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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


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 17:15

Rule Explainer: Why We Don’t Diagnose People Through The Internet

by JenniferP

There’s a really interesting conversation about narcissism that popped up in a comment thread yesterday that made me think harder about the “Don’t offer diagnoses for people based on letters or internet comments” rule we have here and I’d like to expand on it.

At length.

This rule has been in place almost from the beginning of the site, and it was more instinctual than anything else. I’m not sure I even knew the word “ableism” in 2011 (I had lots of embarrassing opinions and ignorant spots if you look back on it), I had internalized a lot of stigma about having mental health diagnoses but hadn’t really thought about what that meant for, like, setting up a culture. But I’d been a member and lurker in many, many internet communities in the past so when I set up this one I was trying to discourage annoying behaviors that didn’t seem to help anybody.

For example (and I poke fun because I love):

Original Poster: “Here’s an interpersonal problem I’m having with someone in my life. They are doing x and y things that I don’t like, I’ve tried explaining how I feel and asking them to stop and it’s not working. What do I do now?”

DiagnosisHero: “Well, it sounds to me like they might just be bipolar.”

 ThreadJacker #1: “Yes, my sister is bipolar, let me tell you about my grievances with her!”

BipolarBraveheart: “Well, I’m bipolar, and I don’t do x and y. And how do we know the person is bipolar anyway? That seems like a random thing to say.”

ReliablePedant: “Can I get a cite for that? Also, the plural of anecdote is not data.”

Bipolar Braveheart: “Dude, I know, but I was just speaking from experience.”

ReliablePedant: “I’m not a dude.”

BipolarBraveheart: “You’re right, I’m sorry. But anyway, I was just speaking from experience – like, if the OP wanted to hear from someone who actually is bipolar – that x and y are not related to that.”

DiagnosisHero: “But I solved this person’s Life Equation for x and y! Easy-peasy. I am right!” :high-fives self:

Diagnosis Sidekick: “You are so right!”

ThreadJackers 2-infinity: :ill-informed ableist venting about people they know who might be bipolar:

BipolarBraveheart: “K, that all went well and definitely reduced stigma around a mental illness that I deal with every day. I’m so glad I outed myself to a bunch of strangers. I’ll definitely probably keep reading and commenting here. :(”

TiredModerator: “Guys, can we keep it cool and not throw the word bipolar around? Words have meaning.”

ReliablePedant: “If words have meaning, why did you address us as ‘Guys’ when all of us are most certainly not guys.”

TiredModerator: “I just meant it as a figure of speech, you know, to include both men and women, like, hey you guys. It’s just an expression, I didn’t mean anything harmful by it. But you’re right, I’ll try to be more inclusive from now on.”

Many, Many People Who Have Been Lurking Until Now: “Moderator made a mistaaaaaaaake. Moderator made a mistaaaaaaake! Let’s list all the other unfair times the moderator made a mistaaaaaaaaake!”

Many Other People, Sensing An Argument: “I’m a woman and I just don’t see the problem with ‘guys’, do we need to be so politically correct?”

TiredModerator: “Yeah, we do. Also, this thread is closed.”

Me: …

So…what is the OP supposed to do with that?

Say the Stopped Clock of the Internet is actually right this time and the person doing the annoying stuff to the OP actually is bipolar. What does that even mean? Which version of it do they have (there’s more than one!)? Are they medicated/treating it or not? Do they even know they have it? Is there a “what to do when someone is bipolar at you” checklist somewhere? That applies to this exact situation? And if so can I get a cite?

Being right about the source of someone’s problems isn’t even close to the same as helping them deal with their problems. But so many people get hung up on trying to be right a the expense of everything else. How many times have we seen this scenario play out in an advice-giving community or discussion?

Original Poster: “This person I know is harming me.”

The Internet: “Gotcha. Well, let’s figure out why they might be doing that and, most importantly, reasons it might not be all their fault. Here is our diagnosis!”

Original Poster: “Ok, I would love to have an explanation for that, actually, but, they’re still doing the thing?”

The Internet: “Sure, but we explained why!” :high-fives self:

Original Poster: “Cool, thanks, I guess I’ll try harder to be more understanding.”

I mean, look at this question (& very good answer) from a recent advice column. The Letter Writer is doing all of the above, just, to herself. Her boyfriend is being a total jealous and controlling ASSHOLE and her question is literally “should I try to help and understand him more?


Butterfly Guy Meme, where he sees “abusive partner being abusive” and asks “Is this just their anxiety talking?”

Related, b/c the Letter Writer in that link also has her own anxiety stuff going on, I’ve also seen this version play out more than once:

Original Poster: “This person I know is harming me.” + details

The Internet: “Gotcha. Well, let’s figure out why they might be doing that and how it might not be all their fault.”

Original Poster: “Ok, I would love to have an explanation for that, actually. Thanks!”

The Internet: “We’ve got the answer, and it’s: They might be (drum roll)… autistic.”

Original Poster: “Huh, I never thought about that before. I’m autistic, and it’s never made me like, hurt people. Wait, am I accidentally hurting people, by being autistic around them? Crap, I don’t want to do that, I’m really sorry!!!”

The Internet: “Yep, autistic people are the worst!” :high-fives self:

Original Poster: “Ok, sorry everyone.”

The Internet: “Apology accepted!” :gives self finger-guns:

Original Poster: “But…hey…while I’ve got your attention for a minute…that person is still harming me? And it’s cool that we know why, but how do I get it to stop?”

The Internet: “Haven’t we established that the things autistic people do to you are not really their fault, but the things that happen to autistic people probably are all your fault? WHAT WILL SATISFY YOU, JEEZ.”

Also The Internet: “We’re pretty sure that by complaining about what this almost-certainly autistic person is doing to you, you are kinda oppressing people with autism.”

Original Poster: “So you’re saying…the problem is…me?”

The Internet: “Not you! Just people who are like you, except for when it’s not their fault, which mostly it is, but it’s really hurtful and mean when you point that out. You know, stigma and all that. You should probably just ignore it.” :actually attempts self-fellatio:


The habit of randomly and lazily assigning every instance of bad or abusive behavior to a diagnosis creates a dangerous and cruel pattern of automatically associating abusive behaviors with these diagnoses, and in some cases even defining these diagnoses according to a set of abusive behaviors. This association, not to mention the sheer amount of misinformation, increases stigma for neurodiverse people or mentally ill people, who we know are far more likely to be the targets of violent and abusive behavior than the perpetrators. This shitty shorthand makes it harder for us to seek and access treatment, speak honestly about our experiences, be believed or taken seriously when we do have problems, and generally function in the world. Stigma isolates and kills people. Assuming bad behaviors can only be the result of pathology infantilizes people and removes their agency and responsibility for their actions, while letting bad operators keep right on operating.

Let’s look for a sec at the current debate about gun violence in America, where even quite reasonable people will start casually throwing around the idea of creating terrifying national registries for mentally ill people, but totally dismiss the idea of using background checks to limit gun sales to people with a history of domestic violence which actually is an indicator of possible escalation of violence (and has the advantage of identifying people who have definitely committed at least some violence in the past). I mean, we know some reasons for the second thing (cops have extremely high rates of domestic violence and many of them would fail if we made DV a barrier to carrying a gun)(which, is like, even more reason to do it) but we also know that if mental health pros had to report people who seek their help to a national registry of mentally ill people in case one of them might someday want a gun, a lot fewer people would seek help out of fear of what else could be done with that label and that registry.

It also…I mean…hrm….how to say this…

You can be mentally ill and/or neurodivergent in some way and still know a lot of stuff about some stuff. When people write about “the mentally ill,” MENTALLY ILL PEOPLE CAN READ IT JUST LIKE REGULAR PEOPLE. We contain fucking multitudes, and if you’re not doing your homework on the facts or including us in how you talk about us, you are a) getting it wrong b) doing harm c) embarrassing yourself. I mean, I don’t know about you but for me there’s nothing quite like taking a bunch of meds and working super hard on keeping your shit together just so you can try to live through the day, doing your level best to be kind to everyone, and then being told over and over by uninformed people: “You’re probably the reason assholes are!”

So the “No internet diagnoses!” rule is partly to reduce stigma and misinformation and partly, selfishly, to make sure we don’t constantly come off like a buncha embarrassing jerks that hurt people.

What came up in yesterday’s discussion: Does prohibiting diagnoses or directly associating abusive behaviors with things like “narcissism” erase the fact that people with mental health diagnoses can be abusers, too? What about the victims of people who were abused by people who do have a recognizable and classifiable set of attributes and the ways that abuse was exacerbated by those attributes? It’s been a while since we’ve had an example, so:

Original Poster: “This person in my life is mistreating me. What can I do?”

Commenter1: “My dad is a narcissist and he used to the exact same stuff to me. Here’s how I deal with narcissists….”

Commenter2: “Remember, we don’t diagnose people! The OP didn’t say that the person has Narcissistic Personality Disorder for sure!”

Commenter1: “But I think my dad really is a narcissist, and besides, this tool really works when you’re dealing with someone who acts like that.”

Who’s right here?


Story time! Once upon a time (by which I mean for several long tedious years) I was talking to my therapist about a particular family relationship and how to fix it and how to stop feeling so full of dread and guilt about it. By serendipity, I picked up a book that had a checklist in it in a local bookstore. I devoured fully 50% the book while standing in the bookstore, then finally bought it and went to a nearby coffee shop and read the rest. Then I read it again, at home, this time with a pencil in hand. The next time I went to therapy, I brought the book and that checklist, partially checked off, to my therapist. He read it, mouth opening, and asked “may I write on this?” and he checked off the rest of the things on the list for me and handed it back. And we were like “whoa” and “this explains SO MUCH” and “whoa” and “I know” and “no, really, it explains so much” and “shit, what now.”

The relative in question is someone I love so much and don’t want to hurt and they might literally die of embarrassment if they knew I was writing about this to an audience of (checks stats) approximately 1.2 million monthly readers. (Shit.) There is some real badness there in our history together, but I do accept that they were just a flawed person doing their best while also carrying a lot of their own pain (they could probably fill out a telephone book of similar checklists about one of their own parents) and literally none of my writing about this now is to shame them or get back at them. It’s just me telling the truth, which I am allowed to do about my own experiences and memories.

Just…the book and the list and the behaviors truly applied to the situation. It helped me name what was happening, it gave me a language & framework for dealing with the situation with 95% less blame and shame, and it gave me tools to readjust my expectations and to set boundaries so that I could have a kinder and more functional relationship with this person, which is the only thing I wanted. And which I think we have done, and I’m so very glad of it.

That book and the ways I ended up managing that relationship (including taking up residence in the Fuck-Its) informs a lot of the advice I give on the blog about setting expectations low, reminding yourself that engaging with people is a choice (and that they have choices, too), “reasons are for reasonable people, don’t fall into the trap of explaining yourself to people who just use your reasons as openings to argue with you,” sometimes you do just have to leave the room or hang up the phone or go low- or no-contact, you can’t fix your family, you can’t control how people will react but you can keep advocating for what you need, you may deserve an apology but you might never get one so don’t grow old waiting, so much stuff about gaslighting and how it works (like, when the person is gaslighting you b/c their idea of themselves can’t begin to handle a true accounting of what they did, and how debilitating and awful that can be when interacting with them means that sometimes you have to stop telling the truth) etc. – a ton of this site’s Greatest Hits are informed by recovery strategies for surviving, specifically, narcissistic abuse.

