Friday, December 27, 2013

Some kind of abusive behavior?

Republican Congressweasel Paul Ryan (R-WI) is reported to have said:
I grew up reading Ayn Rand, and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are and what my beliefs are. It’s inspired me so much that it’s required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff.
Isn't this some kind of abuse?  Or harassment?  Or a violation of something?  Rand was a demented sociopath who modeled the hero of one of her novels on a man who kidnapped, killed, and chopped up a little girl, and then put her back together on a bench to make her father think he was picking her up after leaving a ransom.

Rand was a despicable human being, and so is Ryan.

Friday, December 13, 2013

A (post-) modern problem

I think postmodernism has created a generation of people who are afraid to commit themselves to an answer to a question, even when the question involves empirical data to be examined.  For example, my final exam in linguistics, just given, contained the following problem:

Review. Examine the data from Tongan (Polynesia). Then answer the questions. Assume that this data set is representative. (3 points)

[tauhi]   'to take care of'       [sino]   'body' 

[sisi] 'garland'                     [totonu] 'correct'
[motu] 'island                     [pasi] 'to clap'
[mosimosi] 'to drizzle'          [fata] 'shelf'
[motomoto] 'unripe'             [movete] 'to come apart'

Based on the evidence, the sounds [t] and [s] are: ___ Contrastive?  ___ Predictable?
Defend your choice.

Now, the correct answer is obtained by noticing that [s] always occurs before [i], and that [t] occurs before other vowels.  Thus [t] and [s] are predictable. In linguistic terms, we can rite a phonological rule:
/t/  ➔ [s] / __ [i];  [t] elsewhere.
However, I didn't require them to write the rule out.  As long as they noticed the distribution of these two sounds, they got credit.  The problem comes when, despite the admonition to take the data set as representative, stuff like this shows up (my emphasis):
[t] is predictable because it is used the same way in the middle of the text and usually following or followed by by a vowel. [s] is also following/followed by a vowel which seems to always be [i].
No, it doesn't seem as though [s] is always followed by [i]; in this data set it is the case that [s] is always followed by [i], and [t] is followed by vowels other than [i].  And then there's this:
[s] is always followed by [i] in Tongan, and [i] can't follow [t]. We don't know if they are phonemes or allophones though, it could be a coincidence that they don't follow [t]'s with high front vowels, maybe [ti] is [di] and we just don't have that data, or
I should point out that we've been working these kinds of problems all semester, and all semester I've stressed that the data sets used in the problems are to be taken as representative of the languages as a whole.  I really do think that postmodernism, despite the good things it's done for us, has damaged students' ability to commit to the solution of a data-based problem.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Stephen Fry on language prescriptivism

Actor Stephen Fry (the Master of Laketown in the new Hobbit movie) does a nice job of dealing with the grammar nazis, who in fact are almost never really complaining about grammar, but that's another post.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

"The Sound of Music"

On a lighter note, sort of. Willy and I are watching "Sound of Music," the remake, on NBC.  My memory of this story cannot be separated from how I first saw it.

It was summer 1968, and my friend George and I had just hitch-hiked from Italy into what was then Yugoslavia.  We stopped in a little town in Slovenia, right on the coast, checked into a campground, and then wandered thru town.  I actually managed to get my hair cut, using my feeble Russian to communicate with the barber.  We noticed a poster for "The Sound of Music" and managed to decode that it was being shown that night.  So we went.

The film was projected onto the wall of what I recall was the town hall.  Many of the chairs arranged in front of the wall were occupied by little old ladies in black peasant garb.  As we watched, they cheered every time the nazis got their comeuppance, and especially when Liesl rejected Rolfe. Surreal, but that's how I prefer to remember it.

Friday, November 22, 2013

November 22

November 22, 1963. I was in my first semester at St. Johns College, in Annapolis. I was heading out for a run when someone told us. No run. My father picked me up a little later and we made the drive to Hagerstown for Thanksgiving break. I don't remember him saying much, but then he was a pretty rabid republican. Anyway, what JFK means to me, more than anything else, is that he gave us the Peace Corps, which led me to Willy and our family. Peace Corps also, incidentally, led me to my career in creole language studies and my passion for the issues involved in nonstandard languages and education. Thanks, JFK...

Friday, November 1, 2013

Thirty years ago today...

Today, November 1, was a Tuesday 30 years ago. I was in Carriacou, Grenada, working on my doctoral research. For the past week, the US military had been invading / intervening in Grenada following the coup against Maurice Bishop and his government. It was early this Tuesday morning that the US finally got around to establishing a presence on Carriacou in the form of US Marines, who landed using these amphibious troop carriers, which caused quite a stir. They seemed lost at first, but eventually found Hillsborough and parked along the main street. Except for wanting to know where the "battalion of North Korean soldiers" was hiding, the Marines seemed very calm and professional, very concerned with maintaining a positive image of themselves; a stark contrast with the Army folk who came in the next day.

