Shared posts

29 Aug 19:41

To people who use "þ" as an aesthetic "p"

Holly

This brings me so much joy and also I've learned a couple more Cyrillic letters (until I inevitably forget again).

petermorwood:

justabrowncoatedwench:

dovewithscales:

silvysartfulness:

v1als:

miss-serket:

solarine:

tkdancer:

tharook:

notquiteapolyglot:

þink again.

getting thorny in the linguistics fandom

þorny*

That also goes for using ß as an aesthetic B. 

On my old server, there was a character named ßillyßadass.

This never failed to make me laugh, because that letter is not pronounced like B. It is a sharp S. 

That guy named himself SsillySsadass. 

Also to people who you Σ as an aesthetic E

that’s an S too, Σo maybe check next time

oh boy

Д as an aesthetic A? Дon’t be a дumbass.

И as an aesthetic N? don’t be sillи.

П as another aesthetic N? stoп it.

У as an aesthetic Y? ty bad.

Ш or Щ as an aesthetic W? nope. it’s “sh” and “shch”!

Я as an aesthetic R? surprise! it’s “ya”.

ah yes, that classic horror film SNYEYAPOVUL DIAYAIES

This is pronounced Stargoat.

Reblogging for Stargoat.

STARGOAT

Hello Muddah, hello Á é í ó ú .
Here I am at Camp Granada.
Camp is very entertaining.
And they say we’ll have some fun if it stops raining
.

That’s the Camp Granada song, sung with an Irish accent.

THE Irish accent…

…which is called a fada

(hides)

23 Aug 22:49

Book review: Because Internet, by Gretchen McCulloch

by Stan Carey

Language is always changing, and on a macro level some of the most radical changes have resulted from technology. Writing is the prime example. Millennia after its development, telephony reshaped our communication; mere decades later, computers arrived, became networked, and here I am, typing something for you to read on your PC or phone, however many miles away.

The internet’s effects on our use of language are still being unpacked. We are in the midst of a dizzying surge in interconnectivity, and it can be hard to step back and understand just what is happening to language in the early 21st century. Why are full stops often omitted now? What exactly are emoji doing? Why do people lol if they’re not laughing? With memes, can you even?

Book cover is bright yellow, with text in black. The subtitle is highlighted in blue, with pins bracketing it, like on a phone.Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language is a new book by linguist Gretchen McCulloch that sets out to demystify some of the strange shifts going on in language right now. It provides a friendly yet substantial snapshot of linguistic trends and phenomena online, and it explains with clarity and ebullience what underpins them – socially, psychologically, technologically, linguistically.

‘When future historians look back on this era,’ McCulloch writes,

they’ll find our changes just as fascinating as we now find innovative words from Shakespeare or Latin or Norman French. So let’s adopt the perspective of these future historians now, and explore the revolutionary period in linguistic history that we’re living through from a place of excitement and curiosity.

Because Internet is a book about language change: where we pick up new usages, and why, and what it all means. Such changes depend on both weak ties (acquaintances, colleagues), to introduce new forms, and strong ties (family, friends), to spread them. The internet accelerates language change, essentially, because it leads to many more weak ties:

It’s not an accident that Twitter, where you’re encouraged to follow people you don’t already know, has given rise to more linguistic innovation (not to mention memes and social movements) than Facebook, where you primarily friend people you already know offline.

Context is everything. For centuries, formal writing was culturally privileged: with the standardisation of English came rules and norms that people saw as important, even intrinsic to the language. Things might loosen up in notes and letters, but in general there was a firm stylistic dichotomy between prose, which was formal, and speech, which was not.

The internet, with its democratising structure, subverts this:

Regardless of the specific linguistic circles we hang out with online, we’re all speakers of internet language because the shape of our language is influenced by the internet as a cultural context. Every language online is becoming decentralized, getting more of its informal register written down. Every speaker is learning how to write exquisite layers of social nuance that we once reserved for speech …

In forums, social media, and instant messaging, these nuances are expressed in ways that constitute a ‘distinct genre with its own goals’. Words are coined and mutated; formatting is refashioned; punctuation and symbols are repurposed. How this is executed and interpreted varies with context, age, and background – including where and when we first learned the local customs of online chat.

This last factor should not be underestimated. McCulloch devotes a chapter to mapping out a workable taxonomy of ‘Internet People’ based on their age, use of the internet, and entry to its social spaces. These groups’ particular styles and assumptions are a common source of mutual misunderstanding:

The dot dot dot is especially perilous. For people with experience of informal writing offline, it’s a generic separation character, as we just saw. But for internet-oriented writers, the generic separator is the line break or new message, which has left the dot dot dot open to taking on a further meaning of something left unsaid.

Irony in text is notoriously tricky: history has seen many failed efforts to codify it with a special mark. Irony’s risks, and rewards, are high: if it fails it can ‘gravely injure the conversation’, but if it succeeds there is ‘the sublime joy of feeling purely understood’. It is, in McCulloch’s phrase, ‘a linguistic trust fall’.

We may finally be getting somewhere. Irony online is now commonly conveyed (in some communities) with a range of unconventional typography: respellings, quirky capitalisation, tildes, and minimalist punctuation – a constellation of devices that emerged on Tumblr and Twitter since 2012. It’s complicated ‘because irony itself is complicated’.

Linguist Llama meme: a llama in the centre, facing you, on a background of large blue triangles. Text at the top: Language changes faster now. Text at the bottom: Because internetAnd then there are emoji, which critics accuse of dumbing down the language or even replacing it. Not only will McCulloch put your mind at rest on those fronts (I mean, really 🤨😂), she also makes a persuasive case that what emoji are doing is very like what gesture does for speech. There are differences, of course:

gestures are good at movement, while emoji are better at detail. … But their core function, the way that they fit into our systems of communication, has too many similarities to be an accident.

Nor is it accidental that the emoji we use the most tend to represent our faces and hands: ‘We use emoji less to describe the world around us, and more to be fully ourselves in an online world.’ They play a crucial role in conveying tone, as emoticons did before them: a vital service in many ways:

When we learn to write in ways that communicate our tone of voice, not just our mastery of rules, we learn to see writing not as a way of asserting our intellectual superiority, but as a way of listening to each other better.

Because Internet does more than reveal the historical patterns and linguistic mechanisms behind our new modes of communicating. It also celebrates our endless creativity in pushing language in fresh directions. Its insights will appeal equally to fluent users of internet language and less-online people who may be baffled by or suspicious of its jargon and in-jokes (Remember the fuss over because X?).

McCulloch’s book is thought-provoking, page-turning, witty, and delightful, and will go a long way towards bridging the communicative gaps between tribes and generations online. You can order Because Internet from Riverhead Books (a division of Penguin), and also read a chapter there.

[Disclosure: The publisher sent me a review copy, and I know the author online: we follow each other on Twitter, and she has written for Strong Language, a blog about swearing that I co-founded with James Harbeck.]
15 Aug 17:03

Between pee and bad

by Victor Mair

Two delightful Chinglish specimens submitted by Karen Yang:

The Chinese on the sign reads:

xiǎobiàn jiān
小便间
"urinal room; pissoir"

The key to understanding this mistranslation is that, while xiǎobiàn 小便 does indeed mean "pee; urine", jiān 间 does not mean "between" (one possible translation in other contexts), but "room; compartment; apartment".  Most references to xiǎobiàn jiān 小便间 have to do with Paris or other French cities, so that's why I have translated it as "pissoir" here.

Here's the second one:

The Chinese on this sign reads:

cǐ mén yǐ huài
此门已坏
"this door is broken / bad / out of order"

The person who wrote this sign was trying to wax a bit literary and / or was trying to save space, so they used the classical demonstrative cǐ 此 for "this" and the classical adverb yǐ 已 to indicate that a condition is already in existence from some past time (hence, "has been").

It's always risky to rely on software or inadequate knowledge of literary usage to translate from Chinese that is not based on common, high frequency Mandarin to other languages.