I say this for the people who are here from online communities that specifically support narcissistic abuse survivors: You’re not imagining it if the stuff I say sounds very recognizable, there’s a reason those communities and this one have a lot of overlap and that y’all link to my stuff all the time, and I get why sometimes you’re like “Just name it already!”

A few things about that:

  1. Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and narcissism (as a set of behaviors) are two different things. People with NPD get diagnosed because they are suffering and seeking treatment, and that designation should be about helping them feel better and lead happier lives. People who get called narcissists on message boards (or with checklists like the one I used in the book) are being labeled in absentia by people who are trying to understand or heal from the damage they do. Not even close to all conflict is abuse, not all abuse is narcissism, and not all narcissism is abuse. There are narcissistic traits or behaviors that don’t involve abuse or harm – stuff almost everyone does, at least a little – and people we could describe as narcissists who don’t ever harm other people. Should these things even be described by the same word? Are we talking about a diagnosis vs. a label? Idk? Someone smarter than me should sort this out?
  2. Ripped from the headlines example: Does the current 45th US President have Narcissistic Personality Disorder? Who knows. That’s between him and his doctor. Does he exhibit a completely recognizable set of behaviors (being totally incapable of apologizing or admitting mistakes, constantly mentioning his electoral college totals and inauguration crowd, constant lies and gaslighting, for starters) that sends everyone who has survived time with a narcissist screaming into the night with recognition? Yep. Would reading up on narcissism help people understand and process some of the firehose of totally bizarre shit and obvious lying that’s happening in our news cycle? Also yes. Do I care about him as a person receiving treatment and feeling better about himself? Newp! Do I need the harm that he’s doing to stop? On an existential and global level? Fuck yeah.
  3. When we get lazy and confusing about equating these two things (the diagnosis and the label) does it hurt mentally ill people and increase stigma? I’m pretty sure this is a yes.
  4. If I’d given the book on narcissism to the person in my life to try to discuss it with them, would they have agreed that’s what was the problem? Almost certainly not. In fact, it would have made the whole thing worse because it would have changed the argument from what I needed to happen to “is this narcissism.” The book wasn’t about them or for them or to help them, it was for me. The book for them (if they sought it out, ever) would be a totally different book.
  5. In the hands of an abusive person, does assigning a diagnosis to their shitty behavior give them ammunition for dodging responsibility and for demanding sympathy and work from their victims? Sadly, yes.
  6. This ain’t Reddit. This is a different community with its own rules. and it has reasons and responsibilities for existing beyond supporting survivors of a specific cluster of behaviors.
  7. Therefore, I’d rather risk omitting labels than risk increasing stigma. Fortunately, the label-specific communities are out there for the finding. The behaviors themselves are still bad without the label and the tools for working with it can still work without the label.

Am I done listing reasons for this rule? Not even half my friends. Pour yourself something cold and delicious and get comfortable for the part where I want to stop the pattern of centering the psychology of bullies more than we care about their victims right in its tracks. (Here’s where I name-check Sydette aka BlackAmazon who you often will find yelling on Twitter: “Ok but how are we taking care of the people who were harmed by xyz thing in the news?” She has given me so much LANGUAGE for things I knew but didn’t understand yet and I love her.)

Are you good? Sitting comfortably? Hydrated?

Even if internet stranger diagnosing could be accurate and didn’t cause stigma, it would still be a bad idea. As soon as we distract ourselves from the harm the victim is experiencing and transfer that attention to trying to figure out the psychology of the perpetrator …who we conveniently don’t have access to and can’t question …we start leaving the victim behind. Because as soon as we start talking about a diagnosis, we start talking about a possible patient. This is because diagnoses should serve and help the patient, not everybody around the patient. And people who deliver diagnoses to patients should be people who are trusted and tasked with caring for that patient, with the informed consent and participation of that patient. And even if we, a bunch of internet commenters, actually were all doctors who diagnose such things, our ethics would still prevent us from diagnosing someone we’ve never met. And even if we were doctors who could prove our credentials and we improbably stumbled on the right answer and we decided to bypass the ethics and we could equip the bully’s victim with a bunch of literature about the bully’s conditions…

Why the fuck

did anyone decide

that the most important thing

a victim of bullying could do

is to understand

and take care of

the mental health

of the person who is harming them? 

Why is it even a thing we think people should do? Like, at all?

Why are we trying to solve the life problems of the person who didn’t write in?

And why do we think that’s the work of our community, to the point that people know the rule about diagnosing and we still have to remind everyone (including myself!) not to do it?

I have a theory about why (you knew I had a theory):

We are addicted to redemption narratives.

We are especially addicted to stories where mean bad boys are reformed by the love and loyalty of a good lady who sees through their abuse to their true naked vulnerable heart and works really hard singlehandedly to keep the relationship going. Industries upon industries rise and fall on that one. But we like all kinds of redemption narratives and we like them a lot more than we like inconvenient ones where we have to think about victims, harm, or reparations.

One source of this addiction is “The Prodigal Son” story from the Christian Bible. Which, depending on where you live in the world, you don’t have to believe in or follow or even have ever read that book and its stories for it to have a profound influence on your culture and the stories it tells. It’s one of those sticky stories that sticks to things.

And right now we’re stuck with it.

The bare bones version: Rule-following brother was cool all along? That’s just what they should have been doing, no big deal. Rule-breaking jerk brother suddenly decides to be a little bit cool for five minutes? LET’S THROW A PARTY! Rule-following cool brother is like, hey, wait a second here, where’s my Not Being A Jerk party? Story: Yeah, you are great and everything, but let’s really appreciate this other person’s shiny new momentary coolness for a second. Cool brother: Ok, I guess. :continues following rules:

The story itself, as it’s intended to be read, is of course much more complicated and beautiful than that. The wayward son in the story has returned home of his own volition, he apologizes, he is not repeating the bad behaviors, he asks permission to return, and doesn’t think he’s entitled to anything special. The welcome he gets is a gift, freely given. The message is: Fairness is good, but kindness is much better, and we can afford to be kind. We love you and you’re still in this family even if you fuck up sometimes.

Beautiful, right?

So, is it petty to point out that his bad behavior in the story is “I was irresponsible with my inheritance” and not “I serially raped and harassed my coworkers for decades” or “I molested a bunch of the kids in my pastoral care” or “I beat the shit out of my wife behind closed doors” or “I swindled a whole bunch of people on the TV” or other crimes with actual living breathing victims?

Victims fuck up the parable, my friends. If Prodigal Son used to beat up the other brother every chance he got when they were growing up, does that brother still have to shut up and enjoy the party and rejoice and be glad his abuser is back in the fold? Are we still like “I know you never hurt anyone, but your brother temporarily, as far as we know, stopped hurting people, and he stopped squandering his money and that is really the most important thing! Stop moping and pass the hummus!” 

I just want to give that son, the not-Prodigal one, a hug so bad. Especially since I keep meeting him again and again in the letters I get here, in families and social groups where someone is mean and the answer is “just ignore him” or “get over it, already.” “Forgive him.” “Invite him to the wedding.” “Keep the peace.” “We’re a faaaaaaamily.” “The Earth Needs That Water, Besides, He Has Depression.” “What if it’s just Asperger Syndrome?

Somewhere in the game of telephone that became our cultural meta-narrative, this lovely little story was reforged into something where, if you are a certain kind of person and you abuse and bully other people, you don’t really have to apologize for abusive things you did, we as a community don’t have to have a reasonable expectation that you will stop doing those things, you can still be a repulsive entitled dangerous ass-boil of a person, but if (on the off chance you actually get caught) for one shining second you act like you might sort of try to do better, if you can make a case that you might not have completely meant it, if you can choke out some lip service that sounds even vaguely like “I’m sorry…”

We skip straight to the part where we throw you the goddamn party.

We start writing articles about how soon you can “rehabilitate your career.”

We talk about your addictions, your struggles, and we endlessly diagnose the reasons that might have made you behave like you did, literally anything that might not be “asshole made series of asshole free will asshole decisions, hurt others.”

And then we tell your victims that they can pretty much suck it.

We don’t always use those words, we just indicate to your victims that it would be really cool if they could forgive you already since their anger is really slowing down the Redemption Party Planning Committee’s balloon purchases. We write extensive thinkpieces about what a bummer it is that being reminded that you raped somebody or molested your kid is preventing us from enjoying your movies the way we’d sure like to.

We talk about how your victims should be more civil to you and about what you did to them. We indicate that if they aren’t, it might be a teensy weensy bit all their fault if you backslide and harm them again.

And, as if that’s not enough, we remake the story about what you did to your victims into a hero’s journey tale about your human potential, your contributions, your reputation. And then we tell that bullshit “He was an asshole, but he might change” story like it’s the only fucking story in the world. Please know that if I ever have a show or a podcast where it’s just me punching films I hate in the face, I’m starting with As Good As It Gets, or, While Crowdfunding Medical Expenses In The World’s Richest Country Is Indeed Grotesque, The United States Health Care System Is So Broken That Before GoFundMe A Waitress With A Sick Child Married Her Repulsive Shitlord Stalker Out Of Desperation/Gratitude And Somehow This Was An Award-Winning Romantic Comedy: A Rant In Infinity Parts Where I Cover Likenesses of Jack Nicholson In Pig’s Blood Or Menstrual Blood Whichever Is Handiest At The Time.

And if your victims break ranks and they ask someone for help, we make that story about you, too, about how you probably didn’t mean it, there must be some other explanation, about how you’re a good person “deep down,” maybe there’s a diagnosis that will explain it. We become these victim-blaming second-guessing management consultants that no one hired or needed. We do it in part because we’re scared of becoming victims and want to find ways to keep ourselves safe and in part because we’re scared of the truth: People change slow, if ever, and nobody can make them change/love them into changing/logic them into changing.

Well, fuck that. We don’t have to do that here.

If you write to me for help because someone is bullying you, I, Jennifer Captain Awkward Rodham Leigh Peepas, do not give a single fuck if your abuser gets into Heaven someday or how they feel about their lives or what possibly caused them to behave this way or if they are a good person at some imperceptible deep down “Schrödinger’s Good Intentions” level. If you want to forgive them someday, great, do it for you. Save all that for after the harm is over and you are safe.

If you can tell me about their behaviors and actions, I will do my best to help you stop, mitigate, or avoid the ones that hurt you.

And I will sure as fuck not let your story become your bully’s story, or expect you to put down what you’re carrying and pick up their burdens. I will not try to explain their behavior in a way that has you convinced you just need to try harder or be more understanding or do more work. I will not try to make their theoretical rehabilitation and redemption into your project before you’re allowed to say No and Stop and Leave Me Alone.

I don’t need to know any of their reasons for being unkind to know that you deserve to be treated with kindness.

Call it an attempt at a less-annoying and repetitive comment section, call it “don’t get hung up on a side quest, we’ve got plenty of Goblins to fight right here,” call it avoiding stigma and fighting ableism, call it a search for accuracy and precision, call it basic medical ethics for non-medical experts, call it centering victims, call it an interrogation of redemption narratives, call it what you want.

