I don't know if people who know less about human phonetics will enjoy this as much as me but the vast differences in how birds pronounce speech sounds blew my mind. :) (Sorta makes up for how much I hated the description of what vowels and plosives and "other consonants" are, heh.) And no one ever told me monkeys are speech-ready! Whoa.
Holy shit, this video. <3
In mid-June, the field of exoplanetary astronomy hit a big milestone: The discovery of the 4000th exoplanet.
Wow. That’s a lot of alien worlds!
The very first exoplanet was announced in 1992 (literally immediately after a previous announcement was retracted). At first the pace of discovery was slow, as methods were tried out and refined. But then things picked up considerably.
How much have things accelerated? Well, you can see for yourself… and hear it too.
I just saw that APOD featured an amazing video, created by Matt Russo and Andrew Santaguida of System Sounds. They make wonderful animations about astronomy and space, combining art and science in a fascinating and compelling way.
The video starts off in 1992, at the first announcement of the planets orbiting the pulsar PSR B1257+12. The entire sky is displayed (it’s distorted at the top and bottom due to mapping a spherical surface (we see the sky as the inside of a giant sphere around us) to a rectangle. The curvy band across it is the disk of the Milky Way, the flat spiral galaxy we live in. It is straight when you see it in the sky, but curved like this again due to remapping the sky into a rectangle.
As time goes on, more planets appear. Each time, you hear a piano note. The pitch of the note corresponds to orbital period (the year) of the planet; higher pitches are shorter periods and lower pitches longer periods. The volume of the note shows how many planets with similar periods were announced at that time. One planet is a quiet note, while many together makes for a louder note.
The colors represent how the planet was found. Planets found using the transit method are purple, planets found via radial velocity are pink, direct imaging (literally, images of the planets themselves) in orange, gravitational microlensing in cyan, orbital brightness modulation (where the gravity of the planet changes the shape of the star, which can be detected as a change in the brightness of the star) in yellow, transit timing variations (changes in a planet’s period due to the gravitational influence of another planet in the system, for example) in red, and astrometry (the gravity of the planet making the star’s motion through space wiggle as it orbits) in gray.
Now let me ask you a question: Can you figure out when the Kepler space telescope came online, and where it was pointed?
OK, spoilers: It started finding planets in 2009, and it spent years staring at one spot in space in the constellation Cygnus, which in the video is in the Milky Way to the upper left. By the end of the primary mission it had found about half of all exoplanets known! That’s pretty obvious in the video.
But now we have TESS scanning the skies, and it’s already reaping rewards… and astronomers going through its observations have found only a tiny fraction of the planets predicted to be waiting in the data.
It took 27 years to get to 4,000 exoplanets. We won’t have to wait nearly that long to reach 8,000.
What planets still await us? What strange new worlds are still out there to be found, big ones, small ones, hot one, cold ones, ones with just the right amount of light from their stars and just the right chemistry to be hauntingly familiar to us, ones with liquid water on their surface and nitrogen-oxygen atmospheres, ones with curious features in their spectra that could be from starlight absorbed by the output of living creatures?
There are a lot of planets out there. Billions. Hundreds of billions.
4,000 is just the very, very first start.
Classic contributions including Kingsley the Partick Thistle mascot; ‘yer maw’ jokes; ‘yer da sells Avon’ jokes; anything Lewis Capaldi tweets, and “maw bought aldi shower gel that smells like fairy liquid so I’ve been cutting about all day smelling like a fucking plate” (@adamfraser14, August 2015).
For many people both outside Scotland and within, Twitter has provided a brand new view into the Scots language and its varieties in all their sweary, hysterical, sometimes incomprehensible glory. Has the platform spearheaded a resurgence amongst its young users or is this something more profound altogether?
The Scots language has been spoken in Scotland for centuries and still exists across the country today. It’s comprised of numerous different dialects – which can differ from each other quite dramatically – and is one of three official languages in Scotland, alongside English and Gaelic. In 2001 it was officially recognised under the European Charter for Minority Languages.
“Scots was the national language of a country that doesn’t exist anymore,” explains writer and presenter Alistair Heather, who writes a Scots column in Scotland’s The National newspaper. “As Scotland was amalgamated into Great Britain, Scots fell away from being a national language because it didn’t have a nation anymore.
This is a video of an Oksapmin woman demonstrating the Oksapmin base-27 counting system. The Oksapmin people of New Guinea use body part counting as a base for their numeral system (which may sound wild and exotic, but is really just a more detailed version of what we do, most anthropologists think base-10 number systems come from humans’ having 10 fingers) starting with the thumb, going up the arm and head to the nose (the 14th number) and going down the other side of the body to the pinky finger of the other hand (the 27th number). It does not matter which side you start counting on, so counting from right-to-left or left-to-right makes no difference.
And if that’s not the coolest thing you’ve ever heard, I don’t know what to tell ya
Neural networks can be good at naming things, I’ve discovered. Recently I’ve been experimenting with a neural network called GPT-2, which OpenAI trained on a huge chunk of the internet. Thanks to a colab notebook implementation by Max Woolf, I’m able to fine-tune it on specific lists of data - cat names, for example. Drawing on its prior knowledge of how words tend to be used, GPT-2 can sometimes suggest new words and phrases that it thinks it’s seen in similar context to the words from my fine-tuning dataset. (It’ll also sometimes launch into Harry Potter fan fiction or conspiracy theories, since it saw a LOT of those online.)
One thing I’ve noticed GPT-2 doing is coming up with names that sound strangely like the names of self-aware AI spaceships in Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels. In the science fiction series, the ships choose their own names according to a sort of quirky sense of humor. The humans in the books may not appreciate the names, but there’s nothing they can do about them:
Hand Me The Gun And Ask Me Again
Charming But Irrational
So Much For Subtlety
Experiencing A Significant Gravitas Shortfall
Now compare some of the effects pedals GPT-2 came up with:
Dangerous But Not Unbearably So
Disastrously Varied Mental Model
Dazzling So Beautiful Yet So Terrifying
Am I really that Transhuman
Love and Sex Are A Mercy Clause
And some of the cat names:
Give Me A Reason
Kill All Humans
Did GPT-2 somehow have a built-in tendency to produce names that sounded like self-aware spaceships? How would it do if it was actually trained specifically on Culture ships?
