Shared posts

24 Sep 10:27

‘Haha and hehe denote laughter in both Latin and English,...

‘Haha and hehe denote laughter in both Latin and English, and they sound like laughing when you say them.’ So says my favourite part of the grammar textbook by Ælfric (d. c  1010), Old English author + teacher (Harley MS 3271, f. 90r). -A V Hudson on twitter

22 Sep 06:54

Take a Look at Lobbying

by Evan Stewart

Political sociologists often study how relationships and resources shape democratic institutions. Classic works like C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite and G. William Domhoff’s Who Rules America? focused on the way wealth and status wield influence. More recent studies about think tanks and industry advocacy groups look at the current power of lobbying and thought leadership. When we talk about “big money” in politics, it is useful to understand exactly what that money is doing. 

One of the challenges for studying elite influence in politics, however, is that much of this influence happens behind closed doors or hidden in a complicated bureaucracy of regulation and reporting.

This is why I’m excited about a new project led by MIT Associate Professor In Song Kim called LobbyView. The team at LobbyView has pulled together a database of lobbying reports filed under the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 and made it fully searchable and downloadable. Now, you can enter an organization and see exactly what kinds of policies they work on. The results might surprise you.

For example, here are the results from a quick search for the Family Research Council—a prominent lobbying group representing the religious right. When I talk about conservative Christian advocacy, most people immediately think about pro-life policy and same sex marriage. LobbyView’s text analysis of their reports shows a much wider range of issues in their legislative advocacy.

Top 10 two-word issues pulled from Family Research Council lobbying reports—LobbyView CC

You can also see where the money is going. Over the full range of reports collected by LobbyView, FRC has spent about 1.6 million dollars. While much of that went to issues coded under family policy, healthcare, and religion (as we would expect), they also advocate on legislation in foreign policy and defense spending.

Family Research Council lobbying expenditures 1999-2018—LobbyView CC

Try it out for yourself and see what your industry is working for in Washington!

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

(View original at

20 Sep 12:08

Lord Bonkers' Diary: "For me he’s delivered that too well"

by Jonathan Calder
I'll say this for Lord Bonkers: since I met him I have learnt all sorts of things about the history of the Liberal Party that you won't find recorded by any historian.


I read this morning that Vince Cable intends to bring back supporters of our party. I say “bring back” because I well remember the days when we Liberal Party activists would be accompanied by people clad in bobble hats and scarves and carrying rattles, all of them in party colours.

They would cheer one’s every effort and often pass supportive comments such as "A great piece of canvassing by the Rutland peer there, Ron" or "The councillor’s passed him the bundle of leaflets and they’ve gone straight through the letterboxes." (Occasionally one would hear less obliging opinions such as “You’ll win nothing with Young Liberals” or “For me he’s delivered that too well”.)

I once asked a supporter, after we had lost a Kesteven County Council by-election by a distance, what he got from it. “We’ve had a great day out,” he replied, “and this is our cup final.”

Lord Bonkers was Liberal MP for Rutland South West 1906-10.

Previously in Lord Bonkers' Diary:
20 Sep 11:56

lynati: Kory Stamper on twitter: Happy to announce I’m offering a new fall class, “Singular ‘They’...


Kory Stamper on twitter

Happy to announce I’m offering a new fall class, “Singular ‘They’ is 700 Years Old, What Is Your Problem, OMG,” which will consist of me standing on a desk yelling at you in Middle English. (3 credit hours)

20 Sep 11:56

Fighting to Save Indigenous Sign Languages | The Tyee

Fighting to Save Indigenous Sign Languages | The Tyee:

Sign languages are often overlooked in endangered-language revitalization, but some determined individuals are working to change that - an article in The Tyee. Excerpt: 

Max and Marsha Ireland live near London, Ont. They are Haudenosaunee Shawnee of the Six Nations Iroquois, which include the Oneida Nation.

Marsha is a deaf member of the Turtle Clan and will turn 60 in December. Max is 59 and a Bear Clan member. Together they have five children. Four are totally deaf, and one can hear with a hearing aid. They have nine grandchildren. Seven are deaf and only two can speak and hear.

With the help of Elder Olive Elm, the couple has come up with 250 signs, a 13-letter alphabet (just like spoken Oneida) and signs that let people count up to 100. They are determined to create an Oneida Sign Language based on Plain Indigenous Sign Language once widely used by Indigenous people, not ASL.

“It is a combination of reviving and expanding. A connection with the spoken-word Oneida. So we are developing signs that go with that. We have also included some earlier Plain Sign Language to be incorporated with that as well,” said Max Ireland.

Due to their work, the Irelands have met Indigenous people from Ontario, Quebec and B.C. Some remembered their Elders using sign language.

“They say, ‘Oh, I remember my grandmother talking like that. I remember my grandfather talking like that.’ It’s been around,” said Max Ireland.

“Like our own spoken language, it is not being promoted and used the way it should be.”

Indigenous Sign Language provides deaf First Nation individuals with a chance to participate in the community and connect with their Indigenous spoken language, he said.

Read the whole thing

20 Sep 11:55

linguist idea: ouija board in the international phonetic...

linguist idea: ouija board in the international phonetic alphabet

20 Sep 11:49

lingthusiasm: Space babies and more new merch! New merch...


Space babies and more new merch!

New merch alert! 

Space Babies

What language would we speak in space? Thanks to the Space Race, languages of space are English and Russian, and aboard the International Space Station, the astronauts and cosmonauts speak to each other in an English-Russian hybrid language, a sort of Space Pidgin. But of course, we wondered, if babies start being born in space, presumably they’d transform Space Pidgin into a fully grammatical Space Creole.

Based on the popularity of the languages of space moment in episodes 1 and 7, and the support of our patrons, Lingthusiasm has commissioned an artistic rendering of Space Babies communicating adorably with each other while they float through the cosmos, complete with tiny plush-toy Space Pigeon. (Longer story here.) Check out our linguist-turned-artist Lucy Maddox’s website for more of her ridiculously charming work.  

Space Babies are fictional, but real babies on earth deserve to have support in the full spectrum of human languages. A portion of the proceeds from the Space Baby merch will be donated to the Resource Network for Linguistic Diversity.


Hang out with Space Babies to make your office or bedroom show off the mysteries of language and the wonders of the universe!

The classic Space Baby circle on a rectangular galaxy background, as a poster or as a more durable smallish four-ply art board.


Wear some Space Babies around your neck to remind yourself to ponder the mysteries of language and the wonders of the universe as you go about your day!

Two Space Babies at each corner and two more in the centre of the scarf, for maximum draping versatility.


Houston, we have a problem…your phone is insufficiently lingthusiastic!

A circle of ten Space Babies OR Space Pigeon on a case to adorn your iPhone or Samsung Galaxy.  


Adorn your laptop, notebook, or other hard-sided case with this international array of ten frolicking Space Babies on five stickers.

Five stickers all sold together on one page, in a durable vinyl finish: we strongly recommend getting the MEDIUM or LARGE size rather than the SMALL, as the designs on the small stickers get a little fuzzy around the edges.


The intrepid lil Space Pigeon plushie as its own full-sized sticker to hang out with you on your laptop or stickerboard.

All sizes are good for the Space Pigeon, because it’s a single sticker by itself.


We couldn’t make merch with babies ON it without making it FOR babies! Space Pigeon available on baby t-shirts, short-sleeved onesies, or long-sleeved onesies, in a variety of colours. (We recommend black, navy, or dark grey for maximum Space Vibe.)


Space Babies (in a line OR in a circle) or Pigeon t-shirts are a subtle lingthusiastic nod as you go about your day! Adult t-shirts available in classic, fitted, and relaxed cuts on a variety of colours. (We recommend black, navy, or dark grey for maximum Space Vibe.)


Bring some cuteness to your kitchen or office with these mugs, available with Space Babies, or with Pigeon!

Plus, a few new non-Space Baby merch items

While we’re adding new merch, we also added a few new things in other categories!  

Not judging your grammar, just acquiring it - Baby clothes!

Babies can be descriptivists too!

Enjoy this playful riff on our original NOT JUDGING YOUR GRAMMAR, JUST ANALYSING IT t-shirts, mugs, tote bags, and zippered pouches for the too-young-to-be-analyst set. Baby shirts and onesies (short and long sleeved) in light grey on a variety of colours - the perfect gift for the linguist or language-nerd friend of yours who’s having a baby!

I want to be the English schwa. It’s never stressed. T-shirts!

Who wouldn’t want to be a schwa? Amuse the heck out of your fellow linguists with this soft-fabric, bold-message t-shirt, in light grey text on various colours and fitted, classic, and relaxed cuts.

IPA Scarves

New colours available! You can now check out scarves with an International Phonetic Alphabet print on them in white on plum, forest green, and royal blue, in addition to the existing colours of navy blue, red, olive, black, grey, light pink, teal, rainbow stripes, or rainbow with black and brown stripes.

(Not seeing a colour you’d love to wear? This is also a reminder that we’re happy to make custom colours of the IPA or tree diagram scarves for patrons at any level.)

IPA Ties

By popular request, we’re also making IPA ties available via Zazzle - the same IPA print as the scarves, but now smaller and on a necktie for your lingthusiastic formalwear needs! (Alas, we couldn’t find anywhere that would do custom single-order bowties - if anyone knows of a Redbubble/Zazzle-equivalent for bowties do let us know!)

Here, we have a special request! We normally order sample merch items before making them publically available, to see if we want to adjust the size of the print on the actual item and any other tweaks, and so we can take photos of it to share on social media. But neither of us really wear ties, so we’re looking for a couple volunteers who are willing to order an IPA tie at a significant discount, take some photos of it when it arrives, and give us your feedback on whether we should change anything for the official version.

