Weakly Post #3

Media: Marie Kondo (or in Japanese, Kondo Marie) is famous for her technique of tidyng up. She has a new show on Netflix. I am not sure what to think of it. She is a small bubbly (yes, bubbly) woman who speaks little English, giving advice to families in the USA. I’m not sure if her ultra Japanese-ness is affected or genuine. The families seem to eat it up. The real star of the show is the translator. Maybe something to use in class as an example of how people do simultaneous translation. You only need to watch one episode. I watched 2 and they are the same. Unless you want to see more cluttered homes (voyeur!). Evidently organization porn is a big hit.

Politics: Crazy stuff when the American Taliban prosecute a woman for having a miscarriage. (NYTimes). And other countries might start thinking about tourists from America trying to emmigrate, because of health care. Pet stores in California can only sell rescue dogs and cats (NYTimes). You have to go directly to the breeder if not. Designed to limit puppy farms and animal cruelty, and reduce the state animal shelter budget, this has me wondering.

Business: Amazon is the place where America shops online. Following up last month’s link about how opaque the marketplace (The Verge) is on Amazon, where 3rd parties (small business) sell through Amazon, you can also make money by giving advice to new sellers. But is it legitimate? (Atlantic)

Media: Elsevier owns 2,500 academic journals, publishing articles by unpaid faculty, and charging over US$30 to access each article. Sci-Hub pirates these articles, much like the torrent network does for TV, movies and music. Meanwhile in Europe Open Science is gaining support for Plan S to require all government funded research to appear in Open (free) publication immediately. Publishers are worried, but this really needs to be a global concern to succeed, and this is the first step.

Writing: Is the exclamation point (!) an intensity marker or a sincerity marker? That and more, in how we overuse them!

Looking at this post, I don’t like the mish-mash of topics. I am going to start separating the posts and let the Categories help you find what you need, along with a much shorter Weakly Post each Sunday pointing to the other stuff I posted during the week. Check back here often (or better, add me to your RSS feed reader), and make a comment. I may even start an email list to notify people of Weakly Posts.

Cormac McCarthy on Language

Cormac McCarthy, author of novels like No Country for Old Men and The Road, is, believe it or not, interested in physics and complex systems. Writing in Nautilus (great publication), he muses on language and the unconscious in The Kekulé Problem.

The shoehorn into the discussion is that people solve problems when they are asleep. Kekulé is only the most famous for this; falling asleep and solving the problem of the chemical structure of Benzine. The point is that the image he saw, that revealed the structure, did not contain any language. That is because it is from the unconscious.

Read the article to find out why the unconscious and language are separate. Is it biology, did it evolve, or are they simply incompatible? McCarthy jumps between psychology, biology, philosophy in his quest for an answer. He gets help by discussing with his friend and colleague David Krakauer, both from the Santa Fe Institute (home of really smart people). He ends up solving the problem after a ten-hour lunch with Krakauer and yes, some sleep.

This article reminds me of two other books. The Third Culture was the first collection of essays I read by John Brockman, a literary agent. He assembled a collection of scientists (Gould, Dawkins, Minsky, Schank, Pinker, Penrose, Smolin, Kauffman, and especially Gell-Mann, also at Santa Fe) to answer questions usually reserved for theologians and philosophers. C.P. Snow postulated that Science and Literature would merge into a “third culture.” It had a profound effect on my thinking. Brockman puts a similar book out each year, addressing a new question. Find him at the Edge.

Language is metaphor, and that is what makes us human. China Mieville writes of an alien race inhabiting a trading outpost at the edge of the civilized universe in Embassytown. The heroine watches as the Ariekei try to lie and fail, repeatedly. They are not built that way. Their Language requires people to speak in two voices at the same time. Humans that are conjoined twins fill the role of Ambassadors. When a linguistic “virus” invades, all hell breaks loose.

Which brings us back to language. It language itself just a virus, a parasite, riding on the cerebellum and medulla, causing the cerebrum to develop grotesquely large? Read McCarthy.

Wolfe on Darwin and Chomsky

I thought I had decided not to read Tom Wolfe’s latest The Kingdom of Speech, I had read a few reviews and remembered his declining quality since A Man in Full. I have read everything of Wolfe’s except The Painted Word, and found Back to Blood a warmed over Bonfire of the Vanities in Miami, following the same pattern as Man in Full and Charlotte Simmons. I liked his fiction better than his non-fiction. So I was surprised when it showed up in my Kindle. Ah, I had pre-ordered it before reading reviews. Spring break, why not read it? It IS about linguistics, my field.

I was pleasantly surprised. It was a wonderful 192-page rant. He is a great storyteller and a master wordsmith. His arguments sound really really plausible It is also a great lesson in critical thinking, about how a great author can get you to see one side of an argument.

Kingdom of Speech (KoS) has a style that harkens back to Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, but without the energy. In the 70’s he lampooned the liberal elite and their infatuation with the Black Panthers. In KoS he tries something more dangerous, lampooning Chomsky the linguist by way of Darwin and ultimately science as a whole. He doesn’t get away with it, but it is still an entertaining read. And he makes it all sound so plausible.

