Saturday, November 29, 2008

Time to reprioritize

Cautious about getting a deal, that is.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Island effects

About 11 years ago I started teaching at a small boarding school in the Northern Prairies. A few years after I moved there one of my colleagues, Jerry, started using a mild exclamation to express surprise and disbelief. I doubt that he ever spelled it out but I assume it would be something like critney criteney or criteny. Two syllables: the first sounding like bright; the second sounding like knee.

This was about the time that Steve Irwin's popularity was reaching those upper latitudes. Everybody was working on an impression and around Halloween all the stores were selling out of khaki and stuffed wild animals.

Jerry's expression was obviously an altered form of Irwin's constant refrain: crikey. That expression itself is probably an altered form of Christ along the lines of cripes criminy and other similar vegetarian oaths.

He started saying it after a another friend (Keith) and I had one of our many arguments about language. Keith said it was crankey and I said he was wrong. (Keith was the same friend who argued that the word for a positively charged ion, cation, rhymes with ration. Back then I didn't bother looking for a community that pronounced it that way, I just called him an idiot. He was OK with that.)

So in his attempt to gather evidence against me Keith went around asking everybody what they thought Irwin was saying. He asked about 10 people and got about 12 answers. Keith and Jerry both liked crit/-ney/-eney/-eny so Jerry started using it. Ad Nauseam.

And back in 2001 he was using it so much that a hefty number of students started using it too, hungry as they were for a swear word that didn't offend the presbyters. Why do I bring it up now? Because it's been a while. And now I am so curious about its longevity. Did everyone give up on it once they realized that Keith and Jerry made it up? Did they just forget about it the same way they stopped wearing Members Only jackets and snow goggles in the summer? Is it possible that that this rare word (I couldn't find any relevant hits on Google™) is still being used in that odd and insulated little community 15 minutes north of Bismarck? I'd call and ask but I don't think the phone lines have made it up there yet.

Monday, November 24, 2008

It's true! I do enjoy having fun!

The Typealyzer plays around with all that psychology that gets its popularity by telling you about you and convincing you that it's accurate because it tells you so many things that you've thought about yourself.

It's called the Forer effect. (My thanks to Nancy Friedman for having provided the term several months ago in a delightful post.)

To get your pop psychology degree all you have to do is say 'You like to understand things' and the biologist thinks 'Naturally. That's my job' while the musician cries out 'Well yes! Music is very logical after all' and the athlete says 'That's the secret to my winning record!'

So I suggest two standards to see if these tests are worth anything at all. Just because a profiler passes my little tests doesn't mean it's a good analysis based on sound principles. Let's call these bare minimum standards. They're really just watered down versions of validity and reliability.

  • Test 1: Can I recognize the appropriateness (validity) of the test's profile?
    As long as the test isn't wrong about its claims it passes this test. This is why the tests do well consistently. The descriptions are so bland as to be appropriate to almost everyone. Not all that meaningful, but at least it's not providing false results. I call this is a watered down version of validity because these analyses are so general that they fool the subjects into thinking that something has been measured. They pass the validity test on a technicality.

  • Test 2: Can the profile recognize me?
    This one is harder to run. But there's a simple way to verify its ability. As long as the analysis hands out different answers. Give yourself a different identity and see if it says the same thing about you each time.

    I have another blog where I don't talk about linguistics, I don't analyze language much, I don't use technical terms, but I'm still writing as myself. At times when writing a post here or there I get confused and can't remember on which blog I've posted, even tho the topics are pretty much in a complementary distribution. This makes for a decent test of the reliability of Typealyzer because I'm not changing the important variable. And yet we find...

    Here I'm a Mechanic.
    The independent and problem-solving type. They are especially attuned to the demands of the moment are masters of responding to challenges that arise spontaneously.

    But over at my other blog I'm a Thinker.
    The logical and analytical type. They are especialy attuned to difficult creative and intellectual challenges and always look for something more complex to dig into.

    These are compatible, sure. And you might argue that I take on a different persona at each blog. But it's claiming to know how I use my brain. And this is most simply a test of one person administered twice. And it's choosing to give a differing analyses for a reason. Probably because it's not really analysing my personality.