You do run the risk that there may be some small flaws in the tie print, but the sample items we’ve ordered for ourselves have all been totally wearable, so if you think the discount and excitement of getting to have it first is enough to outweigh that, please send us a message (email and we’ll send you the advance link to order. We’ll update this post with the official order link once a couple willing testers have received their ties and we’ve made any necessary tweaks!

Brought to you by Lingthusiasm: clothing and merch that’s enthusiastic about linguistics! Lingthusiasm the podcast transforms your boring commute or chores into a lively, nerdy conversation, and now you can wear your linguistics fandom on your sleeve, around your neck, and surrounding your coffee or books.

As ever, we’d love to see photos of any of the merch as part of your lives!

The Space Babies are looking good hanging out in the linguistics section of my bookshelf until I decide which wall to affix them to long-term! 

11 Sep 12:05

Some spaceship names

by Jed

I feel like in science fiction lately, there’s been an occasional tendency (though with many exceptions) for authors to adopt the style of Iain M. Banks in naming their fictional spaceships.

Before Banks came along, I feel like fictional spaceship names tended to be one or two words (of course, many of these names were based on, or in the style of, the names of real-life sea ships): Skylark; Polaris; Yamato; Enterprise; Discovery; Millennium Falcon; etc.

But then, starting in the late 1980s, Banks brought us ships with names like So Much For Subtlety, Of Course I Still Love You, and Very Little Gravitas Indeed. Some of the Culture ships did have one- or two-word names, but even those were names like Eschatologist or Gunboat Diplomat. And I feel like in recent years, a fair number of authors have followed Banks’s lead, with ship names like Hierarchy of Feasts (that page includes minor spoilers for Raven Stratagem)—though that’s not a perfect example, given that the Machineries of Empire ship names aren’t quite in the same vein as the Banksian names.

(I feel like I see Banksian ship names a lot these days, but I could be wrong about how common they are; and again, there are plenty of recent works that use brief ship names, like Rocinante and Wayfarer.)

So I was surprised but pleased just now to discover a set of spaceship names that predates Banks but that doesn’t follow the usual older-sf naming model. (Nor, of course, does it follow the Banks model.) This is from Suzy McKee Charnas’s 1980 short story “Scorched Supper on New Niger.” Helen Nwanyeruwa, the head of an interplanetary trading company that runs a fleet of ships, explains to the protagonist:

Helen smiled and nodded. “Now I remember. At the time I suggested taking slogans for [your aunt’s] ships as we do here. You know my ships’ names: In God Starry Hand; No Rich Without Tears; Pearl of the Ocean Sky. […]”


“[…] I named the ships in old style pidgin talk from Africa, in honor of my beginnings—in my ancestors’ lorry lines. All the lorries bore such fine slogans.

“My personal ship is Let Them Say. It means, I care nothing how people gossip on me, only how they work for me—”

I can’t recommend the story overall; some of its handling of race and gender issues made me wince, though it also has some lovely moments. But I liked the ship names.

09 Sep 14:03

«Les crêpes que j’ai mangé» : un nouvel accord pour le participe passé


Richard I thought you might think this is interesting

«Les crêpes que j’ai mangé» : un nouvel accord pour le participe passé:

In exciting recent French grammar news, Belgium is modifying the rules about the agreement of the past participle, and this article about it contains some delicious grammatical judgery. Excerpt (translation mine): 

Used with the auxiliary avoir “to have”, the past participle agrees in gender and in number with the direct object when it precedes it (the pancakes I have eaten). But if the complement follows the participle, it remains invariable (I ate the pancakes).

At school, children ask themselves: why before and not after? Teachers often know how to explain, but not why. The incoherence of traditional rules prevents them from giving meaning to their teaching. The average time spent on the current rules is 80 hours, to reach a level that everyone complains about. It would be so much richer to devote it to developing vocabulary, syntax, literature, morphology, or etymology. In short, to teach our children all that allows them to master the language rather than to remember the most arbitrary parts of its orthography. 

Why does critical thinking stop at the threshold of spelling? Because everyone has learned not to wonder why. Finally, not everyone. The Wallonia-Brussels Federation, in agreement with its linguistic authorities, is seriously considering introducing the invariability of the past participle with the auxiliary asset. […] As for the Académie française, not being composed of linguists, it has never managed to produce a decent grammar and can not serve as a reference. […]

Here is the new rule: “The past participle, with the auxiliary être, agrees as an adjective (that is, with the word to which it refers). With the auxiliary avoir, it does not agree. […]

Oral use already follows this logic. Invariability [of the past participle] is a growing trend in all media, in all media and in all French-speaking countries. Because this agreement is no longer meaningful. It is not a question of justifying a fault, but of pointing out that this use is legitimate and that it would be unfair to punish it. Linguists will tell you: spelling is not the language, but the graphical tool that allows you to transmit the language, as a score serves for music. Since languages ​​evolve, their writing system should do the same, which has not stopped happening in French.

Read the whole thing (in French).

I certainly remember spending a lot of time on this rule in French class, and it’s a relief to know that native speakers don’t particularly care about it either.  

08 Sep 14:03

Applying for a Guide Dog

by BlondeHistorian

So in this post I want to tell you about my experience of applying for a Guide Dog. Guide Dogs as an organisation has had an amazing impact on my life over the last year. The London mobility team have been essential in supporting me and helped me reclaim so much confidence and independence!

Please note that this is just my personal experience and for more information on the Guide Dogs application process and any questions you have please check out the information here

First Contact

Layla the black lab in her guide dog harness is under a table. She is reaching up her paw to shake my hand, the photo is shown from above.

It never occurred to me that I would even be allowed to apply for a Guide Dog.

I was complaining about being unable to access long white cane training through my local social services and a twitter pal suggested that I contact my local Guide Dogs team. I had no idea they provided that kind of service, but I did a bit of googling and sent an email. A couple of weeks later I had a phone call booked in for an initial conversation about my vision and needs.

That phone call was the first step on an incredible journey. A lovely member of the team asked me questions about my sight loss and what I was finding difficult. She just listened to me in such an open and understanding way, that I burst into tears on the phone. It was a relief to finally be open about how I was feeling. How anxious I was, how I’d started avoiding socialising, or going to the shops or really leaving the house when I didn’t have to because I was scared of falling over, I was so tired all the time just trying to cope. How I was frightened of losing my job because I was having panic attacks on the tube. That I didn’t feel like myself anymore, that I had lost all of my confidence.

She listened to me, and explained how I could start getting some help. The best thing about Guide dogs is that they use a person centred approach, they do everything tailored to your needs and it’s all about what you can do and what you want to achieve!

The next step was that a mobility officer would come and talk to me to work out which services I would most benefit from, including potentially a guide dog.

I replied “A guide dog? But I can still see? Surely I wouldn’t qualify for a guide dog?”

The London team told me that guide dogs are not only for totally blind people and as I’m registered partially sighted I might be considered as a potential applicant. This was a total shock!

Kika the blonde labrador lying on the ground. She has a red collar and lead with a guide dogs sleeve on the lead. She is looking up at the camera with a curious expression.
Life Changer and Twitter sensation Kika the Guide Dog. I started following Kika on twitter to learn more about guide dogs and now I’m good pals with her and her Dad Amit.

Mobility training

Shortly after the phone call I was assigned an orientation and mobility specialist. He turned up at my house and over 3 hours asked me a lot of questions about my vision, how I get around, what I was finding difficult and what I wanted to achieve. Yet again, he just listened to me, and when I started opening up about how I getting anxious about going out alone he replied with 3 simple words.

“That sounds hard”

And I promptly burst into tears, again. However, it was going to be ok because he had a plan! He was going to teach me how to use my long cane properly, help me plan some routes and recommend I get some additional support and training around my sight loss.

Over the next couple of months he helped me learn how to use my long cane safely and independently. He helped me plan the best route to and from work, he taught me how to cross roads safely, how to get up and down stairs and find kerbs or uneven ground. Over time, it was like he was handing me back bits of independence and pieces of confidence.

During our chat and subsequent training my mobility officer concluded that he thought I would be a good candidate for a guide dog application. However, he explained that the process was long and I would need further assessments.

Dasher a golden retriever cross is standing up looking sideways at the camera. He has a slight smile and a raised eyebrow. A woman is sitting behind him, and a bag is visible on the floor.
The extremely handsome, ever so cheeky but totally fantastic Dasher the Guide Dog!

The Pretend Dog

So we completed the paperwork for the guide dog application together. We talked all about where the dog would sleep, go to the toilet and all the practicalities of guide dog ownership. We listed my regular routes, including my work commute, and how I get to my volunteering and social activities. He explained about the rest of the application process and agreed to put me through to the next assessment.

A few weeks later one of the guide dog trainers visited me at home. The guide dog mobility instructor, GDMI, needed to do a mobility assessment so we walked around with my white cane and he saw how I used it. Then the GDMI got out a guide dog harness and explained that he was going to show me what it’s like to be guided by a guide dog, except that he would pretend to be the dog.

It was a bit odd! I held onto the handle and the GDMI held the other end of the harness. We walked round my local area, and got quite a lot of funny looks (according to Other Half). However, it did help me understand how it would be to be guided not by a person or using my cane but by the movements of the harness. They also filmed me to see how quickly I walk, how long my stride is and other factors that would influence the eventual match with a dog.

Layla a black lab retriever cross is lying down with her front paws folded. She is wearing her guide dog harness with the handle down resting on her back. She is looking up at the camera with a gentle expression.
Professional dog and speed queen Layla.