Wolfe starts with Darwin, and tells a story of another theorist, or scientist, Alfred Russel Wallace, who, according to Wolfe, beat Darwin and had solid evidence to boot, of the theory of evolution. Wallace was the outsider who collected evidence (a bug-catcher) in the Amazon Basin and Malaysia, and presented it scientifically as a theory. Darwin, who spent 20 years in an armchair came up with the theory only after seeing Wallace’s manuscript of an article, racing to publish at the same time with help from insiders. Then he tells a parallel story of Chomsky, tying the two together with the idea that speech is the only thing that makes man different from other animals.

Chomsky in this telling, is the armchair theorist and his Wallace is Daniel Everett, a linguist who studied a small tribe in the Amazon. Like Wallace, Everett used real data to support his claims, but was dismissed by Chomsky who was better connected. Chomsky rode the wave of scientificalization (great word) of the 50’s, but has this idea of a biological seat of language in the brain that is unrealistic, only changing the theory when pressured by other linguists or anthropologists.  An example:

Thanks to Everett, linguists were beginning to breathe life into the words of the anti-Chomskyans of the twentieth century who had been written off as cranks or contrarians, such as Larry Trask, a linguist at England’s University of Sussex. In 2003, the year after Chomsky announced his Law of Recursion, Trask said in an interview, “I have no time for Chomskyan theorizing and its associated dogmas of ‘universal grammar.’ This stuff is so much half-baked twaddle, more akin to a religious movement than to a scholarly enterprise. I am confident that our successors will look back on UG as a huge waste of time.

High drama, but the facts do not bear out the assertations. We see Wolfe focus on one part of the science only, and like his supposed target, ignore any kind of data that gets in the way of a good story.

Teachers: Now a Working Class Profession

magister“From the Sage on the Stage to the Guide on the Side” is now about 20 years old. A little shopworn, but still a…how shall I put it….goal, of some teachers and how they adapt to technology. It is the gist of an Atlantic article by Michael Godsey, a K-12 teacher witnessing the “progress” right before his eyes. Another (and earlier!) way to look at it is John Higgins’ differentiation of teacher as Magister, the German cloak-clad lecturer, and the pedagogue, a poor wise man following around the son of a rich client to explain things to him. Find this in articles from 1983 and 1984, but also in his book from 1988.

pedagogueI have been in meetings all day, discussing the curriculum for next year. One area of contention is control of the part-time teachers (adjunct staff). I felt a palpable want, almost a need, to put restraints on behavior to standardize content among students and classes. And I think that is just because we can. Some adjunct staff even prefer to come in, teach the text, and leave. Labor rules here in Japan now promote this system of itinerant labor by capping any part-time contract at 5 years, requiring the university to make them full time, or let them go. So now we have churn.

But the attitude toward teachers (no, not adjunct staff), even though most are highly qualified to deliver a quality course, even when asked to provide their own materials. And yet…that desire to make sure they are doing not just anything they want is still there.

Which brings me to an article at one of my favorite websites, Hybrid Pedagogy. John Rees asks How long will your class remain yours? Here is the first paragraph.

The late labor historian David Montgomery wrote famously about workers’ control in America during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. “At times the story involved little more than silent and opaque resistance to the demands and innovations of employers,” he suggested in 1979. “At other times, workers in skilled crafts adopted and fought to enforce collective work rules through which they regulated human relations on the job and wrestled with the chronic menace of unemployment.” When I first read those words, I was in graduate school. I never thought they’d actually apply to me. Now, I believe that the working class in academia at all levels of employment are beginning to move from the first set of times that Montgomery described to the second.

He goes on to paint a very dark picture, but does leave the doorway open a crack with the following: “However, the key takeaway here should be that every professor should adopt only those tools that best fit their style of teaching (perhaps including parts of the LMS if they meet a particular need).”

The problem is, that most teachers today don’t know how to use many tech tools for teaching and thus will be at the mercy of those who do, the programmers and instructional designers. So if you don’t start putting some online tools in your toolbox, and learn how to use them in a class, or even outside a class, online, you will have to learn tools assigned to you.

I had my last graduate school class of the academic year (we start in April, end in February), and my student was worried after we went through the Atlantic article (link above). She was worried that she would be out of a job. I told her first, not in Japan. The horizon of change you can see in the US, but here, not even a hint. She is still trying to get a projector and laptop for her high school classroom, all she has now is a blackboard. Second, language learning is like learning a sport, or a musical instrument. Really difficult to put online. So we are safe, as long as we learn how to adapt the tech to us, before the admins try to make us adapt to the tech.

Tired of Mr, Mrs, Ms? Why not Mx?

moto-cross-214937_640No, not motocross, which is what we used when I was a teen on a bike.

This is a salutation, a title. The only time I use this in English any more is when I sign up to present at a conference. Some organizations insist I pick a title. But now on to the crux of the matter.

Why not use Mx for everything? I didn’t realize that sex-based titles have only been around since the mid-1800’s. Go figure. Before that they were mostly about class and status. Read more about this over at Language: A Feminist Guide.