Just, do not try to diagnose internet strangers in my comments section please and thank you.


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 22:33

A dozen new moons for Jupiter!

by Phil Plait

Jupiter is the largest and most massive of all the solar system’s planets, so it’s no surprise it has a lot of moons. Galileo discovered the four biggest ones back in the 17th century, and a lot of smaller ones have been found as telescopes and techniques have improved. Even so, it’s a bit of a surprise to see that this week astronomers announced finding an even dozen more moons orbiting the king of the planets!

Even better, they were found as a kind of bonus. The astronomers were looking for Kuiper Belt Objects (or KBOs), icy bodies orbiting the Sun beyond Neptune. If there’s another planet orbiting the Sun way, way far out — the so-called Planet Nine — then its gravity may affect the orbits of these KBOs, allowing astronomers to figure out where this possible planet is. That was the primary purpose of the observations, but it so happens that Jupiter was nearby in the sky where they were looking. If there were previously undiscovered moons in far-flung orbits around Jupiter, they might spot them, too.

Orbits of twelve new moons found for Jupiter (not to scale). Some orbit the same way Jupiter spins (blue), and others the opposite way (red). Credit: Carnegie Institution for Science / Roberto Molar Candanosa Zoom In

Orbits of twelve new moons found for Jupiter (not to scale). Some orbit the same way Jupiter spins (blue), and others the opposite way (red). Credit: Carnegie Institution for Science / Roberto Molar Candanosa

And so they did. The observations were made in 2017, but it took a year to track them long enough to nail down their orbits. Some of them are so far from Jupiter that they take two years to travel around it once!

And what doesn’t surprise me at all is that they’re weird. This happens every time we push observations to the limits, looking for faint, small beasties, and these new moons don’t disappoint.

Nine of the moons are very distant from Jupiter, and orbit it retrograde — backward relative to Jupiter’s spin. Most big objects in the solar system orbit the Sun and spin in the same sense (the motion is counterclockwise when looking down from above the Earth’s north pole). Since all these objects formed from the same spinning disk of gas and dust when the solar system was born, this makes sense (and in fact was why this formation mechanism of the Sun and planets was first proposed decades ago).

But these moons orbit clockwise, indicating a different formation mechanism. They may have started off as asteroids orbiting the Sun prograde, but were captured by Jupiter’s ridiculously strong gravity. If the geometry were just right, these objects could then find themselves orbiting Jupiter retrograde; we do see this in other moons of the outer planets.

Not only that, but when the orbital characteristics (shape, tilt, and so on) are compared, these nine retrograde moons seem to fall into three groups; that implies that each group used to be a single moon that got smashed somehow, possibly a collision with another moon-sized body. The remaining pieces separated but still held on to the same sorts of orbits.

Images of the tiny moon Valetudo, showing its motion against the background stars. Credit: Carnegie Institution for Science Zoom In

Images of the tiny moon Valetudo, showing its motion against the background stars. Credit: Carnegie Institution for Science

Two of the new moons orbit Jupiter closer in, and are prograde. The twelfth moon, though, is the weirdest of all.  Given a provisional name Valetudo (the great-granddaughter of Jupiter in mythology*), it orbits prograde, but is also so far from Jupiter that its orbit is solidly among the retrograde moons! That’s very surprising, because in the long run such an orbit is bad news. When moons move all in the same direction, collisions are less likely, as when a bunch of cars are all driving in the same direction on one side of the highway. But now put a car moving in the wrong direction in that lane, and things will go downhill fast.

Over the lifetime of the solar system, a collision seems inevitable. That implies this moon (or the retrograde moons) are literally new, captured recently compared to the age of the solar system itself. It’s possible to delay the inevitable if the orbits are slightly tilted with respect to one another, but even then, given enough time, bang. And in fact all the groups of shattered retrograde objects do lend credence to this idea. They must’ve hit something in the past.

Valetudo is the smallest of the moons discovered, likely just under a kilometer wide (the size isn’t measured directly — it’s too small — but estimated from its brightness). It’s also possibly the smallest moon known around the planet. The other newly discovered range up to three kilometers in diameter.

Incidentally, this brings the total known moons of Jupiter to 79. That’s the most of any planet.

This is all cool, and shows there’s a lot to learn about our system’s planets, even ones very well studied. It also makes me wonder if there’s a lower limit to what we’d call a moon. Imagine if we find a rock that’s, say, 10 meters across. Is that properly a moon, or just a bit of debris? What about the trillions of icy particles in Saturn’s rings?

Of course, none of these objects care what we call them. It’s better not to fret too much on that, and instead focus on the rich diversity of worlds and worldlets in our neighborhood. There’s still so much left to see, so much left to discover!

* In Greek mythology, the goddess of health was Hygieia. This was then appropriated by the Romans (as they did) and renamed Valetudo. The fourth largest asteroid is named Hygieia, so that name was already taken for the moon! Valetudo isn’t official, but has been proposed, and all the moons may eventually be given names by the International Astronomical Union. 

25 Jul 22:10

Broken English

by Victor Mair

Just called a taxi from the Graduate Club at 155 Elm St. in New Haven, CT.  The service was completely automated.  I did not speak to any human being.  The taxi arrived within one minute, before I could walk out to the street!  It was uncanny!  The taxi driver had no contact with a human either.  He simply saw on his monitor that a customer was waiting for him at the Graduate Club.  He turned the corner from the street he was on and was waiting for me when I came out.

The driver was from Nigeria.  He spoke pretty good English, said that he had been in America nearly 20 years.  I asked him what the national language of Nigeria is and he said, "There are three:  Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba, but everybody speaks Broken English".

"What?" I asked incredulously.  "You call it 'Broken English'?"

"Yes," he replied. "That's what we all call it.  Even the president calls it 'Broken English'.  Educated people can speak proper English, but most people prefer to speak Broken English because we feel more comfortable that way."

Dumbfounded, I asked him to give me an example of Broken English.

The taxi driver immediately said, "You de [pronounced like 'day'] come now?"  He explained that this is equal to "Are you coming now?", and one could also use the variant "You go come now?"

According to Wikipedia, English is the official language of Nigeria.

That Nigerian taxi driver made my day!

It was 9:15 a.m.  I gave him a big tip (making his day), dashed into New Haven's Union Station, sat down on one of the massive wooden benches in the waiting room, and began writing this post, then ran to catch the 9:39 train to Philadelphia.  "I go come now!"



"Broken English from Ahnold?" (11/11/03)

"John McWhorter responds" (1/29/15)

"Decrying Dialects and Despising Speakers" (1/11/17)

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.

25 Jul 00:05

Linguistics takes on the Sign Bunny meme. 

21 Jul 19:59

lianghh: Tânisi! Aiguuq! Aaniin! The 21st of July is National...


Tânisi! Aiguuq! Aaniin!

The 21st of July is National Aboriginal Day in Canada and this is how you say hello in the three most widely spoken languages and dialect groups of native Canadians or “First Nations”. These are Cree, Inuktitut (language of the Inuit/”Eskimo”) and Ojibwa.

The stop sign above from Quebec is written in Canada’s two national languages and Cree.

16 Jul 13:59

"To be fluent in another language means that you can communicate with relative ease, that is, without..."

To be fluent in another language means that you can communicate with relative ease, that is, without it being a real strain on either the speaker or the listener. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, is fluent in English, despite the fact that you can hear he is not a native speaker and that he may, on occasion, use the word “delicious” when he probably meant to say “delightful”.

Pretty much anyone can become fluent in pretty much any language at pretty much any age. It’s not even true that young children learn languages faster than older children or adults: if you expose different age groups to the same amount of instruction in a foreign language, the older ones invariably do better, both initially and in the long run. Learners of any age can achieve a brilliant, even nativelike, command of the vocabulary of another language, including such challenging structures as idioms or proverbs.

The puzzling thing about older learners – something the authors of the new study also found – is that they seem to have more problems mastering some, but not all, grammatical phenomena.

A good example for this is the fact that, in English, most verbs have to have an “s” added to them in the third person singular: so it’s I/you/we/they walk but he/she walks. Many second language learners keep getting even such comparatively simple grammar rules wrong, even though they may have an amazing command of vocabulary. However, it seems that if you learn the language at a younger age, you have an easier time mastering the kinds of structures that older learners keep struggling with, and the same is true for acquiring a native-like accent.

- Monika Schmid, You’re never too old to become fluent in a foreign language in The Conversation
15 Jul 11:36

Japanese babies are upending the world of linguistics, one mora at a time


used to think this was because Japanese was exceptional. Now my feeling is, Japanese is not an exception. Rather, what works for English is not universal”

Japanese babies are upending the world of linguistics, one mora at a time:

A really interesting article about how babies learn Japanese. Excerpt: 

Nissan, Toyota, Honda — three universally recognized car manufacturers, two of which are also common Japanese surnames. If you ask an English speaker to tell you which name is longest, they’ll say Toyota, with its three syllables. A Japanese speaker, on the other hand, will say Nissan. This difference reveals a lot about the underlying rhythms used in human vocal communication, says developmental neurolinguist Reiko Mazuka of the RIKEN Brain Science Institute, and also casts doubt on universal theories of language-learning that are mostly based on studies of English speakers.

So why is Nissan longer to Japanese ears? It’s all based on ‘mora’, a counter of linguistic rhythm that is distinct from stress (like in German or English) or syllable (like in French). Most people are familiar with this pattern of counting from haiku, the five–seven–five pattern that defines the classical Japanese meter. The ‘syllables’ in haiku aren’t really syllables but rather morae. Nissan thus has four morae of equal duration (ニッサン or ni-s-sa-n), rather than just the two syllables picked up by Western ears.

But Japanese babies are not born with an internal mora counter, and this is what got Mazuka so interested in returning to Japan from the United States, where she completed her PhD and still maintains a research professorship at Duke University. “The Japanese language doesn’t quite fit with the dominant theories,” she says, “and I used to think this was because Japanese was exceptional. Now my feeling is, Japanese is not an exception. Rather, what works for English is not universal” in terms of mechanisms for language learning.

Mazuka’s lab on the outskirts of Tokyo studies upwards of 1,000 babies a year, and she explains that infants start to recognize mora as a phonemic unit at about 10 months of age. “Infants have to learn how duration and pitch are used as cues in language,” she says. And Japanese is one of the few languages in the world that contains duration-based phonemic contrasts — what English speakers think of as short and long vowels, for example — that can distinguish one mora from two morae. Dominant ideas in the field suggest all babies, from birth, use rhythm as a ‘bootstrap’ to start segmenting sounds into speech, first identifying whether they are dealing with a syllable- or stress-based language. “The theory says that rhythm comes first, but Japanese babies can’t count morae until they’re almost a year old,” Mazuka exclaims. “You can’t conclude that rhythm is the driving force of early phonological development, when evidence from Japanese babies shows it’s not an a prioriunit.”

Read the whole thing.

15 Jul 07:57

naamahdarling: naamahdarling: rhube: bastardlybrendan: fucking...







I spent like 15 hours on this.

*impressed slow clap*

This was ridiculously pleasing to read out loud. 