Selected readings

15 Aug 01:36

4000 exoplanets, in sight and sound

by Phil Plait

In mid-June, the field of exoplanetary astronomy hit a big milestone: The discovery of the 4000th exoplanet.

Wow. That’s a lot of alien worlds!

The very first exoplanet was announced in 1992 (literally immediately after a previous announcement was retracted). At first the pace of discovery was slow, as methods were tried out and refined. But then things picked up considerably.

How much have things accelerated? Well, you can see for yourself… and hear it too.

I just saw that APOD featured an amazing video, created by Matt Russo and Andrew Santaguida of System Sounds. They make wonderful animations about astronomy and space, combining art and science in a fascinating and compelling way.

The video, called 4000 Exoplanets, is just terrific. Watch it, and then I’ll explain…

The video starts off in 1992, at the first announcement of the planets orbiting the pulsar PSR B1257+12. The entire sky is displayed (it’s distorted at the top and bottom due to mapping a spherical surface (we see the sky as the inside of a giant sphere around us) to a rectangle. The curvy band across it is the disk of the Milky Way, the flat spiral galaxy we live in. It is straight when you see it in the sky, but curved like this again due to remapping the sky into a rectangle.

As time goes on, more planets appear. Each time, you hear a piano note. The pitch of the note corresponds to orbital period (the year) of the planet; higher pitches are shorter periods and lower pitches longer periods. The volume of the note shows how many planets with similar periods were announced at that time. One planet is a quiet note, while many together makes for a louder note.

The colors represent how the planet was found. Planets found using the transit method are purple, planets found via radial velocity are pink, direct imaging (literally, images of the planets themselves) in orange, gravitational microlensing in cyan, orbital brightness modulation (where the gravity of the planet changes the shape of the star, which can be detected as a change in the brightness of the star) in yellow, transit timing variations (changes in a planet’s period due to the gravitational influence of another planet in the system, for example) in red, and astrometry (the gravity of the planet making the star’s motion through space wiggle as it orbits) in gray.

Now let me ask you a question: Can you figure out when the Kepler space telescope came online, and where it was pointed?

OK, spoilers: It started finding planets in 2009, and it spent years staring at one spot in space in the constellation Cygnus, which in the video is in the Milky Way to the upper left. By the end of the primary mission it had found about half of all exoplanets known! That’s pretty obvious in the video.

But now we have TESS scanning the skies, and it’s already reaping rewards… and astronomers going through its observations have found only a tiny fraction of the planets predicted to be waiting in the data.

It took 27 years to get to 4,000 exoplanets. We won’t have to wait nearly that long to reach 8,000.

What planets still await us? What strange new worlds are still out there to be found, big ones, small ones, hot one, cold ones, ones with just the right amount of light from their stars and just the right chemistry to be hauntingly familiar to us, ones with liquid water on their surface and nitrogen-oxygen atmospheres, ones with curious features in their spectra that could be from starlight absorbed by the output of living creatures?

There are a lot of planets out there. Billions. Hundreds of billions.

4,000 is just the very, very first start.

15 Aug 00:52

Gricean (im)politeness

by Mark Liberman

Does Paul Grice's "cooperative principle" enjoin politeness? Jessica Wildfire sees it that way ("Maybe you're not rude after all", Splattered 6/29/2018):

A teacher sent me home for showing my underwear in fifth grade. The same year, I also got in trouble for asking a classmate about their gender identity. Stuff like that was always happening. I always managed to break some invisible rule out of social blindness. […]

I was a real trouble maker. So rude. Why couldn't I just be polite, like everyone else? […]

And then linguistics happened. Halfway through college, I started taking courses in language theory.

That's when I started to learn something important. Something that changed my life forever.

Most of our politeness rules are bullshit.

What was her crucial "language theory" insight?

You see, sociolinguists study how people talk. The more I read into language theory, the more these elusive, hidden, and unspoken rules and expectations became clear. My problems came into focus.

For example, you can make pretty decent conversation if you just follow four principles laid out by Paul Grice in the 70s — quantity, quality, relevance, and manner. That was revolutionary.

Grice taught me that when someone you barely know says, "How are you?" they actually don't give a shit. They're just being polite. You're supposed to observe the maxim of quantity and say, "I'm fine."

If you tell most of your friends or coworkers how you actually feel, they'll think you're unhinged. All because you offered more information than they wanted. I could go on, but you get the point.

See, quantity.

Paul Grice was a philosopher, not a sociolinguist. And the goal of his work on conversational maxims was to rescue the truth-conditional meanings of words such as not, and, or, if, all, some, the. He proposed to do this by explaining the apparent divergence of their ordinary-language use from simple truth-table meanings as cases of "conversational implicature", a "mistake [that] arises from an inadequate attention to the nature and importance of the conditions governing conversation".

But it's true that his 1967 analysis of "Logic and Conversation" is founded on what he calls the "Cooperative Principle":

Our talk exchanges do not normally consist of a succession of disconnected remarks, and would not be rational if they did. They are characteristically, to some degree at least, cooperative efforts; and each participant recognizes in them, to some extent, a common purpose or set of purposes, or at least a mutually accepted direction. This purpose or direction may be fixed from the start (e.g., by an initial proposal of a question for discussion), or it may evolve during the exchange; it may be fairly definite, or it may be so indefinite as to leave very considerable latitude to the participants (as in a casual conversation). But at each stage, SOME possible conversational moves would be excluded as conversationally unsuitable. We might then formulate a rough general principle which participants will be expected (ceteris paribus) to observe, namely: Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged. One might label this the COOPERATIVE PRINCIPLE.

So can we summarize the cooperative principle as "Be Polite"?

Problem: many of Grice's own examples of conversational implicatures are downright nasty. For example, he invites us to

Compare the remarks:
(a) Miss X sang 'Home sweet home.'
(b) Miss X produced a series of sounds that corresponded closely with the score of 'Home sweet home'.

It's the maxim of quantity that allows version (b) to generate negative implicatures about Miss X's vocal stylings.

But maybe that example should actually be seen as a more polite way of saying "Her singing was horrible"?

In the end it seems that Jessica Wildfire is taking "polite" to mean "consistent with the norms of conversational interaction", from the perspective of someone who finds them opaque:

On the flip side, telling people exactly what you want is considered rude. Some of us fall into this trap all the time. If you visit my home, you're supposed to keep saying, "I'm thirsty" and wait for me to offer you water. You can't just ask me. And you definitely can't help yourself to my faucet. Don't be rude. Just pass out from dehydration.

This rule also sounds like bullshit. If you ever visit my house, just ask me for water. Or bourbon. I have both. I'm willing to share.

Most people learn these rules naturally. People like me, on the spectrum, have to learn them explicitly.

And maybe there really is a sort of positivity bias in conversational implicatures, such that "speaker's meaning" is generally in some sense more "polite" than a literal expression of the same content would be. This reminds me that in "Reverse sarcasm?" (10/27/2003) I discussed a perhaps-analogous sort of positivity bias in the case of sarcasm.

 

15 Aug 00:04

How Twitter is helping the Scots language thrive in the 21st century

How Twitter is helping the Scots language thrive in the 21st century:

An article in The Conversation about Scots Twitter and Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC). Excerpt: 

Scots on Twitter is a fascinating source of evidence about how aware people are of the subtle ways their speech differs from other people’s, and the creative ways they find to represent this.

Depending on exactly where someone comes from, their (spoken) Scots will include different sounds, words and sentence structures. We see this represented in Scots CMC. In Scots dictionaries, the word equivalent to English “can’t” is generally spelled in one of two ways, reflecting a traditional pronunciation difference: “canna” in the north, and “cannae” in the south. Indeed, a search for “canna” on Twitter finds tweets from the north east.

However, the spelling “cannae” appears to be quite rare in the southern Scots CMC. Instead, spellings like “canny” appear to be more common.

In Sadie Ryan’s research on the CMC of Glaswegian pre-teens, other spellings used included “cany”, “canni”, “cani” and “kani”. 

Read the whole thing.

