Friday, July 30, 2010

Friday photo

Final Demolition of Kresge Buildings, University of Michigan, July 2010.

I took this photo with my phone camera, since I didn't have the real camera with me last Friday and the building was gone when I returned Monday. The fuzzy look is due partly to the poor optics of the camera, but also because I was shooting through a mesh fabric that was strung along the chain link fence around the entire site. It's b/w because I didn't like the tint caused by that blue (it's always blue around here) mesh.

These were built as laboratory buildings, the first dating from 1954 when the hospital site was developing into the Medical Campus, a miniature city that now has a separate identity from the rest of the UM campus. At the time, lab space was scarce and growing scarcer as the medical fields outgrew the turn-of-the-century buildings on the Central Campus. Now they've become obsolete and expendable. Not that UM needs fewer labs -- UM still grows. They're being replaced by newer facilities, particularly the new North Campus Research Complex.

The plan is to turn the entire site into a park, which will radically alter the scenery here. The buildings crowded around so closely that you wouldn't know you were standing on a high bluff that once commanded excellent vistas across the Huron River valley to the northeast. You still can't see the river, because of the hospital complex and other buildings that block the view, but I welcome the sense of openness again. No doubt the real estate will prove too valuable to leave empty forever, but I'll enjoy it for awhile.

Here's where it's all happening:

View Larger Map

Thursday, July 29, 2010

PC-free t-shirts

I don't know anyone who's colorblind, so I can laugh at this:

No swearing allowed!

No swearing allowed! Even if it's not aloud! That's the new rule at Goldman Sachs, which has banned profanity in emails. Apparently, upper management was driven almost to the bring of hiri kiri when the world discovered one of their employees was so depraved as to write to another, "that was one shitty deal." If the world is forgiving enough, perhaps this drastic act of atonement will allow them to show their faces again.

It's not clear whether fines will be levied on people writing profane emails, but the article mentions that swearing on the trading floor can earn a trader a fine as large as $20,000. It just goes to show how well paid those traders are - you can't hope to modify their behavior for less than $1000 (the fine for a first offense).

Seriously. In the middle of the worst economic crisis since Herbert Hoover, Goldman-Sachs has nothing better to worry about?

As for the schmoes in the office, if they do get hit with fines ... they'll want to know what happens with the money:

Monday, July 26, 2010

xkcd on language

Friday, July 23, 2010

Friday photo

Anthill, Little Shell Lake, Superior National Forest. July 2010.

Yep, that's an anthill. My estimate was that it was around 18 feet long, plus a small disconnected suburb at the far end that was itself over a foot in diameter. I have no idea how many ants would live in a thing like this, but it's like the Shanghai or Mumbai of anthills. No, it's more than that - it's like the entire eastern seaboard. Boston to Atlanta.

I spent some time trying to think up a way to trick my brother into unknowingly sleeping on it, but the fact that we shared a tent just seem to sabotage all my schemes. If only I were cleverer.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Testing 1/6 G

Here's a cool Mythbusters segment, where they test NASA video of astronauts' movement on the moon:

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

I recently read John McWhorter's book Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English, which is an excessively self-conscious revision of the history of the English language. Excessively self-conscious because McWhorter's jabs at the "history of English experts" quickly grow tiresome, and frankly make him sound like something of a crank - the sort of tone that creationists take towards scientists. But an interesting revision because he also explains why a different set of skills allows a different kind of linguist to see a different history to our language.

The primary difference is that McWhorter doesn't specialize in a single language: he specializes in creoles, those curious half-and-half languages that arise when competing native languages occupy the same space. And he argues that English grammar displays the tell-tale signs of miscegenation, a salad bowl of features that tell the history of Angles and Saxons landing in Celt-occupied England in the 5th Century CE, the Viking invasion of same 300 years later, and the Norman conquest of 1066.

