27 September 2013

A Lesson in Economy of Characters

*turns on the lights*

Wow. There is a lot of dust in here. And a half-eaten sandwich? Bologna? I don't even like bologna. Where did this come from.

*tosses sandwich into handy trashcan*

I knew one day this would be useful. It was expensive to install, but it is so worth it. Now where was that on switch. Ah, there.

*flips switch on Blog Vacuum XL3*

I'll let that run a minute before i do anything else.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Hello everybody! I see everyone has been waiting a long time. Looks like everyone's here. My mom's in the corner with her puzzle. I see the random fellow i've never met before is still hanging around with his notepad. If you're expecting me to make a grammatical error you can correct, i'm sure you'll find one soon enough, sir. And i think i see the spambots outside the windows, peeking inside for any signs of life. I'm sure they'll join us soon enough.

Well, i'll get right to it.

I've gathered you all here to let you know of a temporary project i'm going to tackle. I've not done anything with this blog in *checks last post* a year and five months! Honestly, i thought it would be longer than that. Since the last time i've written anything here, i've not done much writing at all. It's a shame, i know, which is why i've decided to perform an experiment.

I'm turning 30 tomorrow. Yes, thank you for the applause, Mom. Since 30 is associated with the length of time we call a month, i thought i'd take part in a 30-day challenge starting on my birthday. Every day, i will post something new, something original, something thoughtful or funny to my twitter account, @jargonator.

Little known fact, i've had a twitter account for over three and a half years, maybe even four. Up until now, i've only used it to enter myself into contests or other such shenanigans. For the next 30 days, i'll be using it for a more important task, getting to me think creatively.

Not only will this force me to write something meaningful or witty at least once a day, it's also constraining. With only 140 characters to use, i can't very easily craft a full story or build up the details that so often make something funny. This will be a lesson in economy of characters.

For full disclosure, i must let you know that i've already starting thinking up entries. I figure if Bill Watterson could draw as many Calvin & Hobbes comics in a day as he wanted so build himself some room to work or relax, i can do the same, even if i'm nowhere near same level as Mr. Watterson.

Follow me (@jargonator) if you'd like. I will do my best to make you laugh, or make you think, or at the very least entertain you. You will never see me posting meaningless filler because that's my main complaint with twitter. Who knows, maybe i'll even be able to craft a story Hemingway would be proud of.

20 April 2012

The Grass-Mud Horse

Over a year later, my entry post The Pyramids are Revolting proves prescient. In that post, i wrote about how the efforts of the Chinese government to tightly monitor and prevent talk of the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere were doomed from the start. I wrote about how language cannot be cut off, that people will create new ways of talking about the taboos. An article in The Atlantic Wire gives a very short list of the slang phrases used by the Chinese to talk about what they aren't supposed to talk about. One example has to do with Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei. He was under arrest until a few months back, and even now is closely monitored and cut off from doing what he is best at, stirring up controversy with his art. Supporters have begun talking about him using the phrase 'Love the future.' His surname 'Ai' sounds like the word for 'love'; his given name 'Weiwei' can be converted to the word 'future' with the simple addition of two strokes to the second character. This whole phenomenon is referred to as the Grass-Mud Horse lexicon. The China Digital Times has even put together an actual lexicon of the phrases used. As they describe it, the Grass-Mud Horse was a creature that appeared in a 2009 viral video. The phrase 'grass-mud horse, which sounds nearly the same in Chinese as “f*** your mother” (cáo nǐ mā), was originally created as a way to get around, and also poke fun at, government censorship of vulgar content.' Things really took off after a video of the grass-mud horse defeating the river crab, a homonym for 'harmony' which is a governmental propaganda buzzword. Language, like life, is a hardy beast and will always find a way. Chinese citizens have proven that time and again, but it's always fun to see exactly the creative ways they find to undermine and mock those in charge.

22 December 2011

Two for the Price of One

< dust off >
I don't have time to properly put together a new blog post, but this will do for now. Both for enjoyment and for instruction.

If you haven't known about Dinosaur comics before now, please click on either comic to check out the backlog of comics. Ryan North is one of those consistently funny people you sometimes come across on the internet.

< /dust off >

20 July 2011

Lumos, Squibs and Mundungus, Too

Last week, in honor of the final movie based on the last half of the final book in the series, wordnik.com wrote about the language and words of Harry Potter.