Further Assessment

After the GDMI’s visit the mobility team contacted me and explained they thought the best plan was for me to attend a residential further assessment. This residential was an opportunity for me to work with some dogs in training and undergo a more detailed practical evaluation.

The assessment was at a guide dogs training school. I was part of a group of three other visually impaired ladies who were all doing the further assessment. I got the opportunity to work with lots of dogs in training to really understand what it would be like to be a guide dog owner. We did several walks with different dogs, learning about how they avoid objects, cross roads, use stairs and generally experienced the sensation of being guided by a dog.

I also had a dog stay overnight in my room which was amazing. Astar was a bouncy excitable black lab retriever cross. He was beginning his final training to be a guide dog before he would be matched with a visually impaired person. Astar was very enthusiastic and wanted to charge through doors, speed along the street and take me across roads. He obviously found my dithering a bit frustrating and wanted to show me what a good clever, if slightly fast, dog he was!

Although he was initially a bit wary of me, by the morning we were the best of pals. The minute my alarm went off and I turned the light on, I felt a little wet black nose nudging my arm. He loved his food and found it very difficult to sit still and wait for the whistle command to eat. He did a wiggly bum dance but was extremely good and patient. He did try to eat the bubbles in my bubble bath which was hilarious.

A shiny black labrador is lying between my legs. The dog is looking up at the camera and has one paw outstretched on my leg and the other tucked up. My blue jeans and black shoe on my left leg are on the left of the picture. Underneath there is a busy geometric patterned green carpet.
My trainee guide dog pal

The further assessment was a lot of hard work, and required a huge amount of concentration. I did struggle to get some of the commands right, and occasionally overrode the dog, by making a decision before the dog did. It took a bit of time to really put my trust in the dogs and let them do all the work, but the more I gave over the control and allowed them to guide me, the more amazing it felt!

Throughout the two days we had lots of conversations with the trainers about the differences between using a cane and a guide dog. How much work is involved in being a good guide dog team, the limits of a guide dog and some of the downsides like being refused access to taxis or businesses. We also talked about how much smoother guide dog travel can be, fewer bumps, no more cane tangles, and how the dogs can help with the stress of some experiences.

Instead of being a test, the whole process is a really empowering opportunity to facilitate the best possible decision for you and the guide dogs team.

At the end of the second day I sat down with the team and we talked about what I wanted to do next. They told me that they thought a guide dog was the right mobility solution for me. That I would benefit from the help a guide dog could give, that it would improve my independence and really assist with some of the anxiety I get around going out on my own. However, I said that I wanted to wait a couple of days to really think about everything.

I spent a few days reflecting on the whole experience. I adore dogs, but I knew I had to choose to go on the waiting list for the right reasons.

This time spent making the decision was the most important part of the whole application. It really helped me confirm that this was something I wanted and needed.

A black puppy labrador, about 9 months old, sitting. He is wearing a blue guide dog puppy vest and licking his nose. The legs and feet of two women are visible. The dog is viewed from the side.
I met this guide dog puppy in training during a fundraising visit!

Eventually I phoned up the Guide Dogs team and confirmed that yes, I did want to go on the waiting list and they agreed!

I made that phone call 7 months ago and I will probably be waiting another 9 months before I meet my life changer!

It’s a long hard wait. It’s likely that I will have to wait the full 18 months, but if a dog becomes available and is the right match it can happen sooner. The dog has to be just right to meet the workload, aka how much I get out and about, my walking pace, height and also have the confidence to deal with central London on a daily basis!

I’m nearly halfway through but it can’t come soon enough. The team do absolutely continue to support me, I’ve been to lots of really useful sessions and workshops which have given me more skills and confidence, which I’ll talk about another time. I love being involved with Guide Dogs, and I’m looking forward to doing some more volunteering, fundraising and campaigning with the team. However, every time I go in the office and see all the dogs in training my heart aches.

An older black retriever dog, grey hairs are visible on his stomach and muzzle. He is sitting upright, looking slightly to the left of the camera. One paw rests on his guide dog harness which is on the ground.
Old timer Sammy, seasoned guider and experienced photo poser.

I would like people to share this post, as I wish I had known about all this support sooner. I wouldn’t have been so isolated for so long.

Guide dogs has really made me feel like part of a community, their whole ethos is about empowerment, support and independence. They have helped me embrace my disability and find a voice. I want to spread the word about their fantastic work because I am so grateful for all that they have done for me, even before I’ve got my dog!

Also this post full of pictures of cute guide dogs, and who doesn’t love an adorable assistance doggo?

If you would like to donate to guide dogs and support the amazing work that enables people like me to reclaim their independence find out more about what you can give here

Layla the black lab guide dog is lying down in her harness looking away from the camera. Dasher the golden lab retriever cross guide dog is lying down with in his harness with his head resting on layla's back looking forwards.
Layla and Dasher having a cuddle.




08 Sep 13:57

Reanalysis, Jackie Chan edition

by Victor Mair

Photograph of a high-backed chair that has gone viral on Chinese social media (as reported in this Taiwan newspaper):

China's netizens are all in a twitter over the account of a carpenter who was commissioned to make a cinnabar red high-backed chair with the finials at the top to be "in the shape of dragons' heads" (chéng lóngtóu 成龍頭).  Unfortunately, he misinterpreted the directions to mean "[in the shape of] Jackie Chan's head" ("Chénglóng tóu 成龍頭").

For another translation blunder involving the Chinese name of Jackie Chan, see:

For additional Jackie Chan lore on Language Log, see:

[h.t. Hiroshi Kumamoto; thanks to Daan Pan]

08 Sep 13:53

Day 6459: Movement Pie

by Millennium Dome

Once Upon a Time, the people of the United Kingdom of England and Scotland decided that their king had got too uppity and chopped his head off.

And then, being very British about it, decided that what they really wanted was another king again, thank you very much.

And some MPs thought that things should go back to just how they were, with the King having absolute power over everything.

But some other MPs said, isn’t that what caused all the bother in the first place, and maybe unfair power is something we should do something about.

And so, in the end, Liberalism was born.

Mr Dr Vince “the Power” Cable, isn’t king of the Lib Dems. But he might want to be a bit more cautious about sticking his neck out…

Today he is making a few suggestions about how to turn the Party into a Movement. And, like the “Movement Pie” in TV’s “The Preventers” it is… “strangely unappetising”.

Captain Paddy used to have what was called the “Bungee Squad”, so that when he leapt off a cliff with a new notion, they could reel him back in. This press launch of a proposal to bounce the Party into following is more Lemming Squad – take the leap and expect all the rest of us to follow.

What is behind this is Brexit – obviously – and the cowardice of MPs in government and opposition. The Tory Rebels don’t want to split the Tory Party. The Labour moderates don’t want to split the Labour Party. Their tribalism is what is preventing Parliament coming together to stop Brexit. But that is on THEM not on US.

But creating a “safe space” for disenfranchised members of OTHER PARTIES – at the further expense of our own identity – doesn’t do us any good. Or in the long run the country any good. Last time we behaved like the only adults in the room, we agreed to a coalition and were annihilated for our pains. We no longer have the political capital to do that again! And look what has happened without Liberal voices being heard in Parliament?

I WANT more Liberal voices. So I WANT people to be Liberals, to support and join the Liberal Democrats.

But I’m actually pretty AMBIVALENT about a “supporters scheme”.

On the one fluffy foot, the more the merrier. On the other fluffy foot, this is wasting a lot of time and potentially money (especially if the Leader want’s his own Special Conference to make the changes) on PROCESS when we could be spending that time and money on telling people how GREAT Liberalism is. It looks an awful lot like the Politician’s Syllogism (“Yes, Minister”): we must do SOMETHING – THIS is something – we must do THIS!

(And didn’t we say One Member One Vote would get the members more involved? Now that that’s not worked we want to get the not-even-members more involved?)

We’re not in politics just to be a bigger club for people who like being in The Politics Club. Liberals are in politics to do something DIFFERENT, or we’d just have done the easy thing and joined one of the bigger clubs in the first place.

And that’s why this Movement Pie is the wrong way round. It starts from the idea of being welcoming – which is GOOD – but offers nothing different once everybody gets there. Worse it’s more “None of the Above”

For better or worse – usually worse – that’s why the likes of Brexit or Corbyn are brilliant recruiters: because they have something exciting that appeals to converts.

Liberal Democrats need to be bolder in offering something different, something that ENTHUSES people into signing up. Liberal ideas are a beacon that inspire people, and Liberals should always welcome aboard all the new people inspired by Liberalism.

If your only big idea is to say you’ll welcome as many people as you can find but only for more of the same (but not EVIL!), you may well find that not many people will be very interested in tucking into your biggest pie ever…!

Because it’s a Pie with no FILLING.

Oh it may be EYE-CATCHING. So is any SPECTACULAR BELLY-FLOP. But is it the right answer? Is it even answering the right question?

Because the Liberal Democrats have had, let’s be honest, bit of a problem for a bit of a while now: post-joining the Coalition, no one knows what the Party stands for.

To most people The Tories stood for the people with money, Labour stood for the people without and the Lib Dems USED to stand for “the None of the Above” Party. And then we were in government and we weren’t none of the above any more.

To possibly too many of our MPs and members, we were the “Nice Moderate in the Middle Party”, not to profligate not too evil, just right. The kind of people who thought John Major was too exciting a shade of grey. And while, in the current political climate, you can see the attraction of being the “we’re not nutters” Party, it’s also heavily contributing to the belief that we are the “We stand in the middle, we’ll stand with anyone, not for anything” Party.

Saying we will welcome all and sundry, no need to sign up to our values, and we will have any leader you like so long as you like them… if ANYTHING that is MORE OF THE SAME PROBLEM.