That Tuesday night I found myself in the Brunswick cemetery with my old friend, Peter Benjamin and many others, the night to hang out with departed relatives and friends. Mr. Benjamin's wife had passed away, so we sat on her stone, lighting candles and having a rum or two. We hear the Marines walking along the road below the cemetery and talking, apparently wondering what all these people among the graves were doing...

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Remembering the Grenada affair

(It's now 30 years since the end of the Grenada Revolution and the subsequent US invasion. For the 20th anniversary, I wrote the following essay, which appeared as the “backpage editorial” in Folio Weekly, November 25, 2003, p. 79. The magazine has a print run of 46,000 and is read by 143,500 people in Northeast Florida.)


October 26 [2003] marked the twentieth anniversary of the U.S. military invasion of the Caribbean nation of Grenada, a three-island Caribbean nation composed of Grenada, Carriacou, and Petit Martinique. As a witness to that event, I find it instructive — and disturbing — to reflect on this event in light of what is happening in Iraq today.

The principal rationale for the Grenada invasion or intervention (some Grenadians call it the “intervasion”) was the “rescue” of U.S. citizens who were studying medicine at St. Georges University. Then-president Ronald Reagan expressed fear that these students might be taken hostage or otherwise harmed in the wake of an October 19 coup. The coup brought a disturbing end to Grenada’s mildly socialist 1979 Revolution and installed what appeared to be a more severely left-fascist group of leaders. There were other justifications given for the invasion, centering on the idea that Grenada would become a Caribbean military outpost for the Soviet Union and Cuba.

At the time, I was a graduate student doing doctoral research on Carriacou. The Marines reached Carriacou on Nov. 1, after spending a week on the main island of Grenada. When they found out that I was a US citizen, the first question they asked me was about the location of the “battalion of North Korean soldiers.” Now, Carriacou is a twelve-square-mile island inhabited by several thousand people, nearly all of African descent, living in a society where everyone knows everything that’s going on. The idea of a battalion of Koreans hiding there was simply ludicrous. As we see now with Iraq, strange ideas about the “enemy” are nothing new.

And why was Grenada an “enemy”? The inflated threat that Grenada provided in the Cold War environment of Reagan’s presidency included more than these phantom North Korean troops. The Grenada Revolution focused for the most part on social, educational, and health issues, extending for example free education and health care to residents (with help from Cuban doctors). Perhaps these were underlying annoyances for a government that has never been willing to come fully to grips with the health, education, and welfare of its own people, but the Reagan administration found other things to rant about in public. Reagan claimed that a new airport with a runway capable of handling jet planes could only be intended for military use. In fact, Grenadians had been working for a new airport for years, because the old one was dangerously close to the mountains and could handle only smaller prop planes (meaning that Grenadians going abroad or tourists flying into Grenada nearly always had expensive layovers in Barbados or Trinidad). The Reagan administration was also upset by the Cuban presence, even though the Cuban “force” consisted mostly of teachers, doctors, and middle-aged construction workers helping build the new airport (of the 784 Cubans on the island, about 40 were members of the Cuban armed forces).

It was obvious well before the events of late 1983 that the collapse of Grenada’s social experiment was helped along (to put it charitably) by the behavior of the Carter and Reagan administrations. President Carter refused to provide hurricane relief aid to Grenada in August 1980. And in early 1983 Reagan refused to meet with Prime Minister Bishop, who would later be killed in the coup — a move that certainly enhanced the opposition’s ability to portray Bishop as an ineffective leader.

The full extent of U.S. involvement in Grenada will become apparent as documents become available, as they have for US operations in Guatemala, Chile, and other places. As William Blum writes in Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower (Common Courage, 2000): “Reagan administration destabilization tactics against the Bishop government began soon after the [1979] coup, featuring outrageous disinformation and deception.” The similarities to Iraq are hard to ignore. In both Grenada and Iraq, the U.S. has sent its military into a country after an extensive campaign of disinformation and deliberate inflation of the threat they posed. There are parallels in the aftermath as well. For example, just as American soldiers seem to be in more danger after the Bush administration declared the “mission accomplished,” some medical students in Grenada felt more vulnerable after U.S. efforts to “rescue” them than they did before the attack began. Bush II’s premature aircraft carrier celebration of victory echoed Reagan’s public announcement that the medical students had been rescued, although at the time military personnel were still trying to figure out where all the students were.

On November 5, 2003 another parallel between the two campaigns surfaced as the result of an ABC News investigation. In the days between the 1983 Grenada coup and the subsequent invasion, Reagan's State Department rejected attempts by the part of the now-famous medical school to facilitate communication, via their headquarters in New Jersey, between U.S. officials and the leaders of the coup. I believe the State Department's response was, loosely: "Thanks anyway, but we have our own sources of information."

It now appears that the Iraqi leadership was trying to negotiate a deal to avoid war using a Lebanese politician/businessperson as go-between. According to ABC News (November 5, 2003): “A possible negotiated peace deal was laid out in a heavily guarded compound in Baghdad in the days before the war, ABCNEWS has been told, but a top former Pentagon adviser says he was ordered not to pursue the deal.”

