A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for September 2010

[LINK] “‘Genius grant’ a boost to linguist as she revives a native language”

Recently, Language Log linked to a recent article by Boston Globe reporter Laura Collins-Hughes. In it, the article describes how Wampanoag linguist Jessie Little Doe Baird is trying to revive her people’s ancestral language, her efforts winning her a MacArthur Fellows’ genius grant worth a half-million dollars.

When the foundation notified Baird, 46, a Mashpee linguist and the program director of the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, two weeks ago of the fellowship, the honor brought her to tears. As far as she knows, her 6-year-old daughter is the only child since the 19th century raised from birth to speak Wampanoag (or, in that language, Wôpanâak).

[. . .]

Baird, one of the principal authors of a developing 10,000-word Wampanoag-English dictionary, does not view her personal role in reviving the language as critical. Instead, she talks about the benefits of being able to speak the language of her ancestors. “The opportunity to hear what my fifth great-grandfather had to say, even though he’s gone, because he wrote it down, really is a powerful motivation,’’ she said.

The author’s description of Baird’s methods for reconstructing the Wampanoag seems plausible enough, given the inevitable dominance of non-spoken

According to Baird, her ancestors were “the first American Indian people to use an alphabetic writing system,’’ and the first Bible published on this continent — a key document in her research — was printed in 1663 in Wampanoag.

After English missionaries arrived on this continent, the Wampanoag people were quick to realize the power of the written word, Baird said, especially to resolve land disputes with the Europeans. “And so Wampanoag people started to record land transfers, wills, personal letters,’’ she said. The result is what she called “the largest collection of native written documents on the continent.’’

But there are no documents from the second half of the 19th century, which to Baird suggests that Wampanoag disappeared then. Much of her task in reconstructing it as a written and spoken language is a kind of detective work.

[. . .]

Other Algonquian languages that are still spoken, such as Cree and Passamaquoddy, are especially useful for figuring out pronunciation. “If I’m not sure of my vowel in a particular syllable, or my consonant even, then I can appeal to Passamaquoddy and see what’s going on with that word,’’ she said. “I can say, ‘Yes, I was right. That’s the vowel we want in this spot’ or ‘Oh, no, I missed the boat. It’s actually a long A instead of a short A.’ ’’

The commenters at Language Hat comment about the size of the dictionary at ten thousand words: does it include words made to cover items and issues that the Wampanoag would never have imagined (“computer”) or does it include words produced by the Alqonkian languages’ polysynthetic word creation? Likely both, a reliable consensus seems to be. Also, as a commenter notes, Wampanoag has not been spoken in Massachusetts since time immemorial since the entire language family only appeared three or thousand thousand years ago, never mind the vagaries of the migrations and mixings and ultimate arrival times of the Wampanoag ancestors.

There’s also the implicit assumption that this language revival will work. I’m not going to touch this.

Written by Randy McDonald

September 30, 2010 at 11:23 pm

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] On Sinic language conflicts

Open Democracy’s N. Jayaram recently wrote an article describing how the people of Guangdong province successfully resisted the displacement of Cantonese by Putonghua on local television.

It all started with a proposal aired by Ji Keguang, an official of a municipal-level advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, to use Putonghua (Mandarin) in place of Cantonese as the prime time television language in Guangzhou, capital of the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. The reasoning was that as Guangzhou would be hosting the 16th Asian Games from 12 November to 27 November, its television station could reach out to visitors through Putonghua broadcasts.

Knowing that in China a leading cadre’s mere proposal can more often than not translate into an ineluctable command, the public raised their voice in protest. As demonstrations are almost never permitted (except on a few occasions such as when the government needs to send anti-Japanese or anti-US messages) and as organizers can expect swift punishment, many people took to flash-mob style tactics or got onto the internet.

People in Hong Kong, the former British-ruled territory, have fewer restrictions to contend with, however. They have taken to the streets more than once in solidarity with their Cantonese-speaking kin. The press in the Special Administrative Region, as Hong Kong is called since it returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, has been regularly reporting reactions over the contretemps in Guangzhou, 140 kilometres (90 miles) up north.

Although Ji Keguang, the official who started it all, stuck to his guns, claiming that a few people with unspecified “ulterior motives” were behind the adverse reaction, the provincial authorities sought to reassure the public that there was no move to sideline Cantonese.