A reader named Kelly sent me a list of 236 of Iain M. Banks’s Culture ship names from Wikipedia, and I trained the 345 million-parameter version of GPT-2 on them. As it turns out, I had to stop the training after just a few seconds (6 iterations) because GPT-2 was already beginning to memorize the entire list (can’t blame it; as far as it was concerned, memorizing the entire list was a perfect solution to the task I was asking for).
And yes. The answer is yes, naming science fiction AIs is something this real-life AI can do astonishingly well. I’ve selected some of the best to show you. First, there are the names that are clearly warship AIs:
Not Disquieting At All
And That’s That!
I Told You So
Friendly Head Crusher
Scruffy And Determined
Race To The Bottom
And there are the sassy AIs:
Absently Tilting To One Side
A Small Note Of Disrespect
Third Letter of The Week
Well Done and Thank You
Just As Bad As Your Florist
What Exactly Is It With You?
Let Me Just Post This
Protip: Don’t Ask
Way Too Personal
Sobering Reality Check
Charming (Except For The Dogs)
The names of these AIs are even more inscrutable than usual. To me, this makes them much scarier than the warships.
Lightly Curled Round The Wrist
Color Gold Normally Comes With Silence
8 Angry Doughnut Feelings
Mini Cactus Cake Fight
Happy to Groom Any Animals You Want
Stuffy Waffles With Egg On Top
Pickles And Harpsichord
Just As Likely To Still Be Intergalactic Jellyfish
Someone Did Save Your Best Cookie By Post-Apocalyptic Means
At least it does sound like some of these AIs will be appeased by snacks.
Bonus content: more AI names, including a few anachronisms (“Leonard Nimoy for President” for example)
In Iceland your last name is determined by your gender; -son for male, -dóttir for female. It is now for the first time legal to have the appellation -bur, "child", for nonbinary.
If I were NB for instance my last name would be Erlingsbur. There you have it!
— Freyja 'Catra' Erlingsdóttir (@FreyjaErlings) June 29, 2019
Dogs are so good! "The researchers hypothesize that the dogs may show greater neural activation to a novel word because they sense their owners want them to understand what they are saying, and they are trying to do so."
They're also so good for being able to sit still in MRI machines, which I didn't even manage when I was 12 and had to do it. :)
When some dogs hear their owners say “squirrel,” they perk up, become agitated. They may even run to a window and look out of it. But what does the word mean to the dog? Does it mean, “Pay attention, something is happening?” Or does the dog actually picture a small, bushy-tailed rodent in its mind?
Frontiers in Neuroscience published one of the first studies using brain imaging to probe how our canine companions process words they have been taught to associate with objects, conducted by scientists at Emory University. The results suggest that dogs have at least a rudimentary neural representation of meaning for words they have been taught, differentiating words they have heard before from those they have not.
“Many dog owners think that their dogs know what some words mean, but there really isn’t much scientific evidence to support that,” says Ashley Prichard, a PhD candidate in Emory’s Department of Psychology and first author of the study. “We wanted to get data from the dogs themselves — not just owner reports.”
“We know that dogs have the capacity to process at least some aspects of human language since they can learn to follow verbal commands,” adds Emory neuroscientist Gregory Berns, senior author of the study. “Previous research, however, suggests dogs may rely on many other cues to follow a verbal command, such as gaze, gestures and even emotional expressions from their owners.”
The Emory researchers focused on questions surrounding the brain mechanisms dogs use to differentiate between words, or even what constitutes a word to a dog.
Berns is founder of the Dog Project, which is researching evolutionary questions surrounding man’s best, and oldest friend. The project was the first to train dogs to voluntarily enter a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner and remain motionless during scanning, without restraint or sedation. Studies by the Dog Project have furthered understanding of dogs’ neural response to expected reward, identified specialized areas in the dog brain for processing faces, demonstrated olfactory responses to human and dog odors, and linked prefrontal function to inhibitory control.
For the current study, 12 dogs of varying breeds were trained for months by their owners to retrieve two different objects, based on the objects’ names. Each dog’s pair of objects consisted of one with a soft texture, such as a stuffed animal, and another of a different texture, such as rubber, to facilitate discrimination. Training consisted of instructing the dogs to fetch one of the objects and then rewarding them with food or praise. Training was considered complete when a dog showed that it could discriminate between the two objects by consistently fetching the one requested by the owner when presented with both of the objects.
During one experiment, the trained dog lay in the fMRI scanner while the dog’s owner stood directly in front of the dog at the opening of the machine and said the names of the dog’s toys at set intervals, then showed the dog the corresponding toys.
Eddie, a golden retriever-Labrador mix, for instance, heard his owner say the words “Piggy” or “Monkey,” then his owner held up the matching toy. As a control, the owner then spoke gibberish words, such as “bobbu” and “bodmick,” then held up novel objects like a hat or a doll.
The results showed greater activation in auditory regions of the brain to the novel pseudowords relative to the trained words.
“We expected to see that dogs neurally discriminate between words that they know and words that they don’t,” Prichard says. “What’s surprising is that the result is opposite to that of research on humans — people typically show greater neural activation for known words than novel words.”
The researchers hypothesize that the dogs may show greater neural activation to a novel word because they sense their owners want them to understand what they are saying, and they are trying to do so. “Dogs ultimately want to please their owners, and perhaps also receive praise or food,” Berns says.
Half of the dogs in the experiment showed the increased activation for the novel words in their parietotemporal cortex, an area of the brain that the researchers believe may be analogous to the angular gyrus in humans, where lexical differences are processed.
The other half of the dogs, however, showed heightened activity to novel words in other brain regions, including the other parts of the left temporal cortex and amygdala, caudate nucleus, and the thalamus.