And THIS fluffy elephant says FLUFF OFF to that!

I am a LIBERAL and I want to see my Party doing LIBERAL THINGS – taking part in Europe, cleaning up our air, standing up for people who are a bit different, challenging the RIGHT-WING consensus of Labour and Tory Parties that immigrants are bad and big government is good.

Liberalism started off by being about taking power away from central control and giving it away. It started with the biggest centre of power of them all, the divinely appointed King. But it also became about taking away the power of other bullies over people.

We talk about Human Rights, which are to protect you from a bullying government, and about workers rights which are to protect you from a bullying employer, or about protection for minorities which are to protect you from a bullying mob.

Socialists might talk about seizing power from the capitalists; conservatives might talk about protecting the status quo. But they are just arguing about who has the power. Only Liberalism wants to abolish the idea of there being someone in power.

How we give power and freedom to people are big big questions: how do we – for example – free people from poverty? Lloyd George answered that with a People’s Budget and pensions; Beverage answered it with the Welfare State; today maybe a British dividend or universal basic income might be the answer.

But the question is still relevant.

Which means Liberalism is still relevant.

Which means WE need to have an answer to prove that WE are relevant!
06 Sep 19:43

The kids are alright

by debuk

When I was a kid, I sometimes encountered adults who disapproved of the way I’ve just used the word ‘kid’. ‘A kid’, they would say, repressively, ‘is a baby goat’. They weren’t really objecting to the substitution of animal for human vocabulary. They just thought ‘kid’ was vulgar, a sign that the person who uttered it was uneducated and unwashed. They were using a spurious argument about language to proclaim their superiority to the common herd. They were also asserting their power, as adults, to hold young people to their standards of acceptable speech.

I was reminded of this last week when I read an article in Teen Vogue about the importance of using gender-neutral language. Clearly, I am not in the target audience for this publication, being neither a teen nor in any way voguish, and I can’t say I’ve ever looked at it before. But my interest in this particular piece was piqued after a number of people shared it on Twitter and commented on the absurdity of some of the terms it suggested—like ‘pibling’ and ‘nibling’ as gender-neutral substitutes for ‘uncle/aunt’ and ‘nephew/niece’.

I thought this was a bit unfair. I’d never come across ‘pibling’ or ‘nibling’ before, but it’s not hard to discern the logic behind them: they’re obviously modelled on ‘sibling’, a long-established word meaning ‘brother/sister’. Your ‘pibling’ is your parental sibling. I don’t know if it’ll catch on, but I don’t find it self-evidently ridiculous.

Anyway, I decided to read the Teen Vogue article for myself. And it got me thinking, not only about the perennially fraught relationship between activists of different generations, but also about the history of this type of verbal hygiene. Advice on using gender-neutral language has been around for over 40 years: the earliest English examples date back to the 1970s when I was still a teenager. So, what’s changed, what hasn’t changed, and what does it all mean?

What surprised me most was how much of the article could have been lifted from something written 40 years ago. Both the selection of ‘problematic’ forms and the suggested gender-neutral alternatives reminded me of classic second-wave feminist texts like Casey Miller and Kate Swift’s 1976 book Words and Women and their later Handbook of Nonsexist Writing, which was first published in 1980 (there’s a fuller account of the two women’s work in this 1990s interview). Teen Vogue suggests a number of substitutions which I’m sure English-speaking feminists of my vintage will recognise:

• Humankind instead of mankind
• People instead of man/men
• First-year student instead of freshman
• Machine-made, synthetic, or artificial instead of man-made
• Flight attendant instead of steward/stewardess
• Salesperson or sales representative instead of salesman/saleswoman
• Server instead of waiter/waitress
• Firefighter instead of fireman

This list echoes the preoccupations of the earliest nonsexist language guidelines, which put particular emphasis on avoiding (a) terms like ‘fireman’ and ‘mankind’, which  incorporated ‘-man’ (thus excluding women or implying that men were the norm); and (b) terms like ‘waitress’ that were formed by adding a feminine suffix to the generic/masculine form (this explicit gender-marking was considered both gratuitous and demeaning). Many of these terms were occupational labels, and that reflected one of the key feminist concerns of the time: combatting discrimination in employment. In Britain, where sex-discrimination became illegal in the mid-1970s, the new law required employers to use nonsexist terms in job ads. You couldn’t just advertise for a ‘salesman’ on the basis that ‘man’ included everyone, you had to spell out that women were welcome to apply by using either paired terms (‘salesman/woman’) or a neutral alternative (like ‘salesperson’). But it’s odd to see some of the old advice on job-titles being recycled in 2018. When did anyone last call a member of the cabin crew on an aeroplane a ‘stewardess’? Who still thinks of ‘firefighter’ as one of those newfangled PC terms?

On the other hand, this recycled list is a reminder that the old project of replacing male-centred with neutral terms was only partially successful. Four decades of complaints haven’t made ‘freshman’ obsolete, for instance, or ‘man/mankind’.  The list also made me think of the failed experiments which are always part of the history of any kind of verbal hygiene–all the proposed replacements for traditional sexist terms which didn’t make it into the mainstream, and are now largely forgotten. ‘Genkind’, anyone? How about ‘waitron’?

But while a lot of the actual terms on Teen Vogue‘s list are the same ones feminists discussed 40 years ago, the article’s framing of the issue is very different. Gender-neutral language is not presented as a specifically feminist concern, and the problem it’s meant to solve is not defined primarily as one of sexism. Instead, the main reason given for adopting neutral terms is, in the words of gender therapist Dara Hoffman-Fox, that

Using gendered terms […] is highly presumptuous, especially in today’s society, in which many persons are aware that they don’t identify as male or female and therefore are uncomfortable with this type of language.

In the past, feminists who advocated neutral terms weren’t trying to avoid making unwarranted assumptions about the gender of individuals.  Their aim was to challenge the more general presumption of maleness as the human default. That presumption has not yet withered away, but for readers of the Teen Vogue generation concern about it has been at least partially displaced by newer concerns about respecting individuals’ identities and making those outside the conventional male/female binary feel ‘more included and safe among us’.

This explains the presence in the article of some less familiar terms, like ‘pibling’ and ‘nibling’. Kinship terms in general didn’t feature prominently in old-style nonsexist language guidelines, since although they are gender-differentiated, they do not invite the objection feminists had to pairings like ‘waiter/waitress’, that the masculine term is unmarked and the feminine by implication a deviation from the norm. The only difference between ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’, or ‘niece’ and ‘nephew’, is that one denotes a female relative and the other a male one. But if your main concern is to include people who identify with neither of those possibilities, it becomes a problem that there is no term you can use that doesn’t specify the relative’s sex. What do you call your mother’s nonbinary sibling or your brother’s agender child?

This is the gap neologisms like ‘pibling’ are meant to fill. At the moment the inventory of gender-neutral kinship terms is still a work in progress, a matter of people independently constructing wordlists and putting them online. Their proposals are many and varied, and some of them are clearly destined to join the list of failed experiments I mentioned earlier (if you find yourself adding a note like ‘also the name of a musical instrument’ or ‘cute term for penis in French’ you probably haven’t got a viable candidate). But if enough people have a use for terms that do this job, a consensus will begin to emerge on which forms are best suited to the task.

For me, though, the most interesting question the Teen Vogue piece raised about continuity and change in gender-related verbal hygiene was not about the words themselves, nor even about the arguments for using or not using neutral terms. It was more about attitudes to linguistic authority—about who can prescribe to whom, and how they should go about it.

Casey Miller and Kate Swift were initially very reluctant to embark on what became the Handbook of Nonsexist Writing. They didn’t want to be seen as the ‘word police’, telling people ‘Do This or Don’t Do That!’ This attitude was not unusual: the authors of non-sexist language guidelines often disclaimed any intention to be prescriptive. Their aim, they said, was not to impose new standards, but only to help writers achieve in practice the kind of accurate and unbiased writing they already believed to be desirable in theory. What could be more inaccurate and biased than the erasure of half the population? Drawing attention to the problem and giving advice on how to avoid it was just removing an obstacle in the path of good writing. I always found this rhetoric disingenuous–of course writing guidelines are prescriptive, what would be the use of them otherwise? But it needs to be understood in the context of the time.

Before the digital revolution, it was not possible to experiment with new conventions or terminology in the ways people routinely do now. Today you can (literally) spread the word via tumblr or Urban Dictionary, but in the print era, if you wanted innovations to acquire mainstream currency, you needed the support of gatekeepers like publishers, newspaper editors, and the producers of educational materials like school textbooks or college writing handbooks. These gatekeepers were predominantly men, many were linguistically conservative, and at a time (the 1970s) when second-wave feminist militancy was at its peak, they were inclined (though there were exceptions) to view demands for nonsexist language as threatening and ‘extreme’. In those circumstances it was politic for feminists to tread lightly. And of course, there is always a reason for women to be cautious about claiming authority. When they don’t downplay their expertise, as we saw in the #immodestwomen row earlier this year, they are liable to provoke hostility and resentment.

Teen Vogue, however, does not tread lightly. Channelling the spirit of our contemporary online call-out culture, it actively encourages word-policing:

Don’t be afraid to correct those around you, such as your classmates and even teachers, about using exclusive, gendered language… Depending on the situation, you can address the situation with the person publicly or privately, in person or through a message.

You could see this as a positive development–young women being exhorted to exercise authority directly and unapologetically–but in this context I don’t think it’s good advice. There may be cases where something does need to be challenged on the spot (if it was not only highly offensive but also clearly deliberate and malicious), but in most situations I think you should resist the urge to ‘correct those around you’. Not only is this interpersonally risky, it’s also very often counterproductive. Nothing is less likely to make a speaker change their attitudes than being scolded or publicly shamed for using ‘forbidden’ words. I learned that long before I was a linguist, from every adult who ever told me that ‘a kid is a baby goat’.