This is a legitimately fine poem. I say so with my BA in English and Philosophy and my PhD. It’s DAMN HARD to write something like this. Be impressed, yo.

Transcript of poem in screenshot:

First the cracker batter baker bakes a cracker batter batch
then the cracker batter mixer door will open and unlatch
so the batter mixer nozzle can descend onto the patch
where the cracker batter spreads out for the nozzle to attach.

When the cracker mixer nozzle sprays the cracker batter spray
and the cracker batch emulsion lies a-soaking in its haze
then the cracker batter mixer starts to stir up all the glaze
that the final cracker stacker needs to lubricate the way.

Once the cracker stacker handle stacks the cracker batter squares
then the cracker batter’s hardened into double stacks of pairs.
Now the cracker separator breaks the crackers in the stackers
so the wrappers on the stackers fit the finished stacking crackers.

Then they’re distributed to Wal-Mart.

I forgot about this magnificent poem, and you probably did too. Here it is again.

I highly recommend trying to read it aloud, it feels delightful and is almost impossible.

08 Jul 20:10

I’m going to talk about football and Brexit, sorry.

by Alix

I know nothing about football, I mean really, not even background knowledge. I grew up in a motor racing household, active and passive, and we did not watch football, ever. My father, if pressed, will admit to going to two matches in his life and not liking it (one, at Stamford Bridge, we think mum and dad both attended, at opposite ends of the ground, before they met). So I have absolutely no access to this communal memory of Euro 96 or subsequent failures, and insofar as any of it has got through to me over the last twenty years, I wasn’t in the least surprised because practically everyone involved in football, playing football, managing football or talking about football seemed to be such an emotionally stunted tosser, woofing on about “passion” and “pride” and “drive” and other nebulous grunt-clusters that people with zero self-improvement capacity and enormous unmanaged aggression think means the difference between success and failure. I was pretty sure I knew what I thought about football, basically.

Say, is this reminding us of anything?

I sort of don’t want to link football to Brexit because it is undeniably a relief to have one thing, one bloody thing in the news that isn’t about Brexit. But the trouble is I feel it diametrically is about Brexit – it’s about the absence of Brexitiness. I like these people now. I like this team of clean-cut boys with an epic novel’s range of foibles and story arcs – one feels they might make a good job of a journey to Mordor. I like (as anyone following me on any social media is aware) Gareth Southgate’s M&S waistcoat and how he’s gone out of his way to talk about his team’s diversity, and by the way quietly destroy the Foreign Secretary with the classic “it is of no interest to me…” formulation. I like the way they, team and manager, talk about their play and use vulnerability as it really should be used: as strength, as a basis for self-improvement. For the first time in my life, the people in English football sound like people I could have a pint with. The hair-gelled chancers and bluff old gammony men of old with their inflatable spitfires and fragile, dangerous egos repelled me because, well, pattern-matching is what women do to get through life, and those kinds of men are generally not friends to me and mine. These kinds of men, from how they appear to me so far at least, often are.

The best bosses I have ever had, and the boss I have tried to be, is the one who makes you understand that you can start from exactly where you are, follow a clearly defined process, be nurtured and supported, and succeed according to your merits, and except for the inevitable stress points be relatively cheerful about the whole thing. The very best bosses of all create this culture without their team even quite knowing they are doing it; it just becomes background reality. I mean on one level it’s all so fucking simple – the whole point is that there isn’t any magic to this. But you cannot have ego in it, which is what “pride” really means, “drive” is too often a cover word for bull-headed aggression, and “passion” is kind of meaningless here unless it’s the passion that comes at the end when you’ve succeeded. Those words are usually tells of magical thinking of the most unappealing kind.

All of this is the stuff Brexiters fundamentally don’t understand about their own process, which has been replete with ego-driven magical thinking. It’s apparently something a lot of the senior people in football fundamentally haven’t understood too. It is telling that Roy Keane apparently said, on Southgate’s appointment, that he must have some kind of nasty streak to have succeeded at the top for as long as he has. I mean, maybe, yes, but don’t we think it’s far more likely that statement represents Keane’s own character and imaginative limits? I’m sure Southgate is no pushover, but Keane can’t even detect the space between “nice/pushover” and “has nasty streak”. I would surmise (knowing nothing, as I say) that nobody knew it was possible to do top football with this set of attitudes until it was done. But it works just as well in football as it does anywhere else.

What does this mean for The Nation?

There’s a question I thought I’d never coin. The “nation”? How many other borderless left and liberal types normally mouth that word with a reflexive wince, as I do? Gary Younge, in a storming piece on the Tories as a disease well on the way to killing its host, has an excellent quote:

“There are two kinds of European nations,” the Danish finance minister, Kristian Jensen, said last year. “There are small nations and there are countries that have not yet realised they are small nations.”

I have long wondered if, but for the historical accident of empire, we wouldn’t be a little bit like Denmark by now? If there was ever to be any upside to Brexit, it had to be this, that the ego balloons that made it happen would swiftly be pricked (with catastrophic consequences for ordinary people) and then after, oh, thirty-odd years of awful suffering, we might settle down into being the humble, chipper, north-western European fringe country smelling faintly of the sea and taking care of itself that was our true destiny all along. Hopefully with something resembling healthcare intact. That this might happen just in time for the mid-21st century’s climate-driven Wars of Resources presaging The End was, frankly, no more than we (or our ruling classes anyway) deserved for four centuries of oppressive, ego-driven, “proud”, “passionate” folly, but at least, in the manner of the best moral arcs, we would have come good in the end. Hopefully we’d even manage to rejoin the EU before the first button is pressed.

How pleasingly ironic it would be if Southgate’s team, an institution once a fulcrum of  unthinking ego-jingoism, continued to succeed and pointed a moral and emotional path towards that humbler, nicer, more measured way of being. The fundamental reason, the real slightly-warm-universe reason I am being pulled towards football, I think, is that a vacuum has opened up in it. The forces of Gammon that used to colonise it have been distracted, they have got something altogether bigger and more toxic to shout and go puce in the face about than football now. That means there is space for different qualities, qualities worth celebrating, to come in.

06 Jul 19:48

Incredible image of the protoplanet Vesta taken from Earth

by Phil Plait

You have to click through for the pictures, but the last one is pretty cool.

Here's a line I use sometimes when I give talks about asteroids: As an astronomer, asteroids being far away and small is a pain. It makes them difficult to study because we can't see them clearly.

As a human, I'm OK with asteroids being so far away, because they can be dangerous if they get too close.

However, I may now be able to eat my cake and have it, too. Asteroids are far away and small, but a new camera on a huge telescope gives me — hey, literally! — the best of both worlds.

The camera, called ZIMPOL (for Zürich IMaging POLarimeter) is part of SPHERE (Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet Research), a suite of detectors mounted on the ridiculously huge Very Large Telescope (or VLT) in Chile, an 8.2-meter behemoth. This camera uses a sophisticated technique involving polarized light to greatly enhance the potential resolution of a telescope, allowing it to see much finer details in an astronomical target.

How much finer? Well, I'll be honest: When I first saw this technique used to create images of asteroids in the solar system, I literally doubted it could be this good. I had to email the astronomers involved and then do some more reading before convincing myself, yeah, this is real.

I mean, c'mon. Take a look at this image of the protoplanet* Vesta, the second largest rock in the main belt of asteroids between Mars and Jupiter:

The protoplanet Vesta, imaged by the amazing ZIMPOL camera on the Very Large Telescope. Credit: ESO/L. Jorda et al., P. Vernazza et al. Zoom In

The protoplanet Vesta, imaged by the amazing ZIMPOL camera on the Very Large Telescope (left) compared to a model of what Vesta actually looks like (right). Credit: ESO/L. Jorda et al., P. Vernazza et al.

Seriously. Look at the details! The ZIMPOL image is on the left, and on the right is a simulation of Vesta based on a 3D model of it which is itself based on images taken by the Dawn spacecraft. Mind you, Dawn was there. At Vesta.

The ZIMPOL observations were made when Vesta was roughly 170 million kilometers from Earth. Vesta is about 525 km wide, which is pretty small for it being so distant. Its angular size is only about 0.6 arcseconds at that distance, which is incredibly tiny. That's the same size as a U.S. quarter when it's nearly 9 kilometers away!

Yet the detail seen in the ZIMPOL image is incredible. You can easily see the flattened south pole (on the right) due to a huge impact, and the mountain at the lower right. That mountain is 22 kilometers high, which is huge… but it's on Vesta!

You can also see dark spots corresponding to craters in the model, as well as some changes in the terrain. The groove near the top of the model looks like it's in the observations, but to be honest I'm not so sure; the astronomers applied a cleaning technique (called deconvolution) to the image, and that can artificially add sharp features especially near points of high contrast, like the edge of Vesta seen against the dark sky. I used deconvolution a lot back in the bad old days when we had out-of-focus Hubble images after launch, and it's tricky to use. You have to be careful with some things that look real but turn out to be artifacts.

Still. Holy cow. That image is amazing.

They've used ZIMPOL to look at some small asteroids, too. Check these out:

Four asteroids seen by the ZIMPOL camera: (from upper left and going clockwise) 29 Amphitrite, 324 Bamberga, 2 Pallas, and 89 Julia. Credit: ESO/Vernazza et al. Zoom In

Four asteroids seen by the ZIMPOL camera: (from upper left and going clockwise) 29 Amphitrite, 324 Bamberga, 2 Pallas, and 89 Julia. Credit: ESO/Vernazza et al.

From upper left going clockwise, those are 29 Amphitrite, 324 Bamberga, 2 Pallas, and 89 Julia, and they are (roughly) 200, 230, 510, and 150 kilometers across [note the edge effects once again, especially in Pallas]. They aren't quite as sharp here as Vesta, but for the most part they're smaller and may not have been as close during their observations as Vesta was; Vesta is near opposition, opposite the Sun in the sky, when it's closest to Earth and in fact just barely visible to the naked eye. In fact, I was able to see it easily in binoculars recently from a dark site in Colorado, and my friend Michele Wedel got a nice shot of it:

The night sky from rural Colorado, showing the Milky Way, some folks gathered ‘round a telescope (that’s me on the right), and the protoplanet Vesta (arrowed). Credit: Michele Wedel

The night sky from rural Colorado, showing the Milky Way, some folks gathered ‘round a telescope (that’s me on the right), and the protoplanet Vesta (arrowed). Credit: Michele Wedel

Mind you, that's a DSLR shot where the stars had streaked a little bit due to Earth's rotation, and you can still see it pretty easily. Of course, it looks a fair bit smaller than it does with the ZIMPOL+VLT (in fact, that's where the term asteroid comes from; star-like, because they appears as tiny dots even in telescopes… usually).

So I'm frankly amazed we can do this kind of imaging from Earth! It doesn't replace sending spacecraft to asteroids — there's nothing like actually being there, especially when you have a large number of instruments to measure lots of fun different aspects of your target — but it's a huge leap in what we can do from here. I'm looking forward to seeing more stunning images like these!

*Vesta and Ceres are the two largest objects in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and planetary scientists refer to them as protoplanets, objects that were well on their way to becoming planets in the early days of the solar system before running out of material to grow. That term distinguishes them from the asteroids, which are pieces of rubble and debris that protoplanets build themselves out of.