Something fans of the series have known all along is that J.K. Rowling enjoys populating her wizarding world with words and phrases from various areas of science, language and life. Some of them are more obvious, like 'squib.' In our world a squib is a firework that emits sparks without exploding but in her's it's a nonmagical (or magically deficient) offspring of magical parents. Other words aren't noticeable unless you know the original. Dumbledore is the name for the greatest headmaster Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has ever seen. Rowling states she she named him after an Early Modern English word for bumblebee because she 'imagined him walking around humming to himself.'

She also appropriated Latin for her own uses, altering words such as 'lumen' (light) into the light-giving spell 'Lumos!' or 'reparare' (repair) into 'Reparo!', a spell for, well, repairing. Because of her use of real Latin words in her fake magical spells, there are many people who take issue that she is teaching real magic to children. The only thing real about the spells Rowling created for Harry Potter is their basis in the real language of Latin.

Since we're on the subject of spells, let's look more closely at my favorite, and by favorite i'm referring to the Rowling's creation of the words of the spell itself, not what it does in the stories. If you talk about magic or magicians, the first spell people think of is 'abracadabra,' the nonsensical word stage magicians often say when pulling a rabbit out of a hat, or putting a woman sawed in two back together. The word itself is now nonsense, but as close as linguists and philologists can pin down, 'it seems likley that abracadabra [...] derives from one of the Semitic languages, though nobody can say for sure.' Rowling makes a not-so-subtle nod to this word with the Killing Curse, 'Avada Kadavra.' Not only is the curse a close homophone to the nonsensical word we already know, but the second word is 'kadavra,' also a near homophone to the word 'cadaver,' or dead body. This phrase, too, has history. According to a 2004 interview with Rowling, avada kedavra is an ancient spell in Aramaic meaning 'let the thing be destroyed.' She said it was directed at illnesses. She turned it around on its head and made it her own.

I think Rowling's inclusion of this little word-snack is one of the subtleties you don't notice on the first read, but that help make the world more vibrant and real. In fact, the use of names like Skeeter (a term for an annoying pest) and Mundungus (a worde describing either waste animal product, or poor-quality tobacco with a rancid smell) help explain the characters before we even 'meet' them.

Excuse me, all this talk of Harry Potter has me reminiscing. I think i need to go reread the books, again.

(For more language of Harry Potter, visit LanguageRealm.com.)

11 June 2011

Effing Buffalo

A friend of mine once postulated that the eff word was the most versatile in the English language. As someone who has taught English in another country, he can make this claim more genuinely than, say, a college student attempting to excuse swear words in an essay.

My friend's reasoning was that eff can be used as a noun, a verb, an adjective or an adverb. No other word can claim to be the four most common types of words we use to build our sentences.

A noun is a person, place, thing, or idea. Basically, if it exists, it's a noun: 'What do you effers think you're doing?'

A verb is action. It moves, helps or allows nouns to exist: 'Eff this class, i don't need it.'

Adjectives are descriptive words. They give color to nouns: 'Badges? We don't need no eff'ing badges.'

Adverbs do the same as adjectives, but with verbs: 'Can we stop? I'm tired of eff'ing running.'

You could even string them together: 'Eff'ing eff off eff'ing eff'er!' Sure, you sound like Jay from Jay and Silent Bob but it's doable, that's the point.

Recently, i came across another word that's even more versatile than eff. Well, it's not true that i recently learned of the word. I've known it for years, but it was only the past month that i became aware of how it can be used in more ways than the usual.

The word? Buffalo.

It's obviously a noun. That large beast we sing about in 'Home on the Range' ('Oh give me a home, where the buffalo roam...') as well as various cities across the United States, like Buffalo, New York.

Speaking of Buffalo, NY, they are the home of the Buffalo Bills, which illustrates the use of buffalo as an adjective. It's not as pronounced in its 'adjectivity' as 'snowy' or 'green,' but it's an adjective none the less.

It doesn't end here. Buffalo is also a verb. To buffalo someone can mean either to confuse them or to intimidate them. I can almost imagine how both definitions came from the great beast of the plains.