10 Aug 15:54

Do not puke

by Victor Mair

Thai sign over a sink in a restroom, from Alexander Bukh on Facebook:

The Thai part of the sign reads:

ha:m uak! ha:m la:ŋ  kon dek! nai a:ŋ la:ŋ mɯː prab 500 ba:t

alternative transliteration:

H̄̂ām x̂wk! H̄̂ām l̂āng k̂n dĕk! Nı x̀āng l̂āngmụ̄x prạb 500 bāth

ห้ามอ้วก! ห้ามล้างก้นเด็ก! ในอ่างล้างมือ ปรับ 500 บาท

Do not vomit or wash a baby's bottom in the sink, (if you do these things) you will be fined 500 Thai baht.

The word over the crossed-out picture of the little girl vomiting (bottom left):

wɛ!!

แหวะ!!

blech / blargh

If you really have to retch / barf / upchuck / puke / regurgitate / toss your cookies / blow your lunch, please do it in the toilet, and clean your baby's butt / bottom elsewhere, not in this sink.

[h.t. Nathan Hopson; thanks to Joyce White, Pattira Thaithosaeng, and Justin McDaniel]

10 Aug 14:51

Wikipedia Is Helping Keep Welsh Alive Online

Wikipedia Is Helping Keep Welsh Alive Online:

An article in Slate about the role of Wikipedia in creating language tools. Excerpt: 

Although Alexa still does not speak or understand Welsh, the Celtic language’s presence in tech has increased dramatically within a short period. Google announced in February that it had expanded its offerings in Docs, Sheets, Slides, and Drive to include Welsh. And Google Translate—infamous since 2009 for its Scymraeg, or scummy Welsh—has, according to the BBC, recently taken a great leap forward in terms of the accuracy and quality of its Welsh translations. Morlais and others attribute this in part to the fact that there are now more than 100,000 articles on the Welsh version of Wikipedia, known as Wicipedia.

Like other language editions, Wicipedia is a separate website with its own content, not simply a translation of English Wikipedia, a distinction that matters for both users and big tech companies. Back in 2017, Morlais observed, “There appears to be an indication that there is a link between the languages with the most Wikipedia articles or pages and the languages that are supported by the digital giants.” Google Translate and other technologies use artificial neural networks to learn from example, training themselves with language data from rich internet sources like Welsh Wikipedia.

The Welsh community is not alone in using wiki-technology to promote its language. This year’s Celtic Knot conference in Cornwall, England, included several indigenous languages with their own Wikipedia editions. The original idea, as the name suggests, was to focus on Celtic languages, including Irish, Scots, Breton, Welsh, and Cornish, which was declared extinct merely a decade ago. But as word got out about a Wikipedia minority language conference, others began to join, representing, for example, the Sámi language spoken in parts of Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Russia; the Berber family of languages spoken in Northern Africa; and the Basque and Catalan communities. (In his 2017 presentation, Morlais noted that Catalan was one of the few minority languages supported by Google search, an accomplishment he linked to the fact that Catalan already had more than 500,000 articles on its language edition of Wikipedia.)

Read the whole thing.

07 Aug 09:07

maybe we’re finally getting through to peopleTIL the dictionary...



maybe we’re finally getting through to people

TIL the dictionary isn’t as much an instruction guide to the English language, as it is a record of how people are using it. Words aren’t added because they’re OK to use, but because a lot of people have been using them.

26 Jul 21:33

Your Face is Too Grubby: A Treatise on Face Touching

by Elsa Sjunneson-Henry

The blind woman’s hands graze the young man’s face after he urges her to do so. He eggs her on, saying she needs to feel his beauty. To him, it’s the only way that she’ll know what he looks like. Perhaps to an abled audience, this makes sense.

A scene later, and the blind woman finds a corpse in an alley. She feels the corpse’s face, and knows without a shred of doubt that it is her friend, whose face she just touched at the beginning of the episode.

…Right.


I want you to try something.

Feel your own face—or if you’ve got someone who is willing to let you put your grubby paws all over their face, do that.

Close your eyes.

What do you feel? Do you feel every pore? Do you think your fingers really could tell the difference between the slope of your nose, and the slope of someone else’s? The curve of a cheekbone—will your memory remember the difference between one and the other?

Would you trust your ability to feel the difference between a corpse, skin that has become hardened in the moments after death, and identify it as the same face that was live, skin warm and pliant to your fingertips?

I’m blind, and I can’t.

I’m willing to bet that you can’t either.

I don’t know what the obsession is with the face-touching trope, but The CW’s show In The Dark leans into it, using it as a plot point in multiple episodes.

It is one of the many ways in which the show—which centers on Murphy Mason, the young blind woman who stumbles across her friend’s corpse in the first episode—fails to accurately depict blindness, specifically along the vector of blind physicality.

The physicality of blindness is a failure of many characterizations in film, however—In the Dark just happens to be the most recent, most egregious example.

Face touching, while an obvious example, is not the only one. Murphy’s No Light Perception blindness also falls into the archetype of there only being one kind of blindness, and of course, being played by a sighted actress doesn’t help with the realism. But the blind physicality presented here isn’t limited to touching a face…

During the spring of 2019 I became a guide dog handler. Murphy of In the Dark is also a guide dog handler. In fact, her parents opened a guide dog school so that they could help her.

Leaving aside the fact that guide dog schools are incredibly complex organizations, serving hundreds of guide dog teams, and the various inaccuracies in the depiction of the running of a dog school that I could see… Let’s talk about Murphy’s actual dog handling skills.

In the first place, we don’t know a whole lot about them—because the show chooses to only have Murphy bring her guide with her for select scenes: scenes where it is either dramatic or funny to have the dog on the screen. We frequently see Murphy using a white cane instead of bringing the dog along.

It is hard for me to think of times when I am without a dog. While I’m writing this essay, there is a black lab at my feet. When I am at a grocery store, there is a guide dog leading the way, when I am in a public bathroom—you guessed it, there’s a dog.

So the fact that Murphy at one point jokes about her dog being a stalker… yes, there are certainly feelings of never being physically alone, but as a dog handler I’d never ascribe that as a negative trait.

I am never alone. I am always accompanied by someone who can keep me safe. It is a great privilege to have a dog friend who is willing to stay by my side.

But it isn’t just about the fact that she rejects her partner in crime (investigation). It’s that the bond between dog and human is an absolutely vital part of the guide dog handling process. And there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of this bond in the world of In The Dark.

This undervalues the deep bond between dog and human that has to develop in order to make a guide partnership work. Yes, my dog goes with me everywhere. The few times that I leave him at home—typically to do something like go horseback riding or to get a massage—he stares at me as I leave. And I feel vaguely naked. There’s something missing when I leave the house without my dog.

The dog is not a sometimes adaptive device. Yes, there are times when he is not convenient, yes there are times when he cannot go with me. But those times are rare; they are very, very rare.

Yet Murphy leaves her dog all the time. She doesn’t value their relationship.

Buy it Now

When the dog is on screen, Murphy is constantly doing things like flinging a hand out in front of her to find a counter edge. I don’t read any trust in her physicality with the dog. The dog would bring her to the counter. The dog would always be there to support her.

But also, Murphy is a bad handler because she engages in bad behavior in public.

In one scene, Murphy is in a pizza shop, investigating her friend’s death. She picks the pepperoni off her pizza and feeds it to her adorable golden retriever guide (who is sitting up in a restaurant instead of lying underneath the table, safely out of the way). There’s so much wrong with this scenario, but honestly the biggest issue is that I’d never feed my dog anything off my plate in public—because that’s how you get a bad rep. That’s how you end up being kicked out of restaurants, being accused of not having a real guide. That’s behavior you’re told never to engage in, as a dog handler.

I get it: the writers wanted to write a Bad Blind Girl. But you know what? We haven’t had a good one yet.

Shows like In the Dark that show guide dog handlers participating in bad behavior in public don’t help with awareness or make it any easier for me to go places with my dog. They mean that I will be asked, over and over again, for my dog’s paperwork. That I will, in some places, have to fill out paperwork to be polite.

Characters like Murphy don’t scratch the itch of blind representation because they don’t actually represent me.

