Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Disingenuous IT workers, incomplete tech knowledge

Ars Technica reported on the trial of substitute teacher - rather, former substitute teacher Julie Amero, and Alex Eckelberry's attempt to save her from fraudulent charges and accusations.

To bottom line it, the case came about because Amero had porn popups ravage her classroom's computer, and didn't turn off the computer immediately, instead running to the teacher's lounge for help. Her lack of sense in leaving the computer running is overwhelming, I'm still surprised by this sort of lack of ability in today's world, but I can hardly fault her for it. Some teachers are simply from a different generation and haven't felt the need to learn even basic computer knowledge.

What makes me angry is the dubious testimony of the school's IT manager, and the misuse of information by the prosecution. The school's IT manager was by all accounts extremely lazy - outdated virus software, expired content filtering on the network, Windows 98 in the year 2004? Seriously?

And then to have the prosecution mislead a technically ignorant jury into a false conviction is just pathetic. Unfortunately, jury members are usually chosen, rather than dismissed, for their ignorance. Why can't the prosecution be expected then, to get their facts straight before sending an innocent women to the proverbial gallows? They were just doing their job, right? I've heard too many stories about teachers taking abuse at the hands of parents and their mindless, uninformed rage.

A tired, overstressed substitute teacher takes a fine to just get the trial over with, even though the conviction was overturned due to new evidence from Eckelberry, and a lazy IT worker doesn't get the bad attention and discrediting he deserves. Thanks, justice system.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Comedy and wordplay

So many great plays on words in this clip:

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Linguists!

Do yourself a favor - go to thelinguists.com and watch the trailer!

Never mind that the percentage of linguists that do anything resembling field work is exceedingly small. Let the glory of documenting near-extinct languages wash over you!

Sadly, I had no idea about this film and missed the one Chicago screening of it, I'll have to wait til February to see it.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Achievement Unlocked: Take the GRE and not bomb it!

Another step taken on the road to (hopefully) grad school. I don't think I did badly, but we'll see when those analytical writing scores come in!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Cliché alert: Yes We Did!

Election night at Grant Park was nearly overwhelming. The reaction of the huge (125k people strong) crowd, the exceptional speeches by both McCain and Obama, and the step forward socially made for an unbelievable night.

I allowed myself to be positive and optimistic for one night, but the next day I was reminded that America is still only taking baby steps. While some bigots, such as Elizabeth Dole, were replaced, many others were not, such as Michelle Bachmann. Let's not forget the most depressing, telltale sign: proposition 8 was passed in California.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Where creationists have already lost the battle

Excellent set of two posts at NeuroLogica Blog about materialism, and how it's "under attack," here and here.

Materialism, for those that haven't heard the term, is the philosophy that the natural world around us has only a material aspect; there are no non-material causes present in the physical world. Novella here refers to the opposing side as anti-materialists, although I prefer the term Dualism: the belief in non-material causes in the natural world.

Intelligent Design proponents, creationists in disguise, have been trying to drive their ideological, religious wedge wherever they perceive a weak spot in scientific theory. The materialist philosophy in neuroscience is one of those perceived weak spots.

Novella does a great job of pointing out why it isn't a weak spot, and then goes on to comment on the general strategy of ID:

But the anti-materialists (really anti-naturalists) want to resurrect this fight, and since they cannot win it in the arena of science they want to fight it in the arena of public opinion and then the legal and academic realms.

Materialism and philosophy of the mind are fascinating subjects, and there will be posts to come about them, but in this post I wanted to talk about ID strategy.

I just can't understand why creationists and Intelligent Design proponents refuse to see their strategies as deceptive and flawed. They've been swatted down by courts frequently; their approach is fundamentally flawed in regards to science. So they appeal to public opinion with selective circumstantial "evidence." They hide religious ideology under a rug: the nameless Designer. I find the idea - trying to slip a deity into our science classrooms under the cover of night - extremely discomforting. Why are the Ken Hams and Kent Hovinds of the world so ready to deceive in the name of their faith, when confronted with the reality of their own bad science?

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Natural speakers, new words

I heard a new word yesterday! Well, not exactly. The thing is, I've heard it before several times throughout my lifetime, but the frequency was spaced so far apart that I never devoted the memory resources to cataloging it away in the mental archives. Oh, brain, you're such a fickle organ.

However, I heard it twice last night. The first time it was mentioned, my mind became vaguely aware of its general meaning. The context wasn't robust enough to give me confidence enough to use it myself. Still, I subconsciously filed it away for future reference.

If it had been like so many of those other times when a word is heard once, then not heard again for months, it might have been completely lost; but randomness intervened, and gave it to me once again, hours later. Again, the word was used in context that by itself would not have been enough information about the definition to use. But my subconscious intervened and put the two contexts together, forming a rugged outline of a definition that I would be comfortable using, and inserted the word into my mental dictionary, hopefully for some time to come.