    Typealyzer does measure something that gives it the appearance of validity and reliability. It somewhat accurately measures the topics covered based on the words found (maybe it even counts sentence length, who knows) and it categorizes the writer according to the role being played. And if it looks at 20 posts, 50 posts, or every post on a single blog, and if it runs the test again and again it's probably going to reliably come up with the same result. Or a similar result.

    But that's where the claims fall apart. Because we were promised a look at our brain and our personality. But it's just telling us about our topic. Our style. If it was really digging into the way I look at things, at the way I think, it should be able to analyze me reliably no matter what I'm writing about. And it doesn't.

    But let's back up. These profiles actually do get some things very wrong.

    enjoy working together with other independent and highly skilled people

    I hate working with people.

    often like seek fun and action both in their work and personal life.

    Only if C-SPAN counts as action. And really -- how cheap is that fun part?

    enjoy adventure and risk such as in driving race cars or working as policemen and firefighters.

    Uhh… No.

    are not very good at seeing and understanding the needs of other people

    Oh. Well…fine.

    might come across as arrogant

    Oh please.


    Now this one I can disagree with honestly.

    insensitive to people that need some time to understand what they are talking about.

    Well if I haven't made my point by now…

    I first saw this at Mr. Verb (a fellow Mechanic) then at Language Log where David Beaver tackled it gently.

  • Saturday, November 22, 2008

    A Gross injustice?

    Terry Gross is no Tim Russert. Her interviews are light. Airy I guess. I often imagine her and her guest leaning back in twin recliners. Dave Winer has posted on her recent interview with William Ayers. It wasn't as light. And Winer doesn't approve. He concludes:

    Either she adopts the gotcha style and goes after everyone, from clowns to reporters, and I'll tune out for the same reasons I don't listen to other reporters who use that style; or she stays with the softball style I like, but I'll never be able to stop thinking of her as a hypocrite for being so gutless with Ayers.

    I disagree with Winer's opinion. What bothers me most about his post and following responses is that while he complains about the tone, he only gives one specific: the question about an apology. He also misrepresents the question, claiming that she asked if he would be willing to take the 'unrepentent' part off the label 'unrepentent terrorist.' If that's what she had asked I would be right on board decrying the premise that after the apology Ayers is still a terrorist. But she didn't ask that. Here's her phrasing:

    A lot of people have called you an unrepentant terrorist. I know— I think a lot of people want to hear you make a full fledged apology for—um—some of your actions—uh—with the Weather Underground, such as bombing the Pentagon. —Um—and so I want you—now that we've heard a lot of your story—to give us your answer to that.

    She doesn't even ask if he'll apologize. This is so wide open that all she has said is that some people are demanding an apology and she just turns it over to him for a response. It's a dumb prompt. It's not tough. Not even tricky.

    When I started reading Winer's post I stopped to listen to the interview before I knew his thesis. I wanted to get a sense of her questions without being contaminated by whichever complaint he made. After listening, I expected him to criticize her for throwing softballs. I was surprised that he thought she had done a gotcha interview. I thought it was more like a 'here ya go' interview. We can go back and forth saying 'she was too tough' or 'she was too soft' but that'll get nowhere. I posted a couple comments saying that I don't think Gross deserves much criticism. I provided some examples to make my point.

    Towards the beginning of the interview she rolls over to give him all the room necessary to clarify what he meant by saying that he was misquoted about wishing he had done more. Later, Gross gives him easy questions like Do you think some of the tactics that you took on were in part this kind of youthful expression of anger: something that only a young person would do? Ayers is set ready to pounce on a hand-off like that. And she lets him. That's completely consistent with her usual style of letting the guest just tell a story. She doesn't question his explanations, she doesn't question his honesty or his facts. I only remember her questioning Ayers' consistency once: he speaks of the tactic of bombing as relatively harmless at one point and unnecessarily dangerous at another, so she asks him to explain.

    I almost feel like posting some more but I don't want to be a pest. And Winer has now closed the comments.

    The basis of my disagreement: Gross used a less conversational tone than her usual. But she really didn't push him on anything substantive. Her last question, asking about an apology, was gratuitous, but she gave him so much space to respond that he was free to reshape the issue and he was pretty much in charge of his answer, as he was through the entire interview. She didn't avoid every tough question, but she made it exceedingly easy for him to choose his posture and make his path. If her tone was a problem then give some specifics. Show me that she's trying to trap Ayers. That she's being at all tenacious. Her interview with Gene Simmons was tougher than this one. It really was.

