of "Crazy People" by the Ditty Bops (and the end of another tune, and a little intermission).

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Sunday Music: Hand Drums, Hippies, and Béla Fleck

The context: Most of the friends I see regularly in town I met through high school or I met through being a part of the local music scene, particularly the more-or-less "punk" side of the scene. A few weeks ago, a pair of "hippies" were present for a small porch party with the punk friends and the discussion turned to hand drums and whether or not they could ever rock. After some thought, I came up with three criteria underwhich they can potentially rock.

  1. The drum is being used with full respect to the tradition in which it originates and with adequate knowledge of the the theory and rhythms of that tradition and is not being used to add a touch of exoticism to the music.
  2. The drum is being played with some degree of technical ability and isn't being played to prove the (rather Eurocentric) point that all people are natural musicians until we're taught otherwise.
  3. The drum isn't being used as part of a sham-shamanistic or otherwise syncretic religious practice.

An example of these rules being violated is the following: Rusted Root "Send Me On My Way" from 1994 (embedding disabled). Although I understand the band might contain one or two ethnomusicologists among the regular lineup, the mix of faux-African pop sing-a-longs and imagery from American plains cultures can't help but reek more of ganja than respect.

On the other hand, there's this.

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. "Hoedown" (Aaron Copland). From Live at the Quick. 2000.

In this performance, Sandip Burman is given the space to play the tabla as he chooses both in the song and in a demonstration of the bol technique for teaching rhythms. Not every incorporation of foreign instruments needs to be a lesson for the audience, but the band should at least pull as much away from the experience as one imagines the Flecktones doing after touring with musicians like Burman. Although the music on their album Outbound was incredibly dense, they still found ways to work with the tones of each instrument and styles of their players.

I often tell musicians the story of when I saw the Flecktones on this tour. Normally, a concert inspires me to keep playing, but the technical ability of the Flecktones made me envious and dispirited. I doubted I'd ever be able to play with their level of skill.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Late Sunday Music: Bix Beiderbecke

My apologies for the absence of posts recently. I've been on a prolonged vacation, and music and friends have been keeping me busy. I've been slowly teaching some early jazz songs to two of the musicians I played with last summer. It's been enjoyable but slow going. So in light of that and in celebration of finding a trumpet player:

Bix Beiderbecke and His Gang. "Sorry" (Howdy Quicksell). 1927.

Outside of fans of 1920s jazz, few could ascribe sounds and players of that era to any city except New Orleans. But it wasn't New Orleans that was the center of broadcast and recorded jazz: the hearts of the national jazz sound were Chicago and New York. Like the Ramones in England in the 1970s, when groups like the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and their records spread across the north in the late teens and early 20s, they left a wake of inspired young musicians. Among them were Bix Beiderbecke and the other young men who went on to form the Wolverine Orchestra.

Beiderbecke always ranks high among jazz cornet/trumpet pioneers, and though his recordings and story endured for decades after his death, he seems to have fallen from the popular history though his name occassionally pops up (such as in the decent 1991 biopic Bix). Louis Armstrong - as the stronger personality, showman, and band leader - has overshadowed Beiderbecke in history, but the latter and other Chicago and New York players' sweet, rich tones and complex, sometimes impressionistic arrangments prefigure the sounds that the big bands would continue to explore in the 30s.

Not to overlook Armstrong's technical abilities as a performer, but it's quite tempting to draw a line separating two sides of early jazz between the "pop" Broadway fare of Armstrong and the romantic artistry of Beiderbecke (who even composed Debussy influenced piano solos in his spare time).

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The belated Day of Reason post

This was intended to be submitted to a local paper for May 1st, but finals got in the way. So here it is:

The National Day of Prayer that some Americans will celebrate today (May 1st) not only violates the establishment clause of the Constitution but represents an act of negligence on all our parts. Among large populations within the United States, magical thinking persists despite all evidence against its efficacy. The common acceptance of traditional intercessory prayer and the success of non-traditional supernatural movements like Scientology or The Secret demonstrate that rationality has failed at eliminating our tendencies toward confirmation and selection biases even among those who reject fundamentalist and literalist wings of mainstream religions. While occasional lapses into magical thinking often have no negative effect, it can lead to tragedy when left unchecked.

