Lazyweb Greenlight

I’ve been wanting to make two short films of my favorite parts of the Lord of the Rings, both sadly omitted from the Peter Jackson adaptation:

Tom Bombadil in a black-and-white, silent-Buñuel style;

The Scouring of the Shire in a contemporary setting. It opens just before dawn as the four hobbits come home at last from a long, horrible trip; they are too shellshocked to speak to each other, dozing on a decrepit city bus.


a homework assignment by someone named Yassin, with drawings of some sort of movement notation labeled Balance, Extension, Lengthening, Directionback of assignment, with Flexion, Rotation, Stillness, Motion toward, spring, motion away, falling, and arrive at a shape

I found this on the ground near my laundromat in Sunset Park. I don’t know any movement notation to know whether Yassin is just regurgitating something taught in class; I prefer to imagine that the homework assignment was “devise a dance notation“. This seems so abstract for a random school in Brooklyn.

The causes of causes

I went to the Aston Corpus Symposium last week and it was exciting and even moving; at every talk I jotted down notes that didn’t relate to the talk but to tangential ideas that the talk was unearthing and catalyzing.

One of them was from a talk by Bill Dodd, ‘Semantic prosody’ in FL teaching and learning’. He took the now-near-chestnut of the verb ’cause’ from English, and looked at three different ’cause’ verbs in German, finding them to have the same semantic bias.

[In a corpus of English, you’ll find that the overwhelming majority of occurrences of ’cause’ as a verb have collocations that are bad things: viruses, negligence, vandals, infections, assaults, and deficiencies cause devastation, delay, injury, nuisance, consternation, havoc, death, ruckus and loss; not a lot of kittens causing giggles.]

Dodd looked at verursachen, bewirken, and hervorrufen in the corpus of the Digitale Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache and found (as you may see yourself, either in deutsch or in google’s translation) that all three had exclusively nasty neighbors: Schade, Kosten, Brand, Störung, Verlust, Geräusch, Tod, Kopfschmerz.

I haven’t looked at evidence from other languages, but posit for a moment that all languages’ verbs of causality are associated with negative things. What does it tell us about causality, and the circumstances in which people think about causality?

Maybe people simply don’t often stop to ask why good things happen. Good things are exactly what are supposed to happen all the goddamn time; good things are what I deserve and there’s no “cause” for them: they are the natural order of things. So maybe a person looks for a cause only when they’re disappointed by an effect.

NNS * NNS = 144

Abstract: The present dictionary interface is the same kind of information display as a multiplication table; current online dictionaries are putting big, searchable lexical multiplication tables on the web. But today’s dictionary data allows much more. Who/what will spark the dictionary-display revolution?

Body: Consider the multiplication table: a mute, ignorant record of calculations someone has done somewhere else. If it only goes up to 9*9 it can give you no indication of what 9*10 is. You can use your own mind to add or extrapolate, of course, but the paper can’t: WYSIAYG. A pocket calculator supersedes the multiplication table and offers at least the arithmetic operations. The pocket calculator meets a user who is in the same state as a dictionary user: “I know my question; this will tell me the answer”. But instead of simply showing all the answers all at once and letting the user grep optically for the right answer, the pocket calculator asks the user to enter exactly what she is calculating, and in return she gets only the result that she requested: YAFIYGI.

Any computer that can get on the web obviously supersedes even the pocket calculator. People don’t put multiplication tables on the web to help you find the answer to simple multiplication problem. You do find multiplication tables on the web (some of them are very cool), but they’re a tool to help you learn mathematical concepts, not to help you find out 6*7.

Both multiplication tables and lexical lists were inscribed on clay tablets in ancient Sumer 5000 years ago, and both have been made fairly continuously since. The sophistication of quantitative display has progressed at a pace matching general technological/scientific developments; but dictionaries, in their own transition from clay to screen, haven’t even reached the pocket calculator stage. A dictionary is great for what it’s been doing for centuries, but the surrounding science has progressed far beyond what you will see in any existing form.

A paper dictionary is the same sort of thing as a multiplication table: the output of a ton of research and thinking, fixed immutably for linear consultation. Web dictionaries, in turn, have put the paper layout on the screen and made only slight improvements on the paper version. You may jump quickly to a headword, maybe search for a word within definitions, and maybe even search for a word in the definition of a lemma in a particular part of speech. But still, however sophisticated your search, the output is the same: an entry as it would appear on the page. Garbage in, entry out; pearls in, entry out.