The failure of In the Dark is that at its core, In the Dark is using blindness as a set dressing to tell a story. It relies on tropes to develop a blindness narrative without ever really acknowledging what it is like to be blind.

Ultimately, that’s why so many blind people find the show to be a betrayal: because we don’t often get stories about blind people that aren’t about blindness.

If Murphy were a character whose blindness actually made sense, who used her adaptive devices well—if the guide dog school weren’t badly described set dressing, if her blindness weren’t so often a joke or a plot device—then I could love Murphy the Bad Blind Girl. Because we do need characters like her.

We do need blind people who have casual sex on TV. We need blind people who have pregnancy scares, who make bad decisions, who aren’t perfect.

But we also need them to be blind. We need them to still use their adaptive devices realistically.

We need more.

We need them to not touch faces… because dear god, why?

Screenshot: The CW

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry is a gimlet made from feminism and snark. She’s a deafblind speculative fiction author, and she writes disability focused nonfiction as well. Her work has appeared in UncannyFiresideTor.com, CNN, and The Boston Globe, and she is a 2019 Hugo Award finalist for Best Fan Writer, as well as a Best Semiprozine Hugo finalist for her work as an editor on Fireside Magazine and Uncanny Magazine’s Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction Special Issue. She writes from a dragon lair in NJ, and can be found on the web @snarkbat and snarkbat.com

26 Jul 08:25

linguisticalities: Why parrots can talk like humans

Holly

I don't know if people who know less about human phonetics will enjoy this as much as me but the vast differences in how birds pronounce speech sounds blew my mind. :) (Sorta makes up for how much I hated the description of what vowels and plosives and "other consonants" are, heh.) And no one ever told me monkeys are speech-ready! Whoa.

25 Jul 18:14

4000 exoplanets, in sight and sound

by Phil Plait
Holly

Holy shit, this video. <3

In mid-June, the field of exoplanetary astronomy hit a big milestone: The discovery of the 4000th exoplanet.

Wow. That’s a lot of alien worlds!

The very first exoplanet was announced in 1992 (literally immediately after a previous announcement was retracted). At first the pace of discovery was slow, as methods were tried out and refined. But then things picked up considerably.

How much have things accelerated? Well, you can see for yourself… and hear it too.

I just saw that APOD featured an amazing video, created by Matt Russo and Andrew Santaguida of System Sounds. They make wonderful animations about astronomy and space, combining art and science in a fascinating and compelling way.

The video, called 4000 Exoplanets, is just terrific. Watch it, and then I’ll explain…

The video starts off in 1992, at the first announcement of the planets orbiting the pulsar PSR B1257+12. The entire sky is displayed (it’s distorted at the top and bottom due to mapping a spherical surface (we see the sky as the inside of a giant sphere around us) to a rectangle. The curvy band across it is the disk of the Milky Way, the flat spiral galaxy we live in. It is straight when you see it in the sky, but curved like this again due to remapping the sky into a rectangle.

As time goes on, more planets appear. Each time, you hear a piano note. The pitch of the note corresponds to orbital period (the year) of the planet; higher pitches are shorter periods and lower pitches longer periods. The volume of the note shows how many planets with similar periods were announced at that time. One planet is a quiet note, while many together makes for a louder note.

The colors represent how the planet was found. Planets found using the transit method are purple, planets found via radial velocity are pink, direct imaging (literally, images of the planets themselves) in orange, gravitational microlensing in cyan, orbital brightness modulation (where the gravity of the planet changes the shape of the star, which can be detected as a change in the brightness of the star) in yellow, transit timing variations (changes in a planet’s period due to the gravitational influence of another planet in the system, for example) in red, and astrometry (the gravity of the planet making the star’s motion through space wiggle as it orbits) in gray.

Now let me ask you a question: Can you figure out when the Kepler space telescope came online, and where it was pointed?

OK, spoilers: It started finding planets in 2009, and it spent years staring at one spot in space in the constellation Cygnus, which in the video is in the Milky Way to the upper left. By the end of the primary mission it had found about half of all exoplanets known! That’s pretty obvious in the video.

But now we have TESS scanning the skies, and it’s already reaping rewards… and astronomers going through its observations have found only a tiny fraction of the planets predicted to be waiting in the data.

It took 27 years to get to 4,000 exoplanets. We won’t have to wait nearly that long to reach 8,000.

What planets still await us? What strange new worlds are still out there to be found, big ones, small ones, hot one, cold ones, ones with just the right amount of light from their stars and just the right chemistry to be hauntingly familiar to us, ones with liquid water on their surface and nitrogen-oxygen atmospheres, ones with curious features in their spectra that could be from starlight absorbed by the output of living creatures?

There are a lot of planets out there. Billions. Hundreds of billions.

4,000 is just the very, very first start.

12 Jul 07:53

Yer da sells Avon: how the Scots language found a new home on Twitter

Yer da sells Avon: how the Scots language found a new home on Twitter:

A great article about the Scots language on twitter. Excerpt: 

Clas­sic con­tri­bu­tions includ­ing Kings­ley the Partick This­tle mas­cot; ​‘yer maw’ jokes; ​‘yer da sells Avon’ jokes; any­thing Lewis Capal­di tweets, and ​“maw bought aldi show­er gel that smells like fairy liq­uid so I’ve been cut­ting about all day smelling like a fuck­ing plate” (@adamfraser14, August 2015).

For many peo­ple both out­side Scot­land and with­in, Twit­ter has pro­vid­ed a brand new view into the Scots lan­guage and its vari­eties in all their sweary, hys­ter­i­cal, some­times incom­pre­hen­si­ble glo­ry. Has the plat­form spear­head­ed a resur­gence amongst its young users or is this some­thing more pro­found altogether?

The Scots lan­guage has been spo­ken in Scot­land for cen­turies and still exists across the coun­try today. It’s com­prised of numer­ous dif­fer­ent dialects – which can dif­fer from each oth­er quite dra­mat­i­cal­ly – and is one of three offi­cial lan­guages in Scot­land, along­side Eng­lish and Gael­ic. In 2001 it was offi­cial­ly recog­nised under the Euro­pean Char­ter for Minor­i­ty Languages.

“Scots was the nation­al lan­guage of a coun­try that doesn’t exist any­more,” explains writer and pre­sen­ter Alis­tair Heather, who writes a Scots col­umn in Scotland’s The Nation­al news­pa­per. ​“As Scot­land was amal­ga­mat­ed into Great Britain, Scots fell away from being a nation­al lan­guage because it didn’t have a nation anymore.

Read the whole thing

02 Jul 08:41

tchaikovskaya: This is a video of an Oksapmin woman...



tchaikovskaya:

This is a video of an Oksapmin woman demonstrating the Oksapmin base-27 counting system. The Oksapmin people of New Guinea use body part counting as a base for their numeral system (which may sound wild and exotic, but is really just a more detailed version of what we do, most anthropologists think base-10 number systems come from humans’ having 10 fingers) starting with the thumb, going up the arm and head to the nose (the 14th number) and going down the other side of the body to the pinky finger of the other hand (the 27th number). It does not matter which side you start counting on, so counting from right-to-left or left-to-right makes no difference. 

And if that’s not the coolest thing you’ve ever heard, I don’t know what to tell ya

image
30 Jun 13:05

AIs named by AIs

lewisandquark:

Neural networks can be good at naming things, I’ve discovered. Recently I’ve been experimenting with a neural network called GPT-2, which OpenAI trained on a huge chunk of the internet. Thanks to a colab notebook implementation by Max Woolf, I’m able to fine-tune it on specific lists of data - cat names, for example. Drawing on its prior knowledge of how words tend to be used, GPT-2 can sometimes suggest new words and phrases that it thinks it’s seen in similar context to the words from my fine-tuning dataset. (It’ll also sometimes launch into Harry Potter fan fiction or conspiracy theories, since it saw a LOT of those online.)