Teen Vogue, of course, is imagining the opposite scenario, in which an adult takes instruction from a teenager. I think this speaks to a more general cultural shift since my own teenage years. The authority to set linguistic standards is no longer seen to lie exclusively with parents, teachers and other adults: on some questions, including questions about what terms are politically acceptable or progressive in relation to subjects like gender, it’s now widely assumed that the old should defer to the young.

It’s also widely assumed that since the young will outlive their elders, their standards will eventually prevail. But one thing this glosses over is that you can’t generalise about what young people think, about language or gender or anything else. There are political differences and disagreements within as well as between generations. An example is the ongoing conflict about whether it’s exclusionary to use the term ‘women’ in discussions of abortion, pregnancy or menstruation. It wouldn’t be true to say that gender-neutral alternatives like ‘pregnant people’ and ‘menstruators’ are uniformly favoured by younger feminists and uniformly opposed by older ones: the issue divides opinion across generations. That was also true for some of the reforms feminists proposed in the past. I said before that the history of verbal hygiene is full of failed experiments; it’s also full of  unfinished arguments and unresolved conflicts.

Teen Vogue’s brand of verbal hygiene isn’t identical to what preceded it, but nor is it so different as to be unrecognisable. And while I may not love everything about it, I do think this article is doing something worthwhile: introducing a new generation to the idea that thinking critically about language is part of the larger project of creating ‘a society in which all people — regardless of gender, sexuality or race — have equal opportunities and freedoms’. The route may have changed, but the destination is the same.

05 Sep 01:41

"Folks, there’s nothing left from the Linguistics division. We lost all the indigenous..."

“Folks, there’s nothing left from the Linguistics division. We lost all the indigenous languages collection: the recordings since 1958, the chants in all the languages for which there are no native speakers alive anymore, the Curt Niemuendaju archives: papers, photos, negatives, the original ethnic-historic-linguistic map localizing all the ethnic groups in Brazil, the only record that we had from 1945. The ethnological and archeological references of all ethnic groups in Brazil since the 16th century… An irreparable loss of our historic memory. It just hurts so much to see all in ashes.”

- Cira Gonda, translated by Diogo Almeida, about the fire at Brazil’s National Museum.  
04 Sep 20:38

No, that’s *NOT* the last photo of Saturn from Cassini

by Phil Plait

On September 15, 2017, the Cassini spacecraft plunged into Saturn, burning up after a stunning 13 years of orbiting the ringed wonder. That planet, those moons, those rings… everything Cassini saw and experienced and sent back to us humans on Earth was gasp-worthy and awe-inspiring. We had never seen the like, and it may be decades before we do again.

At the time, many electrons were spilled over the amazement we all felt from the mission, and the bittersweet emotions from the spacecraft’s demise. My own feelings were easy to recount; Saturn has been a big part of my life for decades, and was in no small way an impetus for me to seek out a career in astronomy.

As the one-year anniversary next week approaches, more articles will be written, I’m sure. And there will be galleries of images too. Of course there will be! A picture is worth a thousand words, as the saying goes…

… and sometimes they’re worth just one word. And in this case, that word is “no.”

Artwork  — yes, ARTWORK — depicting a view “over the shoulder” of the Cassini spacecraft during one of the last dives toward Saturn it made before the end of the mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech Zoom In

Artwork  — yes, ARTWORK — depicting a view “over the shoulder” of the Cassini spacecraft during one of the last dives toward Saturn it made before the end of the mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

That image is making the rounds on social media right now, and the claim is that it’s the last image Cassini took. For example, this tweet — which has over 5,000 retweets and 12,000 “likes” as I write this, and may be from a bot — says, “Cassini's last image before entering Saturn's atmosphere and burning up.”

The only problem? It’s not.

It’s a painting. Artwork. It was put out by NASA/JPL in April 2017, long before Cassini burned up. It’s gorgeous, to be sure, but it’s a drawing. It was meant to promote the last few orbits of the mission, when Cassini took a series of extremely low plunges above Saturn’s cloud tops, coming within 4,000 kilometers to as close as 1,600. It did that a staggering 22 times — the last five actually passing through the upper parts of the atmosphere — before the Final Dive.

The painting is lovely, but there are a few things that give away its unreal pedigree. For one, the cameras on Cassini were mounted in such a way that the spacecraft itself couldn’t be seen. You don’t generally want the high-gain antenna blocking your view of some important feature on a moon or in the rings. Self-photobombing is frowned upon in such circumstances.

Also, at that close to the planet I’d think the spacecraft would be moving so rapidly that much of the fine detail would be blurred even in short exposures. On top of that, the planet is bright, as are the rings, so seeing any stars at all in the same image would be nearly impossible, let alone hundreds of them. That’s artistic license, and I’m fine with it, but these are all pretty good clues it’s not an actual image.

I do love this digital painting. But we should get this right.

So what was Cassini’s final image? This:

The actual last image Cassini took of Saturn before its final plunge. This was taken on September 14, 2017 when the spacecraft was 634,000 kilometers above the cloud tops. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute Zoom In

The actual last image Cassini took of Saturn before its final plunge. This was taken on September 14, 2017 when the spacecraft was 634,000 kilometers above the cloud tops. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

That monochrome shot was taken on September 14, 2017, less than a day before Cassini burned up. It shows a region of Saturn on the planet’s night side, and includes the part where Cassini fell in. The illumination is from the rings themselves, reflecting sunlight onto the planet’s unilluminated hemisphere. This image was taken from a height of 634,000 kilometers (a little less than twice the distance the Moon is from Earth), and you can see some of the ghostly faint inner rings near the bottom.

Quite a few images were taken at this time, and many were in different filters, allowing a natural color composite to be made, too:

A “natural color” image created using red, green, and blue filters shows the area of Saturn where Cassini would burn up. These were the last few images Cassini took in the mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute Zoom In

A “natural color” image created using red, green, and blue filters shows the area of Saturn where Cassini would burn up. These were the last few images Cassini took in the mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Saturn’s atmosphere has a layer of haze above it, which mutes the bands and storms you’d otherwise see. Jupiter doesn’t have such a layer, which is why its weather is so much more obvious. Compared to that, Saturn looks almost subdued.

But that’s in visible light. At around the same time a camera called the Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer took an image at a wavelength of 5 microns, about 7 times longer than the reddest light our eyes can see. This type of thermal imaging shows heat leaking up from the interior of Saturn, while the cold clouds above it block that light so they appear dark, silhouetted against it:

A thermal infrared image of Saturn taken by Cassini shortly before the end of mission shows heat radiating up from the planet’s interior; clouds block that heat and so they show up as dark. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona Zoom In

A thermal infrared image of Saturn taken by Cassini shortly before the end of mission shows heat radiating up from the planet’s interior; clouds block that heat and so they show up as dark. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

The oval shows the location where Cassini came in a few hours later.

Incredible. That’s another planet, over a billion kilometers away! I think it’s worth at least a few minutes of your time to peruse these images, think about the mission, and bask in the glow of being able to at least somewhat satiate our natural human curiosity about the Universe around us.

But when we do, we should do it right. We owe it, if not to the spacecraft itself, then to the hundreds of people who worked on it, some for their whole careers. Cassini was an avatar for us, a representative of us, and it represented the best of us. Let’s give it and them their due.

cassini_final_moments_artwork Zoom In

Artwork depicting the final moments of the Cassini spacecraft on Setpember 15, 2017, as it burned up in the atmosphere of Saturn. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

03 Sep 01:02

New stunning infrared maps see through Titan’s haze

by Phil Plait

Planetary scientists will be reaping the benefits of the Saturn Cassini mission for many decades to come. It orbited the ringed jewel of the solar system for thirteen years, taking incredible data of the planet, the rings, and the fleet of bizarre moons.

The biggest moon around Saturn — and the second biggest in the whole solar system — is the aptly named Titan. We’d learned quite a bit about it from Earth-bound telescopes, but there’s nothing like being there. Cassini passed the planet-sized moon many times, taking images of it at lots of different wavelengths. We’ve known for a long time that it has an atmosphere, which is very cool, but also a pain: carbon-based molecules floating around there are really good at absorbing and reflecting visible light, so all see we when we look at those wavelengths is an orange fuzzball.

But… those molecules are completely ambivalent to certain wavelengths of infrared light, letting them through. That means that equipped with the right filters, Cassini’s Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer could see light reflected from the surface, piercing the haze! After a dozen flybys a lot of images were taken, allowing scientists to put together a pretty decent map of the entire surface of Titan. Earlier maps showed lots of seams in the mosaics, due in part to different lighting (and weather!) conditions between Cassini passes, but now they have released new images that are just stunning.

Check. This. Out.

Spectacular maps of the surface of Saturn’s huge moon Titan crated using infrared images from Cassini that can see the surface through the thick atmospheric haze. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Nantes/University of Arizona Zoom In

Spectacular maps of the surface of Saturn’s huge moon Titan crated using infrared images from Cassini that can see the surface through the thick atmospheric haze. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Nantes/University of Arizona

Whoa. These images show a lot of interesting things on the surface of Titan. Bear in mind they’re in the infrared, and they’re not constructed like normal images. Instead of using a single filter to represent each color, they used ratios of filters. So what you see as blue is actually an image taken at 1.27 microns (very roughly twice the reddest wavelength you can see with your eye) divided by one at 1.08 microns. Green is 2.03/1.27, and red 1.59/1.27. This is pretty clever; by using ratios the contrast of surface features is enhanced significantly. That makes it easier to see them, and also reduces lighting differences between Cassini visits. Still, it must have taken a lot of work to put these all together; the images were taken at different distances, different geometric angles, different perspectives. What a task!