These differences may be related to a limitation of the study — the varying range in breeds and sizes of the dogs, as well as possible variations in their cognitive abilities. A major challenge in mapping the cognitive processes of the canine brain, the researchers acknowledge, is the variety of shapes and sizes of dogs’ brains across breeds.
“Dogs may have varying capacity and motivation for learning and understanding human words,” Berns says, “but they appear to have a neural representation for the meaning of words they have been taught, beyond just a low-level Pavlovian response.”
This conclusion does not mean that spoken words are the most effective way for an owner to communicate with a dog. In fact, other research also led by Prichard and Berns and recently published in Scientific Reports, showed that the neural reward system of dogs is more attuned to visual and to scent cues than to verbal ones.
“When people want to teach their dog a trick, they often use a verbal command because that’s what we humans prefer,” Prichard says. “From the dog’s perspective, however, a visual command might be more effective, helping the dog learn the trick faster.”
Things that should happen in a Sci-Fi story with a Universal Translator
One character who constantly makes bad puns … except the UT totally fails to translate them. “I guess you could say he … had a bad time”, “Well, I don’t think they’ll be … visiting again any time soon”. There’s some other aliens of the same species who groan every time
A group of aliens who share a common language get into a discussion about grammar … but the UT translates the word they’re arguing about the same way every time. “It looks like they left in a hurry … or is it ‘left’?” “You’re expressing uncertainty, so you have to use the subjunctive form ‘left’” “No, you don’t use the subjunctive here, you’re expressing a deduction based on evidence, so you have to use the deductive form ‘left’” “Wait, you say ‘left’ for the deductive? Are you from the Southern Continent?” “Yes, I am. Wait, what’s it in your dialect?” “We say ‘left’ where I’m from”
A character unexpectedly becomes angry at another character. At the end of the episode you find out that the first character had switched verb forms to a more affectionate form when speaking to the second character and was mad that they were ignoring the obvious indication of their feelings
The captain nearly derails tense diplomatic negotiations because of a UT slip up, inadvertently implying a definite claim to a particular planet, as opposed to a tentative claim subject to negotiation
The crew is visited by a group of aliens whose UT is a few centuries out of date, so they’re greeted with Early Modern English
An alien recites the equivalent of Jabberwocky and the UT just completely gives us “’Twas something and the something something did something and something in the something …”
There’s a book out there that’s either one of the last great unsolved cyphers or a massive medieval hoax. Welcome to the weird world of the Voynich Manuscript. And no, it isn’t solved yet.
If, on Father’s Day,
You’ve found the perfect (or imperfect) gift.
Or sent a card in the nick of time.
If you are lucky and have the gift of time
To spend with someone
Who fills the role of father for you.
Then spare a little time in your thoughts
For the girls who have no daddies,
The boys who no longer have fathers,
All the children who are alone today.
And send some love to the fathers
Who spend today missing their children,
Bearing the pain no parent should ever have to bear,
The heaviest grief, for the loss of their child.
Take a moment to share a little of your love
With everyone who’s struggling,
Or finding today so very hard.
For the fatherless,
and the fathers who are alone today.
You are still loved,
This can still be your day.
Nautilus Magazine has a nice introduction to Proto-Indo-European and sound change. Excerpt:
One of my favorite words is lox,” says Gregory Guy, a professor of linguistics at New York University. There is hardly a more quintessential New York food than a lox bagel—a century-old popular appetizing store, Russ & Daughters, calls it “The Classic.” But Guy, who has lived in the city for the past 17 years, is passionate about lox for a different reason. “The pronunciation in the Proto-Indo-European was probably ‘lox,’ and that’s exactly how it is pronounced in modern English,” he says. “Then, it meant salmon, and now it specifically means ‘smoked salmon.’ It’s really cool that that word hasn’t changed its pronunciation at all in 8,000 years and still refers to a particular fish.”
the jeremy cunt megamix -> pic.twitter.com/hCALNNOSYx
— Hannah Jane Parkinson (@ladyhaja) June 10, 2019
Lane Greene writes:
This has happened an astonishing number of times.
He's considered about the "fourth front-runner" for the Tory leadership (and hence the prime ministership) if such a thing exists. In any case he's prominent enough that we'll hear it a lot more. I tried to explain on Twitter the anticipation effect that makes
"Jeremy Cunt, the culture secretary…"
slightly more likely. But it kept happening when he became health secretary, foreign secretary… Does the fact that it's such a tempting taboo word make this more likely somehow? What's going on?
They're going to be in place to some point between October 31 2019 and June 30 2024. Can't wait to find out who's going to be leading on which issues and sitting on what intergroups...
(Pic: Catherine Bearder's twitter)
im here to announce that the new hot meme is writing textposts in the international phonetic alphabet
ˈɪtəl lʊk ə ˈlɪtəl ˈsʌmθɪŋ laɪk ðɪs. aɪ θɪŋk ðɪs ɪz ˈrɪli ˈgoʊɪŋ tu kæʧ ɑn gaɪz
aɪm ɪntu ɪt
Last year I trained a neural net to generate new names for kittens, by giving it a list of over 8,000 existing cat names to imitate. Starting from scratch, with zero knowledge of English or any context for the words and letter combinations it was trying out, it tried to predict what letters might be found in cat names, and in which order. Its names ranged from the strange to the completely nonsensical to the highly unfortunate (Retchion, Hurler, and Trickles were some of its suggestions). Without knowledge of English beyond its list of cat names, it didn’t know what letter combinations to avoid.
So I decided to revisit the cat-naming problem, this time using a neural net that had a lot more context. GPT-2, trained by OpenAI on a huge chunk of the internet, knows which words and letter combinations tend to be used together on the English-language internet. It also has (mostly) figured out which words and letter combinations to avoid, at least in some contexts (though it does tend to suddenly switch contexts, and then, yikes).