One thing I’ve noticed GPT-2 doing is coming up with names that sound strangely like the names of self-aware AI spaceships in Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels. In the science fiction series, the ships choose their own names according to a sort of quirky sense of humor. The humans in the books may not appreciate the names, but there’s nothing they can do about them:

Hand Me The Gun And Ask Me Again
Zero Credibility
Fixed Grin
Charming But Irrational
So Much For Subtlety
Experiencing A Significant Gravitas Shortfall

Now compare some of the effects pedals GPT-2 came up with:

Dangerous But Not Unbearably So
Disastrously Varied Mental Model
Dazzling So Beautiful Yet So Terrifying
Am I really that Transhuman
Love and Sex Are A Mercy Clause

 And some of the cat names:

Give Me A Reason
Thou Shalt
Warning Signs
Kill All Humans

Did GPT-2 somehow have a built-in tendency to produce names that sounded like self-aware spaceships? How would it do if it was actually trained specifically on Culture ships?

A reader named Kelly sent me a list of 236 of Iain M. Banks’s Culture ship names from Wikipedia, and I trained the 345 million-parameter version of GPT-2 on them. As it turns out, I had to stop the training after just a few seconds (6 iterations) because GPT-2 was already beginning to memorize the entire list (can’t blame it; as far as it was concerned, memorizing the entire list was a perfect solution to the task I was asking for).

And yes. The answer is yes, naming science fiction AIs is something this real-life AI can do astonishingly well. I’ve selected some of the best to show you. First, there are the names that are clearly warship AIs:

Not Disquieting At All
Surprise Surprise
And That’s That!
New Arrangement
I Told You So
Spoiler Alert
Bonus Points!
Collateral Damage
Friendly Head Crusher
Scruffy And Determined
Race To The Bottom

And there are the sassy AIs:

Absently Tilting To One Side
ASS FEDERATION
A Small Note Of Disrespect
Third Letter of The Week
Well Done and Thank You
Just As Bad As Your Florist
What Exactly Is It With You?
Let Me Just Post This
Protip: Don’t Ask
Beyond Despair
Way Too Personal
Sobering Reality Check
Charming (Except For The Dogs)

The names of these AIs are even more inscrutable than usual. To me, this makes them much scarier than the warships.

Hot Pie
Lightly Curled Round The Wrist
Color Gold Normally Comes With Silence
8 Angry Doughnut Feelings
Mini Cactus Cake Fight
Happy to Groom Any Animals You Want
Stuffy Waffles With Egg On Top
Pickles And Harpsichord
Just As Likely To Still Be Intergalactic Jellyfish
Someone Did Save Your Best Cookie By Post-Apocalyptic Means
LGRPllvmkiqquubkhakqqtdfayyyjjmnkkgalagi'qvqvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv

At least it does sound like some of these AIs will be appeased by snacks.

Bonus content: more AI names, including a few anachronisms (“Leonard Nimoy for President” for example)

30 Jun 04:57

Nonbinary patronymics in Iceland

by Mark Liberman

22 Jun 02:56

neurosciencestuff: Scientists chase mystery of how dogs process...

Holly

Dogs are so good! "The researchers hypothesize that the dogs may show greater neural activation to a novel word because they sense their owners want them to understand what they are saying, and they are trying to do so."

They're also so good for being able to sit still in MRI machines, which I didn't even manage when I was 12 and had to do it. :)



neurosciencestuff:

Scientists chase mystery of how dogs process words

When some dogs hear their owners say “squirrel,” they perk up, become agitated. They may even run to a window and look out of it. But what does the word mean to the dog? Does it mean, “Pay attention, something is happening?” Or does the dog actually picture a small, bushy-tailed rodent in its mind?

Frontiers in Neuroscience published one of the first studies using brain imaging to probe how our canine companions process words they have been taught to associate with objects, conducted by scientists at Emory University. The results suggest that dogs have at least a rudimentary neural representation of meaning for words they have been taught, differentiating words they have heard before from those they have not.

“Many dog owners think that their dogs know what some words mean, but there really isn’t much scientific evidence to support that,” says Ashley Prichard, a PhD candidate in Emory’s Department of Psychology and first author of the study. “We wanted to get data from the dogs themselves — not just owner reports.”

“We know that dogs have the capacity to process at least some aspects of human language since they can learn to follow verbal commands,” adds Emory neuroscientist Gregory Berns, senior author of the study. “Previous research, however, suggests dogs may rely on many other cues to follow a verbal command, such as gaze, gestures and even emotional expressions from their owners.”

The Emory researchers focused on questions surrounding the brain mechanisms dogs use to differentiate between words, or even what constitutes a word to a dog.

Berns is founder of the Dog Project, which is researching evolutionary questions surrounding man’s best, and oldest friend. The project was the first to train dogs to voluntarily enter a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner and remain motionless during scanning, without restraint or sedation. Studies by the Dog Project have furthered understanding of dogs’ neural response to expected reward, identified specialized areas in the dog brain for processing faces, demonstrated olfactory responses to human and dog odors, and linked prefrontal function to inhibitory control.

For the current study, 12 dogs of varying breeds were trained for months by their owners to retrieve two different objects, based on the objects’ names. Each dog’s pair of objects consisted of one with a soft texture, such as a stuffed animal, and another of a different texture, such as rubber, to facilitate discrimination. Training consisted of instructing the dogs to fetch one of the objects and then rewarding them with food or praise. Training was considered complete when a dog showed that it could discriminate between the two objects by consistently fetching the one requested by the owner when presented with both of the objects.

During one experiment, the trained dog lay in the fMRI scanner while the dog’s owner stood directly in front of the dog at the opening of the machine and said the names of the dog’s toys at set intervals, then showed the dog the corresponding toys.

Eddie, a golden retriever-Labrador mix, for instance, heard his owner say the words “Piggy” or “Monkey,” then his owner held up the matching toy. As a control, the owner then spoke gibberish words, such as “bobbu” and “bodmick,” then held up novel objects like a hat or a doll.

The results showed greater activation in auditory regions of the brain to the novel pseudowords relative to the trained words.

“We expected to see that dogs neurally discriminate between words that they know and words that they don’t,” Prichard says. “What’s surprising is that the result is opposite to that of research on humans — people typically show greater neural activation for known words than novel words.”

The researchers hypothesize that the dogs may show greater neural activation to a novel word because they sense their owners want them to understand what they are saying, and they are trying to do so. “Dogs ultimately want to please their owners, and perhaps also receive praise or food,” Berns says.

Half of the dogs in the experiment showed the increased activation for the novel words in their parietotemporal cortex, an area of the brain that the researchers believe may be analogous to the angular gyrus in humans, where lexical differences are processed.

The other half of the dogs, however, showed heightened activity to novel words in other brain regions, including the other parts of the left temporal cortex and amygdala, caudate nucleus, and the thalamus.

These differences may be related to a limitation of the study — the varying range in breeds and sizes of the dogs, as well as possible variations in their cognitive abilities. A major challenge in mapping the cognitive processes of the canine brain, the researchers acknowledge, is the variety of shapes and sizes of dogs’ brains across breeds.

“Dogs may have varying capacity and motivation for learning and understanding human words,” Berns says, “but they appear to have a neural representation for the meaning of words they have been taught, beyond just a low-level Pavlovian response.”

This conclusion does not mean that spoken words are the most effective way for an owner to communicate with a dog. In fact, other research also led by Prichard and Berns and recently published in Scientific Reports, showed that the neural reward system of dogs is more attuned to visual and to scent cues than to verbal ones.

“When people want to teach their dog a trick, they often use a verbal command because that’s what we humans prefer,” Prichard says. “From the dog’s perspective, however, a visual command might be more effective, helping the dog learn the trick faster.”