But so worth it. Titan looks gorgeous. And there’s so much to see.

A map of Saturn’s moon Titan created using Cassini images. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/USGS Zoom In

A map of Saturn’s moon Titan created using Cassini images. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/USGS

The southern and northern high latitudes appear pretty featureless — though they aren’t at all; that’s where the lakes of liquid methane are, but they’re hard to see here. They show up far better in radar images. But the equator is a different story.

It’s mostly flat, without much in the way of mountains. But there are very interesting things to be seen… or not seen. For example, there are very few impact craters on Titan’s surface. It gets hit as much as any other Saturnian moon (more, since it’s bigger and has gravity to pull them in), so the lack of craters means the surface gets repaved, so to speak, on a short timescale. Erosion from weather may be the culprit here.

Yes, weather. Titan is cold, so water is frozen harder than granite there, but methane can exist as a liquid, solid, and gas, just as water does here on Earth*. So it can evaporate from lakes, form clouds, and rain down elsewhere: in other words, erosion.

The equatorial region also has vast dune fields! But these aren’t silicate sand as on Earth, but hydrocarbons that have condensed out of the atmosphere. Winds blow these grains around, forming dunes all around the equator. Two huge fields of them can be found in areas called Shangri-La (the reddish area on the right in the top middle image) and Xanadu (the vast bright purple/white field on the left in the lower left image).

Cassini’s radar mapped dunes of hydrocarbon grains on Saturn’s moon Titan. This field is located near the equator in the Belet region. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI Zoom In

Cassini’s radar mapped dunes of hydrocarbon grains on Saturn’s moon Titan. This field is located near the equator in the Belet region. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI

The dune fields were discovered using radar and are an important clue to Titan’s environment. How the grains form, how they grow, how they blow, and the size and spacing of the dunes tells planetary scientists a lot about conditions on the moon’s surface. Weirdly, longitudinal dunes on Titan are similar to those on Earth, despite the very different conditions.

On the other hand, as bizarre a thing as it is to say, Titan really is very similar to Earth in many ways. Sure, it’s a lot colder, but it has an atmosphere that’s mostly nitrogen, like ours, has a molecule (methane) that can exist in three phases in the same area (as water does on Earth), and has lakes of liquid with eroded channels where it flows — some radar maps look just like maps of Earth were water flows.

And we think life needs a medium in which to form, a liquid where nutrients and such can flow, accumulate, and concentrate. Titan has that! I’m not saying there’s life there, but I am saying we need to broaden our attitude about where life can arise. And even if it’s lifeless, Titan is an amazing place with processes both familiar and alien, and very much worth our study.

And if we can also make gorgeous maps of it from space? Well, bonus.

* Well, this turns out to be more complicated than I first thought. Methane can technically be solid (like snow) high up in Titan's atmosphere, but lower down it will likely mix with ethane and nitrogen, which lowers its freezing point by enough that it's unlikely to be found on the surface in a solid state. In my defense, most papers I found mention solid methane being possible, but when I posted this article I got a tweet coorrecting me by Dr. Mike Malaska, who studies Titan, which led to a fun discussion about all this (which included Dr. Jennifer Hanley, who studies these molecules under Titan-like conditions). Who knew that studying alien worlds might be complex and subtle?

03 Sep 01:00

Annals of cross-linguistic advertising blunders

by Mark Liberman

Or maybe it was a genius move — the coverage hasn't quantified the effect on brand recognition and sales.  Jelisa Castrodate, "Mountain Dew Mistakenly Tells All of Scotland to Masturbate for 'Epic Thrills'", Vice 8/29/2018:

Not terribly long ago, The Scotsman newspaper printed a helpful list of 15 words that have alternate meanings in Scotland. It pointed out that pudding has nothing to do with a Jell-O mix but is often a sausage made from pigs’ blood, that messages means grocery shopping, and that if you mince something, you’ve pretty much effed it up.

Unfortunately, the paper failed to include chug on the list, which is why Mountain Dew UK is being dragged across Scottish Twitter for inadvertently telling everyone that they’re chronic masturbators.

On Monday, Mountain Dew UK tweeted a .gif of a visibly sweating twentysomething downing a bottle of neon yellow soda. (He’s tanning it, if you want to dust off another piece of Scottish vocab.) “Epic Thrills Start with a Chug,” it says—which is why everyone from Elgin to Dumfries started giggling to themselves.

“You guys didn’t really consult anyone from Scotland on this UK wide marketing campaign eh?” one presumably Scottish person responded. And no, no they did not: because if they did, they would’ve known that ‘chug’ is slang for masturbation. (Epic thrills may or may not start out that way, but it’s probably best if that’s not how you try to sell a soft drink.)

One of the responses, showing the original picture:

[h/t Wendy Grossman]


02 Sep 13:41

New favourite example of structural ambiguity. “Cheeseburger...

New favourite example of structural ambiguity

“Cheeseburger stabbing”

I can’t decide if: 

- someone stabbed someone else over a cheeseburger
- someone stabbed someone else with a cheeseburger
- someone stabbed a cheeseburger
- a cheeseburger stabbed someone
- a cheeseburger stabbed another cheeseburger

21 Aug 13:29

mmhmm etc.

by Mark Liberman

Kumari Devarajan, "Ready For A Linguistic Controversy? Say 'Mmhmm'", NPR 8/17/20018:

Once upon a time, English speakers didn't say "mmhmm." But Africans did, according to Robert Thompson, an art history professor at Yale University who studies Africa's influence on the Americas.

In a 2008 documentary, Thompson said the word spread from enslaved Africans into Southern black vernacular and from there into Southern white vernacular. He says white Americans used to say "yay" and "yes." […]

Ugo Nwojeki, a professor of African-American studies at the University of California, Berkeley, says he "always assumed" that the word was African. Lev Michael, a linguist at the same school, says that "doesn't seem very plausible." Roslyn Burns, a linguist at UCLA, says "it's hard to say."

I've got nothing to add to the disagreement about origins. But I do want to point out that there's a broader morpho-lexical context. Consider the two-syllable pattern

(X)Y. XY

where the Ys can be

  • [ʌ̃] (as in "nun"), usually nasalized, or
  • [m̩] (a syllabic labial nasal)

and the Xs can be

  • [ɦ] (a voiced "h", as in "ahead")
  • [ʔ] (a glottal stop)

So in addition to the "mmhmm" discussed in the cited article –[ʔm̩.ɦm̩] in IPA —  there's another positive version, with an open neutral vowel —  [ʔʌ̃.ɦʌ̃] in IPA, usually spelled something like "uh huh".

And there are two parallel negative versions: [ʔm̩.ʔm̩] (no common spelling?), and [ʔʌ̃.ʔʌ̃] (usually spelled "uh uh").

A syllabic [n̩] is also possible: [ʔn̩.ʔn̩] and [ʔn̩.ɦn̩].

There are maybe-related variants like "nuh uh" and "uh oh", and things like "aha" whose relationship to these items is even more unclear. The assenting version is sometimes abbreviated as monosyllabic [ʔm̩] (unless that's just a different form).

And I'm leaving out a wide range of prosodic variation. At least in the negative forms, either the first or second syllable can be stressed , where stressing the second syllable generally gives the impression of greater emphasis. (My intuition says that the positive forms are generally stressed on the second syllable, though I think there's an emphatic version with a rise-fall contour on a lengthened second syllable.)

Variations in pitch contour, tempo, and voice quality are also common.

Like the forms spelled "huh", "uh", "hmm", "mmm", as well as various communicative tongue clicks, lip smacks, sighs, grunts, and so on,  these forms aren't consistent with the general phonotactic patterns of English.

And the meaning space is complicated, in ways that can make written versions problematic. Thus Loren Cassani Davis, "Hmm vs. Mmm vs. Mhmm", The Atlantic 9/17/2015:

When texting or using instant messaging, I often write “mmm” as shorthand for a sound of agreement (imagine me nodding, sagely, thinking “yes,” “totally,” “I’m on your wavelength”).

To my horror, a colleague recently told me that she’s been interpreting my “mmms” as ominous. While I thought I was being supportive (mmm implying “mhmm”), she thought I’d felt unsure (mmm implying “hmm”) because of a friend she has who used “mmm” this way a lot. It made me wonder, how many other people are misinterpreting my gestures of approval? And how many displays of caution have I brazenly pushed through, thinking the other person was on board?

Update — A few relevant earlier posts:

"Young men talk like old women", 11/6/2005
"Another Breakfast Experiment", 11/8/2005
"Huh", 2/4/2010
"Huh?", 11/9/2013
"Um/Uh update", 12/13/2014
"Labiality and femininity", 12/26/2014
"Apparently this is not an April Fool's joke", 4/4/2015


21 Aug 13:19

ficcyshit:s t o p


s t o p

17 Aug 07:39

A bright spot on the Moon

by Phil Plait

I love the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. It’s been orbiting our whopping great natural satellite since 2009, sending zillions of amazing images back to Earth, almost 400,000 kilometers away.

The LRO Camera is an instrument on board with wide-angle and narrow-angle cameras that take jaw-dropping images of the lunar surface. For much of its mission it looked straight down as the spacecraft flew over a region (called “nadir pointing”), but over time, as the mission coordinators got more confident with the orbiter, they were able to tilt it over and take oblique images of more distant surface features.

This is a powerful ability. If you’re flying over a large crater you can only see a small part of it. From farther away you get a more global view. Also, the angle is much more oblique, sometimes allowing for better viewing geometry and shadowing.