Yet a mature, modern dictionary, in its native electrons, has all kinds of information that doesn’t fit on the page or into any current ideas of what a dictionary can tell you. Somehow, sometime soon, someone will present dictionary data not simply as multiplication, but as the full range of arithmetic and other mathematical functions: +-*/^!% -> lexical, semantic, historical, phonetic, syntactic, collocational, sociolinguistic, geographical, etc. etc.; and all-importantly, it will be context-sensitive. Yes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it; but there’s nothing broke about the multiplication table: it’s just not functional enough for daily use as an essential mathematical reference. Current dictionaries work fine for what they do, but a more sophisticated lexical interface will allow people to ask more sophisticated lexical questions.
I want my computer’s dictionary to be a lexical Bloomberg terminal that reads my mind. With the industry’s most advanced dataset at my fingertips, I can wrap my mind around the contextual part, but I haven’t figured out how the new ink-liberated display will look. But I’m thinking about it, and folks like these are rich guano for my brain. So much of the computational lexicographical work I do is quantitative at every stage except the final output: where and how could, or should, the numbers come in to the final data? Numbers are part of a lexicographer’s decision-making process, and part of the amateur Google corpus ad-hoc definer’s process; but not part of dictionaries as we see them today. But tomorrow is coming, and soon.

Are you stalking me?

I was walking home from work the other day and happened to notice (for the first time) the Lamb & Flag Passage and, not having any urgent need to get back to my turret, decided to walk along it to see what it held. Backstreets are always enjoyable, and in Oxford I always feel I’m going to turn down one and myself in Diagon Alley or Jordan College or some Lovecraftian street that I’ll never find again.

I walked through (uneventfully) and then along Museum Road and noticed one of the great, outlandishly-named buildings I love to see in Oxford: the Henry Wellcome Ancient Biomolecules Centre. I thought about the kinds of things that a center for Ancient Biomolecules might investigate, and they all seemed incredibly interesting.

No visibly welcoming public entrance (apparently with good reason), nothing visible through the ground-floor windows. Today a mention of neuroeconomics brought up my mental note to look up the biomolecules center, but all I could remember was the “ancient” part. Well, let’s try Google.

I typed in my Firefox search box:

oxford ancient

and paused to try to remember ‘biomolecules’, which was not coming to mind. Obviously ‘oxford ancient’ alone wouldn’t do it, because there are so many Oxfordy Ancienty things. So let’s think: bio cellulo radio hmm.

And then Google’s suggestion popped down:

oxford ancient biomolecules

(Oh my god, what the fuck, barbecue, bang bang bang one bang).

Into the West, to dwell on Tol Eressëa

The end of my personal First Age Of GNU/Linux Earth came to an end this week. I sold my PowerBook G4, and so for the first time since I started using LinuxPPC R4 in 1998, I have no powerpc hardware running the Linux kernel. PPC was my first architecture, and I was devoted in this peculiar way that only PPC people could be devoted: combining the slavishness of an Apple lover with the moral certainty of a GNU zealot. It really hit home when I unsubscribed from the debian-powerpc mailing list: I’d been ignoring its folder for months already (not least because I’ve been using Ubuntu for two years) but yesterday I realized I will really not have much to offer in the future.
This is all the more poignant because, just as I’ve ditched my PowerBook, Ubuntu has ditched official support for the powerpc architecture. Which, as a nice bookend, puts powerpc back into the status it had when I started using it.

So two months ago I would have objected pretty strongly to this development, but now I have to recognize that I’ve apparently reached the same conclusion.  The Intel Macs were announced three months after I started using a Thinkpad T41 as my work machine, and the level of hardware support was mindblowing — i.e., just normal.  No struggles with anything.  I knew some of this was Ubuntu and some of it the decent Thinkpad support.  In fact, Ubuntu Breezy was so great and stable, I had to install Edgy just to break some things and give myself some occasion to learn about my hardware.

But the Ubuntu announcement makes me want to get a G4 Mac Mini and start fooling around again.

sappy vinegar

On my subway ride to work [recently a year ago when I drafted this post] I was reading a cookbook: Cooking By Hand by Paul Bertolli. And I had the novel experience of having a cookbook bring tears to my eyes. (Without the involvement of onions.)
Of course, now, googling around for other mentions of the passage in question, I see that the consensus is that the passage in question is overly sentimental, sappy, excessive. And, I grant, my weeping was of the nature that I occasionally get from commercials for Hallmark or AT&T Long Distance, viz., sappy, sentimental, reaction-to-shameless-heartstringpulling tears: not enough even to wet my cheek. But the tears were unembarrassed, at least, because they indicate that I’m not yet a zombie. I found the passage affecting and inspiring because I read it not as what it really is — a device for introducing a section on balsamic vinegar — but took it as it declared itself: a Letter to my Newborn Son.

Bertolli is telling his son about the six balsamic vinegar casks that a friend gave to the boy on his birth; that the friend had made such casks for all of his own children, and that the friend’s father and grandfather had been endowed with such casks themselves. Some rhapsodizing about tradition.