05 Jul 16:24

#1120: The Creepy Guy In The Friend Group, Revisited: Four More Geek Social Fallacies

by JenniferP

Content note: After the jump I mention Rape Threats Dudes Have Sent Me for saying what I think about creepy dudes.

Dear Captain,

Over the past several years I’ve drifted to the periphery of a friend group where one member is a sexist creep. I immediately found him slimy and pushy and off-putting upon meeting him, but gave him the benefit of the doubt because he’s my friend’s brother — and then learned that he’s heavily into PUA bullshit and was pretty much being awful on purpose. It was a few years into my friendship his sister that he started hanging out with everyone, and as he’s spent more time with the group, I’ve spent much less. (Not just because of him, but he’s definitely one reason.) There’s only one friend I’ve explicitly discussed this with, and he’s sympathetic when we talk privately, but I don’t get the sense Mr. Plumed Fedora experiences much pushback at all from anyone in the group — including me, which is also something I’m really struggling with — when he casually complains about “feminazis,” creeps on every woman he encounters, etc.

Recently an opportunity came up to maybe spend more time with the group and I was kind of excited about it but… I truly loathe this guy and resent the amount of time I’ve already spent with him. Is there a good way to say “Your brother/friend is a misogynist and I don’t want to be around him, no offense”? Should I suck it up? Continue fading out? Finally learn to stop avoiding conflict?

M’lady Nay


Did you know that this post about what to do about the creepy cude in the friend group is the most-read, most-linked, most-discussed post here, ever, even six years later?

Did you know that men still email me about it sometimes to tell me I’m a horrible person who probably deserves to be raped, six years later? Like “if you think that’s what rapists act like or think everyone is probably a rapist you should probably get raped” x 1000, and it’s like, “Hey Rapey Robert/Death Threat Dave/Threatening Thomas/”Ethics In Gaming Journalism” Greg, nice Pepe the Frog avatar you’ve got there, thanks for the feedback. I definitely don’t think every man is a rapist, but is there any part of your email that isn’t proving my point about what potential rapists act like?” 

(I don’t actually write back) (I used to get really scared by these emails but I don’t anymore)(I usually assume it’s happening because some woman in their friend group finally got fed up and finally told them “read this, because you are being this dude”  and now the dude’s gotta find someone new to take it all out on because he can’t act like a butthole at Trivia Night anymore, so they choose me, in which case, KEEP ROCKING, AWESOME PEOPLE! If these assholes are feeling consequences for what they are like, you are doing something right.)

You’re doing just fine with “your brother/friend is a misogynist and I don’t want to be around him, no offense” script! I also laughed at your email subject line: “this is probably like three different Geek Social Fallacies” I think it hits all five, personally, and you’ve inspired me to define some more, so, well done, good work, thank you.

When the people in your social group inevitably say “He’s not that bad” or “But faaaaaamily!” or otherwise try to defend hanging out with him you can say “Maybe he’s not that bad…to you. If you still want to hang out with him, that’s okay, I’m not your boss, but I know I’ll be happier staying away from places he’s going to be. Let me know if you want to do something one-on-one, though, ’cause I really like you.” 

One thing that can be empowering in You versus The Group (+ This Fucking Guy) situations is to take more initiative in spending time with the people you want to see. Be more of a planner, and invite people to hang out one-on-one, or in smaller groups. Mix a few of the cooler people with friends you know from other social circles. If you’re proactive and you’re controlling the invite list, you can have more fun at your events, and you can also push back on people who try to insist on including Creepy McGee. “When it’s your event you can invite anyone you want. X and I don’t get along/You know I find him creepy/I wanted a misogyny-free evening, so, nope!” 

Sometimes you have to make it clear that it’s a smaller/more selective invite list, especially if the group has the “we all do everything together/all are welcome” vibe for their usual hangouts, so, be specific when you make the invitations. “I’d love to have a few people over for a dinner party, I’ve only got the 5 chairs so please RSVP, and sorry, no +1s this time.” Do the inviting off of Facebook or other social media, too, vs. creating events that anyone can see or add people to.

Ok, let’s talk about group situations where someone says something gross and nobody pushes back on it. Maybe there’s a really awkward silence for a second, but your friend is probably used to smoothing things over for her brother, and it doesn’t really register with the offensive person at all.

Creeps and misogynists (and racists, and other people you don’t want at your parties) don’t respond to hints. They operate under the assumption that everyone secretly agrees with them and is just “too triggered” or “too politically correct” or “too sensitive” (or whatever the code word that we are too much of is today) to “say what they’re really thinking.” Silence, hints, a strategically raised eyebrow, people quietly flashing side-eye around the circle, etc. just gives them a pool of plausible deniability to keep right on pooping into. And if the people around them are pretty conflict-averse, or (understandably) afraid of becoming a target or provoking them further, or (understandably) afraid that no one will stand up for them or (understandably) afraid that other people secretly agree with what the asshole is saying, or (understandably) are worried that everyone really likes the asshole and will side with them (cough…Chris Hardwick…cough) it just perpetuates the thing where The Asshole can say horrible things and not really get called on it, so he keeps saying asshole things to try to provoke a reaction and then sort of revel in his power when nobody stops him.

This is the wrong social feedback loop and sometimes you just gotta be the one who fixes it.

Even if it doesn’t convince the asshole. (It probably won’t).

Even if other people don’t stand up with you. (They might not).

Even if it’s scary and the night is “ruined” once you say something. (It was already ruined, for you.)

Even if you lose your temper or it comes out garbled or you shake or your voice shakes or you cry. (It might.)

Even if the people you like in the group are mad at you for not enabling the creep…and them…in putting up with misogyny. (It’s possible.)

I truly think in my heart of hearts that it will be good FOR YOU to have spoken up.

And I think there are some additional Geek Social Fallacies at play in the world, and we urgently need to find some ways to deal with them.

Edited to Add: If you’ve never heard of the Five Geek Social Fallacies before, read that link! It’s one of several extremely useful posts out there in the world about “Hey, why do people who we know behave badly still get to hang out in all our spaces and ruin all our parties and social groups?” Another great one one is The Missing Stair. [/edit]

GSF #6 “Calling out bad behavior makes you just as bad as the person who was doing the bad behavior.” 

It takes many forms:

“I know Dave keeps grabbing your ass when you walk by, but you didn’t really need to yell at him like that! How is he supposed to learn if you can’t even be polite?” 

“Punching Nazis might turn totally normal people who definitely didn’t have any problematic beliefs before this moment into Nazis!” 

“I know Uncle Carl said some racist things at dinner, but how do you expect him to learn if you can’t sit silently while he does that? Don’t you want to be civil?” 

“When you call creepy men creepy it hurts their feelings and makes them more likely to be creepy.” 

There are so many versions and offshoots, like “People who believe and do evil shit aren’t evil deep down, and if you just patiently explained it to them for long enough they would stop being so evil!” or one that is starring in my inbox right now “Jennifer, when you use swear words don’t you know that you discredit your entire argument? I won’t be reading your blog any more (but I will send you a 1000-word email about your blog…the one that I don’t read and definitely won’t be reading anymore… at least once a week…for the rest of time…btw you should probably get raped)” 

The people who indulge these GSF want you to fight bad behavior by….being quiet about it and letting it continue? What? That can’t be right.

In the most generous interpretation, people who indulge in this fallacy don’t know what to do about the awful (racist, misogynist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic, possibly violent, etc. etc.) sentiments and behavior, so they freeze. Maybe they feel bad and guilty for not saying something themselves. Less-generously-but-depressingly-possible, maybe they agree with the horrible things that were said and feel embarrassed about that, like, shhhhhhhhhh, don’t turn our dogwhistle into a regular whistle, it’s embarrassing!

Whatever their reasons, what GSF #6 Fallacy Holders do is to immediately silence what you are saying (“That was sexist, stop it”) and ignore what the other person was doing ([insert repulsive words and/or behaviors here]) in order to make “but you said it wrong!” the territory of the argument. They want the discomfort that the awful person introduced into the situation to stop, but they incorrectly locate the source of their discomfort in the person who resisted it, and then they try to pressure that person into being silent so everyone can go back to being comfortable.

Everyone except the person who was hurt by the asshole’s words or behavior, that is. They are fine with your discomfort (as long as you are quiet about it).

GSF #7: “I can tell if someone is A Good Person or not based on whether they’ve been nice…to me.”

From the serial killer who was “always a polite, quiet neighbor” to the abuser who can keep their temper just fine around friends, bosses, & strangers but “totally loses control!” only when it comes to their victims and only when it won’t have legal consequences or make them look bad to others, to the person who is probably a pillar of his church community, but won’t let a pregnant woman use the bathroom if she’s the wrong race, everyone needs to understand this and understand it quick:

People can selectively be nice to the people whose opinions they care about and who they don’t want to harm. And predators consciously groom and choose people around them to be their defenders and spokespeople, the exact same way they groom their victims.

A lot of what you personally experience as “kindness” or “he’s a great guy!” from a misogynist is really about power and what they can get away with. 

For example, at my first post-college job, the creepy senior employee who ogled me all day, made up reasons to force me to have to come to his office, offered me rides home every day and (when I refused) followed me home in his car, driving slowly next to me while I walked, begging me to get in the whole time, and then parked across the street from my house for hours at a time, etc. was VERY friendly and gregarious in the office. He was a churchgoer with many framed Bible quotes in his office, he wore sweater-vests, he talked like Ned Flanders from the Simpsons. He often bought lunch for the whole office and brought baked goods from home. Nobody believed me about his weird behavior, they believed him when he said he was just concerned about my safety walking alone (in broad daylight, in Georgetown which if you don’t know is an extremely wealthy college neighborhood that is policed within an inch of its life), and they laughed at me for having “a crush” on him. Long after I quit, they finally believed he was not so nice when he embezzled a whole bunch of money, tried to frame a young Somali refugee who worked there for what he did, and disappeared without a trace with tons of their money, though! An expensive lesson, for everyone.

I think geeks/nerds are especially susceptible to GSF #7 because so many of us have been ostracized or bullied as kids. We hunger for kindness, so when One Of The Cool Kids shows us that kindness it’s even more precious and harder to let go of. If someone tells you someone who has always been nice to you is not actually that nice, consider for a second that you don’t know everything about them. What if we could learn expensive and uncomfortable lessons much earlier, by saying “I believe you, let me see what I can do” to the victim of the bad behavior and “Hey, I like you a lot, can you knock off doing that gross thing so I can keep liking you” to the perpetrator? If someone you like is behaving badly, you probably couldn’t have prevented it, but could you at least not become their flying monkey after the fact?

Could we reverse the current of social pressure that teaches victims not to speak up so that awkwardness flows toward perpetrators?



GSF #8: “If you show emotion about a topic, your argument is invalid.”

We could also state this one as “If you are personally affected by the thing that is up for debate, you are biased, and that is Somehow Bad.” Others have written about it in the context of South Park, where being a secret Nazi is hilarious but caring sincerely about something is the real problem, and deserving of ridicule.

What a crock of shit.