Recently in Wisconsin, two parents were charged with second-degree reckless homicide because they failed to take their daughter to a doctor for her undiagnosed diabetes. Despite their daughter’s severe physical symptoms, the parents thought she was suffering from a “spiritual attack.” Throughout the weekend leading up to her death, they lovingly stood by her as any parent would, but they did not believe modern medicine would be more effective than prayer. If they had believed otherwise, their daughter would still be alive today.

By continuing to accept magical thinking as innocent or reasonable, we are all partially responsible for this girl’s death. Our culture needs to become actively critical of to whom or what we ascribe success and failure and how we think about probable and improbable events. Supernatural diagnoses and treatments should be evaluated with the same standards we use to judge modern medicine. With Scientologists, The Secret, and faith healers preying on our friends and relatives, we must develop rational defenses against the sorts of magical thinking that we know to be false or else more children will die from our negligence. Worst of all, though we know medicine could have treated this girl’s diabetes, many of us would have ascribed even that outcome to the grace of a supernatural agent. With our capacity to reason, we owe our children more than this. We owe them a culture that is well-informed on known cognitive biases and openly critical of suspicious claims, no matter the sensibilities that might be offended.

Please, join the many around this country asking for a National Day of Reason to replace this Day of Prayer. We believe we can do better than wishful thinking, and the evidence is on our side.

Sunday Music: Pentangle

"Light Flight." Pentangle. Live on the BBC, c.1970.

When I was 15 or 16, I had been playing jazz in school for a while, and in my search for new music I discovered my local NPR station, which played jazz in the evenings. Not long after, I happened to tune in on a Saturday evening when Julia Meek's Folktales and The Thistle and Shamrock still shared a double-bill locally. In that age before MP3, I was in the habit of taping better radio programs for later listening. I remember three songs distinctly from that particular tape.
  • A field holler about a slave who learned to read which I've never tracked down since.
  • "Four Stone Walls" by Cappercaillie
  • A song by Pentangle that featured harpsichord, which I still haven't tracked down.
Despite being of mostly English, French, and Dutch ancestry, I immediately bit the Celtic bug that was swarming through the folk community at the time. Somehow it took me a few years to finally acquire and listen to full Pentangle albums, but I spent the 90s in awe of Fairport Convention, stolen from my mother's old records, and contemporary groups like Altan, The Pogues, and Solas.

Pentangle more-or-less embodies what I like most about "world" music, when the term is meant to refer to the actual genre rather than a lumping together of all music traditions that don't fit in other record store racks. In "Light Flight", the vocal melody is unmistakably tied to English folk music, but the harmonic and rhythmic structures of the band is unmistakably jazz-influenced. Wikipedia draws a link to Dave Brubeck's work. Unlike a lot of contemporary folk rock groups, Pentangle and many other 60s and 70s British folk rock groups didn't hide their folkiness under a flat and heavy rock beat. They used the blended elements from jazz, rock, and other folk traditions to highlight the natural qualities of the music.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Literary Criticism and the Sciences

My attention was recently pointed toward "The neuroscience delusion" by Raymond Tallis*, which reminds me of a few reasons I had when I decided to pursue linguistics over literature. At some point in the last half a century, schools of criticism began to resemble the state of Israeli politics as represented in Monty Python's Life of Brian. In the search for new schools of criticism, all sorts of other fields were plundered for whatever fresh ideas could be found, and quite often those ideas were incorporated in a misunderstood form. The most notorious case was chaos/complexity theory, but the misuse of Saussurean and Chomskyan linguistics seems to be getting attention lately, as recently mentioned over at Mr. Verb thanks to articles like "French Theory in America."

Its because of all of this that I've lately found myself avoiding the term "fuzzy logic" in conversation in preference for "paraconsistent logic" and/or "multivalued logic" when describing one current research interest. Sometimes it's better to be opaque than overstood.

(*The piece ends in an anti-reductionist bit. But I agree nonetheless with the sentiment that these critics do literature a disservice in the way that they borrow from neurology.)

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Sunday Music: Tom Waits

"Chocolate Jesus." Tom Waits. Live on Letterman. Probably in 1999, part of the tour in support of Mule Variations.