The parallels, and the mind-set that produced them, are not coincidence: Some of the same people who guided Reagan/Bush I (Wolfowitz, Perle, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Abrams, etc.) are enjoying a homecoming of sorts as members of the Bush II administration. Although most of them never actually served in combat, they apparently really enjoy sending U.S. citizens into harm's way, even when it could be avoided.

In June 2003, I revisited Carriacou and Grenada to conduct linguistic research. I flew into the new airport, landing on the long runway that Reagan claimed Grenada didn’t need but which the U.S. helped complete after the invasion. Perhaps we did some other things for Grenada. We did not, as far as I know, help replace the Cuban doctors and teachers who had made such a profound impact during the revolution. We did not repair the old mental health hospital, “accidentally” bombed by the U.S. during the invasion; it is still in ruins.

As US citizens, we enjoy unprecedented freedom and liberty, along with unprecedented power. The question is: How will we use it? The neoconservative answer: Dominate the world militarily with “preventive” strikes, not excluding the use of nuclear weapons if necessary, as part of a perpetual war — something neocons consider the natural state of humankind. But is this what we, the people, really want?

The US can offer positive things to the world (the Peace Corps, for example, which first took me to Grenada in 1971). To make the positive dominant, we need to rededicate ourselves to preventive good will, such as helping so-called “third-world” countries like Grenada with schools, hospitals and roads, even when they choose slightly different development paths. Of course, to accomplish this we have to lose the “preventive war” ideology — along with the ideologues that have imposed it on us. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Columbus Day (late, but still relevant)

(Note: The following was written as a letter to the editor to the Florida Times-Union, in response to a Columbus Day editorial which misrepresented the nature of Native American culture and society as well as the nature of the encounter itself. The Times-Union editors exercising their right of freedom of the press- they are, after all, free to publish or not publish whatever they want- did not publish my response.)

In their editorial "Civilization: Day to Remember" (October 11, 2002), the Times-Union editorial writers have provided their readers with an example of precisely why a real university education, as opposed to simple career training, is vital in today's world. The writers display a hair-raising level of ignorance with regard to both the nature of the indigenous American populations at the time of Columbus, and also the nature of the consequences of the Encounter. As if this were not enough, they quote as their authority a "researcher" at the Ayn Rand Institute, a center for the diffusion of ethnocentric polemic hiding under cover of a libertarian "philosophy."

To quote the "researcher": "Prior to 1492, what is now the United States was sparsely inhabited, unused and undeveloped. The inhabitants were primarily hunter-gatherers."  It is true that population density, overall, was lower than in Europe, but in some regions it was certainly as high or higher, where conditions supported dense populations. But that the land was "unused and undeveloped" is Orwellian doublespeak, true only if you define "used" and "developed" by European notions, under which people have to live in one place and practice farming on a bounded plot of land.

Yes, some Native Americans were hunter-gatherers, people who tend to have a very well-elaborated knowledge of their ecosystem and how best to exploit it. And while it is true that such peoples typically lack the ability to store food, and therefore must forage on a daily or near-daily basis, it is not true that their lives are "nasty, brutish, and short" as the "researcher" claims. They generally live very healthy, happy lives, with more leisure time to devote to relaxation, music, storytelling, and sexual trysts than people have in modern industrial societies, unless they’ve been pushed off their productive lands, as is generally the case for today's hunter-gatherers.

Native Americans were not all hunter-gatherers, however. By 1492 they had organized themselves into a diverse array of societal types, including, in several regions, state societies as complex as anything known to the conquering Europeans, complete with social stratification, division of labor, written language, full-time religious specialists, a military, and so on. So, to argue that the Europeans brought "civilization" to the Americas is a blatant lie.

To suggest as the Ayn Rand "researcher" does that there was "little agriculture" in Pre-Columbian America is also a lie. Native American farmers grew an astounding variety of foods. Perhaps their most important contribution to world cuisine was corn, but they also provided potatoes, which became a cheap and easy-to-grow source of food for Europeans. Some other Native American contributions: tomatoes, peanuts, squash and pumpkins, chili peppers, pineapples, various kinds of beans, papaya, guava, avocado, cassava, cocoa (chocolate), and turkeys. Try to imagine Italian cuisine without tomatoes, or the Swiss without chocolate.

What did the Europeans bring to the Americas in exchange for this bounty? They contributed the Eurasian suite of domesticated animals (horses, cattle, pigs, sheep, goats) and grains (wheat, oats, barley, etc.), which were mixed blessings when we take into account the social and ecological disruptions which they caused.  Probably the most important crop contributed by the Europeans was actually one from southeast Asia: sugar cane. But, significantly, this was not a food crop, but rather one which, cultivated and processed into sugar, molasses, and rum by millions of enslaved Africans (industrialized slavery was another European contribution to the New World), provided much of the capital for the industrial revolution and the rise of European world hegemony.