Fortunately, Melissa McEwan wrote about this double-bind so beautifully in her piece, The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck:

“There are the occasions that men—intellectual men, clever men, engaged men—insist on playing devil’s advocate, desirous of a debate on some aspect of feminist theory or reproductive rights or some other subject generally filed under the heading: Women’s Issues. These intellectual, clever, engaged men want to endlessly probe my argument for weaknesses, want to wrestle over details, want to argue just for fun—and they wonder, these intellectual, clever, engaged men, why my voice keeps raising and why my face is flushed and why, after an hour of fighting my corner, hot tears burn the corners of my eyes. Why do you have to take this stuff so personally? ask the intellectual, clever, and engaged men, who have never considered that the content of the abstract exercise that’s so much fun for them is the stuff of my life.

There is the perplexity at my fury that my life experience is not considered more relevant than the opinionated pronouncements of men who make a pastime of informal observation, like womanhood is an exotic locale which provides magnificent fodder for the amateur ethnographer. And there is the haughty dismissal of my assertion that being on the outside looking in doesn’t make one more objective; it merely provides a different perspective.”

I think about this “lady emotions are dumb, man logic is superior!” fallacy all the time as I watch thousands of young men who would describe themselves as Extremely Logical People become viscerally enraged at a Star Wars movie they didn’t like. It’s kinda funny, but when those same men harass female performers off social media because they didn’t like the movie, it’s suddenly not funny at all. Like, let’s sit with the absurdity of what they are doing for a second. As the primo target audience for Ocean’s 8, I personally think it should 100% have been directed by a woman and that the James Corden insurance investigator part should 100% have been played by Rene Russo in a reprise of her Thomas Crown Affair role (and also that character should be “Lou”/Cate Blanchett’s ex-lover) but I’m not suggesting”let’s all go tell Gary Ross & James Corden they should get raped every day until we have JUSTICE Lololo1!!!” (Like, I know I am joking about a terrible terrible thing so in all seriousness, please, please do not ever do that, it’s just a fucking movie. Go write some hot fan fiction where Cate and Renee do crime and borrow each other’s wardrobes and then email me the link to that fan fiction).

Feelings are just one kind of information. Experiences are extremely informed sources of information. They are not the only information, but they aren’t not-information, either? They have a part to play.

What if we acted like the the people most affected by something/who have the most at stake/who have the most to lose/who have been the most fucked over by the status quo are the center of where our caring should go and the primary experts on what would fix things, but on like, a national or even global level? And what if caring for them was way more important than our “objective” debates about what they need and deserve?

In the meantime, the idea that “your emotions and your experiences with a thing make you uninformed and unqualified to talk about it, but my emotions (that I have renamed ‘logic’) and my lack of experience with a thing make me more informed and qualified than you” is a brand of bullshit that I will be fighting until my dying day, one really really long blog post at a time.

Will you join me?

GSF #9: “The most important thing to think about when speaking up about injustice is what will *convince* the other person to be on your side.” 

As in, when someone mistreats you or others, convincing them not to and converting them to thinking as you do and educating them endlessly, in real time, on demand, on their schedule (whether or not they even want to be convinced), with complete and selfless empathy for why they feel as they do and why they said what they said is your sole, immediate responsibility, more important than your own feelings, safety, ethics, the safety or comfort of anyone nearby or anyone in the world who may be affected by what they did, regardless of how much energy or will you have to do it or how likely they are to be convinced.

For GSF #9 holders, it’s not enough for you to say “Hey, knock it off there buddy,” or “If you’re going to say stuff like that, I need to be elsewhere, byeeee,” NO! You must convince them…OR NOTHING. (i.e. be silent). You must convince them, gently, kindly, with perfect grammar and spelling and no icky emotions like anger at what they did or fear for what they might do, you must make them feel GREAT and WELCOME in your space or else you are letting your whole side down and it will be YOUR FAULT when they do and say awful things.

I think there is enormous value in trying to change hearts and minds and that is the long game, the work that will never stop.

But it’s not the only thing I value. Sometimes what I value is making the bad thing stop and stop right fucking now. Sometimes what I value is making consequences for people who do or say the bad things – there are people who persuasion will never reach, but who might understand power or social disapproval or the risk of being disinvited if they behave badly. Sometimes what I value is protecting myself and other people from the harm that they do, and the hearts and minds of assholes can be their own fucking business.

Sometimes I’m just a human being whose supply of fucks to give runs low and I lose my temper. Oops?

When a gross dude in a literal or metaphorical fedora is like “Hey Sweet Tits want to come over and see my Ayn Rand tattoos? I can explain them all to you, at length and in detail” or “Your hysteria over the coming erosion of reproductive rights is just wasting everyone’s time with dumb ‘identity politics’, why don’t you calm down pay attention to the Really Important Stuff (i.e. stuff that I care about)” and you are like NO and also GROSS and also I WILL NOT CALM DOWN, SIR, I DO BITE MY THUMB AT THEE, PERFORCE, YOU ARE LUCKY I DO NOT MAKE YOU MEET ME WITH PISTOLS AT DAWN…

…and people are like “Calm down why are you being so mean/emotional/hysterical, you’re going to lose the argument unless you maintain perfect detachment at all times

…those people are also sort of saying “I…I mean some people… are looking for an excuse to agree with your tormentor, please don’t give me…I mean them… one by having embarrassing tears or acting angry about what they are doing! If they aren’t convinced, and if I…I mean some people…end up joining their side, it will be all your fault when I/they do!


…I don’t know…

…this may sound weird…

But maybe they were never really gonna be on your side, and what they think isn’t the most important thing in the world?

…And maybe it’s important that you say something back even if it isn’t going to be the one true magical thing that convinces someone not to be a misogynist anymore? That perfect thing that, don’t forget, you must somehow express with perfect politeness and grace?

Maybe it isn’t your job to convince that person, especially not right then in that moment. Maybe you are not their Basic Humanity Tutor. Maybe today isn’t your turn to be the Asshole Whisperer. Maybe speaking up is about something else entirely. Maybe it’s sufficient just to name their actions for what they are so that other people can recognize them, and it’s not your job to fix every asshole that you meet.

Maybe you’re doing it for YOU and as a way to remove plausible deniability that everyone agrees with them and to reassert POWER in the social spaces you occupy regardless of whether these people are ever convinced or even can be convinced. (Like maybe holidays don’t belong to your most racist and loudmouthed relative and you do not have to quietly retreat from having a family because he can’t shut the fuck up for one day (but you are expected to “behave yourself, Young Lady”).

Maybe it would be ok if you “made a scene” or whatever they’re using today as “the worst thing you could possibly do” in order to police your feelings and reactions down to a size that can let them stay comfortable with the unfairness of the world.

Maybe it’s just the right thing to do even if it isn’t easy or comfortable and even if it won’t convince one single soul.  And, in the good words of my beloved ride-or-die Goat Lady, as pertains to some current political discussions:

“Yknow I get that some people are really uncomfortable with confrontation but ima need those folks to just go back inside and keep their heads down instead of pretending they have some kind of precious moral high ground because they don’t want offend fascists.”

If you can’t speak up, if you’re afraid to speak up, if you are uncomfortable speaking up, if you’ve never spoken up before and you don’t know how to start, okay? It’s okay to be scared. It’s okay to be still learning. Do what you have to do to survive from one moment to the next. But do not act like silence is something to strive for and like breaking it is the real faux pas when people’s survival is on the line. I see you.

So again, maybe someone’s horrendous and abusive views and whatever straw-man-dressed-in-red-flags strategy the people who wish you would just shut up already erroneously think will ultimately convince people to stop having those views is not even remotely the standard for measuring what you should do when they hurt people.

My lovely Letter Writer M’Lady Nay, how this translates practically to you and your specific letter (vs. me venting literally every internet argument I am currently having feelings about), is this:

It’s okay to not want to go to things where you know a misogynist creep will be coddled and apologized for. “I love playing Betrayal At House On The Hill, I hate being hit on by some creepo I’ve already told to leave me alone 17,000 times, gotta skip it” is a totally reasonable worldview.

And if you do end up at one of those things where this dude will be, and he says or does one of his awful things, it’s okay to say “Gross” or “Try that again with a little less misogyny this time” or “Nobody here wants to fuck you, just stop it and hang out like a person, or the best imitation of one you can pull off, ok?” or “DO NOT TOUCH ME” or “Well, that was a rape-y thing to say, time for one of us to leave. I vote that it’s you.” or “What the fuck, dude?” or “We put up with you because we like your sister. Behave yourself for her sake, or go the fuck home (for her sake), but DO NOT say that creepy shit to me again” or “Oh gee, look at the time, it’s creep-o’clock and I will turn into a pumpkin if I don’t get out of here.” Or “I don’t like what you said just now.” Or “Wow” or “That makes me really uncomfortable” or “Please desist at once, kind sir” or or or or or or or or or or or or.

And when someone says “Come on he was only joking” you say “But it wasn’t funny” and when someone says “Geez, you’re way too sensitive” you say “Yes, I’m very sensitive and I also hate rape jokes, thanks for noticing” and when someone says “God, grow a sense of humor already!” you say “Yes, I will grow a sense of humor and I will fertilize it with the ashes of unfunny men. TO THE BARRICADES, SISTERS! FOR THEMYSCIRA!”

Or you know, whatever comes to mind. My scripts are always gonna work better in your own words.

And when they come for his sister, or his sister feels pressure to defend him because she’s (understandably) afraid they’ll come for her, you say “You are lovely! But your brother is acting like a sexist jerk. If he’s uncomfortable when people don’t like that, maybe he should knock it off. You are not responsible for him and you do not have to defend him. By which I mean, stop defending him, it’s not your job when you didn’t do anything wrong.”

Your voice might shake. Your awesome comeback might come out garbled. You might get talked over by people who are afraid to do what you did. You might stand there alone, while all these people you want so bad to like and believe you let you down.

Maybe…say something anyway?

Say something especially if you have privilege relative to the people who are being targeted. Creepy men who automatically discount what women say listen more when their male friends say “Not cool, bro.” White people who say racist stuff desperately want the social approval and compliance of fellow white people, and when you refuse to give them your compliance and good opinion, it fucking shatters them. Good. Keep doing it.

Here is the secret, the cheat code, the truth: The people you know who are good at speaking up in tense situations probably didn’t start out that way. It is a habit and a skill that you can develop with time and practice. The more you do it, the more you feel like you can do it. And the more you do it, the people who can’t be trusted not to carry water for creeps and assholes will show themselves, making them easier to avoid in the future.

I’m not gonna lie, that can hurt real bad, it can cut you to the bone.

And there may be times you cannot safely speak up, without the threat of violence. In those cases, you are going to be the best judge of what you can safely do. Think of it as “living so you can fight another day” and don’t let it slow you down too much.

But also, the more you speak up, the more the other people in the room who don’t agree with the asshole will seek you out and back you up and start to find their own voices. Someone in that room has been waiting for someone to say “‘Feminazi?’ Really? Are you a time traveling Rush Limbaugh intern here to teach us about hackeysack and jam bands? Get the fuck out of here with that shit, man.”

Maybe they’ve been waiting for you the way you’ve been waiting for them, wondering “Is it just me?” And maybe today is the day you get together and start to fix it.

This hope is why I do what I do.


