December 24, 2010

Happy Holidays!

If you had 40,000 pipe cleaners, what would you do with them? Why, invite over some 80 friends and build a 4-foot holiday sculpture of First Dog Bo, of course.


December 21, 2010


You've probably seen this video (recorded in a Canadian mall on Nov. 13, 2010). More than 26 million people have by now (assuming that each view corresponds to an individual viewer).

My first thought was that all the singers were members of a choir engaged in some sort of social experiment, but no, it was a so-called "flash-mob concert," "when groups of people - often strangers - conspire on social networking websites to turn up at the same place at the same time and start singing". That's an established activity? With a name? (I'm so behind!)

In any case, not all flash-mob concerts have joyful endings. This one didn't: 5000 people had turned up to sing, which caused the building to creak. Everybody had to be evacuated. The "mob" continued the performance outside.

December 16, 2010

WOTY: There's a word for that

What do these two pictures have in common? They illustrate two potential "Words of the Year."

Soon the American Dialect Society will pick its words of the year. I asked some of my students what their choices would be. Here are some of their answers from technology, pop culture, and technology:
Do you still remember? Last year's choice was "tweet" and the year before it was "bailout." If there is an established pattern to pick terms from technology in uneven years and terms from politics in even years, my money is on Tea Party. Appy Holidays! (No, not a holiday wish spoken with a charming French accent, rather an advertisement for apps that run on Android phones.)

December 14, 2010

"Gifts for she"

I can't really make sense of this. Is there something I'm missing, or is this just a blatantly ungrammatical slogan? Is this what the company means by "do something creative every day?"

What's on your Kindle?

When a friend recently asked me about the advantages of reading books on a Kindle, I jokingly said that you could read trashy novels in public (think 'subway') and nobody would know about it. Turns out that that is exactly what people are doing:
If the e-reader is the digital equivalent of the brown-paper wrapper, the romance reader is a little like the Asian carp: insatiable and unstoppable. Together, it turns out, they are a perfect couple. Romance is now the fastest-growing segment of the e-reading market, ahead of general fiction, mystery and science fiction, according to data from Bowker, a research organization for the publishing industry.
Some people, apparently, enjoy hiding their books from a rather specific audience:
“We’ve had lots of customers write to us and say, ‘Now I don’t always have to show my husband what I’m reading.’ ”
Bye-bye, Fabio.

December 05, 2010

Syntax beating Prosody

In a recent article on the use of corpus linguistic methods in literary studies, the Times reported on the exhilaration and also anxiety about the potential of "electronic tools" and the application of statistical analysis to literary texts. Being able to count things often may lead to a shift towards research questions that rely on quantifiable data. Linguists will mostly take a "been there, done that" position -- after all, corpus linguistics is not exactly a new field or methodology.

Yet large searches can also challenge some pet theories of close reading, he said: for example, that the Victorians were obsessed with the nature and origins of evil. As it turns out, books with the word “evil” in the title bumped along near the bottom of the graph, accounting for less than 0.1 percent — a thousandth — of those published during the Victorian era. As Mr. Cohen is quick to acknowledge, the meaning of those numbers is anything but clear. Perhaps authors didn’t like to use the word “evil” in the title; perhaps there were other, more common synonyms; perhaps the context points to another subject altogether.
Precisely. Sometimes the things one looks for are not encoded in particular words. And words can be misleading:
Ms. Martin at Princeton knows firsthand how electronic searches can unearth both obscure texts and dead ends. She has spent the last 10 years compiling a list of books, newspaper and journal articles about the technical aspects of poetry. She recalled finding a sudden explosion of the words “syntax” and “prosody” in 1832, suggesting a spirited debate about poetic structure. But it turned out that Dr. Syntax and Prosody were the names of two racehorses. “You find 200 titles with ‘Syntax,’ and you think there must be a big grammar debate that year,” Ms. Martin said, “but it was just that Syntax was winning.”
No grammar debate, perhaps, but you gotta love a period in history when racehorses were called Dr. Syntax and Prosody!

December 01, 2010


A local bakery and pastry shop offers "organic miche" -- no, this is not a recipe from Michigan, it's their spelling of the German root misch- (to mix). The bread in question, Mischbrot, is made with a "mix" of grains, most likely wheat and rye.