21 Jun 11:49

thereallieutenantcommanderdata: Things that should happen in a Sci-Fi story with a Universal...

thereallieutenantcommanderdata:

Things that should happen in a Sci-Fi story with a Universal Translator

One character who constantly makes bad puns … except the UT totally fails to translate them.  “I guess you could say he … had a bad time”, “Well, I don’t think they’ll be … visiting again any time soon”.  There’s some other aliens of the same species who groan every time

A group of aliens who share a common language get into a discussion about grammar … but the UT translates the word they’re arguing about the same way every time.  “It looks like they left in a hurry … or is it ‘left’?” “You’re expressing uncertainty, so you have to use the subjunctive form ‘left’” “No, you don’t use the subjunctive here, you’re expressing a deduction based on evidence, so you have to use the deductive form ‘left’” “Wait, you say ‘left’ for the deductive?  Are you from the Southern Continent?” “Yes, I am.  Wait, what’s it in your dialect?” “We say ‘left’ where I’m from”

A character unexpectedly becomes angry at another character.  At the end of the episode you find out that the first character had switched verb forms to a more affectionate form when speaking to the second character and was mad that they were ignoring the obvious indication of their feelings

The captain nearly derails tense diplomatic negotiations because of a UT slip up, inadvertently implying a definite claim to a particular planet, as opposed to a tentative claim subject to negotiation

The crew is visited by a group of aliens whose UT is a few centuries out of date, so they’re greeted with Early Modern English

An alien recites the equivalent of Jabberwocky and the UT just completely gives us “’Twas something and the something something did something and something in the something …”

19 Jun 21:18

andywarnercomics: There’s a book out there that’s either one of...













andywarnercomics:

There’s a book out there that’s either one of the last great unsolved cyphers or a massive medieval hoax. Welcome to the weird world of the Voynich Manuscript. And no, it isn’t solved yet.

I did this comic for The Nib last year (The Nib is an amazingly great place for comics on Medium if you don’t know that already). You can follow all my work on Medium here.

19 Jun 20:49

Father’s Day

by S J Tamsett

If, on Father’s Day,

You’ve found the perfect (or imperfect) gift.

Or sent a card in the nick of time.

If you are lucky and have the gift of time

To spend with someone

Who fills the role of father for you.

Then spare a little time in your thoughts

For the girls who have no daddies,

The boys who no longer have fathers,

All the children who are alone today.

And send some love to the fathers

Who spend today missing their children,

Bearing the pain no parent should ever have to bear,

The heaviest grief, for the loss of their child.

Take a moment to share a little of your love

With everyone who’s struggling,

Or finding today so very hard.

For the fatherless,

and the fathers who are alone today.

You are still loved,

This can still be your day.

16 Jun 23:37

The English Word That Hasn’t Changed in Sound or Meaning in 8,000 Years - Nautilus

The English Word That Hasn’t Changed in Sound or Meaning in 8,000 Years - Nautilus:

Nautilus Magazine has a nice introduction to Proto-Indo-European and sound change. Excerpt: 

One of my favorite words is lox,” says Gregory Guy, a professor of linguistics at New York University. There is hardly a more quintessential New York food than a lox bagel—a century-old popular appetizing store, Russ & Daughters, calls it “The Classic.” But Guy, who has lived in the city for the past 17 years, is passionate about lox for a different reason. “The pronunciation in the Proto-Indo-European was probably ‘lox,’ and that’s exactly how it is pronounced in modern English,” he says. “Then, it meant salmon, and now it specifically means ‘smoked salmon.’ It’s really cool that that word hasn’t changed its pronunciation at all in 8,000 years and still refers to a particular fish.”

Read the whole thing

14 Jun 15:05

Jeremy who?

by Mark Liberman

Lane Greene writes:

This has happened an astonishing number of times.

He's considered about the "fourth front-runner" for the Tory leadership (and hence the prime ministership) if such a thing exists. In any case he's prominent enough that we'll hear it a lot more. I tried to explain on Twitter the anticipation effect that makes

"Jeremy Cunt, the culture secretary…"

slightly more likely. But it kept happening when he became health secretary, foreign secretary… Does the fact that it's such a tempting taboo word make this more likely somehow? What's going on?

14 Jun 12:18

In Their Prime

by noreply@blogger.com (Jen)
Here's an uplifting photo: the first joint meeting of the seventeen Lib Dem and Alliance party MEPs elected two weeks ago. Coalicious, as they used to say.


They're going to be in place to some point between October 31 2019 and June 30 2024. Can't wait to find out who's going to be leading on which issues and sitting on what intergroups...

(Pic: Catherine Bearder's twitter)
09 Jun 10:56

yoinksquid: im here to announce that the new hot meme is writing textposts in the international...

yoinksquid:

im here to announce that the new hot meme is writing textposts in the international phonetic alphabet

ˈɪtəl lʊk ə ˈlɪtəl ˈsʌmθɪŋ laɪk ðɪs. aɪ θɪŋk ðɪs ɪz ˈrɪli ˈgoʊɪŋ tu kæʧ ɑn gaɪz

aɪm ɪntu ɪt

09 Jun 10:54

Once again, a neural net tries to name cats

lewisandquark:

image

Last year I trained a neural net to generate new names for kittens, by giving it a list of over 8,000 existing cat names to imitate. Starting from scratch, with zero knowledge of English or any context for the words and letter combinations it was trying out, it tried to predict what letters might be found in cat names, and in which order. Its names ranged from the strange to the completely nonsensical to the highly unfortunate (Retchion, Hurler, and Trickles were some of its suggestions). Without knowledge of English beyond its list of cat names, it didn’t know what letter combinations to avoid.

So I decided to revisit the cat-naming problem, this time using a neural net that had a lot more context. GPT-2, trained by OpenAI on a huge chunk of the internet, knows which words and letter combinations tend to be used together on the English-language internet. It also has (mostly) figured out which words and letter combinations to avoid, at least in some contexts (though it does tend to suddenly switch contexts, and then, yikes).

When I trained GPT-2 on the list of cat names using Max Woolf’s colab notebook, it still retained a lot of what it had learned from the rest of the internet. Gone were the strange names like “Tilly-Mapper” and “Balllucidoux” - it had a bunch of real words it could use instead. Here are some of the names it came up with - and the Morris Animal Refuge (who you may remember from that time they used neural net names for their guinea pigs) has given some of these names to some highly adoptable kittens.

First, neural net can do fancy:

Taffeta
Pompompur
Monocle
Tom Glitter
Notion
Tinnitus
Cheesemonger
M. Tinklesby Linklater Soap

image

It can also do the opposite of fancy:

Scat Cat Butthole
Gangrene
Moisture
Grotesque
Petard
Oilbag
Buttwig
The Cream
Meatbag
Dr Fart
Fudge Putty
Scumbag
Constipation
BUTT

And it can also do names ranging from tough to downright sinister:

Miss Vulgar
Lillith The Vamp
Elle Fury
Deadbolt
Romeo of Darkness
Starmaker
Fist
Warning Signs
Bibles Smoked
The Firestarter
Higher Rune
Scarlet Be Thy Coat
Kill All Humans
Bones Of The Master
Mr. Sinister
Evil Whispers
Spawn
Serendipitous Kill
Stranglehold

image

(Starmaker and Sparky Buttons are from a litter that had upper respiratory infections that damaged their eyes, but even though their world is kinda cloudy, they love to play and cuddle.)

I’m a particular fan of the Very Weird cat names:

Honeystring
Dr Leg
Tom Noodle
Pinball Scene
Peanutbutterjiggles
You’re Telling A Lie
Beep Boop
Thoughts
Bobble Bun
Atmosphere
You Name It
Whiskeridoo
Sparky Buttons

image


Seemingly
This Guy
Various Authors
Chicken Whiskey
Fish Especially
Thelonious Monsieur
Ringo Shuffles
Sweet Cakes
EXTAs (Eye Stalks)
Checker Spin Donut Quin
Two Patz Grandpa
He Glad
Funky Moe
Fluttering Feelers
Accepted A Tribute
Chewie Bean
PLEASE
Gregory Chimney
Notable PRODUCT LEGEND Weird Science Platinum
Not Suitable For Character the Enforcer

Did I mention these cats are adoptable? If you live near Philadelphia, you live near these kitties!

Bonus content: yet more cat names!

02 Jun 22:31

The recurrent exploding nova R Aquarii: Unlucky Stars

by Phil Plait
Holly

Andrew, you will like this.

Life is funny. Maybe you've heard. I wasn't sure at first, but now I'm a Believer.