Captain Awkward






04 Jul 12:33

One way to explain what linguistics is to a prescriptivist (or anyone for that matter).



Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. Oftentimes a non-linguist may ask a linguist (I will use this term for students as well) which language is easiest to learn, how many languages they know, or if one dialect is “better” than another.

One option is to tell them to think of linguistics as similar to geology (on the simplest of levels, of course; I’m not a geologist and don’t plan on becoming one):

  • A geologist studies rocks. They study their formations, how they change, and how they are similar and different from other rocks.
  • A geologist may have a type of rock that they know extremely well, but try to understand a lot about the other types as reference.
  • Society may place value on certain rocks, but that does not make one rock better than another to a geologist.

A scientific, descriptive approach to language is similar.

A linguist studies language. They study grammars of different languages, how they change, and how they are similar and different from other languages (among other things).

They describe language as it occurs naturally, not telling others the “correct” usage of a word.

Most importantly, a linguist recognizes all instances of language as equally valid, not privileging a certain dialect or language over another.

How do you explain linguistics to your peers?

So then asking a linguist how many languages they speak is like asking a geologist how many pet rocks they have? 

The analogy I generally use when explaining what a linguist does is that a biologist looks at animals and plants and pokes them and figures out which parts are connected, a linguist does the same to language(s). And while some biologists mostly specialize in, say, frogs, it’s useful to have some knowledge of other animals or you won’t know whether the fact that frogs have two eyes is some unique characteristic or very common. 

By this analogy, English is kind of like the lab rat of linguistics, in that the vast majority of work is done on it. I think this is problematic for a whole bunch of reasons similar to the problem of only researching lab mice which are outlined in this excellent Slate series. And then other much-studied languages are like other well-researched animals such as fruit flies and guinea pigs and chimps. 

04 Jul 12:29

tatterdemalionamberite: dragon-in-a-fez: tangobunny: eruhamster: trippingthelight: cozi: when...







when i was 12 i got banned from yahoo answers and when i emailed support to be like “what did i do??” i got a really vague answer that just said “you know what you did” and it still haunts me to this day

When I was 10 I was in a AOL chatroom for kids and we were all making this Homer Simpson face (8^(|) but this one girl Crystal forgot to put the nose in the face so I said “You forgot the nose crystal” and I immediately got booted offline and no one in my family could log on. My Mom talked to someone from AOL and they said I was trying to sell drugs to minors because I said “nose crystal”

When I was like 10 I roleplayed with people on Neopets, completely innocent stuff like ‘high school AU’ or ‘wolf AU’ and the like. I made a thread called ‘See the Sea Hotel’ and it went on for a few replies until I randomly got my account frozen and after explaining to my mom for a good 30 minutes that ‘frozen’ didn’t mean the computer wouldn’t respond, she got on to try and send an email to Neopets’ staff and they said that ‘hotel’ was a restricted word because it included ‘ho’ in it

I had a similar experience around that age with an online music game called Audition.

I said something like “Can I get the speed to 2x speed?” and it automatically changed my message to “Can I get the **** to **** ****?”, and a moderator saw that modified message and suspended my account for offensive language.

It turned out that I couldn’t say ‘speed’ because it had ‘pee’ in it, and I when I contacted support to say it was a mistake on their part and asked if I could be unsuspended, they said that I was also writing numbers, and writing numbers was strictly forbidden just in case they were a phone number.

I remember playing Phantasy Star Online back in like 2001 - it was one of the first console MMOs, if I remember correctly - and you didn’t get banned for saying “bad words”, but they did get censored. their list of inappropriate words was….extensive, and one in particular created a real problem for people trying to make plans to play together. because of course the most common day of the week to do that would be Saturday, right? but. that has the word “turd” in it. so. every time. you tried to say “do you want to play Saturday”. it would say. “do you want to play $%&@%#+%”. and the other person is just. sitting there. wondering. what the fuck did you just ask them to play

This is called the Scunthorpe Problem and it always cracks me up.

01 Jul 21:36

"Gretchen: On the International Space Station, you have astronauts from the US and from other English..."

Gretchen: On the International Space Station, you have astronauts from the US and from other English speaking countries and you have cosmonauts from Russia. And obviously it’s very important to get your communication right if you’re on a tiny metal box circling the Earth or going somewhere. You don’t want to have a miscommunication there because you could end up floating in space in the wrong way. And so one of the things that they do on the ISS – so first of all every astronaut and cosmonaut needs to be bilingual in English and Russian because those are the languages of space.

Lauren: Yep. Wait, the language of space are English and Russian? I’m sorry, I just said ‘yep’ and I didn’t really think about it, so that’s a fact is it?

Gretchen: I mean, pretty much, yeah, if you go on astronaut training recruitment forums, which I have gone on to research this episode…

Lauren: You’re got to have a backup job, Gretchen.

Gretchen: I don’t think I’m going to become an astronaut, but I would like to do astronaut linguistics. And one of the things these forums say, is, you need to know stuff about math and engineering and, like, how to fly planes and so on. But they also say, you either have to arrive knowing English and Russian or they put you through an intensive language training course.

But then when they’re up in space, one of the things that they do is have the English native speakers speak Russian and the Russian speakers speak English. Because the idea is, if you speak your native language, maybe you’re speaking too fast or maybe you’re not sure if the other person’s really understanding you. Whereas if you both speak the language you’re not as fluent in, then you arrive at a level where both people can be sure that the other person’s understanding. And by now, there’s kind of this hybrid English-Russian language that’s developed. Not a full-fledged language but kind of a-

Lauren: Space Creole!

Gretchen: Yeah, a Space Pidgin that the astronauts use to speak with each other! I don’t know if anyone’s written a grammar of it, but I really want to see a grammar of Space Pidgin.


Excerpt from Episode 1 of Lingthusiasm: Speaking a single language won’t bring about world peace. Listen to the full episode, read the transcript, or check out the show notes.

(via lingthusiasm)

01 Jul 21:35

thequantumwritings: Sometimes i think about the idea of Common as a language in fantasy settings. On...


Sometimes i think about the idea of Common as a language in fantasy settings.

On the one hand, it’s a nice convenient narrative device that doesn’t necessarily need to be explored, but if you do take a moment to think about where it came from or what it might look like, you find that there’s really only 2 possible origins.

In settings where humans speak common and only Common, while every other race has its own language and also speaks Common, the implication is rather clear: at some point in the setting’s history, humans did the imperialism thing, and while their empire has crumbled, the only reason everyone speaks Human is that way back when, they had to, and since everyone speaks it, the humans rebranded their language as Common and painted themselves as the default race in a not-so-subtle parallel of real-world whiteness.

In settings where Human and Common are separate languages, though (and I haven’t seen nearly as many of these as I’d like), Common would have developed communally between at least three or four races who needed to communicate all together. With only two races trying to communicate, no one would need to learn more than one new language, but if, say, a marketplace became a trading hub for humans, dwarves, orcs, and elves, then either any given trader would need to learn three new languages to be sure that they could talk to every potential customer, OR a pidgin could spring up around that marketplace that eventually spreads as the traders travel the world.

Drop your concept of Common meaning “english, but in middle earth” for a moment and imagine a language where everyone uses human words for produce, farming, and carpentry; dwarven words for gemstones, masonry, and construction; elven words for textiles, magic, and music; and orcish words for smithing weaponry/armor, and livestock. Imagine that it’s all tied together with a mishmash of grammatical structures where some words conjugate and others don’t, some adjectives go before the noun and some go after, and plurals and tenses vary wildly based on what you’re talking about.

Now try to tell me that’s not infinitely more interesting.

27 Jun 08:12

‘The Soreno has politely said No’

by Fred Clark
No, "Bull Durham" was not set in the 1960s. North Carolina in the 1960s was too "polite" and "a-political" to allow an integrated baseball team to ride the same bus.
26 Jun 21:07

Racial hierarchy and migration in Britain | Windrush 70th Anniversary series

by Media Diversified
Gurminder K. Bhambra illustrates historical differences in the treatment of white migrants and non-white citizens to the UK in the fourth article of a series curated for Windrush Day by Kiri Kankhwende

Seventy years ago, on 22 June 1948, the Empire Windrush entered the Thames and close on 500 West Indians, with British citizenship, disembarked at Tilbury Dock. This rather mundane event – of Commonwealth citizens moving within the bounds of the Commonwealth – has, subsequently, become foundational to mythologies of the changing nature of Britain.

These mythologies continue to reverberate in the present and have taken on a renewed political significance in light of Brexit and the attempts by the government to deport its own citizens as part of a ‘hostile environment’ for illegal migrants. To put Windrush – and the Windrush scandal – into perspective, however, we need to look at the broader context of other population movements into Britain at the same time.

In the five years after the end of the Second World War, close on 100,000 Eastern Europeans from Displaced Persons camps in Germany and Austria were recruited to work in Britain and, over the same period, around 100,000 Irish people moved annually to Britain. The Polish Resettlement Act of 1947, in addition, gave 120,000 Polish people the right to settle in Britain. This period of post-war European migration is thus claimed by Deakin as ‘the most intensive this country has ever experienced’ (1970: 23). It is notable, too, that Britain took no Jewish people from European camps.

By the 1951 Census, there were around 650,000 Irish and Polish born migrants in the UK contrasted with about ‘17,000 persons born in the Caribbean living in Britain’. A decade later, the foreign-born population was about five per cent of the total; out of the top ten sending countries, 8 were white and only 2 were darker nations. There were 683,000 people born in Ireland, 121,000 from Germany, 120,000 from Poland (to take just the top three white populations) and from the darker countries, there were 157,000 from India and 100,000 from Jamaica.

The debates in Parliament, however, focused on the arrival of darker-skinned citizens rather than the lighter-skinned ‘aliens’, despite the fact that the total white foreign-born population was about ten times that of the ‘coloured’ British population. The construction of darker citizens as aliens was based on a visceral understanding of difference predicated on race rather than in relation to any legal status.

To this end, the Commonwealth Immigration Acts of 1962, 1968, and 1971 were enacted precisely to restrict the freedom of movement of these darker citizens. These Acts were passed with the quid pro quo being to establish racial equality within the state with the simultaneous passing of the Race Relations Acts of 1965 and 1968.

The standard accounts of political citizenship align it with the contours of the nation-state, and ‘aliens’ are (or can be) admitted to citizenship. The defining of British citizenship, in contrast, has been predicated on the basis of making citizens into immigrants on the basis of an explicit racial hierarchy (Karatani 2003). The Windrush scandal was the epitome of this move with those who had initially had citizenship being stripped off it by virtue of changes to the law to deter illegal migrants.

Brexit and the ensuing exclusion of non-UK EU citizens from the body politic is another layer in this inglorious history and cannot be understood outside of it. In such a context, no non-UK EU citizen can be sure that their residence has provided them with any rights that are secure.

The current British polity is deeply structured by race such that the state and its practices are themselves racialized and exclusionary. The issue of race is not simply about those who look different being present within British society, but about how the state is itself constructed on an explicit racialized hierarchy.

The recent attempts by the government to deport its darker citizens comes out of this racialized deep state – a state that had seemed to be in the process of transforming in the period after the 1960s, with official endorsements of multiculturalism and commitments to racial equality, but which is rearing its ugly head once again as nativism trumps democracy.