By the time you are old enough to read this, the vinegar that I will soon start for you will have aged enough to draw. In it you will taste the years that it has marked since you were born. It will grow sappy as you move into your teens, then deepen and thicken as you become a man. In your twenties its dark obscurity will mirror the complexities of life that dawn on you; in middle age balsamico may help you remember who you are and with whom you have belonged. When you grow old, it will be the nectar that you have waited all your life to sip, by then a kind of magic elixir. Like you, it will have become everything it has ever been for better or worse, an embrace of the “sweet and sour” that is life…

Reading, before, and typing, now, I struggled with the urge to bowdlerize “become a man” to “become an adult” because all the father’s-father-son-man-boy-grandfather stuff was bothering me already, innocent as I am of any consciously cherished patrimony. Perhaps that lack, only occasionally perceptible to me, is what gave me a flash of bitterness that I could never have such a battery of casks for myself. But this struck me only after the initial flash, a tangible and practical consideration of the best way to procure such a thing for my own children: still picturing a son, but knowing that I would have to give the same to a daughter or she’d scratch my eyes out.

Sure, I want these casks for myself, but I feel the experience could never be the same as the one I could give to my children. Any means I used to procure six casks of 27-year-old vinegar would ultimately be pastiche, a macaronic affectation that would make me feel fraudulent and “aspirational”, however much I enjoyed the product. I rather like the idea of starting such a thing for my own children, fully aware that I will not live long enough to experience the magic elixir stage: for the love and thoughtfulness evident in my creating something whose fruition I will not be able to fully enjoy.

Considering my adolescent reactions to my own father’s foodways (which were not handed down to him, but adopted in a fairly reactionary American Hippie way), it seems to me entirely plausible that my child may not be very interested in the vinegar for the first 15-20 years of its life in the cask. And the amount of maintenance involved probably sounds obscene to people who aren’t food freaks. But I’ve been pricing balsamic since I read that passage, and it appears that six casks of great, > 20 year old artisanal vinegar also has a street value approaching the price of a year of college.

Posting this a year after drafting just to get it out of here. If you ever see a long post here where I whine about not growing up with ancient food traditions, it came out of this.

pij to

Getting on the subway around 9pm on a midsummer Saturday, I saw there was some amount of bustle. A neigborhoody (i.e. latino) man approached the station attendant: “A guy’s ODing: call an ambulance.” Walking down the ramp to the platform, we see that the train is in the station, but also hear a commotion. I quicken my pace, though I can’t say whether it’s because I want to catch the train, or to see what is up with the crowd. About fifteen people are shaking a red-clad person who, by his distance and floppiness, looks like a small child.

The neighborhood person, returning to the crowd, says “Water! With ice! Anybody have ice water?” S and I had just filled our newish pink 1-liter Nalgene, to get us through the hot night platforms on our 3-transfer subway trek across Brooklyn. “We have water, but it’s not icy.” For a moment he holds out, as if someone else might yet show up with ice water. A middle-ageish woman is also saying something about agua. Seeing no other offers, the crowd takes up our water; they unscrew the top and encourage OD to drink it.

Everyone in the crowd (to my surely cynically biased recollection) is latin@ and “from the neighborhood”: we appear to be the only hipster gentrifiers who are joining the crowd.

The ODer. He is skinny in a youthful way, his face very pale. His head, shaved in the past week or so, is flopped back as they bring the bottle to his lips; his friend is shouting at him in Polish. The crowd thoughtfully dumps some of the water on his head; this brings his head upright. “Water! Drink the water!” They put the bottle in his hands, and he stares at this shimmering crystalline pink football. “Agua drink water!” He seems distracted by the lid flopping around on its tether. His friend says pij to! pij to! The crowd takes up this bit of Polish: pito! pito! He stares at the bottle in his hands; others shove it to his lips, but he pulls it away, with strings of saliva attached.

He grasps the bottle decisively in both hands, and shakes it wildly up and down twice, still entirely bewildered. Pito! Pij to! The water splashes the crowd and its cool impact somehow breaks the spell. An announcement tells us that an ambulance is on its way. The ODer sits on a bench, his friend still encouraging him to pij. The train is getting ready to leave. We sort of halfheartedly ask if he still needs the bottle. “Sure,” (the friend) “it’s okay.” But OD is clearly just as confused by the idea of letting go of the bottle as he is by the idea of drinking from it. We get on the train. Time to buy another nalgene.

Yet Another Unfortunate GMail Ad: “Slanty letters” == かんたんな英作文で メキメキライティング能力向

I’m sure the reason this ad for an English language course was put across the top of this message was because the body talks about an English course: all the other ads are for language resources. But it is an unfortunate juxtaposition, at least for polysemaniacs like me. [Click to enlarge]

Maybe the real shocker here is that I haven’t turned off that little advertisement area.