    I disagree that Gross should take the same approach no matter who the interviewee is. Each guest is a topic. And changes in tone to match a topic are always appropriate. Sometimes she laughs. Because comedians say things to make you laugh. Ayers didn't. Ultimately I'm not really sure what sort of interview Winer was hoping for. 'You know, I really admire your earlier bombs. How much fun did you have making them?'

    Wednesday, November 19, 2008

    Since I have some free time.

    I was going to make this a really short post.

    Then I changed my mind.


    Sunday, November 16, 2008

    What goes with the bath water?

    This story had been confusing me for a few days. I think I've got a handle on it now.

    We all remember FOX's Carl Cameron reported to Shepard Smith that a source inside the McCain campaign accused Sarah Palin of not knowing the continents. Everybody chuckled and realized that it's a non-issue. At least not for another four years.

    Then MSNBC came out with a story that Martin Eisenstadt had revealed himself as the source.

    Almost immediately Eisenstadt was exposed as a fictional character. A publicity stunt for a movie.

    The retractions of the story are where I got confused. There are several claims in any story as it unfolds. Which part is false?

    If I tell you that Mrs Royce my homeroom teacher in the 3rd grade told me that four plus three is eight, then another source tells you that it's not true, there are several ways you could understand that. First of all you probably know that the equation is incorrect. So is that all I meant? Did Mrs Royce really tell me anything like that? Did she say five plus three? Four plus four? Eleven minus three? Four times two? And what if you know that Mrs Royce was my 4th grade teacher? Was it in fact Mrs Royce, but not in the 3rd grade? Was it my 3rd grade teacher Mrs Wolford who told me that? Did anybody's teacher say anything like that to me? Ever?

    So I blame my confusion about the hoax on stories like the following quick post (by RIGHTISRIGHT over at

    MSNBC was the victim of a hoax when it reported that an adviser to John McCain had identified himself as the leaker of an embarrassing story about Sarah Palin. The story was faked by filmmakers Eitan Gorlin and Dan Mirvish, the New York Times reported Wednesday.

    The second sentence can be read two ways:
    1. The story that was faked was the identification
    2. The story that was faked was the embarrassing one about Palin.

    Because story in the 2nd sentence can so easily be connect to story in the first, and because they are in such close proximity, this report makes it sound like the hoax was the embarrassing story about Palin. But it could go either way. So it should probably be rewritten.

    This wasn't the first report I read about the hoax but whichever one I read or heard left me with the same question. Exactly what was being retracted?

    Friday morning during my daily NPR fix the story came up on the Diane Rehm show when Sheryl Gay Stolberg responded to an email by a listener, Theresa:

    Rehm (reading): Regarding Governor Palin: The recent lies being spread about her are deplorable. I think that that says much about her image: that people and news organizations could believe she did not know that Africa is a continent. These kinds of lies would never be entertained if they were with regard to any other candidate on the national stage.

    Stolberg: You know, I think the caller does tap into something. First of all…uh…it…it was a hoax…um…eh…somebody…uh…posing as a McCain advisor…uh…trying to promote a movie I think…uh…fancied himself a…a spokesman, created a YouTube video and…uh…got…got picked up on TV that this so-called McCain advisor was saying Sarah Palin didn't know that Africa was a continent. it abs—

    Rehm: And thus NBC then had to correct itself—

    Stolberg: —picked it up. That's right had to correct itself. So absolutely wasn't true. I guess unfortunately for Sarah Palin she became during the course of the campaign the kind of candidate that…about which those kinds of things could be believed. … It's sad to say but uh the news media was taken in but she herself made some statements that made that kind of hoax believable.

    Before I listening to this show I had been thinking that the hoax was only about the identity of the McCain source, not the story about Palin. Here Stolberg states clearly that the whole thing was a hoax: that no source from the McCain campaign ever made such a claim. Of course she also said early in the show that Joe Biden had called Dick Cheney the most dangerous man in America. A listener corrected her and she graciously accepted the responsible correction. So she's not an airtight source.

    What is? It might surprise you.

    A FOX News story addresses this confusion clearly.

    The hoax was limited to the identity of the source in the story about Palin -- not the FOX News story itself. While Palin has denied that she mistook Africa for a country, the veracity of that report was not put in question by the revelation that Eisenstadt is a phony.