Deakin, Nicholas 1970. Colour Citizenship and British Society: An Abridged and Updated Version of the Famous Report. Panther Books: London.
Karatani, Rieko 2003. Defining British Citizenship: Empire, Commonwealth and Modern Britain. Frank Cass: London.

All work published on MD is the intellectual property of its creators and requires permission to be republished. Contact us if you have any questions.

Gurminder K Bhambra is Professor of Postcolonial and Decolonial Studies, School of Global Studies, University of Sussex @GKBhambra

All work published on MD is the intellectual property of its creators and requires permission to be republished. Contact us if you have any questions.

26 Jun 19:24

They think it’s all over: football v. sexism

by debuk

And they’re off! As we move into the Season of Endless Televised Sport (this year centring on the month-long FIFA World Cup), some men have started their own competition to find the Most Unconvincing Reason Why We Shouldn’t Have To Listen To Women Talking About Football. I’m tempted to name this contest the Samuel Johnson Memorial Award for Sexism, in homage to Johnson’s famous remark comparing a woman preacher to a dog walking on its hind legs: ‘it is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all’. (It also doesn’t hurt that ‘Johnson’ is a slang term for ‘penis’.)

Simon Kelner made an early splash with his suggestion that asking women like Eni Aluko and Alex Scott to offer expert technical analysis of matches played by men was like ‘getting a netball player to discuss major league basketball’.  Er, not really, Simon: netball and basketball are different sports, whereas women’s football and men’s football…well, the clue’s in the name. Scott, who made 140 appearances for England during her career and played in three World Cups, can hardly be said to lack insight; Aluko’s analysis has been incisive enough to prompt applause from Patrice Evra (a patronising gesture which makes him another leading contender for the Johnson award).

Of course it’s true that unlike Evra, these women have never played in a men’s World Cup. But as someone pointed out on Twitter, if you followed that line of argument to its logical conclusion you’d have to leave expert analysis of the Grand National to a panel of horses. Who but a horse can truly understand the physical and mental challenges of this unique event?

Kelner’s article was really just a lengthy whinge that should have been headed ‘Why I don’t like being expected to pay attention to some bird when I’m watching the football’. Other men who felt the same way came up with different justifications. There were several variations on the complaint made by one Mail reader that ‘male commentators have a better camaraderie and banter’. Football-talk just doesn’t have the same laddish, all-boys-together vibe when there’s a woman in the room. But by far the most popular argument–most often produced with the triumphant air of a magician plucking the rabbit of self-evident truth from the hat of mere disputable opinion–was that no one could be expected to pay attention to what the women were saying, because of (stop me if you’ve heard this before) their annoying high-pitched voices.

The woman who bore the brunt of this tediously familiar complaint was not a player-turned-pundit, but the broadcaster Vicki Sparks, who became the first woman ever to commentate live on a men’s World Cup match. While she was commentating on Portugal v. Morocco, John Terry caused a stir by posting on Instagram that he’d been forced to watch with the sound off. He later clarified that this wasn’t because of the commentary, it was because the sound on his TV wasn’t working. But others had already picked up the ball and were evidently determined to run with it (oops, sorry, wrong game).

Their comments came straight from the Bumper Book of Ancient Clichés About Women’s Speech. Here’s a selection taken from the comments section of a Huffington Post piece. (Incidentally, I chose this piece because it was basically positive, deploring the sexism dished out to Sparks elsewhere. Nevertheless, in the comments section the ratio of negative to positive or neutral judgments was approximately 4:1.)

One day they may find a woman with the right knowledge and gravitas to pull it off but that time has still to arrive.

Whatever next…. the commentary done in the style of nagging I expect.

Women commentators just don’t work. Reason is because of the voice rather than the gender (before I get hate). You’d never get a squeaky guy as a commentator, so why have a squeaky woman

Her voice tone wasn’t clear, difficult to listen to, I missed half of what she said, and yet shrill. Not for me.

Sorry I am all for equality but this is one step too far, what a screeching high pitched annoying voice. Had to turn the sound off, please spare us.

Nice to have a woman, but NOT this one. The voice was just too strident. May be more suited to a boxing match. Sorry, but there is a lot of female talent out there that is more suitable

In the same way that a short person is unlikely to make a good basketball player, it should be accepted that a person with a high, shallow voice does not have the necessary attributes to be a good football commentator.

There are just some things men are better at and women are better at and the roar of a passionate crowd being drowned out by a high pitched voice doesn’t work, be it male or female, thank god I’ve lived through the best days. ‘They think it’s all over, it is now’ RIP Football

What I find striking about these comments is that the tropes they use are exactly the same ones that turn up with monotonous regularity in discussions of female political leaders—especially when the theme is ‘why I’m not going to vote for [insert name of woman]’. There’s a tried and tested formula, which goes something like this:

  1. I’m not a sexist: I’ve got nothing against women/ I’m all for equality, but
  2. This woman is not the right woman. I know she isn’t right because
  3. She has a shrill/ squeaky/ screechy/ strident voice which means she (a) lacks the necessary gravitas and/or (b) is unbearably painful to listen to. And after all,
  4. We shouldn’t put a woman who isn’t the right woman in this position: that would be tokenism/ box-ticking/ political correctness.

This is what was said about Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential election campaign; now it’s being said about Vicki Sparks in the context of the 2018 World Cup. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Politics and sport may be different in many ways, but they are both symbolically masculine domains, arenas for the cultivation and display of symbolically masculine attributes like power, strength, competitiveness and fraternal loyalty. As such they are seen, at least by some men, as sacred turf which women should not be permitted to profane.

This may help to explain the otherwise puzzling fact that women’s voices only seem to become an insuperable obstacle to equality when women are using them to talk about certain things. You could almost formulate it as a law: the more important a subject is to men, the more they feel it defines them as men, the more likely they will accuse any woman who speaks about it with authority of being ‘shrill’.

Why is this line of criticism, making reference to the fact that women’s voices are higher in pitch than men’s, so popular with sexists? Some would say, because it trades on the idea that men are ‘naturally’ more authoritative speakers. As I’ve pointed out before, there’s good evidence that people tend to associate lower pitch with greater authority, and this has often been explained in terms of the natural relationship between larger bodies and lower-pitched sounds. But we’ve known for a long time that pitch differences between the sexes aren’t entirely explained by physical factors–they also have a social dimension. Research has shown that they vary across cultures, and that they emerge in young children before there’s a physical basis for them. They can also change over time: a number of recent studies done in Europe, North America and Australia suggest that the average pitch of the female voice has fallen quite significantly since the mid-20th century. This has not, however, stemmed the flow of complaints about the high pitch and ‘shrillness’ of women’s speech.

I think there’s a simple explanation for this: the complaints were never really about the way women’s voices sound. That’s just a figleaf, a red herring, a proxy for a different kind of concern about women speaking in certain domains. If the issue were really about acoustics–if female voices were genuinely more unpleasant to listen to and more difficult to understand– we would surely expect to hear the same complaints about every kind of public and broadcast speech. But in reality the criticism is selective, and always has been.

I’m old enough to remember when women weren’t allowed to read the news on the BBC because their light, high voices allegedly lacked gravitas. Today people complain that their voices are too ‘high and shallow’ for football commentary. Meanwhile, there are no such criticisms of the female duos who present Strictly Come Dancing and (until recently) The Great British Bake-Off.  Ballroom dancing and baking are already symbolically feminised activities, so in those domains a female voice of authority (or a flamboyantly gay one, as adopted by Strictly’s two male judges) poses no threat to the existing order. Introducing that voice into football coverage is a different matter: for some people it can only mean that the best days are behind us. ‘RIP Football’.

It’s not only football that these people are in mourning for. In the words of another Huffington Post reader (who probably spoke for quite a few of his peers, even if he himself was being sarcastic):

Wow, a woman commentator, they are getting everywhere (except back in the kitchen)

If women are getting everywhere, where does that leave men? From where I’m standing, not too badly off: in football as in life more generally, they’re still getting the lion’s share of the power, the glory and the money. But some of them are evidently brooding on what they feel they’ve lost. They look back nostalgically to the golden age when each sex had its proper sphere: when a woman’s place was in the kitchen and a man’s was everywhere else.  Sorry-not-sorry, guys. If you think that’s all over, I’m pretty sure you’re right.

25 Jun 06:46

"Between May 5 and June 9, more than 2,000 immigrant families were stopped at the U.S.-Mexico border...."

Between May 5 and June 9, more than 2,000 immigrant families were stopped at the U.S.-Mexico border. Government agents and agencies have failed to identify Indigenous individuals and families after apprehension and because many Indigenous migrants speak neither English or Spanish, language barriers can lead to human and Indigenous rights violations and increase the risk for family separations.

According to a 2015 report by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), K’iche’, Mam, Achi, Ixil, Awakatek, Jakaltek and Qanjobal — Mayan dialects spoken in what is currently Guatemala and southern Mexico — were “represented within the ICE family residential facilities.” In Latin America, at least 560 Indigenous languages are spoken by 780 different tribal and ethnic groups.

For ICE, Indigenous languages pose a challenge for interpreters. However, data on Indigenous language speakers encountered by law-enforcement officials at the border are held by Customs and Border Protection, which did not respond to requests for those statistics.

“There’s certainly been an increase (in Indigenous language speakers),” said John Haviland, an anthropological linguist at University of California, San Diego and Tzotzil interpreter. “No question at all.” […]

Haviland provides interpretation services for Homeland Security, court proceedings and medical situations. He said that because of language barriers, child separation — at least in the case of Indigenous families who speak no Spanish or English — had been a common practice, at least anecdotally, even before the Trump administration’s policy.

“A massive number of family law cases basically end up with children being taken away,” said Haviland. “They do it more often with Indigenous migrants than with Spanish migrants, and the reason is very simple: Nobody can actually contradict the claim that can be made by social services that an Indigenous mom is an incompetent mom, because basically, they can’t talk to the mom.”

People are logged in the system by nationality, not tribal affiliation. That means Indigenous legal frameworks, international standards and human rights can be ignored by federal agencies.

“The question of Indigeneity in Latin America is very different than it is in the countries that were colonized by Great Britain,” said Rebecca Tsosie, regents’ professor of law and faculty co-chair of the Indigenous People’s Law and Policy Program at the University of Arizona. “We see a community that still speaks their Indigenous language, that still dresses the way they have always dressed. That’s the demarcation that, culturally, they’ve remained distinct.”

In the U.S., she said, Indigeneity is seen more as a political identity.

“So, if you’re not an enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe, eyebrows go up: Are you really Indigenous?” she said. “There are politics around Indigeneity, and it revolves around the United States’ framework. So, the idea is one of exceptionalism.”

This becomes an issue when applying international standards, like the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which the United States endorsed in 2010. Under the declaration, Indigenous peoples have a collective status and hold rights as a collective people. It also states that Indigenous people have a right to stay in their family unit without impairment.

“The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People would say that is a violation of their human rights,” said Tsosie. “They have a right to exist in their family unit without the government breaking that up.”

- Indigenous immigrants face unique challenges at the border: Language barriers mean Indigenous families may be more likely to be split up.