This song sums up what I like the most about my favorite period in Waits' songwriting. I've never particularly enjoyed his earliest period, and while his Frank Trilogy (Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs, Frank's Wild Years) was undoubtedly a necessary step for him to reach the frame of mind that he found in the early 90s, there's something about these albums that kept me at a distance. I couldn't quite name it until I saw the film Big Time, wherein Waits takes on the role of performing the Frank character. I realized that these albums are a little too showy and over-the-top for my taste. Sometimes in a more Vaudevillian form, sometimes in the form of what feels like weirdness for weirdness sake.

To be sure, Waits has never lost those characteristics, but beginning with Night on Earth, Bone Machine, and The Black Rider, the aspects of Waits' music that I admire finally shine through. The arrangements and production techniques become more focused on servicing the song than simply providing atmospherics. The lyrics and instrumentation begin to reflect more influence from American folk musics.

Although Black Rider is probably my favorite because of the mythological influence of the libretto, I have to admit that Mule Variations probably captures those aspects the best with some great songs and some great performances. As does "Chocolate Jesus." Its a faux-gospel, light-heartedly looking at America's sometimes insincere religious expressions. In the Letterman performance, the band manages to combine the blues and ragtime with a distinctly non-traditional element (most apparent in the keyboard). Waits' use of the megaphone - far from its use to announce protest anthems in rock, a la R.E.M. - actually manages to add to the old-timeyness, by emphasizing the mids-heavy sound of old 78s.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Sunday Music: Antony and the Johnsons

"Fistful of Love" by Antony and the Johnson.

Antony Hegarty's music was another discovery of mine from last summer. Sometime near the beginning of last semester, I Am a Bird Now made its way onto my work computer. Like "Fistful of Love," his songs often begin delicate and quiet then crescendo into a soulful shout chorus - which is exactly the sort of album I need in the morning when I'm still sipping my second coffee. Before you notice you're no longer yawning, you're singing along and hoping not to be overhead in the next office.

The abused but optimistic narrator of "Fistful" reminds me of Throwing Muses, whose songs often describe dysfunctional or one-sided romances. I detect more than a touch of early Smiths influence in Antony's work, not only lyrically but also in the smart but understated arrangements. However, I fear Antony may prove a one trick pony: although he has a great sense of melody, his songs are mostly interchangeable. I hope his forthcoming album shows some artistic growth and proves me wrong on that.

Psychics and the Law

Via Daylight Atheism and Reuters.

UK law may change such that psychics/mediums/healers/etc may be prosecuted if they cannot demonstrate their abilities. About time, I say.

Quoth Ebonmuse:
No legitimate pharmaceutical company can claim its drugs can cure some illness unless it goes through multiple rounds of double-blind testing to prove this. Food companies can't claim their products can prevent heart disease unless there are well-designed studies to show it.

Why should psychics and miracle-hawkers be held to a different standard? Why not make faith healers and psychic surgeons go through double-blind studies that track recovery rates? Why not put cold-readers and mediums to the test?
Taking the words right out of my mouth. I only hope prosecutors have enough foresight to bring in expert witnesses with experience.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Edenics update

Interestingly enough, it seems at least one person at Answers in Genesis disagrees with Mozeson. Link.

There are obviously some conclusions Wieland draws that I and most linguists would disagree with, but it is interesting to note the disagreement among creationists. I wonder how those who reject at least some of the methodology and dominant theories of historical linguistics and archeology resolve debates over the evidence?

Edenics (Pseudolinguistics and Ideal Languages, Part 3)

The story of the tower of Babel is a rich and enchanting myth full of the conflicts between order and chaos and between the gods and humankind that characterize much Mesopotamian and Levant mythology. When one considers the amount of pre-scientific philological work that examined the myth, it is no surprise that even today many modern popular books on linguistics reference the tower (quite often on their covers). It's also no surprise that some within the contemporary creationist movement has sought to establish the historical accuracy and linguistic plausibility of the myth. Biblical literalism - in part or in whole - requires a Biblically-supportive linguistics as much as it requires Biblically compliant biologies and geologies.

While I cannot speak for the degree to which his work is accepted by the larger creationist community, Isaac E. Mozeson has stepped forward to fill the linguistics gap in modern creationist narratives. He has authored at least two books on the subject: The Word: The Dictionary That Reveals the Hebrew Source of English (1989) and The Origin of Speeches: Intelligent Design in Language (2006). At present, I only have access to the first of these. I may acquire and review the second at a latter date. Mozeson also publishes articles at the website Edenics. While without the pages of data contained in The Word, the website offers his hypotheses in full detail for free if you wish to sample his writing before or after reading this post.