When I trained GPT-2 on the list of cat names using Max Woolf’s colab notebook, it still retained a lot of what it had learned from the rest of the internet. Gone were the strange names like “Tilly-Mapper” and “Balllucidoux” - it had a bunch of real words it could use instead. Here are some of the names it came up with - and the Morris Animal Refuge (who you may remember from that time they used neural net names for their guinea pigs) has given some of these names to some highly adoptable kittens.
First, neural net can do fancy:
M. Tinklesby Linklater Soap
It can also do the opposite of fancy:
Scat Cat Butthole
And it can also do names ranging from tough to downright sinister:
Lillith The Vamp
Romeo of Darkness
Scarlet Be Thy Coat
Kill All Humans
Bones Of The Master
(Starmaker and Sparky Buttons are from a litter that had upper respiratory infections that damaged their eyes, but even though their world is kinda cloudy, they love to play and cuddle.)
I’m a particular fan of the Very Weird cat names:
You’re Telling A Lie
You Name It
EXTAs (Eye Stalks)
Checker Spin Donut Quin
Two Patz Grandpa
Accepted A Tribute
Notable PRODUCT LEGEND Weird Science Platinum
Not Suitable For Character the Enforcer
Did I mention these cats are adoptable? If you live near Philadelphia, you live near these kitties!
Bonus content: yet more cat names!
Andrew, you will like this.
Life is funny. Maybe you've heard. I wasn't sure at first, but now I'm a Believer.
Let's start 650 light years way, in the direction of the constellation Aquarius. There's a star there that is decidedly odd. Called R Aquarii*, it's the swollen hulk of a star that was once much like the Sun, but is now nearing the end of its life. Complicated processes in the core have dumped huge amounts of energy into the outer layers of the star, and when you heat up a gas it expands. But, it gets so big that the amount of energy it emits per square centimeter actually goes down, so its temperature drops as well. Cooler stars emit redder light, so we call these stars red giants.
Some red giants are relative stable, but some are not. They expand and contract, physically getting larger and smaller. A small instability inside the star triggers this pulsing. As they contract they get hotter, which increases pressure inside the star, so it responds by slowing, stopping, and reversing the contraction. But then they get really big, the pressure drops, and they contract again. Lather, rinse, repeat. This back-and-forth can go on for a long time, with cycles lasting about a year or so. The luminosity of the star changes too, sometimes by a factor of a hundred or more!
Stars that change brightness are called variable stars, and ones like these are called Mira variables, after the star Mira, the prototype.
Adding to the confusion is that this red giant is not All Alone in the Dark. It has a companion… and it's good and dead. This also used to be a star like the Sun, but used up all its fuel long ago. It was a red giant for a while, but eventually blew off all its outer layers, revealing the hot, dense core of the star: a white dwarf.
A composite image of R Aquarii in optical light (red) and X-rays (blue); the jets emit X-rays due to the strong magnetic fields present. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/R. Montez et al.; Optical: Adam Block/Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter/U. Arizona
The white dwarf orbits the red giant every 44 years or so, although the exact period is unknown. But they are pretty close together, especially since the red giant is so huge. Even better, the white dwarf doesn't make a Circle Sky; the orbit is elliptical, so sometimes it gets closer to the red giant. When the white dwarf gets close enough, material from the giant falls onto the dwarf. While it's Goin' Down, this matter forms a flat disk called an accretion disk, which slowly feeds the material onto the dwarf's surface.
Because these Unlucky Stars are connected, we call them symbiotic binaries. That's a bit of a misnomer, since the white dwarf doesn't do anything for the red giant. It's really a more of a parasitic binary. #pedantry
Matter blown out by R Aquarii forms thin shells and rings (left, via Hubble). In the very center are twin jets of material blasting out (center), seen even more clearly by the SPHERE instrument on the Very Large Telescope. Credit: ESO/Schmid et al./NASA/ESA
Anyway, not all the material from the red giant hits the dwarf, though. Strong magnetic fields can actually lift this matter off the disk, blowing it away into space in twin beams, up and down relative to the disk. We call these jets, and they can be light years long. R Aquarii has a pair of these jets, and they're curved; this is generally the calling card of precession, a wobbling of the rotational axis of the white dwarf (a top spinning rapidly will appear to slowly wobble due to friction with the table top; this is the same sort of thing). The jets appear to curve due to the Lawn Sprinkler Effect; the gas is blown straight out, but the spinning axis of the dwarf makes them appear to curve over time. Also, the jets are blobby, which means the flow of material isn't smooth, but they're quite long and appear stable, indicating this is a continuous process and has been going on for a long time.
Material from the red giant is still raining down on the white dwarf. As the matter piles up, the intense gravity of the dwarf (hundreds of thousands of times stronger than Earth's) squeezes this stuff mightily. If enough material accumulates, there is so much pressure that it can spontaneously fuse, converting hydrogen into helium… plus a lot of energy. A lot. This is the same reaction that powers hydrogen bombs and stars, so it's a vast amount of energy, and it's released all at once.
The material explodes, blasting off the dwarf's surface and screaming into space. This is what we call a nova.
Surrounding R Aquarii is a complex system of shells and rings of material. This is likely from previous nova events, which, intriguingly, may have been witnessed by Korean astronomers in the years 1073 and 1074 AD.
Once the nova settles down, material starts to flow again, piling up slowly. The jets start back up, but eventually another explosion will occur. And it happens Time and Time Again, so we call these systems recurrent novae.
R Aquarii has a lot of designations. So many Words for one kind of system!
You can actually see the expansion of the material yourself in a before-and-after slider from images taken 15 years apart. I really urge you to go look at that link; it's extremely cool. There's also this nifty short animation:
Cool! It's not too often you can see changes in astronomical objects like this!
So. A while back I was poking around the web looking for images of R Aquarii while doing some reading about symbiotic binaries. One of them stuck out at me because it looked familiar, but not quite right. I clicked on it, and found to my delight that it was a painting of the system done by an artist! It was based on observations done by Hubble not too long after the observatory launched, when the images were still all out of focus. The image was taken in only a single filter, so it should be shown in Shades of Gray, but the press released used "false" color for it:
Not bad, right? A little bit of interpretation there, but I thought it looked OK.