The Europeans also contributed influenza and smallpox, which helped them by killing off huge numbers of Native Americans before they ever even saw a European. They sometimes used smallpox deliberately, in an early form of biological warfare.

My point in writing this is not to put Columbus on trial; after all he's dead, so what would be the point? But, as the historian Howard Zinn says, "to emphasize the heroism of Columbus and his successors as navigators and discoverers, and to de-emphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity but an ideological choice. It serves- unwittingly- to justify what was done."
It also makes it easier to keep doing it.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Today's linguistic ambiguity lesson

The noun phrase "government shutdown" can be heard every few minutes on tv, radio, etc.  This phrase can be interpreted in two different ways.  The preferred way for Teabaggers and their ilk is "shutdown by the government"; the always-bad government is the agent, the one doing the shutting down.  You get this meaning in complaints such as "the government shut down our national parks and monuments."

The reality, I believe, is that it should be understood as "shutdown of the government," with the agent unspecified.  Of course, we know who the agent is: the relatively small but unduly influential gang of aynrandian wingnuts in Congress, feared out of all proportion to their intellectual or moral worth because they are backed by the enormous wealth of people like the Koch Bros.

So it's really Ted Cruz, Michelle Bachmann, Rand Paul, and their buddiess in Congress that have shout down the government; not the government itself.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Digging deeper and deeper

According to a story in the Huffington Post, these buttons really were spotted at the California GOP Convention "outside of a VIP reception area." According to the person who (allegedly) tweeted the photo, they disappeared soon after.

So, what do we learn from this? (1) Some GOPers are abysmally sexist; and (2) They don't understand either liberalism or communism.

Also, I hope KFC sues them for every cent they've got.

Friday, October 4, 2013


October marks the 30th anniversary of the US intervention/invasion (sometimes called "intervasion") of Grenada.  I am starting to write some about this, but for now, this teaser:

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

September 11, again

OK, for the past two years I wrote posts on this date referring to various dissatisfactions, frustrations, etc. that have developed since the original September 11, 2001.  I'm pretty much doing the same thing this year.  Please go and have a look at the previous ones:

September 11, 2011.

September 11, 2012.

So, what's new this time?  Yet again we are debating the idea of bombing Middle Eastern people.  Except, this time we are thinking of bombing Syrians as punishment for Syrians bombing Syrians.  Yeah, it doesn't make sense to me either.  Just the same old same old.  Fortunately, there appears to be a semi-plan in the works that might allow us to avert what will almost certainly be a disaster if the strikes our leaders are planning are carried out.  We just have to wait and see.

The most disturbing part of this is that there is floating around out there a whisper of a suggestion that the chemical weapons attack we are justifiably worked up about might- just might- not have been carried out as an attack by the Syrian regime, but rather an accident of sorts caused by the incompetence of people handling these weapons.  Again, we have to wait and see.  But the apparent absence of discussion of this possibility brings to mind...

  • The Gulf of Tonkin "incident" used as justification for our involvement in Vietnam, later turning out to be a fabrication;
  • The fabricated "danger" to American medical students posed by the coup in Grenada in late 1983, which provided justification for the US invasion of that country;
  • The fabricated "evidence" of WMD in Iraq, which provided justification for the invasion of that country.

I can't speak to the Tonkin thing, but in the case of both Grenada and Iraq, US officials had made up their minds to do what they were going to do, and they were explicitly unwilling to "hear" any evidence that might have derailed their plans, even when such evidence was offered to them.

And now, we have Syria.  Are we absolutely, positively, 100% certain that our leaders' claims about the cause of those deaths from chemical agents, which clearly did happen, are accurate?  Accurate enough to warrant killing Syrians to teach Assad a "lesson?"

I don't know.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013


Ok, so we're about halfway through the first week of classes, and I'm noticing more women students sporting tattoos.  Not the subtle little bees and butterflies, but big honking tattoos that cover arms and legs.  Makes me think of a song by David Holt, "Strange Woman Blues," see below.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

August 6, 1945

From the Zinn Education Project:  "On Aug. 6, 1945, the U.S. dropped the world's first atom bomb over the city of Hiroshima. Shinichi Tetsutani (then 3 years and 11 months) loved to ride this tricycle. That morning, he was riding in front of his house when, in a sudden flash, he and his tricycle were badly burned. He died that night."

Sunday, August 4, 2013

A brief rant

Here's my radical and no doubt easily ridiculed take on Manning, Snowden, the NSA, etc.:

All government should be in the sunshine.  No secrets, no lies, everything in the open for all to see.  If the country has to rely on secrets and lies to survive, it's not worth saving. And I am, having just passed the 68-year mark, becoming increasingly convinced that the survival of this country is not worth the price we and the rest of the world are having to pay.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Anthropology News essays on science

Anthropology News has a series of essays on science up on its website.  My contribution is titled Illustrating Science Through Language.  My essay argues that the scientific method can be applied to cultural artifacts and is not limited to quantitative analysis.  The essay is essentially a lesson plan that introduces the concepts of data, evidence, contrast, objectivity, hypothesis, falsification, and theory through the analysis of a small piece of language.  By acting as the data-collectors, students play a key role in working through this exercise and also begin to develop an idea of what linguistic fieldwork is like.