These incidents are well-known, of course, but McWhorter believes their effect on the people's speech is not. Traditionally, the Celtic language is believed to have gone extinct and been more or less completely replaced by the speech we know as Old English. The evidence is the extreme shortage of words in English that can be traced to Celtic origins - the subjugated Celts seem to have contributed almost nothing to the invaders' language. In my own linguistics class years ago, my instructor presented this as a mystery: the absence of Celtic words would suggest that the Celts were quickly killed off; however, the archaeological evidence didn't show an unusual amount of warfare and suggested a long period of coexistence. How to resolve the paradox?

The key to the puzzle may be to approach language with less attention to vocabulary and more attention to grammar. This is what McWhorter does. Throughout the book he displays a familiarity with a vast number of different grammars, especially the funky features that are rare and even unique to one language or another. And through grammar, he sees strong evidence that the Celts lived on for many years, kept their own language, and occasionally spoke English. When they did use English, they added a couple twists that seemed natural to themselves, but probably sounded quite strange to the Angles. Eventually, those oddities began to sound familiar and became the common way to speak.

One of these is the "meaningless do," the semantically pointless addition of "to do" in a sentence when we ask a question or state a negative. It's the reason why all other speakers of a Germanic language can say, "Read you the book?" and get the reply, "I read not the book," but if an English speaker tries that, he sounds like he's channeling Yoda (who, to be fair, did learn his English a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away1). The English speaker says, "Did you read the book?" and hears, "No, I didn't read the book." "Do" adds no meaning to the sentence, but it is necessary in order to be grammatically correct.

It's a weird construction because none of English's close relatives construct their questions and negatives this way. In fact, this sort of thing is rather rare across the globe. But there are a couple dead languages that are known to have used the meaningless do: Celtic and Welsh. The people who were ruled by invading Angles and Saxons, learned the invaders' language, but continued to speak their own at home. What are the odds that English picked up do from their subjects' language rather than inventing in de novo?2

The Vikings had a different effect on English, an effect that McWhorter describes as "battering" the grammar. If you've put some study into German, you know that its nouns and adjectives rarely appear in sentences as they do in the dictionary. Instead, they take all these damned endings: one of three different endings, depending on whether its gender is masculine, feminine, or neuter, and another for the plural. And each of these will change depending on whether the word is a subject, direct object, indirect object, or possessive. Germans don't seem to have trouble with it, but what a pain for the rest of us!

The Vikings found those endings to be a total pain, too. In fact, it appears that they couldn't get the hang of them at all and just ... dumped them. It must have been a horrid-sounding English to the natives, as horrible to them as it would be to me if someone relentlessly used -ed for every past tense (gived, throwed, hitted, etc.). But the Vikings came in waves of all-male groups, married local women, and raised children who heard this nasty tongue from their fathers, if not their mothers. The version without endings spread, across the country and through the generations. English differs from German today because, to some extent, we speak German like lazy, dumb foreigners.

These developments have been obscured because historical linguists tend to look at written texts for their evidence of past languages. And the written record doesn't seem to show these developments. But McWhorter's explanation is plausible enough: writing was uncommon, reserved for formal occasions, and deliberately preserved the ancient modes. The vernacular changed, but the professional scribes did not deign to record it.3

Then came the Normans. For 150 years, French was the lingua franca4 and the style of formal, written Old English was forgotten. When the English cast off French and returned to their native tongue, they began writing it as they spoke. Suddenly, Middle English enters the written record.

And the Norman influence on English? Although they wrote in French, there is documentary testimony that the Norman overlords were speaking more English than French. However, there were only few of them and they didn't mix with their subjects - their influence on English grammar was negligible. The language picked up an enormous number of French words -- it was written, not spoken, French that left its mark -- but this doesn't seem to interest McWhorter very much. He's much more interest in grammar than vocabulary.

At every turn, McWhorter's analysis of English's evolution is grounded in historical circumstance. The Celts added only a few subtle grammatic changes, a consequence of continuing their own speech apart from the English speakers, but over enough centuries to add a few distinctive constructs. The Vikings mixed with the local people, intermarrying and adopting the local language immediately - but badly, in a grammatically stripped-down form. And the Normans arrived in very small numbers, and remained a tiny elite, apart from the rest of the people; their written documents enriched English vocabulary, but left no mark on its grammar.