That my definition of the word may actually be slightly, or largely different from the users I've heard use the word is another topic...

Monday, October 27, 2008

What an exciting week we have ahead of us

As time runs short 'til Election Day, we find ourselves at a seemingly bright outlook, a much brighter outlook than I had planned on, anyways.

Obama may not be the best candidate ever (how vague can I be here, right?), but he is leaps and bounds ahead of what I see coming from the current GOP.

It's been very entertaining to watch the Republican campaign of Senator McCain and Gov. Palin tear itself apart. Apparently, McCain and Palin barely speak to each other, and there have even been remarks about her going "rogue" lately, she and her supporters are apparently grooming her for a later run in politics and a possible presidential campaign. Now there's a scary thought - can you imagine the colossal step backwards the country would be taking?

But those thoughts are best left for crossing that bridge, and hoping that the American people can cross that bridge without falling off, when we get there.

Seven days now til election day. While I hold no grand delusions of this intangible "hope" or "change" that Obama's campaign has for sale, I do think that he will be far and away the better choice for this country's presidency. He seems to exude calm and rationality, and here's hoping that this is the real Obama.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Word frequency: debate edition

Mark Liberman over at Language Log put up a great word frequency comparison for the Presidential debates, and I won't rehash the story too much, here is the part I found particularly interesting...

Here's some more data — a comparison of counts across all three debates for if (at least according to the CNN transcripts):

(if) Obama McCain
Debate 1 20 19
Debate 2 37 22
Debate 3 44 14

And for some:

(some) Obama McCain
Debate 1 25 6
Debate 2 22 20
Debate 3 34 11

Given a set of observations like this, we could come to several different sorts of conclusions.

Maybe it's a meaningless, random statistical fluctuation. After all, there are lots of words, and people vary randomly in how often they choose different words on different occasions, and the way I've gone about this analysis is likely to turn up some differences that arise purely by chance.

Then again, maybe the difference (between individuals or across occasions) is real, but reflects a stylistic difference in the way messages are framed (e.g. "If we want to do X, we need Y" versus "In order to do X, we need Y"), rather than a difference in the underlying distribution of messages. If the difference is a stylistic one, it might be a stable feature of the different individuals involved, or it might reflect a more temporary priming effect, whether lexical or semantic or rhetorical.

Or perhaps the observation reflects a genuine difference in the kinds of ideas that the two candidates are presenting, or at least the spin they want to put on these ideas.

Certainly the first solution, statistical fluctuation is a probability, and I don't have the tools to rule it out. I do think stylistic differences contribute to this though. McCain wants his campaign to appear to take a hard line on some issues - first one that comes to mind might be the issue of talking to Iran only with preconditions:

McCain - "We will only talk with Iran with preconditions in place."
Obama - "If the situation warrants it, we may have to talk with Iran without preconditions."

(note that I have no idea if this is exactly what was said, but just providing an example of what I think they might be saying)

But I think the kind of ideas they're presenting bleeds into the stylistic issue. I don't think these two solutions are greatly seperated - if the Obama is the kind of person that will review all of the information time and time again to make a good decision on an issue, he might like to qualify it by using "if" conditions and the like. McCain may be close to the hotheaded candidate that the left is trying to portray him as, and he may be sure enough of himself to make those snap decisions, and is happy to portray himself as overly assertive. After all, quite a few Americans will find that a strength, rather than a weakness, and that's a discomforting thought.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

How the mind deals with ceasing to exist

Read an interesting article over at Scientific American today, here's the link.

Here are a couple blurbs that will sum it up, although I recommend reading the full article:

And yet people in every culture believe in an afterlife of some kind or, at the very least, are unsure about what happens to the mind at death. My psychological research has led me to believe that these irrational beliefs, rather than resulting from religion or serving to protect us from the terror of inexistence, are an inevitable by-product of self-consciousness. Because we have never experienced a lack of consciousness, we cannot imagine what it will feel like to be dead. In fact, it won’t feel like anything—and therein lies the problem.

I've been thinking along that route for some time now. An afterlife myth is more or less common to every culture (correct me if you know one that is without one). In anthropological terms, that means we may be able to find a prevailing structure in the mind that gives rise to these beliefs.

On the one hand, then, from a very early age, children realize that dead bodies are not coming back to life. On the other hand, also from a very early age, kids endow the dead with ongoing psychological functions. So where do culture and religious teaching come into the mix, if at all?

In fact, exposure to the concept of an afterlife plays a crucial role in enriching and elaborating this natural cognitive stance; it’s sort of like an architectural scaffolding process, whereby culture develops and decorates the innate psychological building blocks of religious belief. The end product can be as ornate or austere as you like, from the headache-inducing reincarnation beliefs of Theravada Buddhists to the man on the street’s “I believe there’s something” brand of philosophy—but it’s made of the same brick and mortar just the same.