The results can be very, very dramatic. Like this shot of the crater Aristarchus, a 40-kilometer impact crater on the Moon’s near side:

The 40-km-wide Aristarchus crater on the Moon, seen at an oblique angle by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University Zoom In

The 40-km-wide Aristarchus crater on the Moon, seen at an oblique angle by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University


Aristarchus is a very interesting crater. The impact overturned a huge amount of material, and it’s pretty diverse. The crater’s in the middle of Oceanus Procellarum, an ocean-sized lava-filled basin, but sits in a local plateau. The crater depth is over 3 km, so we see a lot of older material along the walls exposed by the impact.

I love the terraced crater walls, as material slumped down after the crater formed. Dark and light material can both be seen in broad strokes, as well as smaller bright spots punctuating the wall.

The banded 300-meter-tall central peak in the Moon’s Aristarchus crater. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University Zoom In

The banded 300-meter-tall central peak in the Moon’s Aristarchus crater. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

The central peak is… weird. Usually you see craggy mountains in the middle of a large crater’s floor, created when rock rebounded from the impact itself. This peak is smoother, and those dark and light bands suggest an interesting mix of compositions. I like how the texture abruptly changes from the rough crater floor (melted rock that flowed back from the impact and cooled) to the smoother sides of the peak, which tops out 300 meters above the floor. It’s lovely.

The full Moon, with Aristarchus crater standing out in the upper left. Credit: Fred Locklear Zoom In

The full Moon, with Aristarchus crater standing out in the upper left. Credit: Fred Locklear

I have to admit, a big reason I love this image is that Aristarchus is a favorite spot on the Moon to observe when I take my telescope out. It’s one of the brightest spots on the Moon; it stands out spectacularly as a shiny-looking point contrasting with the much darker (and far vaster) Oceanus Procellarum. The crater becomes visible a few days after first quarter, and when the Moon is full it shines like a beacon. It’s relatively young (maybe less than a half billion years old); over time sunlight, the solar wind, and meteorite impacts darken terrain. Give it a billion or more years and it’ll look like most of the other craters on the Moon.

Looking straight down on Aristarchus crater on the Moon. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University Zoom In

Looking straight down on Aristarchus crater on the Moon. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

But for now it calls like a siren to explorers. Perhaps one day some human will stand at the top of that peak and gaze out across 20 kilometers of lunar surface to the rim of the crater, back to a base of operations there where more humans study the site. What will they learn? How would it feel, to stand on another world and gaze across an impact 500 million years old, to pick up a rock that was once buried beneath the surface for eons, to know that you are fulfilling the dreams of so many people who were never able to leave their home planet?

I hope many, many humans get to share that feeling, and that it won’t be too far in the future.

[P.S. At the bottom of the LROC page for the Aristarchus image is a pan-and-scan shot, and there’s a download button where you can grab a huge 200 Mb 22,000 x 9,900 pixel version of it. Yowza.]

14 Aug 11:56

NASA launches a probe to study the most dangerous star in the sky: The Sun

by Phil Plait

Yesterday, at 07:31 UTC (11:31 Eastern US time), NASA launched a new mission to study the most dangerous star in the sky: the Sun.

The spacecraft is called the Parker Solar Probe, and everything about this mission is so cool it's hard to know where to start.

And did I say "cool"? I mean "hot." Very, very hot.

The probe is designed to study the Sun's magnetic field and how it generates the solar wind. This is critically important! The Sun's magnetism is the source of ridiculously powerful blasts of subatomic particles we call solar storms. In some, called coronal mass ejections, a billion tons of hot plasma can scream away from the Sun at 10 million kilometers per hour. That's 1% the speed of light! The magnetic field embedded in the plasma can couple with the Earth's magnetic field, which in turn can cause huge currents of electrical energy to surge through the planet. This can blow out electric grids, causing widespread power blackouts.

I am not one for exaggeration in these circumstances, so hear me clearly: In 2012, the Sun blasted out a storm so fierce that had it hit the Earth, it would've wreaked utter havoc on the power grid, and would have been a global disaster. It was the most powerful such storm ever seen.

To be clear, storms this powerful are very rare, so we're likely not in imminent danger. But still, we need to understand these events as best we can, if only for our own good... but of course the pure science is fascinating, too, and something we should be investigating! And that's just what Parker will do (you can read more about this from my friend Mika McKinnon at Wired UK).

It has four instrument packages on board to study the Sun:

  • FIELDS, to study the electric and magnetic fields near the Sun
  • WISPR (Wide-Field Imager for Parker Solar Probe), the only camera on Parker, which will take wide-angle images of the corona, the Sun's ultra-hot upper atmosphere
  • SWEAP (Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons Investigation), which will measure the velocity, density, and temperature of subatomic particles near the Sun
  • IS⊙IS (Integrated Science Investigation of the Sun, with the astronomical symbol for the Sun in the middle), which will study the subatomic wind from the Sun, including its origin, acceleration, and how it moves out and away from the Sun and into the solar system. [Note: for some reason, NASA is careful to say it's pronounced EE-sis, perhaps to avoid confusion with Archer fans.]

The science part of the mission will start in November, as the probe nears the Sun on the first of its planned 24 orbits of roughly 88 days each. And that brings us to the launch and how this mission will weave its way through the inner solar system.

Gorgeous shot of the Delta IV Heavy rocket’s engines as it propels the Parker Solar Probe toward the Sun. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls Zoom In

Gorgeous shot of the Delta IV Heavy rocket’s engines as it propels the Parker Solar Probe toward the Sun. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The launch was on board a United Launch alliance Delta IV Heavy, one of the most powerful rockets ever built. This was necessary because it turns out getting near the Sun is hard. The Earth orbits our star at about 30 kilometers per second, and to drop down toward the Sun the probe needs to kill a lot of that velocity. Think of it like tossing a baseball out a car window as you drive down the highway: Relative to the ground, that baseball is moving at 100 kilometers per hour. If you want someone to catch it gently, you'd need to throw it backward as hard as you can to slow it down relative to them.

After launch, the rocket put Parker in a circular low-Earth orbit, then waited half an orbit later to give it a huge kick backward, into the direction opposite the Earth's orbital motion. But even that is not enough; the probe needs to get as close to the Sun as possible, so it will fly past the planet Venus and use its gravity and orbital motion to lower its own orbital energy, which will drop it even closer to the Sun. In fact, it will have to do this an astonishing seven times over the mission, lowering its closest Sun approach distance (called perihelion) every time.

The path of the Parker Solar Probe will take it past Venus seven times, to modify its orbit and drop it close to the Sun. In this diagram, Rs is the radius of the Sun, about 1.4 million km. Credit: NASA / JHUAPL Zoom In

The path of the Parker Solar Probe will take it past Venus seven times, to modify its orbit and drop it close to the Sun. In this diagram, Rs is the radius of the Sun, about 1.4 million km. Credit: NASA / JHUAPL

Amazingly, in the last planned orbit in 2025, the probe will drop to a scorching 6 million kilometers from the Sun's surface, where the gravity of the star will accelerate it to nearly 700,000 kilometers per hour! That's fast enough to cross the continental United States in 25 seconds, and will make it the fastest probe ever sent into space by humans. It's also the closest anything we've ever sent will get to the Sun.

To protect it, Parker has a shield made of carbon composite that's over 11 centimeters thick. The shield is 2.3 meters across, wide enough to shadow the 1-meter-wide probe (which stands 3 meters tall; the shield is at one end) from the temperatures that will get as high as 1,400° Celsius. That's hot enough to melt aluminum and copper. The engineering of this probe is impressive.

One final note: The probe is named after Eugene Parker, a pioneer in solar astronomy (and who coined the term "solar wind"). Parker was at the launch, and this photo of him watching it roar into space really stopped me in my tracks.

Eugene Parker, the scientist after whom the Parker Solar Probe is named, watches it thunder into the sky. Credit: NASA/Glenn Benson Zoom In

Eugene Parker, the scientist after whom the Parker Solar Probe is named, watches it thunder into the sky. Credit: NASA/Glenn Benson

The science of the mission is crucial. The technology is fierce. The engineering is so difficult it took decades for materials science to catch up with the needs of the probe.

But the real reason this mission is possible is because of people. Humans wanted to know more, humans saw the need, humans designed the hardware, the rocket, the electronics, the detectors, the mechanisms. Humans found a mystery, and wanted to solve it.

We send our robots into space to do the work we cannot do ourselves. But in a very real sense we go with them.

12 Aug 20:05


by Mark Liberman

By Allie Brosh:

Update — apparently this is a meme derived from Allie Brosh's art, but not created by her. See the comment below.


11 Aug 07:21

"While careful experimentation has shown that having words for concepts makes them easier or faster..."

While careful experimentation has shown that having words for concepts makes them easier or faster to name, it is not true that lacking a concept means you cannot conceive of it, and vice versa. For instance, many languages have gender-neutral pronouns (the same word is used for he and she) but are spoken in cultures with very poor levels of gender equality.

This might seem obvious – it’s Orwell’s Newspeak (from 1984) in action. In Orwell’s dystopia, the word “free” was stripped of all meaning of individual freedoms and could be used only in the sense of a dog being free from lice, which in turn was supposed to remove the ability of the citizens of Oceania to conceive of such freedom. But it is not just science fiction. There is an important note of caution that linguists are always aware of: making claims about other cultures risks “exoticising” them.

At worst, this results in racism. The Hopi people of Arizona, who are sometimes claimed to have no way to express time based on a misunderstanding of Benjamin Lee Whorf’s work on their language, were assumed by some to be incapable of following bus timetables or arriving at work on schedule, a mistaken belief that led to obvious problems.