As its full title suggests, The Word sets out to demonstrate that English ultimately descends from Biblical Hebrew. Mozeson has later revised this hypothesis to say all languages descend from Edenic (the language spoken by Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden), his apparent intention being to distinguish Edenic from Biblical Hebrew, which, as a result of several centuries of change, may not be identical to its ancestor. In deference to the revised theory, I will use the word Edenic throughout.

In The Word, Mozeson conflates two related but not identical goals. The first of these is that of the etymologist: Mozeson attempts to rewrite the conventional history of many English words to show that their original source is Edenic. Some of the etymologies suggest a direct relationship (or at least show no medial stage), and others suggest Edenic left its imprint on a language from which English has borrowed, which English is related to, or from which English has descended. Unlike some of the best etymological dictionaries, Mozeson provides only partial histories and no usage citations. While not a feature in most desktop dictionaries, the carefully gathered and dated citations in dictionaries like the Oxford English are part of what make them great references for historical linguists. These citations provide data on when a word was first recorded and on how a word's pronunciation or meaning has changed over time.

To the lay dictionary user, The Word's lack of detailed etymologies for each word may make economical sense, but this allows Mozeson to suggest etymologies that make little historical sense when the full history of each word is explored. For example, the word woman first appears in print as the wifman (c. 1000 CE). Mozeson gives the possible Hebrew cognates WREHEM 'damsel' or 'womb'. Obvious questions arise: where did the /f/ come from and where did it go? Where did the /n/ come from? To convince anyone of his alternative etymology, Mozeson needs to supply well documented answers. Likewise, while Mozeson admits the immediate New World language etymon for skunk, in suggesting that these descend from Edenic (cf. Hebrew tsakhun 'to stink'), he neglects the evidence that the Manhattan and Algonquian words are composed of independent morphological pieces. The final /k/ in skunk originates in an Proto-Algonquian word for fox that combined with a word for urination (šek). If the account is to be believed, the Edenic word was broken into unrelated pieces in Proto-Algonquian and then recombined just in time to be borrowed - in whole no less - by English.

Mozeson's second goal - which does not seem to be stated directly in The Word - is to demonstrate that Edenic is the mother of all human languages. I'm hesitant to be heavily critical on this issue with only The Word at hand because he makes no effort whatsoever to support this hypothesis in a convincing manner. However, considering the text of the foreward, I'm left believing Mozeson did feel he had sufficiently supported this claim with accepted methodology.
With all my idol breaking, I have remained too true to conservative linguistic rules to be be iconoclastic. I am grateful for my brief training in linguistics, and for the century of research into Indo-European roots that often made my discoveries possible. (p. 1)
Although inevitably related to the search for accurate etymologies, it is altogether a separate task to reconstruct proto-languages and earlier forms in a single language. Individual words may have widely divergent etymologies. That crag originated as a Welsh word for rock has no bearing on any other English word, but to claim that English (or any other language) descended from the same language as Hebrew requires an analysis that is concerned with details above volume. Primarily, it requires the identification of phonologically plausible rules that relate the oldest English words available to their Edenic sources. Words borrowed from other languages (whether they originated in Edenic or not) are simply distractions. Mozeson excuses himself from this level of detail in incredibly problematic ways.

In the introduction, he dismisses vowels from his analysis entirely.
Vowels are certainly interchangeable, and ought to be largely ignored when comparing words from different languages. In effect, Biblical Hebrew has no vowels; the vowel leters in English (A, E, I, O, and U) are chaotic contrivances that help to make English a nightmare to spell. (p. 7, see note at bottom*)
Being no phonetician, I could forgive Mozeson for expressing reluctance to examine vowels but to ignore them entirely is absolutely unacceptable, particularly when one is making such a radical claim. Vowel changes account for the majority of phonological change in language, and that is what Mozeson should be documenting: regular change in the sound system of Edenics that led to English. By leaving out an account of vowel change, he sidesteps a large chunk of the available data and leaves out a great deal of necessary explanation. True, he could tentatively convince others without closely examining vowels (as other historical theories have), but that is not what he says in the quote above: he thinks vowels are "interchangeable", arbitrary. I won't dwell on this point, but its importance cannot be overstated.