Let's start 650 light years way, in the direction of the constellation Aquarius. There's a star there that is decidedly odd. Called R Aquarii*, it's the swollen hulk of a star that was once much like the Sun, but is now nearing the end of its life. Complicated processes in the core have dumped huge amounts of energy into the outer layers of the star, and when you heat up a gas it expands. But, it gets so big that the amount of energy it emits per square centimeter actually goes down, so its temperature drops as well. Cooler stars emit redder light, so we call these stars red giants.

Some red giants are relative stable, but some are not. They expand and contract, physically getting larger and smaller. A small instability inside the star triggers this pulsing. As they contract they get hotter, which increases pressure inside the star, so it responds by slowing, stopping, and reversing the contraction. But then they get really big, the pressure drops, and they contract again. Lather, rinse, repeat. This back-and-forth can go on for a long time, with cycles lasting about a year or so. The luminosity of the star changes too, sometimes by a factor of a hundred or more!

Stars that change brightness are called variable stars, and ones like these are called Mira variables, after the star Mira, the prototype.

Adding to the confusion is that this red giant is not All Alone in the Dark. It has a companion… and it's good and dead. This also used to be a star like the Sun, but used up all its fuel long ago. It was a red giant for a while, but eventually blew off all its outer layers, revealing the hot, dense core of the star: a white dwarf.

A composite image of R Aquarii in optical light (red) and X-rays (blue); the jets emit X-rays due to the strong magnetic fields present. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/R. Montez et al.; Optical: Adam Block/Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter/U. Arizona Zoom In

A composite image of R Aquarii in optical light (red) and X-rays (blue); the jets emit X-rays due to the strong magnetic fields present. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/R. Montez et al.; Optical: Adam Block/Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter/U. Arizona

The white dwarf orbits the red giant every 44 years or so, although the exact period is unknown. But they are pretty close together, especially since the red giant is so huge. Even better, the white dwarf doesn't make a Circle Sky; the orbit is elliptical, so sometimes it gets closer to the red giant. When the white dwarf gets close enough, material from the giant falls onto the dwarf. While it's Goin' Down, this matter forms a flat disk called an accretion disk, which slowly feeds the material onto the dwarf's surface.

Because these Unlucky Stars are connected, we call them symbiotic binaries. That's a bit of a misnomer, since the white dwarf doesn't do anything for the red giant. It's really a more of a parasitic binary. #pedantry

Matter blown out by R Aquarii forms thin shells and rings (left, via Hubble). In the very center are twin jets of material blasting out (center), seen even more clearly by the SPHERE instrument on the Very Large Telescope. Zoom In

Matter blown out by R Aquarii forms thin shells and rings (left, via Hubble). In the very center are twin jets of material blasting out (center), seen even more clearly by the SPHERE instrument on the Very Large Telescope. Credit: ESO/Schmid et al./NASA/ESA

Anyway, not all the material from the red giant hits the dwarf, though. Strong magnetic fields can actually lift this matter off the disk, blowing it away into space in twin beams, up and down relative to the disk. We call these jets, and they can be light years long. R Aquarii has a pair of these jets, and they're curved; this is generally the calling card of precession, a wobbling of the rotational axis of the white dwarf (a top spinning rapidly will appear to slowly wobble due to friction with the table top; this is the same sort of thing). The jets appear to curve due to the Lawn Sprinkler Effect; the gas is blown straight out, but the spinning axis of the dwarf makes them appear to curve over time. Also, the jets are blobby, which means the flow of material isn't smooth, but they're quite long and appear stable, indicating this is a continuous process and has been going on for a long time.

But…

Material from the red giant is still raining down on the white dwarf. As the matter piles up, the intense gravity of the dwarf (hundreds of thousands of times stronger than Earth's) squeezes this stuff mightily. If enough material accumulates, there is so much pressure that it can spontaneously fuse, converting hydrogen into helium… plus a lot of energy. A lot. This is the same reaction that powers hydrogen bombs and stars, so it's a vast amount of energy, and it's released all at once.

The material explodes, blasting off the dwarf's surface and screaming into space. This is what we call a nova.

Surrounding R Aquarii is a complex system of shells and rings of material. This is likely from previous nova events, which, intriguingly, may have been witnessed by Korean astronomers in the years 1073 and 1074 AD.

Once the nova settles down, material starts to flow again, piling up slowly. The jets start back up, but eventually another explosion will occur. And it happens Time and Time Again, so we call these systems recurrent novae.

R Aquarii has a lot of designations. So many Words for one kind of system!

You can actually see the expansion of the material yourself in a before-and-after slider from images taken 15 years apart. I really urge you to go look at that link; it's extremely cool. There's also this nifty short animation:

Cool! It's not too often you can see changes in astronomical objects like this!

So. A while back I was poking around the web looking for images of R Aquarii while doing some reading about symbiotic binaries. One of them stuck out at me because it looked familiar, but not quite right. I clicked on it, and found to my delight that it was a painting of the system done by an artist! It was based on observations done by Hubble not too long after the observatory launched, when the images were still all out of focus. The image was taken in only a single filter, so it should be shown in Shades of Gray, but the press released used "false" color for it:

A painting by Mickey Dolenz (left) based on an early Hubble observation of R Aquarii (right). Credit: Mickey Dolenz / NASA and ESA

A painting by Mickey Dolenz (left) based on an early Hubble observation of R Aquarii (right). Credit: Mickey Dolenz / NASA and ESA

Not bad, right? A little bit of interpretation there, but I thought it looked OK.

Then I checked the artist's name: Mickey Dolenz.

Like, yeah. Mickey Dolenz, lead singer of The Monkees. My favorite band when I was a kid, and, to be quite honest, still a fave now.

I laughed out loud! I didn't know Mickey was a painter! It turns out he's done quite a few pieces based on science, mostly microbiology, but in this case he was a Star Collector. Cool.

Still, I wanted to kick myself. A few years back I was at a science fiction convention, and when I walked into the big room where various pop culture celebs and such autograph things, standing right there was Mickey! What Was He Doing Hanging 'Round? I didn't know, but no one was talking to him, so I walked up, introduced myself and chatted with him for a minute. It was great, and he was lovely.

But how I wished I had known he had painted R Aquarii at the time! That would've been amazing to talk to him about it and see why he picked that particular object. If I could've answered any of his questions it would've been a dream come true. I hope I meet him again. Someday, man.

Still, That Was Then, This Is Now. In lieu of talking to him, I get to talk to all of you. If you have questions, leave a comment below! That way It's a Little Bit Me, and A Little Bit You.


In many cases a star in a constellation is given a letter or number designation followed by the genitive case of the constellation's name. For names ending in "us" that's changed to "i," so Aquarius becomes Aquarii, and It's pronounced uh-KWARE-ee-eye. In case you were curious and trying to pronounce it in your head. Other example are Piscium for Pisces, Capricornus for Capricorn, and Jones, Ltd.

29 May 14:35

Sign of the Times

by Mark Liberman

Amy Harmon, "Which Box Do You Check? Some States Are Offering a Nonbinary Option", NYT 5/29/2019:

This is the first time that (I noticed that) the NYT used singular they as a reflection of  a specific person's pronoun choice — even if it is in an article about non-binary gender options.

 

24 May 10:52

Ænglisc Ἐτυμολογικal Speling Réforme

atop-the-hill:

cwicseolfor:

hbmmaster:

Sē Ænglisc dingua is notuābil for habbing ān terribil wrīting σύστημ. Ān hlot af popul līc tō punct ūt ‎hū inconsistāns hit is, ond 𐍄𐌹𐍂 tō cum upp wiþ ān nīwe σύστημ βάσode on hū wordas son. Hūǣfre, Ænglisc speling is actulīc βάσode on ἐτυμολογί, nāht son. Þǣrfor, sē ideal wrīting σύστημ for Ænglisc wyllode bē ān hwǣr ǣfrǣlc singul word is spelode exactlīc alls hit wæs “origolīc” spelode (alls feor bæc alls wrīten recordas gā, af currō).