All too often the Chinese authorities react by clamping down hard on protest activity, however justified or well-founded. In this case, they took care over dousing the fire. A few people were threatened, and reporting within China was muzzled, but by about early to mid-August it was clear that the wishes of the people of Guangdong had prevailed over Ji.

Jayaram suggests that the policy change has much to do with the economic heft (and potentially destabilizing factor) of Guangdong province andthe proximity of wealthy and Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong, which has developed a written Cantonese that admittedly hasn’t caught on outside of Hong Kong in other Cantonese-speaking areas and communities.

Notwithstanding this success, the fate of Cantonese may be limited. Last year I suggested that the vast urbanization of Chinese peasants, by bringing very large numbers of people speaking various dialects into wealthier areas where other Chinese regional languages like Cantonese and Shanghainese have traditionally predominated, may encourage a shift towards Putonghua away from these regional languages. Even Cantonese, with its extensive influence in the realm of popular culture–Cantopop music, for instance–seems threatened.

Like most of China’s dialects, Cantonese is indecipherable to the majority of Chinese speakers born in other linguistic areas. However, young people in urban China have a tenuous grasp of it thanks to wildly popular “Canto-pop” musicians and their preference for watching entertaining Hong Kong soaps and dramas on the Internet instead of the fare of period and patriotic dramas offered up on Mainland television.

Putonghua, which is the language of education across China, is broadly based on the Beijing dialect and is spoken by an estimated 900 million people.

Experts say it is slowly, but surely, replacing local dialects as the “mother tongue” in many regions, particularly in the big cities and industrial areas where the influx of migrant workers from all over China often makes it the only “common” tongue people share.

The relative indifference of Cantonese speakers to the preservation of their language also is a factor. Why go to great efforts to protect it when it’s assumed that the language of the community will persist indefinitely, while learning other languages–chief among them Putonghua–is a necessary skill? Surely the language of home will persist. Right?

Chen blames the current crisis over Cantonese on government indifference, but also on the attitude of parents.

“Locals should maintain passing on our language and culture. Nowadays, some young parents are proud if their children can speak fluent Mandarin or English. However, they don’t take importance to passing on the Cantonese dialect. They consider fluent Mandarin or English as special skills, which they can show off. While Cantonese as a daily language, they don’t pay much attention,” Chen said.

Similar attitudes contributed to the eclipse of the regional languages of France over the 19th and 20th centuries, with younger generations of speakers of Breton and Provençal and Flemish and Italian learning the high-status language, the language of upwards mobility, and left–if not their communities–their low-status language behind. In China, the matter may be complicated by the definition of Cantonese and Shanghainese as “dialects,” i.e. as variations on a common language, as opposed to being full-fledged languages in themselves. (If that’s actually how these languages are identified in China as in the West, mind. Are they?)

It’s a bit odd to realize that the Cantonese language, a language that’s supposed to be the primary language of 70 million people within and without Guangdong province, heir to a vast historic and current array of cultural artifacts, the language of the first Chinese that many Westerners encountered, even, might be replaced so thorroughly that it may disappear even in the Chinatowns founded by Cantonese-speaking migrants.

Written by Randy McDonald

September 30, 2010 at 6:31 pm

[MUSIC] David Bowie, “Alabama Song”

“David Bowie’s diet in late 1975 consisted of peppers, milk and cocaine,” a recent article on his Thin White Duke phase begins. When he recorded Station to Station in 1975, Bowie “was rake thin, obsessed with European electro- pop and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and seeing visions as he stumbled into a Los Angeles studio,” also “[s]taying up for days on amphetamines.” By the time of his performance below of the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill 1927 classic “Alabama Song” in 1978, he had thankfully moved beyond that nadir, but not too far beyond.

It’s the sort of song that I can really imagine only Bowie performing as a pop single. Wikipedia claims (likely rightly, given the size of Bowie’s Internet-using fanbase) that the song was included in (among other works) “Weill’s and Brecht’s 1930 opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. In the latter, it is performed by the character Jenny and her fellow prostitutes in the first act.” Bowie included this song in his 1978 world tour, and released as a single in the United Kingdom in 1980 where it actually reached #23 on the charts. I first heard it as one of the bonus tracks on his fabulous 1980 Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), listening in my bedroom at some point in the late 1990s.