Thus, the majority of Mozeson's comparisons rest of similarities between consonants. Many of the most famous and successful hypotheses of 19th century historical linguistics concern consonants, but there is one key difference between these hypotheses and Mozeson's: they propose sets of changes that affect phonemes across all words in a language, Mozeson proposes changes that affect words. The confusion is clear when Mozeson cites one of the most famous 19th century linguists, Jacob Grimm, in support of his methods.
Grimm's Laws, established by the same Jakob Grimm (d. 1863) who brought us those grim and bloodthirsty fairy tales, allow linguists to compare and historically link all letters formed by the same part of the mouth. D and T are called dentals because the tongue must touch the teeth in order to make the sound. Just as M and N are interchangeable nasals or sounds made in the nose, so D, T and TH may be considered the "same" letter. (p. 6)
Again, that word "interchangeable." Neither Grimm's Law nor any other description of sound changes in Indo-European languages provide room to link just any sound with others produced in a similar place or manner. Grimm proposed a cycle of sound changes that affected the entire inventory of Germanic sounds. D and T didn't randomly interchange: Proto-Indo-European /d/ became /t/, just as all voiced stops became voiced stops, and /t/ became /th/ just as all voiceless stops became voiceless fricatives**.

Mozeson's lack of establishing regularity in sound change allows him to link various Edenic sounds to more than one English sound, and vice-versa. It broadens the possibility that he will find correlations: based on its place of articulation, the sound /d/ could be correlated with /t/, both /th/ sounds, and /n/. The same is true for nearly every sound in Hebrew (except only ayin and aleph, so far as I can see). Mozeson does not make all of these leaps, but he has not ruled them out either. This makes his theory unfalsifiable: there's no way for anyone to propose exceptions or identify inconsistencies.

Mozeson also allows suspicious amounts of metathesis of consonants in support of his hypothesis. Metathasis is a linguistic phenomenon in which two or more sounds switch places. As mentioned on the Wikipedia page, in English this frequently happens around r's (e.g., when one says comfterble for comfortable). Some languages make use of metathesis for regular phonological or morphological reasons (e.,g., for inflection or to derive new words from old roots). In all cases, metathesis occurs for a reason, even in the English examples. Mozeson, on the other hand, offers no hypothesis to predict when one can expect to find it. Not only does this make his larger hypothesis less falsifiable, it also makes it overproductive to the point of vacuousness.

Without any specific mechanisms limiting the possibilities in sound change, it's no surprise that Mozeson is able to correlate many English words with Biblical Hebrew words: where there is no look-alike readily available, a small reordering or deletion dramatically increases the chance of finding one.

The foreword and introduction to The Word are full of Abrahamic ideology and jabs at linguists for failing to come to the same conclusions he has.
Because the majesty of Hebrew is only faintly visible in its offspring, it is no wonder that intelligent men can still maintain that most words are arbitrary and meaningless, or that language is the result of cavemen grunting. Of course, some of these same brilliant academicians will insist that a chimp at a typewriter will come up with a Shakespearian sonnet if given enough time (about eight billion years). (p. 4)
He even goes so far as to attribute the accepted account to racism because it separates 'white' Indo-European languages from Afro-Asiatic languages. He simply overlooks that this separation is based on both clear systems of sound changes within families and no clear connections across families despite years of trying. Instead, as with creationist argumentation, there are simply allegations of academics sweeping contrary evidence under the rug.
for the past several decades, Western historical linguists have been the proud Dr. Frankenstein creators of a proto "Indo-European" language that curiously favors the Germanic element. Who would research Hebrew as the root language when even the Ph.D's in Semitics hung Hebrew out on a limb called West Semitic? Nobody uncovered a clay tablet of Proto-Semitic, but surely, the argument went, Hebrew evolved from older more cumbersome languages. The de-evolution of words, and the ongoing corruption of humankind, was simply not considered. (p. 2)
There are no Proto-Semitic tablets because that language (if it existed) was spoken before the invention of cuneiform. Linguists do not seriously consider the "de-evolution of words" in most cases because living languages are constantly growing due to innovation and borrowing. The only languages we regularly see "de-evolve" or become measurably simpler are dying languages spoken in places like Central America where children no longer use the local language in all social contexts.