Then I checked the artist's name: Mickey Dolenz.
I laughed out loud! I didn't know Mickey was a painter! It turns out he's done quite a few pieces based on science, mostly microbiology, but in this case he was a Star Collector. Cool.
Still, I wanted to kick myself. A few years back I was at a science fiction convention, and when I walked into the big room where various pop culture celebs and such autograph things, standing right there was Mickey! What Was He Doing Hanging 'Round? I didn't know, but no one was talking to him, so I walked up, introduced myself and chatted with him for a minute. It was great, and he was lovely.
But how I wished I had known he had painted R Aquarii at the time! That would've been amazing to talk to him about it and see why he picked that particular object. If I could've answered any of his questions it would've been a dream come true. I hope I meet him again. Someday, man.
Still, That Was Then, This Is Now. In lieu of talking to him, I get to talk to all of you. If you have questions, leave a comment below! That way It's a Little Bit Me, and A Little Bit You.
In many cases a star in a constellation is given a letter or number designation followed by the genitive case of the constellation's name. For names ending in "us" that's changed to "i," so Aquarius becomes Aquarii, and It's pronounced uh-KWARE-ee-eye. In case you were curious and trying to pronounce it in your head. Other example are Piscium for Pisces, Capricornus for Capricorn, and Jones, Ltd.
Amy Harmon, "Which Box Do You Check? Some States Are Offering a Nonbinary Option", NYT 5/29/2019:
This is the first time that (I noticed that) the NYT used singular they as a reflection of a specific person's pronoun choice — even if it is in an article about non-binary gender options.
In an article titled, Extremist and Disability Chic, academics Kauffman & Badar state: “we do not want disability to be seen as merely another form of good or acceptable diversity”. They argue that disability is inherently ‘bad’, a curse rather than a gift, something to be prevented, cured, segregated and institutionalised.
According to Kauffman & Badar, because I think that my disability is ‘good’, and as it isn’t something I actively seek to ‘cure’, I’m an extremist. Apparently, by celebrating my disability, and claiming that having a disability isn’t a bad thing, I’m advocating a dangerous ‘chic’ fad reminiscent of historic genocide or systematic violent oppression.
Now, unlike Kauffman and Bader, I wouldn’t dictate to anyone how to feel about their disability. I have openly discussed my own problematic process of embracing my visual impairment. I was so deeply in denial that I had sight loss that I completely rejected the word disabled. I refused to identify with a group I perceived as defined by weakness and inability. In short, I’d internalised the very ableism forwarded by Kauffman and Badar that is so pervasive in academic culture.
During nearly a decade at three different red bricks, the exhausting battle to have my access needs met meant that I gave up on asking for support. Of course, there were a few supportive tutors along the way. I ended up pursuing the history of British colonialism not only because the subject interested me, but because I knew I would actually be able to study it. However, overwhelmingly, I got the same message repeated over and again. My needs were inconvenient, my reasonable adjustments were a burden, my disability was unwanted, shameful and problematic. Needing access to a large print photocopy, the lecture notes and powerpoint slides in advance made me unworthy of participation in higher education.
I developed an ultimately harmful series of coping mechanisms to manage the toxic over working culture of PhD life. Without access to the right equipment, long hours staring at Victorian manuscripts left me in agony and contributed to my sight loss. I increasingly overindulged in academic drinking culture to manage the pain and the isolation. I was even too frightened to ask for reasonable adjustments during my viva exam.
I survived and got my doctorate on the other side, the experience left me with chronic anxiety and depression, and a sincerely held belief that I was fundamentally worthless. I honestly believed that because I was disabled I couldn’t have an academic career. I thought I was too broken and flawed to be allowed to pursue the subject I once loved.
However, my experience was not an isolated one. It’s not difficult to find out about ongoing struggles of disabled students and scholars, just read hashtags like #AcademicAbleism or the recent #WhyDisabledPeopleDropOut. Yet, campuses continue to be designed without step free access, laptops are still being banned, accommodations denied and funding cut. Disabled students are still being excluded from the classroom. The lack of awareness training and accountability in the academy mean that hard won access rights are dismissed with the click of an email.
Although the views of Kauffman and Badar are shocking, the fact that this article was published, represents a fundamental problem with academia and higher education. In too many academic institutions, disability is still ‘abnormal’, because including disabled students is considered too much effort. In essence, no one can be bothered to install a ramp at the Ivory Tower.
It was only on leaving academia that I found the support and encouragement to realise my potential as a disabled person. I discovered an online community of disabled people who were confident and positive when talking about their disabilities. Yes, we all share the hard days, the challenges, the exhausting grind against access refusals, discrimination and pain, but ultimately it was a space of acceptance.
Total strangers, often on the other side of the world, told me about the support I deserved, they directed me towards the organisations that could assist me. I finally acknowledged to myself that I was allowed help, and actually that I really needed it. I embraced a mobility aid, and shared my journey with hundreds and then thousands of eager and encouraging friends online. These disabled people who according to Kauffman and Bader have so little in common, uplifted me, educated me, and empowered me. With each step and swish of my white cane, I was more confident, safer and happier.
So now I proudly say, I am disabled. I am not an aberration and I do not seek a cure. My disability is a gift, a gift that it took me far too long to realise that I had. My disability is who I am, and I refuse believe that it makes me bad, wrong or broken anymore.
Alongside other academics & disability activists I’ve written a letter challenging the article, the authors & the journal editor. If you also feel strongly about #AcademicAbleism and want to sign the letter please visit https://ladylikepunk.wordpress.com/2019/05/01/an-open-letter-to-the-editor-of-exceptionality-and-to-prof-kauffman-and-dr-bader/
Thank you to @DisDeafUprising for bringing this article to my attention.