It was a creepy experience. The beat’s, well, creepy and shifting and ominous, and the chirping chorus is as offsetting. And the lyrics (originally in English, actually)!

Oh show me the way to the next whisky bar
oh don’t ask why, oh don’t ask why
For we must find the next whisky bar
or if we don’t find the next whisky bar
I tell you we must die
I tell you we must die
I tell you
I tell you
I tell you we must die

Oh moon of Alabama it’s time to say good bye
We’ve lost our good old mama
And must have whisky or you know why

The above isn’t that unusual, to be sure. But by the end, it’s profoundly, um, unheimlich.

Oh show us the way to the next little girl
oh don’t ask why, oh don’t ask why
For we must find the next little girl
or if we don’t find the next little girl
I tell you we must die
I tell you we must die
I tell you
I tell you
I tell you we must die

Oh moon of Alabama it’s time to say good bye
We’ve lost our good old mama
And must have little girl or you know why

Oh moon of Alabama it’s time to say “auf wiedersehen”
We’ve lost our good old mama
And must have little girl or you know why
you know why
you know why

This song–which I like, not least since Bowie does the unheimlich quite well indeed– has two associations for me.

Firstly, whenever I think of the state of Alabama, this song is the first thing I associate with the name; Nazi war criminals building rockets for the United States come second. This creates a–I don’t know if you’d call it a bias, but it certainly makes my perspectives on the state off-kilter. As you can imagine.

Secondly, this song reminds me of why we love David Bowie. Even recovering from his nadir–even at his nadir–he’s more than capable of creating and/or discovering and certainly performing songs of a certain eccentricity and a definite mass appeal. I like Bowie’s cover of “Alabama Song,” I do. And you?

Written by Randy McDonald

September 30, 2010 at 1:38 pm

[LINK] “Germany to settle outstanding WWI debt”

Huh. For some reason, I’d thought the payments were cancelled altogether after the Second World War, although that assumption doesn’t make sense given the decidedly anti-German sentiment of the time.

The last installment will be paid on Oct. 3, as the country makes good on a 1953 international agreement, Germany’s Office for Central Services and Unresolved Property Issues said Thursday .

Germany issued several series of bonds in the 1920s and ’30s to help pay for WWI reparations demanded by the victorious Allies and to bolster its economy. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, they suspended all payments.

Following World War II, Germany worked together with the United States, Britain and other European nations to hammer out an international agreement known as the 1953 London Treaty that stipulated how Germany should repay its outstanding debts, including the old bonds.

The treaty dictated that holders of bonds were to bring them in to be reissued so that they could be reimbursed. It also allowed for payment on the outstanding interest accrued from the end of the war in 1945 to the year the treaty was formalized in 1953– roughly euro150 million ($200 million) — to be suspended until Germany reunified and then paid in installments over 20 years.

“The sum is actually not so large that it couldn’t have been paid off directly following reunification,” said Axel Hermann of the Office for Central Services and Unresolved Property Issues. “But Germany stuck to the London Treaty.”

Written by Randy McDonald

September 30, 2010 at 10:12 am

[BLOG] Some Thursday links

  • Arctic Progress celebrates the rise of the Arctic as a human-populated and -used sea.
  • The Burgh Diaspora doesn’t mind photography and film which focus on Detroit’s urban ruin; after all, they inspire people to come to the city in the first place.
  • Eastern Approaches examines how Montenegrin prime minister Milo Djukanović’s extended stay in office, perhaps to escape potential prosecution for criminal charges in Italy, works alongside Western tolerance for local corruption.
  • Geocurrents maps the huge, yawning gaps in economic output between China’s different provinces.
  • Joe. My. God reports that famed GLBT human rights activist Peter Tatchell’s home has received a Blue Plaque commemorating his achievements, perhaps because of his refusal of state honours.
  • Slap Upside the Head commemorates the Sacred Band of Thebes, an elite military formation from 4th century Thebes composed of pairs of same-sex lovers.
  • This Volokh Conspiracy post may well represent American frustration with European Union data protection legislation.
  • Window on Eurasia looks at the story of a Tajik mullah trained across the Middle East, now working in Tatarstan.