Like creationists insisting that a global flood is plausible without doing all the necessary math, Mozeson insists that Edenic is a possible ancestor for all human languages without doing the documentation and modeling necessary to demonstrate his case. I can only second what was suggested by Sabzi Aash in this thread:
This is my suggestion for Mozeson. It's the most logical thing to do and the fact that he hasn't done it can only be labeled "suspicious". Forget about English. Just prove that Aramaic or Phoenician or Ugaritic, or even Arabic, comes from Hebrew. These languages are so similar to each other that if one of them were the source of the others, it should be a cinch to demonstrate. If he could show that every linguist had gotten such a basic relationship wrong, that alone would turn the field on its head, and then he'd have a basis to go on to greater claims.
That this has not been done yet is as telling as the lack of paradigm-shifting research coming from the Discovery Institute.

* Biblical Hebrew, the spoken language, certainly has vowels. What Mozeson means is that the Biblical Hebrew written language is based on consonants (although it does have some vowel markings). Except in academia, its rare for new words to be coined based on writing conventions in another language. That Mozeson confuses spoken and written languages is rather telling of the poverty of his linguistics training.
** Other rules were at play. So my saying 'all' here overlooks some mostly-understood complications created by context and other concurrent changes.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Sunday Music: Feist

Friday, I had front row tickets for Feist. Thursday, my apartment saw the arrival of a new instrument that happens to be identical to the glockenspiel in the video below. So who else could I pick this Sunday?

"I Feel It All" and a snippet of "The Park". Leslie Feist. Live on Jimmy Kimmel.

There isn't much to be said about Feist that most in-the-know music fans haven't already heard. She gets her share of nay-sayers, particularly among some recording enthusiasts who dislike the odd mix of close-mic'd and room sound that characterize both Let It Die and The Reminder. The alternation between the baroque pop and the understated acoustic ballads seems particularly suited for enchanting both the average listener and the indie cynic.

I was a late comer to Feist. Broken Social Scene released their first album in 2001, when the music world was still in the grips of the mindless pop music that the end of the 90s had ushered in. I was firmly convinced that I was never going to hear a new rock band I'd like and more or less quit looking. That attitude changed in time to hear Feist last spring during the buzz that The Reminder started generating upon its release.

An ex once criticized me for having a double standard with pop music. I like both the simple (Violent Femmes, Morphine) and the heavily orchestrated (Belle and Sebastian, Tortoise), but I complain about anything that I perceive as falling in-between. Most middle ground comes off as being either not genuine or not creative enough. Although I wouldn't call her studio albums sloppy, Feist represents the sort of pop music that captures both of those sides: a sort of careful simplicity. Deliberate understatement in wide open chords, interweaving counter melodies, and lush harmonic extensions all where appropriate. I'm not sure how much of that is Gonzales and the rest of the band and how much is Feist herself, but the end product is beautiful.

The show Friday night was fantastic. Feist had a visual artist in her company who created shadow images on a large screen behind the band.

If you like that sound too, I recommend you check out not only more Feist (including this KCRW performance), but Gonzales's "Solo Piano" album.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Descent of Languages (Pseudolinguistics and Ideal Languages, Part 2)

This is part two in a series that began here with a general account of two common types of argumentation one encounters when dealing with pseudoscience. Before I begin debunking some specific historical linguistic accounts, I thought I might need to explain in some form what historical linguistics is all about (or at least, explain a little bit about some of what it's about...).

Since at least the days of Classical Greek grammarians, people have been aware of similarities between languages. Although others had attempted to systematically demonstrate the resemblance between two or more languages, Sir William Jones is most often credited with inventing the idea of using such comparisons to reconstruct a proto-language, a theoretical ancestor to modern languages known only through the evidence it left in its descendants.

All spoken languages change. One has only to listen to Beowulf or The Lord's Prayer translated into Old English to realize that the English spoken today hardly resembles the English spoken in the 10th or 11th Centuries. While change in language is often brushed off as corruption or degeneration, what is truly surprising about language change is how regular it can be, particularly when it is below the level of salience. We all note the introduction of words like truthiness or email, but few of us notice how the vowels in our speech subtly change decade to decade, generation to generation. The differences between languages that are related by a common ancestor are not entirely accidental: with careful study, one can rules that underly the relationship between words in each language that represent the changes those languages underwent since they split.