Sē Ænglisc dingua is notuābil for habbing ān terribil wrīting σύστημ. Ān hlot af popul līc tō punct ūt hū inconsistāns hit is, ond 𐍄𐌹𐍂 tō cum upp wiþ ān nīwe σύστημ βάσode on hū wordas son. Hūǣfre, Ænglisc speling is actulīc βάσode on ἐτυμολογί, nāht son. Þǣrfor, sē ideal wrīting σύστημ for Ænglisc wyllode bē ān hwǣr ǣfrǣlc singul word is spelode exactlīc alls hit wæs “origolīc” spelode (alls feor bæc alls wrīten recordas gā, af currō).
Ān af sē þingas þæt īow mæht þenc is xtraneus æt fyrst is þæt sē nīwe σύστημ miscas sēparāl ἀλφάβητas tōgædere. Mǣst af sē tīma, īow’r iūst using Graec διφθέρas wiþin mǣstlīc Latīn text. Occasionallīc, þēah, īow mæht sē wordas līc 〈horde〉 bēing respelode alls “орда”, oþþe 〈karaoke〉 bēing respelode alls “空ὀρχή”. Sumtīmas, īow mæht efen rinn intō bidīrēctiāl text, alls in “الخوارزمic”. Þæt‘s sē megn rationem hwȳ ān simplifode vertiō sceolde eallswā exist.
I can’t decide if I’m angry.
The English language is notable for having a terrible writing system. A lot of people like to punch some inconsistencies it has, and try to come up with a new system based on how words sound. However, English spelling is actually based on etymology, not sound. Therefore, the ideal writing system for English would be a way each single word is spelled exactly as it was originally spelled (as far back as written records go, of course).
A few things you might see is extraneous at first is that the new system merges(?) separate alphabets together. Most of the time, you’re just using Greek letters within mostly Latin text. Occasionally, though, you might see words like “horde” being respelled as <орда>, or “karaoke” being spelled as < 空ὀρχή>. Sometimes, you might even run into direct text, as in < الخوارزمic>. That’s the main reason why a simplified version should always exist.
In the fourth episode of the second half of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Season 1, Ros (during a flash forward helpfully provided by a tarot reader) has been cured of her blindness through surgery. She is so grateful, and so glad to no longer be a blind person, that she decides to give back.
She decides to volunteer at a “home for the blind.” (More on this later, I promise)
She arrives in a small room to find a preteen wearing a stark white blindfold. Presumably, this is where the blind people are kept. (Again, more on this later.)
It’s during this scene (which we’ll come back to later) that she utters my least favorite question, which I hear on average at least once a week.
“I’m so sorry. Can I ask…? Did it happen suddenly? I hope you don’t mind me talking about this, but how did you go blind?”
Ros’ tone is soft. Gentle. Uncompromisingly “polite” even while asking the most probing of questions.
What happened to you? How did you go blind? Was it sudden?
What happened to your eyes?
They are the biological tool with which people see. They are a delicate body part which must be cared for. They are called the windows into the soul.
Eyes are at the very core of talking about blindness, of course, because they are the source of the problem.
There are as many ways to be blind as there are to be people. Thousands of ways in which the eye can be damaged, destroyed, or debilitated.
Like I’ve said before, part of the reason sighted people fear blindness (and by extension, I feel, blind people) so much, is because we never talk about what it’s really like to be blind. There’s little in the way of accurate representation to make us feel anything other than terror when it’s suggested that we will not be able to see.
When we are children, we fear the dark—it is instinct. Even I as a blind child would insist upon a nightlight, or a cassette tape to lull me to sleep. There is definitely something primal in this fear of the dark.
Blindness, more than any other disability, evokes a fear of the unknown. Perhaps it’s because sighted people rely on visual cues to survive. Perhaps it is because as children we hear stories about how what we can’t see can haunt us or even kill us.
It’s why in horror literature, the use of blindness is so frequent. Holes where eyes should be, cataracted “corpse eyes” like my own; there are versions of blindness which only exist in the pages of a horror book, and they are almost without exception deeply damaging to actual blind people, and the perception of the eyes that they either have, or do not have, and the experiences that they have out in the real world as a consequence of these depictions.
The Second Half of Sabrina’s Season Doubled the H*ck Down.
When last we left Ros in the first half of Season 1, Sabrina’s best friend was going blind. In the first installment of this column, I asked questions about how she would prepare for her blind life.
In the newest episodes, we’ve barely seen her when she shows up in the tarot flash forward episode, pulling the blind justice card.
Because of course the blind girl has to pull the blind justice card. Anyway. Ros was considering surgery to fix her sight, and the tarot reader tells her that this is a big decision with consequences.
Ros’ surgery goes perfectly in her flash forward. She can see!
So back to that opening snapshot I gave you.
Ros goes to a Home for the Blind.
It is dank, and weird, and spooky (and of course it’s a spooky flash forward, so okay I can sort of forgive that). But think about it. Close your eyes and really think about what you think a home for the blind would look like.
Does it look scary to you?
Does it look cluttered? Full of furniture a blind person cannot see? Does it seem dark?
That’s what the creators of Sabrina think blind living is like.
I don’t think they’re trying to comment on the deeply unsettling history of disabled institutionalization. If you want to see a real horrorshow, go research places like Willowbrook, places where families would leave their disabled children.
Places where people could forget their disabled children entirely.
But this isn’t commentary, this is full acceptance of the trope that being blind is itself a terror, and that the eyes of the blind can thus be used to evoke dread and horror in the viewer.
When Ros asks the dreaded question of how she went blind, the girl responds rapidly. Her voice grows raspy and full of barbs, and when she removes the white blindfold, she accuses Ros of having taken her eyes—of rendering her blind.
The pinnacle of fear in this sequence is not that Ros’ father, a man of God, used his influence to take someone else’s eyes.
The pinnacle of horror is that there are sockets where the girl’s eyes should be.
Cataracts as Horror
When I was a little girl on the playground, I had a classmate who made the evil eye sign at me. A classmate who, after a while, must have been told by a parent that my eye marked me as something Other.
