Friday, February 27, 2015

Sunday, February 22, 2015

New rule*

Am I the only one who gets a twinge of cognitive dissonance when I hear the name of the terrorist group Al- Shabaab? Shouldn't they be required to pick a more evil-sounding name, rather than one that makes me think of a 50s doo wop song?

*Apologies to Bill Maher.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Darwin Day!

Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809.  Here's a little tribute to him by a banjo-playing friend up in North Carolina, Donald Zepp.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Anti-vaxers are making me cranky!

A handful of semi-random and in some cases minimally supportable thoughts on the anti-vaccination crowd, spurred by our recent measles "outbreak."

  • I suppose there are some folks who haven't heard about measles in so long, they just assume there's no longer such a thing in the world to worry about.  And so they don't.
  • Some people are against vaccinating their children because numbnuts like Michelle Bachmann have convinced them that vaccines cause mental retardation, autism, or whatever.  Unfortunately, too many Americans are simply not scientifically literate enough to evaluate these kinds of statements, and so they simply take whatever the numbnuts say as truth.  This is a failure of our educational system.
  • And then, there's the cultural thing: The US's extreme independence training and accompanying lack of social responsibility.  It is out of this cultural tradition that we get what I call the right-libertarianism of people like Rand Paul, etc.  This folk model tells us that it's not only OK, but "American," to be what any objective observer would call selfish to the point of dysfunction.  Whatever we do–smoke, drive drunk, walk around carrying a gun, not vaccinate our kids, etc–is ok, because how these behaviors affect other people just does not matter.
  • And of course, there's the religion thing.  For some, vaccination is in  defiance of God's Will: if God didn't want children to die from the diseases we vaccinate them against, He wouldn't have created those diseases in the first place.  Who are we to challenge Him?

These are all bad reasons for not vaccinating your children against what are essentially easily preventable diseases.  In a less independence-trained, and more dependence-trained society, people would care more about how what they do affects others.  Unfortunately, we do not live in that kind of society.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Big news!

Today President Obama announced the start of more normal relations with Cuba. This, after over 50 years of treating Cuba and its people really badly.  There's been the embargo, immoral and condemned by pretty much the entire civilized world.  Perhaps more egregious has been the US's support for terrorist activities against Cuba originating in Miami, and in some cases perpetrated by people who actually brag about what they do.

There's a lot to say, but for now I'll point to some photos I took during a visit to Cuba in 2002. I was attending a conference on education and language at the Universidad de Pinar del Río, which is out at the western end of the island.  They're on Facebook, but they're set to "public" so if you have an FB account you should be able to view them.  Here's a teaser:

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Time to lose that imaginary friend!

OK, here's the thing. I'm pretty sure that religion is not the root of *all* evil. But I am sure that if your imaginary friend is telling you to kill schoolchildren, you need to lose that imaginary friend.  She/he/it is not doing you or the planet any good.  Just lose them.

While we're on the subject, I might give the same advice if your imaginary friend(s) are telling you to hate homosexuals, Blacks, poor people, foreigners, or almost anybody.  Except those whose imaginary friend tells them to kill schoolchildren.  With them, you're on your own.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

What do "White" people know?

In my linguistic anthropology class we are doing semantics, the study of meaning.  Yesterday, the class was presented with pairs of sentences, and asked to decide whether their meanings were the same or different.  For the purpose of this exercise, three kinds of "meaning" were considered: referential, social, and affective meaning.  Referential meaning has to do with what the sentence (or word or phrase) refers to externally: 'the dog' refers to a definite member of the genus Canis.  Social meaning is what the sentence implies about the speakers' membership in some social group or the context (e.g. formal, informal) surrounding the speech event.  Affective meaning is what the sentence implies about the internal state of speakers with regard to what they are saying.

An example might help.  Here are two sentences:
  • I don't see anything.
  • I don't see nothing.
These sentences are the same referentially; they both refer to my not having anything in my field of vision. (Yes, I know, some grammar nazi will try to chime in and claim that the second means that I do see something, but that's just nonsense.)  They are also the same affectively, in that we can't infer anything about the speaker's inner state.  However, they are different socially: we might infer that the speakers are different, with the second belonging to a group that uses non-standard English; or, we might infer that the same person said both but in different social contexts.

Now, in the class yesterday one of the pairs of sentences was this:

  • Is there a Miss Smith in this office?
  • Is it a Miss Smith in this office?

The students presented all sorts of contorted calculations attempting to construct different referential meanings for these two sentences. For example, the 'it' in the second dehumanizes Miss Smith; and so on.  Not one of these students recognized that the second sentence is from African American English, and that it's referential meaning is the same as the first one.  Not one.  I should add that the students in this class were all "White," or rather, none of them belonged to the US hypodescent group labeled "Black."

This led me to wander a little off topic in the class, by questioning whether the lack of knowledge that White people typically have about Black people contributes to situations like what we see happening in Ferguson, etc.  Of course, this little bit of AAE grammar is a little thing, almost inconsequential in itself, but not knowing lots of little things adds up to not knowing a lot.

And, why don't White people have this knowledge?  Why is it that at no time in their "language arts" classes have these students been presented with facts about the linguistic variation that exists all around them?  They've had to wait until they got to university, and then happened to take linguistics for one reason or another.  And some of them are English Education majors, destined to themselves be language arts teachers.

The answer, it seems to me, is that we don't value what Black people know.  To the extent that it differs from more mainstream English, their speech is just a broken, deficient form of that wider English.  Nothing to see here; move along...