    Before we heap praise on FOX for simply being a more responsible and precise news source we should note that they have an obvious interest in preserving the dignity of the original story which they reported. Naturally when they correct the later development contributed by MSNBC they're going to be vigilant in letting the reader know that the story as first reported by FOX is still legitimate.

    Wednesday, November 12, 2008

    Regrets? I know some who've had a few.

    You know the drill. Does he ever say he's sorry? Not that he has to, but how honest are these regrets?

    You know I regret saying some things I shouldn't have said.

    And he does give some specifics.

    Like 'dead or alive' or 'bring 'em on.'

    And he probably should regret the latter. Not because it was irresponsible or because it caused a problem. But because it was pretty clearly, as Dick Gephardt said, phony, macho rhetoric. It was…inelegant.

    Any other regrets? Well he has more but it gets less impressive as he goes on.

    You know being on this ship reminds me of when I went to the USS Abraham Lincoln and they had a sign that said Mission Accomplished. I regret // that…uh…you know…that sign was there. It was a sign aimed at the sailors on that ship. However it conveyed a…a broader knowledge. It…to some it said Well Bush thinks the war in Iraq is over when I didn't think that. But nevertheless it conveyed the wrong message. So there are things I have regretted.

    So he makes sure to say that the sign was somebody else's idea. They had it there. He just showed up on deck and saw it.

    The long pause after I regret is curious. I interpret is as a reiterative pause. If the pause could be translated it might be something like 'Didja get that? I said regret.' And what does he regret? That the sign was there.

    Then he makes sure to explain that the intended audience was not the nation. It was the crew on the ship. They're apparently myopic. But that damn nosy media caught the subtle banner on camera with their high tech zoom lenses.

    Then he says that its message was misunderstood. That must be why it was distasteful to some people. They took it the wrong way. So they were wrong but the sign was there, which is what they misread.

    So to recap: He's sorry that somebody put up a sign where people could see it, that made him look bad even tho it shouldn't have.

    In all fairness, when giving his list of "proud" moments Bush doesn't actually mention anything that he accomplished or did. Just as he regrets the actions and perceptions of others, he's proud of the works and strengths of others. Share the blame and the credit I suppose.

    Monday, November 10, 2008

    Now for the important elections

    I almost ran screaming from the supermarket this weekend when I heard a Christmas carol playing over the sound system. I just about bolted but I composed myself and merely hurried out of the store. I'm a bit of a sap. I do love Christmas. But At Christmas. Don't rush me. It ruins the season.

    Speaking of seasons...

    The first carols of the WotY season have started jingling. And our earliest submission comes from the Oxford University Press. This year's Word: Hypermiling

    343,000 Google™ hits.

    From the OUP post:

    Some history:
    “Hypermiling” was coined in 2004 by Wayne Gerdes, who runs this web site. “Hypermiling” or “to hypermile” is to attempt to maximize gas mileage by making fuel-conserving adjustments to one’s car and one’s driving techniques. Rather than aiming for good mileage or even great mileage, hypermilers seek to push their gas tanks to the limit and achieve hypermileage, exceeding EPA ratings for miles per gallon.

    I understand the tendency of some people to run screaming from these announcements. But you come by looking for language blather so 'tis always the season here.

    If I want Christmas carols in April I'll go to Frankenmuth.

    Sunday, November 09, 2008

    Crystal on Clarity

    David Crystal (whose Encyclopedia of the English Language is always within reach as I write) has posted an appreciative analysis of Barack Obama's acceptance speech. Specifically the ambitiously intricate yet clearly effective opening:

    What was I noticing? It was the opening if-clause, a 41-word cliff-hanger with three who-clause embeddings. Starting a major speech with a subordinate clause? And one of such length and syntactic complexity? I thought he would be lucky if he was able to round it off neatly after the first comma.

    My own favourite phrase from Obama's speech: the dream of our founders. With this line he celebrates the potential of a document, which knowingly allows slavery, to eventually connect with its principles, which do not. At the same time he evokes Martin Luther King's most memorable idea. And the moment of his speech is a testament to the trajectory of history. And a well-crafted piece of writing.

    Friday, November 07, 2008

    I could care less about McCain agreeing more...I mean less

    These pundits need to learn when to simply say Ehhh. It happens. (You only need to watch if you haven't yet seen or heard McCain's "I couldn't agree with them more" flub. The relevant part starts around 3:20.)