Monday, July 8, 2013

ULL still abusing faculty...

A friend/colleague at the University of Louisiana/Lafayette met his first class of the summer term today.   Since the class is somewhat "under-enrolled" he still does not know how much less than the usual $2300 for a short summer course he's going to receive. (Note: that's already less than we pay adjunct faculty per course at my university, and this colleague is a permanent faculty member.)

Update (July 10, 2013):
I just learned that my colleague will be paid $1500 for teaching this three-credit class to a small number of students.  An adjunct at UNF would receive at least $2000, and likely more depending on how much they had been teaching for us.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

On a lighter note...

A monument to lab rats used in DNA research; Novosibirsk, Russia.  Not sure who the photo really belongs to.

Another July 4th

It's another July 4th.  I've written down some thoughts about this holiday here and also here. What I wrote in those posts still holds pretty much true, but I want to throw a little more fuel on the fire:
  • While we have (finally) more or less pulled the troops out of the ongoing disaster that is Iraq, we have continued the certifiably insane policy of using drones in various places to take out people identified as enemies of the US.  While we're about this, we also routinely blow up random people who happen to be near the people we are targeting.  There is no way that this isn't a violation of at least a couple of international conventions.
  • We continue to keep a number of people captured early in the "war on terror" at our offshore detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.  Some number (probably all) of these people should not be there. President Obama has said repeatedly that he wants to close this facility, and yet he does not appear to have the moral/political will to do it.  This, too, has to be a violation of something.
  • Meanwhile, our own Supreme Court has decided that the the part of the Voting Rights Act that pertains to ensuring that states with a history of preventing people, especially non-white people, from voting have to clear any changes to their voting rules with the Justice Department is no longer necessary, apparently because systemic racism is a thing of the past.  Immediately after that decision was announced, Texas legislators began working on voting regulations that would make it harder for non-white people in Texas to vote.  Hmmm...   And at the same time, we have the spectacle of southern bad food purveyor Paula Dean going down for having used the "N-word," among other things.  And, we have an African American witness for the prosecution in the murder trial of George Zimmerman being publicly ridiculed for speaking one of the three languages she is fluent in: Black English.  She is also fluent in Spanish and Haitian Creole. Despite this intellectual advantage that she holds over most other 'Muricans, her testimony can't be trusted because of the language she expresses it in.
  • And now we have this case of Edward Snowden, who made public for the American people documents showing that that their own National Security Agency has been building a vast database of "metadata" on their emails, phone calls, etc.  For this, Snowden has been labeled a "traitor" and "spy," and as I understand it he has been or is about to be formally charged with "espionage."  Can anyone explain to me how it's "espionage" when someone lets US citizens know what their own government is doing to them?  This seems pretty Orwellian to me.  Orwellian, but I guess understandable considering that we now live in a Police State.
  • Rethuglicans in the House, meanwhile, have again, for the 37th time I believe, tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act popularly (and often derisively)  referred to as "Obamacare."  They appear to be completely uncaring about the positive effects the ACA has already had for many people.  In fact, they just don't care about non-elite folks at all; they holler "class warfare" whenever someone brings this up, but they are in fact the ones carrying out class warfare against everyone who does not belong to their class, and that's a lot of us.  Never mind that "Obamacare" is not what many of us wanted: the abolition of the health insurance industry and the institution of a single-payer health care access system. 
I've said it before and I'll repeat it here: The "American Revolution" was not a revolution.  In a revolution, the people on the bottom end up on top.  What happened in the British colonies that eventually became the United States was a beheading.  The level of rulers at the very top, the British Crown, was lopped off.  The people at the top in the colonies remained on top, while slaves remained slaves, women remained women, Native Americans remained pretty much nobody.

But we've been fed this unsatisfying meal of apple pie, ice cream, and hot dogs for so long that hardly anyone questions it.

Friday, May 31, 2013

"Old Mother Flanaghan"

A simple fiddle tune, played on banjo (me) and guitar (Nancy Levine).  It's a little slow, but I like these tunes a little on the slow side, as opposed to rushed.


Update: Boyne tow-path and castle, County Meath, Ireland; photo by Wade Tarzia.

Monday, May 27, 2013

The tyranny of One

Author Stephen King, in his book On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft (Scribner 2010), calls for, among other things, the reduced use of adverbs. But that's not what I want to focus on. I want to call your attention to this sentence from the book:
(1)  With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.
This is almost painfully clumsy to read. Of course, it is a reaction to the years of prescriptive "grammarians" telling us, untruthfully, that he is a generic pronoun referring to anybody, which in those bad old days would have made King's sentence look like this:
(2)  With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he is afraid he isn’t expressing himself clearly, that he is not getting the point or the picture across.
The problem with this last sentence is that while the Noun Phrase the writer carries no gender, he does: it's masculine.  We know that he has never been a true generic, and we also know that the idea that it should be used as generic originated in England as Rule 21 in John Kirkby's 1746 treatise Eighty-eight Grammatical Rules.  Rule 21 states that male is "more comprehensive" than female and therefore he should be taken to include both feminine and masculine gender.