When the Roman empire fell, Latin speakers in France, Spain, Portugal and elsewhere were left disconnected from one another to varying degrees. Over time, the Latin spoken in these places diverged from the Latin that had been spoken in 5th Century Rome and earlier. While pure-blood Romans may have considered these divergences a result of the Celts and other inferior races attempting to speak the glorious Latin tongue, linguists can note a great deal of regularity in the changes that took place. That is, far from being chaotic or purely random, the changes follow rules. Consider the following sets of words.
Latin Italian Spanish Portuguese French gloss
capra capra cabra cabra chèvre goat'
/kapra/ /kabra/ /kabra/ /shevr/
caru caro caro caro cher dear'
/karo/ /karo/ /karu/ /sher/
caput capo cabo cabo chef head, top'
/kapo/ /kabo/ /kabu/ /shef/
caro/carn carne carne carne chair meat, flesh'
/karne/ /karne/ /karne/ /sher/
canis cane can cao chien dog'
/kane/ /kan/ /kaw/ /shien/
Forgetting the spellings and concentrating on the pronunciations (given in italics below each word), one can create a set of rules that produce the modern form from the Latin ancestor. For example, whereas all of the other languages maintained the /k/ sound at the start of each word, modern French has a sound like English /sh/. Likewise, where other languages have mostly maintained at least some vowel in the second syllable (even if changing /o/ to /e/), French has lost all of these vowels entirely. While the internal consonants of Italian are mostly faithful to the Latin original, Spanish and Portuguese have regularly changed the /p/ sounds to /b/. If you've never studied phonetics, try saying "puh buh puh buh..." aloud to yourself to see how similar these sounds are. (You might want to wait until no one's looking. Don't worry, all linguists have been there.) The difference lies in whether the vocal cords vibrate. Today, linguists know that in a context between two vowels or other voiced sounds, there is a tendency for sounds like /p/ to shift to their voiced counterpart over time.

In the same cases, the French has replaced /p/ with /v/ and /f/. If you take the time, you might try a similar experiment with alternating these sounds with /p/ and /b/ and noting the contexts where French uses one or the other.

Given access to modern Italian, Spanish, and French, a well-trained linguist with no knowledge of Latin could in time construct a large number of Latin words by identifying the similarities and differences between the modern words and using their knowledge of universal tendencies in human language. There would be gaps in their knowledge (the intricacies of the noun class and case system, unpreserved verbal declensions), but the amount that could be reconstructed would still be impressive.

This process, called the comparative method, is what we attribute in part to William Jones. European linguists of the 19th century were able to reconstruct many languages that were never written, including much of proto-Indo-European, the language believed to be ancestor of most European languages, Persian, and Sanskrit. In some ways, it is very similar to what geneticists can now do with genomes when analyzing the relationship between species (indeed, biological metaphors underly many discussions of language families). Changes can be analyzed in part because, like genes as a unit of biology, phonemes and other linguistic units behave in ways that we can approximate with models that assume a great deal of regularity or rule-like behavior between generations.

Like pure descent-with-modification in biology, there are many well-known complications to the comparative method. As their equivalent of viral or bacterial DNA in the human genome, languages are hosts to borrowings from other languages that can, over time, completely obscure that language's relationship to its genetic sisters. (If you've never noticed how many English words are derived from French, Greek, and Latin roots, you may want to open a dictionary and see for yourself how great a change borrowing can impose on a language.) Like biological species, when a language is spoken over a large area, changes can be slow to spread from one population to another. The great deal of modern sociolinguistics is focused on directly observing how changes spread across geographic and class boundaries in real time or by reconstructing past trends. More often than not, these exceptions prove the rule in that they affect languages in fairly predictable ways, even if the rules that govern them are more statistical and less definite than those identified in comparative reconstruction.

Although the degree of evidential and theoretical strength behind any reconstructed proto-language is always changing, as is true of all scientific statements, the trust linguists place in any model depends upon the methodology used to reach it. As I'll attempt to demonstrate in future installments, pseudolinguistic claims often attempt to borrow the look and feel of historical linguistic argumentation and the comparative method without actually borrowing its methodology.