He’d never had a problem until this moment. He’d never stared at me like I was something evil. Never screamed for me not to touch him.
But now he did.
And that was when I started flinching.
I flinch when I see that the White Walkers on Game of Thrones mostly appear to have cataracts for eyes. I flinch when seers blink and they can see the dead through their white eyes. I flinch when Nell in Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House suddenly has eyes like mine, in some nightmare scenario that the haunting has engendered.
I flinch because I know that when someone who doesn’t know me locks eyes with me across a room, the first thing they think of probably isn’t the ocean, a waterfall, or a storm bent upon the water, as the word “cataract” originally signified. No, what they think of when they see my eye is death.
While yes, the eye does cloud over after death, while yes, the body does change, it is not the same as a cataract, and yet the media has shifted our perception.
I don’t know why we’ve decided that a cataract marks someone as evil, but I do know that media portrays eyes not just as the windows to the soul—but as a marker. As a cheat sheet for whether or not someone is mystical, or even evil, by simply looking someone in the eye.
So okay, you’re reading this and you think “so what if your eyes are like a zombie’s eyes?”
But I’ll flip that around.
What if creators picked only green eyes, or blue eyes, or brown eyes to resemble the eyes of the evil dead?
What if, instead of every time a child saw my eye on public transit and asked me if I was a witch, that reaction was reserved for people who have pupils in both eyes?
What if I never had to answer the question “What happened to you” again?
I think there’s a very deep connection between the media that we see, and how we interact with people in public. I think that when we reserve the cataract for the sole purpose of evoking fear, we’re saying something about what we as a society should do when we see one.
Look into my eye, and tell me—is there evil there? Because when I see it, all I see is me.
Elsa Sjunneson-Henry is a gimlet made from feminism and snark. She’s a deafblind speculative fiction author, and she writes disability focused nonfiction as well. Her work has appeared in Uncanny, Fireside, Tor.com, CNN, and The Boston Globe, and she is a 2019 Hugo Award finalist for Best Fan Writer, as well as a Best Semiprozine Hugo finalist for her work as an editor on Fireside Magazine and Uncanny Magazine’s Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction Special Issue. She writes from a dragon lair in NJ, and can be found on the web @snarkbat and snarkbat.com
Heaven’s Vault is about the thrill and uncertainty of lost knowledge—about connecting to the past and to other people. It’s also about something I’ve never seen a videogame tackle in such detail before: the art of translation, of deciphering old languages and actually listening to what they tell us.
The first artifact you receive in Heaven’s Vault is a broach. It has a brief inscription in a long-forgotten tongue. Protagonist Aliya Elasra specializes in the study of this language. Reaching into her knowledge, you’re given an opportunity to translate it, choosing between a handful of words for each part of the inscription to try to find the most coherent answer. There’s no win or lose here, just your best guesswork. Later, more complex translations will be influenced by your past work, already-translated words appearing whenever you see them. Context you get later on can convince you to retranslate these, and over time, as you discover more artifacts, a more coherent understanding of this old language emerges from your corpus of translated texts.
Here’s a screencap of what the language looks like.
To show this another way, I thought it would be interesting to take a typical article (from a political party’s website, Inuit Ataqatigiit – Community of the People) and look at the word length distribution.
The linked article was 1720 words long, with word lengths between 3 and 38 letters, and an average word length of 13.8 letters. The frequency of word length is shown graphically below:
For comparison, I took an English piece of text of similar length (also a political article from a reputable publication, to try and give a proper comparison) and overlaid the frequency analysis:
Quite a striking difference!
For your amusement, the very top and the very bottom of the Greenlandic word list I used is shown in the table below. Believe it or not, these are all real words and not some kind of cat-based keyboard malfunction!
I understand Tumblr is supposed to be a microblogging site, so I’ve spared you the middle 30 pages of this list…. If anyone is curious about any of the words, I could try and break them down.
(30-odd pages deleted)
For the sake of my inbox, I keep my newsletter subscriptions to a minimum. Ken Grace’s Friends, Romans, countrymen… is one that makes the cut. Running since 2012, it’s a weekly update from New Zealand on ‘language, good writing and communication’, often exploring usage and etymology. So it’s right up my street.
After five years of the newsletter, Grace collected some of its highlights in a book titled Nerds, Snotrils and Ferroequines: A moderately reliable history of interesting words. It offers good humour and common sense about words and language use, written in a friendly, enthusiastic, educational style.
Since I’ve been writing about lost words and difficult words, I’ll mention an usual word to which the book introduced me: micromort. It means a one-in-a-million chance of dying. Driving 370 km in the UK gives you 1 micromort, apparently, as does driving 10 km on a motorbike, taking three flights, or travelling 10,000 km by train.
Grace has opinions about usage, but he knows that’s all they are. He can indulge a pet peeve without being dogmatic about other people’s use of language. Here, for example, is his reaction to a street sign that said Roadworks. Use alternate route:
What the roading company really means, I tell myself grumpily as I watch my fuel gauge plummet, is alternative. … Yet you often hear alternate used to mean alternative. “We’ll have to come up with an alternate plan,” for example. It offends my ear.
But my ear can take a running jump. One accepted definition of alternate (with the stress on the second syllable) is substitute. In fact, an understudy to the first choice actor in the theatre is often called exactly that: an alternate.
When the roading contractor says to use an alternate route, he has – at the very least, and whether he knows it or not – a reasonable case to support that usage, backed up by most dictionaries. Use a substitute route. Why not?
And what gives any dictionary the authority to declare what’s acceptable? Usage. Dictionaries are a reflection of how the language currently sounds and what native speakers regard as acceptable.
Circular as this argument may be, it’s the best we’ve got. Language does not arise out of a series of arbitrary rules, and certainly not out of logic. No, language arises out of custom. If enough people agree on a usage, then that usage is “right”, regardless of what you, I or my ear think.
Quite right, though I would clarify that dictionaries neither have nor would claim ‘the authority to declare what’s acceptable’ – that’s something readers project on them. They record the language, and may add labels to clarify a word’s status. But the authority of dictionaries is a complicated social epiphenomenon.