Finally, recall that McWhorter studies creoles, specializing in the mixing of languages. He has bones to pick with grammatical nitpickers, the sort who fret over split infinitives, prepositions at the end of sentences, who v. whom, or "He done read the book" (my example, not his). I don't know what he thinks of "refudiate," but you can almost hear him laughing at those prissy grammar Nazis5 who think they're speaking some sort of "pure" English, when in fact their speech is descended through a long line of folks who just didn't know how to talk good.

As a followup to Heidi's comment, here's a map showing the maximum spread of the Celts. As you can see, they had a pretty wide influence in Europe, although not so much the Scandinavian countries:

1. Although Yoda, as I recall, sometimes uses "do" in the modern manner. He's had a long time to listen to those young Jedi.

2. The progressive "He
is reading" is another form that existed in Celtic and today is peculiar to English.

3. It should be no surprise to academics. After all, they're the ones who have to teach their students "You don't write like you talk, dude, or your grade'll suck!"

4. Yes! Pun intended! Would you doubt me?

5. Which, yes, often describes me.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

New comic to follow

Somehow, this reminds me of those claims that "Darwinism will be dead in five years."

Friday, July 16, 2010

Friday photo

Emerald Lake, Superior National Forest, Minnesota. July 2010

Last week was vacation time, a proper get-out-of-town-for-at-least-several-days-and-go-someplace-special type of vacation, where James and I spent three and a half days canoing some of the lakes in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota. This is the land of the French voyageurs, trappers and traders plying the waters and dealing with the local Ojibwa tribes for access to beaver pelts. With just a little imagination, the recreational paddler can put himself in their shoes, perhaps pretending that his Tevas are moccasins; the canoe may not be made of birchbark, but surely it was hand-assembled from locally grown Kevlar.

We had been on the water less than fifteen minutes when James called my attention to a certain bird call, which he nominated as the emblematic call of the Boundary Waters. I listened to it a few times, and finally realized, "That's a chickadee!" Except it's a long-winded type of chickadee.

The normal chickadee call, which you can hear here, is a slow, two-note whistle known as the fee-bee, like so:
or sometimes with a repeat of the bottom note:
Chickadees are common here in SE Michigan, and they were common in Yellowstone. In both locations, the calls were the same. But up in Minnesota, the calls were more verbose, invariably ending with a dotted-rhythm extension:
I've never heard this version of the fee-bee call anywhere else. But as we moved from lake to lake, I began to hear even more variants. There was the "Three Blind Mice" version, which began with two prefix notes:
And then there was the even stranger version, which began by jumping up a fourth:
I call this one strange, because of the ascending prefix. The others seem like smaller modifications of the base call - repeating the final notes, or adding another note in sequence. But adding a big step, when all other versions involve no more than a single full-tone step at a time, is a more radical departure.

I have no idea how that developed. But there you have it: a species displaying regional variations in vocalizations, which can fairly be called culture. I think the idea of culture in animals is no longer controversial among biologists, but it's still remarkable enough to be worth dwelling upon.

Also remarkable: the chickadee's fee-bee call is so musical that it can be rendered in our musical notation with pretty fair accuracy. The dotted rhythm I've noted above* is exactly as I heard it: in just as perfect time as a musician would perform it. The second note is almost exactly a full tone, and the unusual ascending prefix was almost exactly a perfect fourth. The reason you don't see bird calls rendered this way is because it's usually impossible. You won't hear many (if any) other birds that seem to have studied Western music.

* Using a program called LilyPond, which describes most of the lakes where I heard these calls. The actual call is at least an octave higher than I've indicted.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

You're selling WHAT?

St. Ignace, Michigan. This town gets a lot of travelers, so I suppose someone has told the proprietor that Gift is the German word for "poison."

Reading old mail

This is really cool - a (possibly) 3400-year-old scrap of diplomatic correspondence between Canaan and Egypt has been discovered in Jerusalem, probably once part of the royal archives. It can be deciphered! Try that with a 3400-year-old thumb drive!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Friday photo

Bald Eagles, Toledo Zoo. August 2006.