It was reaction to this rule that got us he/she-ing and himself/herself-ing all over the place.  The result is clumsy language; if you don't believe me read sentence (1) again.  Fortunately, there is a more elegant way: Make the sentence plural.  In English, the third-plural pronouns carry no gender at all, and King's unhappy screed against adverbs would look like (3):
(3)  With adverbs, writers usually tell us they are afraid they aren’t expressing themselves clearly, that they are not getting the point or the picture across.
Why don't we just do this all the time?  I think there's another aspect of our culture at work against us, and that is the tyrrany of the number one, or singularity.  One is one of our magical numbers: we like one Right Answer, one Most Valuable Player, one Winner, and so on.  We prefer singular when we can get it, and our default form for talking about generic entities is singular (the writer, the whatever).  

By the way, King also recommends that writers have at hand a copy of Strunk and White's Elements of Style.  This is bad advice, unless accompanied by the caution not to take anything they say about grammar too seriously. But do start putting sentences in plural form, to avoid both Kirkby's wrongheaded gender prescriptivism as well as the awkwardness of those double pronouns.

Memorial Day, again...

OK, once again it's Memorial Day, the day when we "honor" and "thank" those who have lost their lives in our many military adventures over the years.  And, as usual, I post a photo of my Mom and Dad, getting married during World War II.

WWII may or may not have been a war that we entered for good reasons.  After all, the event that put us in the game, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, was an attack on an American colonial outpost in the Pacific, not on America itself.  But I'll leave that discussion, if I may, for another time.

If we grant ourselves WWII, that still leaves numerous activities that are far more easily labeled "wars of choice": Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, the first Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq...  In every case, many many lives and much resources could have been saved if our involvements in these places had been carried out differently. In some cases, if not all or at least most, we are looking at war crimes and crimes against humanity.  Do we really want to keep sending people to be maimed or die while committing such crimes, crimes ordered by people who who are taking no risk themselves since they don't recognize the jurisdiction of the relevant international judicial bodies?

It just seems to me that rather than "honoring" and "thanking" our fallen, we should be apologizing to them and their families and friends, telling them we are sorry that we have done this to them.  And then we should stop doing it.

Friday, May 17, 2013

A simple (?) question

I just gave the students in my summer Introduction to Anthropology class a "practice test" to make sure they are familiar with Blackboard, which I use for online testing, communicating, and discussing things with students between our class sessions.  One of the questions was:
Which is the most valid statement regarding human evolution?
  1. Humans evolved from chimpanzees.
  2.  Humans evolved from theropod dinosaurs.
  3. Humans evolved from lobe-finned fishes.
  4. Humans evolved from bats.
Interestingly, 100% of the students answered (1), chimpanzees.  The correct answer is (3), lobe-finned fishes.  Humans did not evolve from chimpanzees, humans and chimpanzees both evolved from a common ancestor that was neither a human nor a chimpanzee.  And this common ancestor, like all tetrapods, evolved from lobe-finned fishes.

Students didn't lose any points over this, but it is instructive. This is a sort of snapshot of the level of general awareness and understanding of evolution that people have, if they are forced to think about it.  I wonder what would have been the result if I had included a choice like "Humans evolved from Adam and Eve, who were created in the Garden of Eden some 6,000 years ago."

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Happy Mother's Day!

I found this photo of my Mom and me, taken in August 1950.  We were living in a little cottage in the pass over South Mountain, Washington County, Maryland, just off US 40.  Now, Interstate 70 also goes over the same pass. The house was less than half a mile from the Appalachian Trail.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

End of semester: The good

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The terrorism of the Homeland

Driving to work this morning, I listened to Diane Rehm on NPR. Some guests were contrasting the "terrorism" committed in Boston with the "industrial accident" in West, Texas.
I'm sorry, but the explosion in West, which killed 14 people and injured a couple of hundred, is an example of state-sponsored terrorism against the American people.  This is the terrorism of the capitalist mode of production, aided and abetted by sociopaths in government who don't believe in regulating potentially dangerous industries or in safe zoning laws to ensure that people aren't living and working in harm's way of these facilities.
We are in far more danger from this type of home-grown, structurally pervasive terrorism than we are from any Islamic jihadists.

Monday, April 15, 2013

I agree with Bill Maher

Bill Maher said this on "Real Time" Friday night (April 12), and I agree:
"This is the problem with the gun debate is that it’s a constant center-right debate. There’s no left in this debate. Everyone on the left is so afraid to say what should be said which is the Second Amendment is bullshit. Why doesn’t anyone go at the core of it?"
Why indeed? This amendment is an anachronism. The firearms we have today can shoot more bullets in one second than people in those days could fire in five minutes. But that's not the main issue. The crucial point is that this amendment was added to the Constitution to satisfy white southern slaveowners, who wanted to be sure of having their arms handy in case of slave revolts. And, it was written at a time when the US, in its fledgling state, had no serious standing army. When the Framers wrote of a "well-regulated militia," they weren't thinking about whackjobs like Ted Nugent leading a force of white supremacists against imaginary black helicopters sent from Washington to enslave them.