Since 'buffalo' is a noun, a verb and an adjective, we can correctly write 'Buffalo buffalo buffalo.' A synonymous sentence would read 'North American bison intimidate other North American bison.' To obfuscate things further, let's try out 'Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.' This could read ''North American bison from the city of Buffalo, New York intimidate other North American bison, also from the city of Buffalo, New York.'

If you think that's the extent to which this absurdity can go, i have a quote from The Princess Bride to answer. You'd like to think that, wouldn't you?

Linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky has stated that you can string together any number of 'buffalos' together without any punctuation or any other words and it will also be a legitimate sentence. Since Dr. Chomsky is considered to be one of the fathers of modern linguistics, i think we can take his word for it.

So despite how versatile the eff word can be, it appears buffalo reigns supreme. Which is good. Gives us all one more reason not to swear when we're trying to show off our linguistic skills.

28 April 2011

Computers and Language: Part 2

I had to do a bit of dusting to this blog, it's been unused so long. My lenten fast from the internet didn't lend itself to writing an entry, which i didn't take into account when i promised a sequel to this entry. Well, now that the cobwebs are gone and the countertops have been wiped clean, let me get to the point.

Every year since 1991, Dr. Hugh Loebner has offered up a prize of $100,000 to whomever can create a computer program that can pass the Turing Test and pass itself off as a human. The test was thought up in the 50s by Alan Turing in a paper that questions how we understand the idea of machine intelligence.

The basic premise for the test pits humans and machines against one another, but not in the way we've seen on film. Neither Schwarzenegger nor Will Smith have any part of this test. The way Turing proposed to test machines was to give a judge five minutes to converse with both a computer and a human, then determine which was which. If computers ever got more than 30% of the vote, Turing stated we could consider them as thinking machines.

In 2009, journalist Brian Christian took part in the test, put on by Loebner. Since the year previous was a dismal year for the Confederates (the humans attempting to prove their humanness), where one more vote for a computer would have put them over the 30% mark, Christian's goal was to be the best humanity could offer against the computer intelligence onslaught.

Two awards are given at the end of the test: Most Human Computer and Most Human Human. By the end of the test, after facing 12 judges in five minute chat intervals, Christian is given the certificate acknowledging him as the Most Human Human of 2009. Where 2008 was a close call, 2009 was hardly a race. Not a single computer was mistaken by a judge to be human.

As i said in Part 1, there is a small bit of chaos in our interactions with one another. In natural conversation, our minds aren't tracking out the next five things we'll say like a verbal chess match, but that's how we design computers. IBM's Jeopardy master, Watson, would be a horrible conversationalist because it is only programmed to respond in a specific and regimented fashion.

On the flip side, some of the conversations from Turing Tests in years past are quite chaotic.

Judge: it looks like i’ve got to go, Catherine. its been nice talking with you
Judge: do you need water or something before the 5 minute rounds?
Computer: OK, yes on balance … Time to get off this one I think and onto something more down to earth!
Judge: like what?
Computer: Almost certainly! let’s move on
Computer: I suppose it depends on where you’re coming from, but as the song goes in My Fair Lady, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?”

The problem becomes what measure of chaos do we use on a daily basis? When we converse with one another, our personalities mix together like a margarita and create a sometimes tasty sometimes disgusting mix of conversational flow. Topics shift like the tide, ebbing and flowing with ease, revealing previously unknown beaches, covering up that which was recently exposed...

Actually, i've lost where this is going. So, let's regroup.

Oxford philosopher John Lucas said that if we fail and allow our machines to appear more human and pass the Turing Test, it will be “not because machines are so intelligent, but because humans, many of them at least, are so wooden.”

The real test of Turing is not how we can program computers to be more like us, but after the computers have become more human, what does that mean for us? How can we constantly be pushing against ourselves, against humanity, to make us the best versions of ourselves?

To help simplify that down to something manageable, let's go back to Brian Christian's article: 'A look at the transcripts of Turing Tests past is, frankly, a sobering tour of the various ways in which we demur, dodge the question, lighten the mood, change the subject, distract, burn time: what shouldn’t pass for real conversation at the Turing Test probably shouldn’t be allowed to pass for real conversation in everyday life either.'

03 March 2011


I had things come up today that took away my time i was going to use to write part 2, so to hold the fort until tomorrow when i (probably) will finish up, here is a short article on the word OK that is intriguing. Enjoy!