Will you forgive me for including a photo taken in a zoo? Think of the eagles as a late nod to Independence Day. I'm out in the Boundary Waters this week, so if I don't drop my camera overboard, I may have something decent for next time.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Kookaburra loot downsized

New developments in the Men at Work case, where the poor Aussies were being plundered of their earnings by a bunch of lawyers whose only creative act was to purchase an old copyright. The pirates, AKA Larrikin Music, were demanding 50% of their revenue of "Down Under" for a 4-second reference to a children's song. They won; EMI Records appealed; the appellate judge has ruled.

The result: yes, it's infringement, but Larrikin can only get 5%, apparently the lowest rate the judge can set. The judge found the claim for 50% to be "overreaching, excessive and in my view unrealistic".

I'm seeing the verdict spun in different ways - victory for Larrikin, because they still get money, or victory for EMI and Men at Work because they don't have to pay as much. I lean toward the former view, as I said previously: this is piracy, "Old School, let's sail around and find someone productive to plunder piracy." They likely didn't expect to get the 50% they asked for, but loot is still loot.

To cement the image of Larrikin as sanctimonious assholes, their lawyer actually said, "It's just really a pity that Marion Sinclair, the lady who wrote it, didn't participate in income from the song when the song was at its height in the early 80s," even though Larrikin only bought the copyright after Sinclair's death and probably has no intention of sharing their booty with her estate.

It may not be over: EMI is planning to appeal this ruling as well.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Archaeological discover near Yellowstone

An ancient dart has turned up near Yellowstone* after being buried in snow for perhaps 10,000 years. It's pretty old technology, a 42" dart that would have been hurled by an atlatl. Although the Aztecs were still using both bows and atlatls to fight the Spanish, in most places the atlatl was replaced when the stringed bow was invented. Cool stuff.

Expect more archaeological find to emerge from melting snow in the coming years.

*They're not saying exactly where, no doubt to protect the site from vandals and looters.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Internet cafes for everyone

It's a good thing they explained this; I was expecting to find a trace of rabbits surfing the web.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Friday photo

Chain-O-Lakes State Park, Albion, Indiana. July 2010.

Chain-O-Lake State Park is a charming little spot - just one mile by four - on the western edge of the former Great Black Swamp (itself the half-dried remnants of the ancestor to Lake Erie) and just on the other side of the continental divide between the St. Lawrence and Mississippi River sytems. The heart of the park is the eight small lakes that connect end to end to one another by a single narrow river channel, all surrounded by wonderful hardwood forests.

Both the lakes and the channel are remnants of a prior episode in global warming at the end of the Pleistocene, when the most recent wave of glaciers melted away. The glaciers "retreated," but the meltwater advanced, at least once with a sudden enough rush to carve out the shallow canyon that connects the lakes. The lakes themselves formed underneath huge blocks of ice that calved off the glacier's face, so-called "kettle" lakes.

Chain-O-Lakes contrasts with the farmland outside the park, a reminder of how heavily engineered the Hoosier landscape really is. Flat land doesn't drain readily at all and Indiana held a vast amount of forested swampland, which had to be both cleared and drained before it was suitable for planting. Geologically, the glaciers were very recent; but even in historical terms, those forests and swamps were here just yesterday. My home state is an unnatural place, but in a few of the state parks you can still glimpse its history. The Miamis wouldn't know the place.

The best way to explore Chain-O-Lakes (and don't worry, it won't take you all day) is by canoe, although you can hike some ten miles of trails. My brother and I went out on Saturday morning and, alas, I neglected the camera and didn't get any photos of the two mute swans that were feeding on Rivir Lake. Instead, I took the land tour on Sunday morning and settled for this photo of the connector between Bowen Lake and Dock Lake.

Thursday, July 1, 2010


Here's a fun web site that puts the words of prominent conservatives into the mouth of their hero, Jesus. You can hardly tell the difference....

Via Why Evolution Is True