Friday, March 29, 2013

This one time, at banjo camp...

Here are two of the many reasons why Suwannee Banjo Camp is so awesome.  Cathy Fink and Adam Hurt play "Coleman's March."

Sunday, March 24, 2013

More complaining about students

OK, so the linguistics students had an assignment to write an ecology of a specific dialect of a language.  They were to avoid broad generalized "languages," like "Spanish" or "Japanese," and focus on more localized varieties such as "Panamanian Spanish" or "Tokyo Japanese."

The ecology is developed by answering questions based on my reinterpretation of an article by Einar Haugen in The Linguistic Reporter, Winter 1971, page 25.  My questions:
  • What is the name of the language variety (what do its speakers call it; what do nonspeakers call it; what do linguists call it)?
  • Who are its users, and how are they grouped by nation, geographical location, class, religion, or any other relevant grouping?
  • What larger “language” does it belong to? What are the main closely related dialects?
  • What other dialects are employed by its users?
  • Is this dialect written? If so, how and in what contexts?
  • Is its use restricted or limited in certain ways, for example religion or ritual, written literature, legal proceedings, folk tales, and so on?
  • What issues of power and authority are relevant to this dialect?
  • Is the dialect endangered? If so, what factors might be involved? If not, what might be contributing to its vitality?
Most of the students turned in papers that correctly identified a dialect to write about, but then proceeded to ignore the questions.  Some wrote about their personal reasons for being interested in this dialect; others focused on issues of grammar; others focused on other issues not really relevant to the questions at hand.

And, far too many offered a list of references but did not bother to cite those references in the text of their papers.

What do we do, when our university students can't do what they should have learned to do in high school?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A binder full of hominids

Today, students in my Physical Anthropology class did their hominid phylogeny lab.  They were confronted by this cast of characters (from left: Australopithecus afarensis, A. africanus, Paranthropus aethiopicus, Paranthropus boisei, Homo habilis, and H. erectus):

The students' task was to make a series of observations on these skulls, record them, and then use their results to create hypotheses about the phylogenetic relationships among them: how closely or distantly they're related, and who is most likely ancestral to whom.  The observations involved were:
Presence or absence of sagittal crest
Presence or absence of nuchal crest
Rounded or angular occipital area
Overall length of skull
Overall width of face
Maximum width of premolars
Maximum width of molars
Maximum height of brow ridge
It was nice to see the students going around the lab, moving from skull to skull, making their observations and helping each other out.  The real point of the exercise is not whether they come up with the "right" answers (do even the experts know them?).  It's that for a little while, they are engaged with real-world data, or at least as close as we can to it.

And they discover that the real world can be messy. Some of the measurements are fairly straightforward, such as the length of the skull.  But some, such as molar width, are not always so easy, due to the condition of the fossils.  Some of the observations are about deciding whether a feature is present or not.  Sagittal crests are pretty easy to spot, but nuchal crests seem to give them more trouble and I could hear them arguing about it.  Perhaps most perplexing of all is the occipital region: is it rounded, or is there some angularity to it?

I tried to help them by putting out a male orangutan with very clear sagittal and nuchal crests, but it didn't sound like it helped much.  I also suggested that if they find themselves looking at a skull and wondering whether some feature is there or not, it probably isn't.  That may not have helped much either.

For all the above reasons, this is my favorite lab exercise.  We'll see what happens when they turn in their completed assignments next week.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Matthews: Republicans using the Cold War playbook

In the "Let Me Finish" segment of his MSNBC program Hardball last night, host Chris Matthews put a name to the Beast in a way that I cannot recall seeing on the mainstream media.  Matthews drew a parallel between the way the Republicans constantly block virtually anything President Obama tries to do, sometimes including things they themselves had previously supported, and the way the US brought down governments they didn't like (Guatemala, Chile, the Dominican Republic, etc.) during the Cold War.

During the Cold War, when the people of a country elected a leader that the US was not comfortable with, the CIA and other agencies went to work to bring down that leader.  As Matthews puts it, this is what is happening with Obama.  Many Republicans in high places see him as elected by mistake, like Chile's Allende, and so their job is to make him fail, as we did with Allende.  Just as the Chilean people had the temerity to elect for themselves a socialist leader, the American people have elected (twice!) a relatively progressive leader who also just happens to be African American.  This situation must be corrected.

My additional take: Since Obama can hardly be called a "socialist" in any meaningful sense of the term, we are left with the impression that what bothers Republicans the most is that he is African American. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Wait. What?