There are many ideas that have arisen as similar by-products. Old views that the we on the earth were the center of the universe were handy for our ego-centric minds. Astrology might have been birthed of the mind's incessant need to provide structure and predictability to an otherwise stressed and unstable existence. Marriage is almost certainly a by-product of sexual selection mating behaviors.

Much of Evolutionary Psychology is still fairly young research, I can't wait to see where this all goes.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

LOLcats and Memes

I was reading an article on MSN today about the LOLcats phenomenon, and Internet Memes in general. Here's the full story.
"At this point you may be wondering what memes mean and what purpose they serve the user. After deep consideration and analysis, we’ve arrived at this conclusion: very, very little. At best they provide some fodder for a slack-time surf on the Web when everyone thinks you’re getting some work done. Memes are made by people who have lots of time to kill, for other people who don’t."
I don't think they did very much deep consideration and analysis. The author had gone so far as to define a meme in the article by bringing up how Richard Dawkins coined the word for The Selfish Gene, yet understanding that, they ascribe little or no 'meaning' or 'purpose' (his words) that these memes have to the user.

I'd have to emphatically disagree - Memes make up every bit of cultural information there ever was. They make up business, politics, comedy, religion, and the list goes on.

We're seeing these memes penetrate culture, just as the story of Buddha, or Jesus, or Calvin and Hobbes once did. Rickrolls have inundated the Internet, and from there, real life. I've heard of two friends rickrolling their own weddings, and (I think) it was the Yankees that had their game Rickrolled on a giant screen. Rickroll, or Rickrolling, is now a part of speech, just as "to Google" became a part of speech years ago. I talked in a previous post about how LOLcat speech has started to become a part of language as well, rare as it may be.

These memes may not be physically in print, but they're just as real as the memes that can birth new systems of thought - at the most basic level, what's the difference between linking a LOLcat around and proclaiming to your friends that Scientology is real? Both should get a great laugh, but in the end, the users of the memes decide whether they have meaning and purpose. If you measure in terms of mass propogation, it seems like LOLcats and Rickrolls are quite meaningful.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


I have this little cutout posted in my cubicle of a gas price sign (the type you'd normally see outside of a gas station). It looks a little like this:

(picture to come later)

LOL 9/10
OMG 9/10
WTF 9/10

When describing the sign in conversation, I noticed that I had a tendency to say OMG and LOL as the letters, what WTF I tend to speak the phrase it stands for. I wonder if my mind has seperated OMG and LOL into seperate morphemes, but hasn't done the same with WTF?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

"That I is."

I overheard this in conversation at a Gamestop today. No joke.

It was a transformation of the phrase "That I am," a phrase which although not heard too much these days, isn't that uncommon, either.

I can't believe I didn't take the opportunity to ask him why he used "is" there. It felt like something straight out of I Can Has Cheezburger, and I can't help but think it was a reference to a meme.

It's fascinating how the internet memes are helping to evolve our everyday English. Yes, "That I is" sounds terrible to today's English speakers - but what about the coming generation? Will they chuckle the first few times they hear it, and then gradually get accustomed to the meme talk of their interwebs?

See what I did thar?

Fundamentalism and Exclusion

Fundamentalism is all about exclusion, not inclusion. Let's disregard for a moment the obvious exclusionary views of the Old Testament, and focus on the teachings of Jesus in the New. Actually, we'll have to go farther than that, we'll have to disregard various remarks from Jesus about saving the Jews only.

But let's assume the teachings of Paul, rather than Jesus, stand true. That Jesus Christ came to save mankind. Why do Fundamentalists make such an effort to exclude the rest of mankind? They are not to befriend unbelievers, and are never to even so much as think about entering a relationship with "heathens," as it was put so kindly by a Fundamental Preacher that I once met.

As a Fundamental, the most you can do is to "reach out" to unbelievers with your preaching, a manner which is hardly going to persuade the larger percentage of the population that your God is a loving God. So why the barrier of exclusion?

Speaking as a former follower of Baptist Fundamentalism, those barriers exist to protect an entrenched mind, to keep a belief system in place that is no longer compatible with the world we live in today.

If your God really has the power to sway minds, to make himself obvious to the "hearts of men," why be so scared of befriending unbelievers?

This is all just part of the philosophy of Fundamentalism that I could no longer agree with. The literal take of the Bible just doesn't work, with the numerous contradictions within the texts.

There's a time when everyone is forced to come face to face with reason; they can either abandon it by several methods, or they can embrace it and deal with the consequences that come to them. However, due to the nature of our imperfect world, not everyone will be forced to have the same bout with reason. One person may have a much tougher struggle with it than the next person.