But even an apparently benign conclusion about how some Australian languages encode space with compass directions (“north”) rather than ego-relative position (“my left-hand side”) suggests English speakers often miss out on knowledge about language and cognition because they are busy measuring things against an arbitrary English-centric benchmark. Different language conventions are usually not exotic or unusual; it’s just that English speakers come from a position of very great privilege because their language is the default. People who speak other languages are seen as different, as outsiders.

- Laura Bailey, Language: ‘untranslatable’ words tell us more about English speakers than other cultures
09 Aug 15:17

Marcas Mac an T on twitter: A bilingual sign tells you more than...

Marcas Mac an T on twitter

A bilingual sign tells you more than just where you need to go. 

 It tells you a country has more than one native language. 

 It tells you how the names for places are connected, or sometimes not, between languages. 

 It teaches you what others call that place in their language.

08 Aug 18:03

yeli-renrong: shogikappa: lazy-polyglot: BREAKING NEWS - I finally understood the tones in...




BREAKING NEWS - I finally understood the tones in Mandarin !!!


Thanks to the explanations of the picture I’m putting here. So helpful.

I mean an acquaintance of mine has always marked the Mandarin tones with the symbols . ? , !

The hỏi and nặng tone markers in Vietnamese are derived from the question mark and period. (The others are taken from Greek.)

05 Aug 12:53

A Spectre is Haunting Unicode

A Spectre is Haunting Unicode:

An interesting article about Japanese and Unicode. Excerpt: 

In 1978 Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry established the encoding that would later be known as JIS X 0208, which still serves as an important reference for all Japanese encodings. However, after the JIS standard was released people noticed something strange - several of the added characters had no obvious sources, and nobody could tell what they meant or how they should be pronounced. Nobody was sure where they came from. These are what came to be known as the ghost characters (幽霊文字). […]

By interviewing the catalogers involved in the creation of the standard, the investigators established that some characters were inadvertently invented as mistakes in the cataloging process. For example, 妛 was an error introduced while trying to record “山 over 女”. “山 over 女” occurs in the name of a particular place and was thus suitable for inclusion in the JIS standard, but because they couldn’t print it as one character yet, 山 and 女 were printed separately, cut out, and pasted onto a sheet of paper, and then copied. When reading the copy, the line where the two little pieces of paper met looked like a stroke and was added to the character by mistake. The original character (𡚴) was not added to JIS or Unicode until much later and doesn’t display on most sites for me.

Read the whole thing

02 Aug 06:02


by Mark Liberman

Dana Millbank, "Goodbye, Republican Party. Hello, Bigfoot Party.", WaPo 7/31/2018:

By now, there are few in the political world who have not yeti heard about what’s going on in the 5th Congressional District of Virginia.

The Republican candidate in the race, Denver Riggleman, was discovered to have posted images of “Bigfoot erotica” on Instagram, with the furry fellow’s ample nether regions obscured. The candidate is also co-author of a 2006 book about Bigfoot hunting in which he describes “serious Bigfoot research” and includes an assertion that “Bigfoots like sex, too.”

Shouldn’t that be “Bigfeet”?

Actually, no.

From Steve Pinker's 1999 book Words and Rules:

Some complex words are exceptional in being headless. That is, they don’t get their properties — such as grammatical category or referent — from their rightmost morpheme. The normal right-hand-head rule must be turned off for the word to be interpreted and used properly. As a result, the mechanism that ordinarily retrieves stored information from the word’s root is inactive, and any irregular form stored with the root is trapped in memory, unable to be passed upward to apply to the whole word. The regular rule, acting as the default, steps in to supply the complex word with a past tense form, undeterred by the fact that the sound of the word ordinarily would call for an irregular form.

Here is how the explanation works for one class of regularizations, compounds whose referent has rather than is an example of the referent of the rightmost morpheme. For example, a low-life is not a kind of life, but a kind of person, namely, a person who has or leads a low life. For it to have that meaning, the right-hand head rule, which would ordinarily make low-life mean a kind of life (the semantic information stored in memory with life), must be abrogated. With the usual data pipeline to the memory entry for the head disabled, there is no way for the other information stored with life to be passed upward either, such as the fact that it has an irregular plural form, lives. With the irregular plural unavailable, the regular -s rule steps in, and we get low-lifes.

Similar logic explains regularized forms such as still lifes (a kind of painting, not a kind of life), saber-tooths (a kind of cat, not a kind of tooth), flatfoots (policemen, not feet), bigmouths (not a kind of mouth but a person who has a big mouth), and Walkmans (not a kind of man, but a "personal stereo"). 

Since bigfoot is exactly this type of exocentric compound, the expected plural (according to Pinker) is "bigfoots", not "bigfeet".

(Though I must confess that both forms are Out There. Also plural "bigfoot", perhaps on the model of uninflected plural ethnonyms like "Inuit". And also even "bigfeets"…)

[h/t Richard Sproat]


30 Jul 14:44

inlanguagewedontsay: In French we don’t say “If six saws are sawing six saws, six saws are sawing...


In French we don’t say “If six saws are sawing six saws, six saws are sawing six saws, isn’t it ?”, we say “Si six scies scient six scies, six scies scient six scies, si ?” and I think it’s awesome because it’s pronounced “Si si si si si si, si si si si si, si ?”.

Submitted by @hetaliatextsmessages

25 Jul 13:52

Listen to the eerie wail of an icy moon of Saturn

by Phil Plait

Enceladus is the best moon.

In space, no one can hear you scream.

But you can listen to the extremely eerie moaning of Saturn's moon Enceladus as it orbits the giant planet. Kinda.

I'll explain below (because it's pretty cool), but the very brief summary is that Enceladus creates radio waves, and the Cassini spacecraft, which orbited Saturn for 13 years, had a radio wave detector on it. It measured the radio emissions from Enceladus, and then scientists converted those radio waves into sound (like a radio does), making… well, not a song, exactly. It's more of a bizarre and somewhat unsettling series of sounds that you might want to listen to with the lights on:

Man, that's weird. Like a preternatural chill running through my nervous system. Egads.

So what are we hearing here, exactly?

Sound waves are in some ways similar to electromagnetic waves (the fancy science word for light). They both have energy, wavelengths, frequencies, and so on. But in one way they're very different. Sound is a pressure wave, literally changing the pressure of that medium as it pass through it. That means you need something for sound to travel through, like air or water.

Electromagnetic waves aren't like that. They're fluctuations in a magnetic and electric field, and in a sense generate their own medium as they travel. They can therefore move through the vacuum of space, while sound can't.

Still, those basic properties are similar, and that means we can convert one to the other. It's like translating one form of currency into another; the Euro and the dollar are different, but we can exchange them at an agreed-upon rate.

We hear the frequency of sound waves as pitch: A higher frequency is a higher pitch. EM waves have different frequencies too (in the kind of light we see that determines the color), so if we have a detector that can measure those changes in frequencies, we can translate that change into sound.

Radio waves are a form of EM waves (just like the light we see is, but with much longer wavelengths), so we can convert them to sound as well. That's what a radio does!

That's also what the scientists did to make the audio file of Enceladus. But how is Enceladus making radio waves?

Diagram showing the interior of Enceladus. A rocky core is surrounded by a liquid water ocean, and then an icy crust. Water erupts from geysers at the south pole. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech Zoom In

Diagram showing the interior of Enceladus. A rocky core is surrounded by a liquid water ocean, and then an icy crust. Water erupts from geysers at the south pole. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This part I love. Enceladus is one of the geologically active worlds in our solar system. The gravity of Saturn squeezes and stretches it, which generates a lot of heat inside the moon. The ice has warmed enough to melt, and the stress on the surface has created giant cracks that reach all the way down to that water. The pressure inside the moon forces the water up, up, and out, spraying it into space! These geysers were one of the biggest discoveries of the Cassini mission.

At the same time, Saturn has a powerful magnetic field, and spins rapidly. This acts like a scoop, sweeping up and accelerating ions (charged particles) around Saturn. These particles then slam into the water molecules spewed into space around Enceladus, hitting them so hard the electrons in the molecules get zapped off, creating even more charged particles.

This soup of ionized gas is called a plasma. If something pokes it, like the magnetic field running through it and trying to sweep it up, the electrons wiggle around. But electrons repel each other like similar poles of a magnetic, and this creates ripples in the plasma. It's like tossing a rock in a pond, and watching the ripples expand outward in waves. Those electrons wiggle back and forth, and when they do they create radio waves. The frequency of the wave depends on how hard/fast the electrons wiggle.

Enceladus is basically a big radio transmitter.

Actual image from Cassini of water geysers erupting from the south pole of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Credits: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute Zoom In

Actual image from Cassini of water geysers erupting from the south pole of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Credits: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Cassini had a detector on board called the Cassini Radio and Plasma Wave Science instrument. It was like a radio antenna, able to sense radio emission coming from Enceladus. As the spacecraft passed between the moon and planet, it recorded the changes in the radio waves it detected. It was these changes in frequency and strength that were converted into sound to make the video.

How awesome is that? You can do this with any radio waves, too. I recently wrote about "whistlers", changes in radio emission detected from Jupiter when lightning strikes affect the planet's ionosphere that were converted to sound. We "hear" the same thing happening on Earth! You can do this with aurorae, too, and the sounds are cool and weird.

This is more than just a bit of fun; changing the way we perceive things can help us understand them. It's why we use graphs to display data, or use different colors to map images! We can't see or hear radio waves, but plotting them using graphs and color helps. But being able to hear them by converting them to sound gives us a more visceral feel for what they're doing.

Even if that feel is like icy fingertips brushing the back of your neck.