Ān af sē þingas þæt īow mæht þenc is xtraneus æt fyrst is þæt sē nīwe σύστημ miscas sēparāl ἀλφάβητas tōgædere. Mǣst af sē tīma, īow’r iūst using Graec διφθέρas wiþin mǣstlīc Latīn text. Occasionallīc, þēah, īow mæht sē wordas līc 〈horde〉 bēing respelode alls “орда”, oþþe 〈karaoke〉 bēing respelode alls “空ὀρχή”. Sumtīmas, īow mæht efen rinn intō bidīrēctiāl text, alls in “الخوارزمic”. Þæt‘s sē megn rationem hwȳ ān simplifode vertiō sceolde eallswā exist.

I can’t decide if I’m angry.

The English language is notable for having a terrible writing system. A lot of people like to punch some inconsistencies it has, and try to come up with a new system based on how words sound. However, English spelling is actually based on etymology, not sound. Therefore, the ideal writing system for English would be a way each single word is spelled exactly as it was originally spelled (as far back as written records go, of course).

A few things you might see is extraneous at first is that the new system merges(?) separate alphabets together. Most of the time, you’re just using Greek letters within mostly Latin text. Occasionally, though, you might see words like “horde” being respelled as <орда>, or “karaoke” being spelled as < 空ὀρχή>. Sometimes, you might even run into direct text, as in < الخوارزمic>. That’s the main reason why a simplified version should always exist.

22 May 21:19

Cataracts, Blindness, and Evocations of Horror

by Elsa Sjunneson-Henry

In the fourth episode of the second half of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Season 1, Ros (during a flash forward helpfully provided by a tarot reader) has been cured of her blindness through surgery. She is so grateful, and so glad to no longer be a blind person, that she decides to give back.

She decides to volunteer at a “home for the blind.” (More on this later, I promise)

She arrives in a small room to find a preteen wearing a stark white blindfold. Presumably, this is where the blind people are kept. (Again, more on this later.)

It’s during this scene (which we’ll come back to later) that she utters my least favorite question, which I hear on average at least once a week.

“I’m so sorry. Can I ask…? Did it happen suddenly? I hope you don’t mind me talking about this, but how did you go blind?”

Ros’ tone is soft. Gentle. Uncompromisingly “polite” even while asking the most probing of questions.

What happened to you? How did you go blind? Was it sudden?

What happened to your eyes?

Eyes.

They are the biological tool with which people see. They are a delicate body part which must be cared for. They are called the windows into the soul.

Eyes are at the very core of talking about blindness, of course, because they are the source of the problem.

There are as many ways to be blind as there are to be people. Thousands of ways in which the eye can be damaged, destroyed, or debilitated.

Like I’ve said before, part of the reason sighted people fear blindness (and by extension, I feel, blind people) so much, is because we never talk about what it’s really like to be blind. There’s little in the way of accurate representation to make us feel anything other than terror when it’s suggested that we will not be able to see.

When we are children, we fear the dark—it is instinct. Even I as a blind child would insist upon a nightlight, or a cassette tape to lull me to sleep. There is definitely something primal in this fear of the dark.

Blindness, more than any other disability, evokes a fear of the unknown. Perhaps it’s because sighted people rely on visual cues to survive. Perhaps it is because as children we hear stories about how what we can’t see can haunt us or even kill us.

It’s why in horror literature, the use of blindness is so frequent. Holes where eyes should be, cataracted “corpse eyes” like my own; there are versions of blindness which only exist in the pages of a horror book, and they are almost without exception deeply damaging to actual blind people, and the perception of the eyes that they either have, or do not have, and the experiences that they have out in the real world as a consequence of these depictions.

 

The Second Half of Sabrina’s Season Doubled the H*ck Down.

When last we left Ros in the first half of Season 1, Sabrina’s best friend was going blind. In the first installment of this column, I asked questions about how she would prepare for her blind life.

In the newest episodes, we’ve barely seen her when she shows up in the tarot flash forward episode, pulling the blind justice card.

Because of course the blind girl has to pull the blind justice card. Anyway. Ros was considering surgery to fix her sight, and the tarot reader tells her that this is a big decision with consequences.

Buy it Now

Ros’ surgery goes perfectly in her flash forward. She can see!

So back to that opening snapshot I gave you.

Ros goes to a Home for the Blind.

It is dank, and weird, and spooky (and of course it’s a spooky flash forward, so okay I can sort of forgive that). But think about it. Close your eyes and really think about what you think a home for the blind would look like.

Does it look scary to you?

Does it look cluttered? Full of furniture a blind person cannot see? Does it seem dark?

That’s what the creators of Sabrina think blind living is like.

I don’t think they’re trying to comment on the deeply unsettling history of disabled institutionalization. If you want to see a real horrorshow, go research places like Willowbrook, places where families would leave their disabled children.

Places where people could forget their disabled children entirely.

But this isn’t commentary, this is full acceptance of the trope that being blind is itself a terror, and that the eyes of the blind can thus be used to evoke dread and horror in the viewer.

When Ros asks the dreaded question of how she went blind, the girl responds rapidly. Her voice grows raspy and full of barbs, and when she removes the white blindfold, she accuses Ros of having taken her eyes—of rendering her blind.

The pinnacle of fear in this sequence is not that Ros’ father, a man of God, used his influence to take someone else’s eyes.

The pinnacle of horror is that there are sockets where the girl’s eyes should be.

 

Cataracts as Horror

When I was a little girl on the playground, I had a classmate who made the evil eye sign at me. A classmate who, after a while, must have been told by a parent that my eye marked me as something Other.

He’d never had a problem until this moment. He’d never stared at me like I was something evil. Never screamed for me not to touch him.

But now he did.

And that was when I started flinching.

I flinch when I see that the White Walkers on Game of Thrones mostly appear to have cataracts for eyes. I flinch when seers blink and they can see the dead through their white eyes. I flinch when Nell in Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House suddenly has eyes like mine, in some nightmare scenario that the haunting has engendered.

I flinch because I know that when someone who doesn’t know me locks eyes with me across a room, the first thing they think of probably isn’t the ocean, a waterfall, or a storm bent upon the water, as the word “cataract” originally signified. No, what they think of when they see my eye is death.

While yes, the eye does cloud over after death, while yes, the body does change, it is not the same as a cataract, and yet the media has shifted our perception.

I don’t know why we’ve decided that a cataract marks someone as evil, but I do know that media portrays eyes not just as the windows to the soul—but as a marker. As a cheat sheet for whether or not someone is mystical, or even evil, by simply looking someone in the eye.

So okay, you’re reading this and you think “so what if your eyes are like a zombie’s eyes?”

But I’ll flip that around.

What if creators picked only green eyes, or blue eyes, or brown eyes to resemble the eyes of the evil dead?

What if, instead of every time a child saw my eye on public transit and asked me if I was a witch, that reaction was reserved for people who have pupils in both eyes?

What if I never had to answer the question “What happened to you” again?

I think there’s a very deep connection between the media that we see, and how we interact with people in public. I think that when we reserve the cataract for the sole purpose of evoking fear, we’re saying something about what we as a society should do when we see one.

Look into my eye, and tell me—is there evil there? Because when I see it, all I see is me.

Author photo by Angie Gaul of Milestone Images

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry is a gimlet made from feminism and snark. She’s a deafblind speculative fiction author, and she writes disability focused nonfiction as well. Her work has appeared in Uncanny, Fireside, Tor.com, CNN, and The Boston Globe, and she is a 2019 Hugo Award finalist for Best Fan Writer, as well as a Best Semiprozine Hugo finalist for her work as an editor on Fireside Magazine and Uncanny Magazine’s Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction Special Issue. She writes from a dragon lair in NJ, and can be found on the web @snarkbat and snarkbat.com

15 May 08:03

I spent last week recording my own audiobook for BECAUSE...





















I spent last week recording my own audiobook for BECAUSE INTERNET. Here are some tweets about the experience

The audiobook will be coming out on July 23, the same day as the hardcover and ebook editions, and you can preorder it here