Friends, Romans, countrymen… seems to have stopped or gone on hiatus: issue 193 from June 2018 is the last one posted. But you can read the full archive or order the highlights in the form of Nerds, Snotrils and Ferroequines. (Disclosure: Grace sent me a copy of his book and said my writing on language influenced his newsletter.)
About those words in the title: Snotrils is what Grace’s nephew called nostrils as a child, and Grace uses the coinage as a peg to write an issue on metathesis: how horse came from hros, bird from brid, and so on. Ferroequinology, meanwhile, is a humorous word used by trainspotters to refer to their field of study – iron horses.
In the United States, men have higher rates of life-threatening health conditions than women — including uncontrolled high blood pressure and heart disease. Recent research published in Socius shows they are also less likely than women to consider becoming vegetarian, and changing these eating habits may be important for their health and for the environment.
To learn more about meat and masculinity, Researchers Sandra Nakagawa and Chloe Hart conducted experiments to test whether a threat to masculinity influences men’s affinity to meat. In one experiment, the researchers told some men their answers from a previous gender identity survey fell in the “average female” range, while others fell into the “average male” range. The authors expected men who received “average female” results to feel like their masculinity was in question, and possibly express stronger attachment to meat on later surveys.
Men who experienced a threat to their masculinity showed more attachment to meat than those who did not experience the threat. They were also more likely to say they needed meat to feel full and were less likely to consider switching to a diet with no meat. This study shows how gendered assumptions about diet matter for how men think about maintaining their health, highlighting the standards men feel they must meet — and eat.
Allison Nobles is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota and Graduate Editor at The Society Pages. Her research primarily focuses on sexuality and gender, and their intersections with race, immigration, and law.
Ladies, if he:
-is really old
-has dubious origins
-has lots of children but never had a partner
-is suspiciously fond of horses
-knows no word for ‘finger’, but two words for ‘to fart’
He’s not your man. He’s Proto-Indo-European.
When the @DrunkAusten account tweeted out “May The Firth Be With You” with this incredible image this morning, I was reminded of the time when Colin Firth dropped by and requested that we rename the behavior where someone glares at you a lot and pretends they don’t even notice you and definitely don’t like you and then hits you out of the blue with “SURPRISE, I LOVE YOU!” feelings from “firthing” to “darcying“? (Whoever arranged this, please know that it made my month, possibly my year).
If you scroll down, you can read the part where people pointed out that he plays other characters who act like this, and Commander Logic and I wrote a bunch of sketch comedy about how other directors try to get Colin Firth to “darcy” in subsequent films. Mine:
When you create something iconic, people want you to do it all the time.
Love Actually Director Richard Curtis, to Mr. Firth: “Colin, I hate to ask you this.”
Firth: “Not again.”
Curtis: “I just need a little bit.”
Firth: “But this guy has nothing to do with Mr. Darcy. Darcy wears puffy shirts. Jamie wears soft turtlenecks that match his eyes. Darcy has never been in love and doesn’t believe in it. Jamie is nursing a heartbreak but he knows that love is theoretically possible. They’re nothing alike! They’re in totally different places in life!”
Curtis: “My dear fellow, I don’t want you to go full Darcy – you don’t have to pretend you smell a fart whenever Aurelia is in the room! I just want a little bit of that glowering thing.”
Curtis: “Howabout a sexy lean?”
Curtis: “Manufactured nonchalance?”
Curtis: “There’s a scene where you have to ask her father’s permission to marry her, and there’s sort of a comedy of errors about that.”
Firth: “I’m calling my agent.”
Curtis: “One smolder.”
Firth: “Just the one?”
Curtis: “My hand to god.”
Firth: “And I can keep the sweater.”
Curtis: “You can keep the sweater.”
Curtis: “Let’s roll it.”
Curtis: *manufactured nonchalance* hm?
Firth: There is a POND?
Curtis: mmmmm, well. It’s more a collected pool, the water is running, you see-
Firth: And you want me to jump into it.
Curtis: The woman jumps in first, and you feel a way about that and-
Firth: Richard. We talked about this.
Curtis: And you said “No ponds.”
Curtis: As anyone can clearly see-
Curtis: The water is running. Into a small pool-
Firth: Richard, no.
Curtis: Colin, YES!
Firth: And I’m to jump into it.
Curtis: THAT’s the spirit!
Firth: The water.
Curtis: THE WATER, YES!
Firth: … I’m keeping the sweater on.
That was a good day and this is why Search Terms posts are some of the best posts. Also, Colin Firth is a brilliant, humane, gifted, wonderful, generous actor and possibly the world’s greatest sport. Like, the greatest sport of all time. I personally thought you were very good in Mama Mia.
While I’m all link-y: If you don’t follow my Patreon, I’ve got two recent pieces that are free to read and share up over there. One is from “The Half-Assed Activist” series, where I write about having depression and anxiety and also navigating the current United States political regime (where depression and anxiety are reasonable reactions). That one’s called “We Have Always Lived In Presidential Primary Season: A Half-Assed Activist Post About Getting Through This Shitshow Without Perpetuating Or Tolerating Bad Behavior And Keeping Some Tiny Spark Of Hope Alive.” It’s equal parts rant, manifesto, and some useful things people might actually do right now if they want to organize politically.
The other post is from today, it’s called Someone I Met Once Who Was Very Good At Their Job, it’s about one of my favorite coworkers of all time, solidarity with your coworkers, and the very end contains the sole justification in the history of the world for the “reply all” email function.
Have a good day, appreciate the people around you who are very good at their jobs, unionize your workplace, and try to share your feelings before you explode and declare your feelings.
Linguistic prescriptivists make terrible zoologists
Actually, you’re not in my book of animals, therefore you aren’t a real animal.
Subspecies? Just a tiger that doesn’t know how to be a proper tiger! So lazy.
That’s a mistake. Your species should only have 9 bands. Educate yourself.