This may be the weirdest story I've heard in a long time.  I have not yet seen the new documentary Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, about attempts over the years by high-ups in the Catholic church to hide the church's rampant pedophilia.  But, according to a review in the San Francisco Chronicle, the makers of the film claim that:
In 1965, the Rev. Gerald Fitzgerald, who had co-founded the Servants of the Paraclete, advanced a plan to have the church buy the Caribbean island of Carriacou and even put a down payment on the island. His plan was to move all the pedophilic priests to the island to keep them from harming other children - like some kind of sexual deviant version of an old-fashioned leper colony. While the idea seems absurd, the fact that it was even considered shows how committed the church was to the cover-up.
 Wow.  Can this be true?  Carriacou is where I spent my Peace Corps service (1971-74) and also where I have, over the years, carried out linguistic research on the English and French Creole languages spoken there. Due to its French colonial past, Catholicism has been a fixture of Carriacou culture for centuries.  But this, really?

If it is true, what was supposed to happen if the "sale" went through, I wonder?  Would the local people be allowed to continue living there, and if so, what sort of safeguards would have been put in place to protect the island's children from these repugnant "priests?"  And if the idea was to move them, where would the 3,000 or so people have been moved to?  Or were the descendants of African slaves on a little Caribbean island sufficiently unimportant that nobody really cared? 
And what role might the Grenadian leader of the time, Eric Gairy, have played in this?  Given that Carriacou was typically the center of political opposition to Gairy, and remembering what sort of leader he was, it's not hard to imagine him selling off the people of Carriacou, especially if enough money were involved.
I'm no fan of religion, especially Big Religion, but it's hard even for me to believe that a religion could foster such obscene callousness.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

CNBC: University professor is the "least stressful job"

According to, and as reported by CNBC, university professor is the "least stressful job" for 2013.  Here's what Tony Lee, publisher of, says about it:
"If you look at the criteria for stressful jobs, things like working under deadlines, physical demands of the job, environmental conditions hazards, is your life at risk, are you responsible for the life of someone else, they rank like 'zero' on pretty much all of them!" Lee said.
Plus, they're in total control. They teach as many classes as they want and what they want to teach. They tell the students what to do and reign over the classroom. They are the managers of their own stress level."
Let's go through some of this and see how it holds up.

Working under deadlines.  Hmmm...  I am always under some kind of deadline:  deadline for ordering textbooks; deadline for posting my syllabuses; deadline for posting office hours (coming up soon); deadline for entering midterm grades for freshmen; deadline for posting final grades online; and so on.  And those are just the teaching deadlines.  There are deadlines for applying for things, deadlines for signing things, deadlines for...  well, you get the picture.

Physical demands of the job.  Ok, in general this gig is not too physically demanding, but you can get pretty tired mentally and physically by the time you finish teaching for a day.  And try moving back and forth in front of 30 or 40 or a couple hundred students, lecturing and at the same time fielding some of the most off-the-wall questions you can imagine.  When you walk into a class and confront a group of college students, you really never know exactly what is going to happen, and you have to be able to think on your feet.

Environmental conditions hazards.  Yeah...  We actually had our social sciences building demolished because it was "sick," and making the people who inhabited it sick.  And, a few years ago I stood on a chair to put a video in a classroom VCR; the chair collapsed under me and I came away with a broken little finger, which required a trip to the emergency room so the good doctor could put the finger back together.

Is your life at risk?  Do I even have to say anything about standing up in front of dozens of people and telling them something they don't like to hear, in this day and age?  Especially when some of them are failing?

They teach as many classes as they want and what they want to teach.  No, not really.  At UNF we teach three classes per semester (in addition to performing service and research).  Those classes are dictated largely by what will put seats in the classroom chairs.  I'd love to teach a course on Caribbean Creole languages (my research specialty), but I'll likely never get to as long as I am where I am, because not enough people will sign up for it. What classes we teach is also dictated by our curriculum, which includes core courses that have to be taught, every semester.

They tell the students what to do and reign over the classroom.  "Reign" over the classroom, do we?  It doesn't feel that way to me.  One reason is the cultural attitudes students bring toward higher education and faculty.  We, the professoriate, are probably the most reviled class in America.  Articles like this one are a major reason why.

I'm guessing that Tony Lee never had to put together a tenure and promotion dossier, or an application for a summer research grant, or, well, whatever.

God's grade inflation, and more...

Tomorrow is the start of classes at my school.  I'll be doing Linguistic Anthropology (36 students), Physical Anthropology (28 students), and an Introduction to Anthropology (127 students signed up, but the cap is 200).  These are all undergraduate classes: we have no graduate program in Anthropology.  And thus, no teaching assistants for grading, etc.

Meanwhile....  A couple of days ago a small plane carrying three people crashed into a home south of here.  The only survivor was the person who was at home.  She came out pretty much unscathed and declared "God is good."

Uh huh.  God puts four people in extreme jeopardy, kills three of them, and is pronounced "good."  I wouldn't give a student a "good" if they made 25% on a test. God must be benefitting from grade inflation.