    So now we've all seen the video of John McCain's stumble. Memorize it. Practice it. Impress your friends with your inability to move forward from old news stories.

    I think you may have noticed that Senator Obama's supporters have been saying some pretty nasty things about Western Pennsylvania lately. And you know, I couldn't agree with them more. I couldn't disagree with you. I couldn't agree with you more than the fact that Western Pennsylvania is the most patriotic, most [eh] G-d loving most…most patriotic part of America... this is a great part of the country. My friends: I could not ag— I could not disagree with those critics more.

    Keith Olbermann wonders if it's fatigue, panic or a Freudian slip, and Chris Cillizza prudently suggests it's just fatigue. While fatigue is just the type of factor that makes these mistakes more likely, it's an unnecessary analysis. The phrase gets tripped up more by negation than anything else. Cillizza adds that he tries not to ridicule in such cases because he's probably going to make just such a mistake someday. Bravo Chris. Leave the carping to us silly bloggers.

    What was McCain trying to say? Probably I couldn't disagree more. But that simple 4 word phrase is very easy to mis-negate (We'll use that word for any overnegation or undernegation that results in an incorrect negation.)

    correct negations

    I disagree

    I couldn't/can't agree

    I couldn't/can't disagree more

    incorrect negations

    I agree

    I couldn't/can't disagree

    I couldn't/can't agree more

    While we tend to process language word by word when we hear it (input)—that's what makes some garden-path sentences so difficult—when we produce language (output) we tend to plan ahead. And even tho we have a sense of where we're going we sometimes forget where we've been.

    So let's track McCain as his plans of saying I couldn't disagree more gang a-gley

    [They're] saying some pretty nasty things about Western Pennsylvania lately. And you know, —Say it's wrong John they're wrong which means I don't agree with them— I couldn't agree with them —that's right. I couldn't. No. Wait. Can't. No it's cool. The line starts with couldn't. Now how does it end?—more. —CRAP! Change it quick!—I couldn't disagree with you…—Stop! Don't say 'more.' So it's still OK, right?— I couldn't agree with you more —What? They didn't say anything. Ah hell just finish it somehow. What comes after 'more'? ... 'more than' OK.— than the fact that Western Pennsylvania is the most patriotic, most [eh]&mdashWhat did they tell me about these 'most' lines?— G-d loving, most—Wait, that's the line that's been getting us in trouble. Don't say it!—most patriotic part of America...—SHIT!— this is a great part of the country. —That's fine. Let's wrap this up.—My friends: I could not ag—MOTHERFUCKER!!— I could not disagree with those critics more. —sweeeeet

    We've all done something like this. Obama's done this. Olbermann's done this. Such mangled utterances are too common to be very telling. But they're certainly inopportune.

    † I'm convinced this is what accounts for some double-prepositional construction such as for whom are you waiting for? or with whom are you speaking with?

    Tuesday, November 04, 2008

    McKean Hartman Muphry et al vindicated

    Nebraska TV offers the following report on the scourge of texting-induced illiteracy.

    (click image to enlarge)

    If this is an honest bit of typographical witlessness… I don't know; is it possible?

    (via the ridger)

    Monday, November 03, 2008

    So maybe it's me

    On the way to Chicago Midway Buffy announced that we needed to make a pit stop. I sighed and muttered an of course to Dave who was starting to recognize how often Buffy needs to stop when travelling. I compared her to a thimble and she shot back in her own defense: I drank way more than you guys do!

    Don't you mean you drank more than we did? I asked. And I realized that I had misheard. Again. Last time she said drank /dɹæŋk/ and I heard 'drink' because she probably says something like [dɹe̝ŋk] (the uptack below the 'e' indicates a raised articulation). A diacritic doesn't tell us specifically how high the vowel is and I'm starting to think that perhaps Buffy's [e̝] is pretty much identical to her /ɪ/.

    Of course I can stand on no conclusion regarding her vowel distribution. I can't make a judgment like that based on two misheard tokens. This is not how questions are answered, this is how they are raised. So my question: has Buffy completely merged /æ/ and /ɪ/ before ŋ?

    I have at the very least some evidence that she has merged them enough so that I have confused each for the other. Well either she's saying them the same or I need to start listening more carefully.