[PHOTO] Wading pool, Scarborough Civic Centre

Originally uploaded by rfmcdpei

The centrepiece of the Scarborough City Centre district, a constructed downtown for the easternmost former borough of Toronto that also includes the Scarborough Town Centre shopping mall (home to the Scarborough Walk of Fame) and the Scarborough Centre TTC station, is the Scarborough Civic Centre. Designed by Japanese-Canadian architect Raymond Moriyama and unveiled in 1973, the Civic Centre was the city hall for once-autonomous Scarborough and is still a regional administrative complex for east-end Toronto. As Enzo di Matteo wrote in NOW Magazine, this part of the complex is actually quite attractive, well-designed and well-spaced. Andrew pointed out this wading pool to me, fed by waterfalls and located off to one side of the entrance. It was nice indeed.

For comparison, Flickr user mtlicq posted a picture showing people skating on the pool in winter.

Written by Randy McDonald

September 30, 2010 at 1:36 am

Posted in Assorted

[LINK] “Ontario Tories, NDP smell blood as Liberal support falls”

An implicit reason for the appeal of George Smitherman as Toronto mayor is the fact of his past service in the Liberal Party government of Ontario, indeed as a close partner of Premier Dalton McGuinty. It’s been eight years since the Liberals were elected, however, and some polls indicate that his government may fall in next year’s elections.

Premier Dalton McGuinty’s main rivals say a new poll showing 76 per cent of Ontarians want a new government reflects the restlessness across the province.

The Toronto Star-Angus Reid survey also suggested 86 per cent of voters feel it is harder to make ends meet now than it was two years ago and 71 per cent fear Ontario “is on the wrong track.”

“As I travel across the province … people can no longer afford the Dalton McGuinty government,” Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak said Tuesday.

“People are increasingly frustrated and tired of getting nickel-and-dimed to death. Every time they turn around, Dalton McGuinty is whacking them with some new tax increase, hydro rate increase or user fee. Families just can’t afford it anymore and that’s why they want change,” he said.

Of decided voters, 41 per cent supported Hudak compared to 29 per cent for McGuinty’s Liberals, 22 per cent for NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, and 8 per cent for Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner.

The online survey of 805 people, conducted Sept. 21-22, is considered accurate to within 3.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

It’s an online survey, mind, and it is a year to the next election. Nevertheless.

Written by Randy McDonald

September 29, 2010 at 9:28 pm

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[LINK] “Odds of Life on Newfound Earth-Size Planet ‘100 Percent,’ Astronomer Says”

The planetary system of Gliese 581, a dim red dwarf a mere 20 light years away, has become still more exciting: astronomers think that they have found Gliese 581g, a roughly Earth-sized planet located squarely in its parent star’s habitable zone

An Earth-size planet has been spotted orbiting a nearby star at a distance that would makes it not too hot and not too cold — comfortable enough for life to exist, researchers announced today.

“Personally, given the ubiquity and propensity of life to flourish wherever it can, I would say, my own personal feeling is that the chances of life on this planet are 100 percent,” said Steven Vogt, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, during a press briefing today. “I have almost no doubt about it.”

His colleague, Paul Butler of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, in Washington, D.C., wasn’t willing to put a number on the odds of life, though he admitted he’s optimistic.

[. . .]

Estimates suggest Gliese 581g is 0.15 astronomical units from its star, close enough to its star to be able to complete an orbit in just under 37 days. One astronomical unit is the average distance between the Earth and sun, which is approximately 93 million miles (150 million km).

The Gliese 581 planet system now vaguely resembles our own, with six worlds orbiting their star in nearly circular paths.

[. . .]

Gliese 581g has a mass three to four times Earth’s, the researchers estimated. From the mass and size, they said the world is probably a rocky planet with enough gravity to hold onto an atmosphere.

Just as Mercury is locked facing the sun, the planet is tidally locked to its star, so that one side basks in perpetual daylight, while the other side remains in darkness. This locked configuration helps to stabilize the planet’s surface climate, Vogt said.

“Any emerging life forms would have a wide range of stable climates to choose from and to evolve around, depending on their longitude,” Vogt said, suggesting that life forms that like it hot would just scoot toward the light side of that line while forms with polar-bear-like preferences would move toward the dark side.

Between blazing heat on the star-facing side and freezing cold on the dark side, the average surface temperature may range from 24 degrees below zero to 10 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 31 to minus 12 degrees Celsius), the researchers said.

Vogt’s enthusiasm about the possibility of life on Gliese 581g may be a bit much. May; I’ve a weakness for tidelocked worlds and I’m inclined myself to believe in the ubiquity of life.

Written by Randy McDonald

September 29, 2010 at 8:01 pm

[URBAN NOTE] On Smitherman’s calculated rise

As the National Post‘s Chris Selley writes, the decision of Sarah Thomson to end her campaign and support Smitherman for the explicit reason that he’s not Ford may well end in Smitherman’s election, despite Ford’s simple populist message (as described by Gerald Hannon at Toronto Life).

[A] Global News Ipsos Reid poll released on Monday showed Mr. Smitherman within five points of Mr. Ford — just .1% outside the margin of error. Break the numbers down according to how likely respondents were to vote, and you find reason to believe the Anyone But Ford movement is indeed coalescing around Mr. Smitherman: He actually leads among respondents who say they’re “absolutely certain” to vote. If it was in fact a two-man race, Mr. Smitherman would win by three points over Mr. Ford; among “absolutely certain” voters, he’s ahead by a whopping 20.

These polls aren’t statistically comparable, and this narrative might not survive the next one. But if it’s basically true, Mr. Smitherman suddenly has his hands on a pretty useful, middle-of-the-road platform.

Crucially, he’s fiscally hawkish: His balanced budget plan, released on Monday, isn’t a thousand miles away from Mr. Ford’s. (It just isn’t Mr. Ford’s, which is the name of the game.) For example, Mr. Smitherman promises $332-million in savings by 2014 from a three-out/two-in attrition plan for municipal employees.

[. . .]

Mr. Smitherman has appealing little sound bites to toss out in various directions. He’s gay, meaning he has “an identification with minorities.” But he’s also the “son of a trucker,” so he’s a bit salty and fanatically opposed to Toronto’s world-beating gridlock.

He’s got a hodgepodge of non-ideological positions on lots of minor issues. There isn’t much room on the left between him and Joe Pantalone on the environment and the arts, and he supports the fair wage policy that means all city projects get built at unionized labour rates. But hey, at least he wouldn’t pay a premium for locally produced infrastructure like streetcars and subway trains. He is clearly not altogether comfortable with the Port Authority’s tunnel to the Island Airport, which you might think is nuts, but at least he can live with it. He knows we’ve got bigger fish to fry.

Suffice it to say, Tomasz Bugajski’s blogTO post explaining his decision to engage in strategic voting is going to be highly prominent in my mind. Vote Smitherman, everyone! Vote Smitherman, and avert a terrible, terrible fate for Toronto!

It might be time to start supporting someone, though this raises a serious question for me and others in my position: do we just suck it up and vote for whoever has the best chance of beating the candidate we don’t like? Or do we stick to our principals and only vote for the candidate who truly inspires us?

Unfortunately, following the second choice would mean rarely or never voting. It would also mean I’d have to disengage from the political process whenever it didn’t reflect my exact needs.

It could be said that casting the wrong strategic vote is worse than casting the wrong honest vote. If your strategic choice turns out badly — particularly if you didn’t fully support the candidate in the first place, you might feel especially responsible. The wrong honest vote, on the other hand, is done from the heart and can’t be blamed on an irresponsible gamble.

Despite this, I think it’s important to take the risk. It’s better than backing off and letting others make decisions for you. Though ideology will play a role in my decision (it would be hard for me to back a staunch conservative in general), I’m mostly concerned that Ford lacks the competence and leadership skills to run a city as complex as Toronto. Not only are his numbers are often wrong — one small example being the Jarvis bike lanes that he said cost $6 million while the real price tag was closer to $60,000 — but his track record shows no serious accomplishments over his ten years on council (although, I’ll admit a Ford supporter might disagree with that last evaluation).

Did I mention that you should vote for Smitherman in the upcoming mayoral elections? Seriously.

Written by Randy McDonald

September 29, 2010 at 10:58 am

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[PHOTO] Another look east along Bloor through the Annex

Another look east along Bloor through the Annex
Originally uploaded by rfmcdpei

What the title says.

Written by Randy McDonald

September 29, 2010 at 9:22 am