Category Archives: Computers

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Our Alt-Universe

universe

A year ago, on the day after April Fools’ Day, the Associated Press announced that soon internet would no longer begin with a capital letter. No fooling.

This was the announcement:

“We will lowercase internet effective June 1, when the 2016 Stylebook launches.”

And they explained:

“. . . the lowercase spelling is in line with the public utility aspect of the net, just as radio and television are spelled down as generic terms in mass communications.”

When the AP changed its internet style, other…

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Unapplied Linguistics

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I bought a train ticket online from Virgin Trains recently, to get me to St. Neots, nearest station to the site of this conference, where I’m speaking to an association of freelance editors. The follow-up email from Virgin Trains surprised me. The subject line said: “Your St. Neots journey, your way.”

Your St. Neots journey is a well-formed English noun phrase using the proper name St. Neots as an attributive modifier of the noun journey. Trivial to program: They simply had to take Your _____ j…

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DIY Digital Humanities

The digital humanities are known for major-infrastructure projects, such as data-crunching the contents of capacious corpora and charting the movement of vast numbers of people and ideas over space and time. An example picked from many is Martin Grandjean’s pleasingly meta visualization of digital-humanities Twitter users, below.

Screen Shot 2017-08-07 at 1.20.32 PM

Grandjean parses: “This graph consists of 1,434 nodes connected by 137,061 directed edges, each symbolizing a user ‘following’ another on Twitter.” The data, he says, …

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Robots Gossiping in a Secret Language?

tworobots

I returned from Konstanz to find a whole slew of newspapers, websites, and news magazines had revived a language technology story from two months ago (Adrienne LaFrance discussed it in The Atlantic in June). Facebook, they reported, had been trying to get two chatbots (“Bob” and “Alice”) in an “adversarial network” to learn negotiation by reading a stash of transcribed negotiations between humans and imitating them. But as the chatbots purported to negotiate over the pricing of balls, hats, and…

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Back to the Real World

konstanz

I spent last week in Konstanz, Germany, on the shores of Lake Constance, at a small conference devoted to a theory of syntax called lexical-functional grammar (LFG). Among the attendees were two language engineers who attend almost every year: Ron Kaplan, co-developer of LFG (with the Stanford syntactician Joan Bresnan) and an industrial computational linguist since the 1980s, and Tracy Holloway King, a 1993 Stanford linguistics Ph.D. who also has a long career in Silicon Valley industrial rese…

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‘Dictionary of American Regional English’ Speaks!

Dare Image by Ellen

Chronicle illustration by Ellen Winkler

 

If you read my posts, you may be familiar by now with the grand six-volume Dictionary of American Regional English, completed in print in 2013, but continuing to live beyond that date in quarterly updates on the internet.

Now DARE  has come to life in another way. It’s not just in writing that the dictionary tells us about the different ways we talk in this vast country. DARE  is speaking up!

Now we can hear the recorded voices of some 1,800 people in 1,…

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Dracula, Strunk, and Correct English Usage

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Do not place your trust in either of these men.

On May 26, 1897, exactly 120 years ago, Bram Stoker published his dark and gruesome epistolary Gothic novel Dracula. Its fearsome central character, despite his few appearances, has had more impact on the popular imagination, and appeared in more movies, than any fictional character apart from Sherlock Holmes.

On my laptop I keep a small library of late 19th-century and early 20th-century novels (downloaded from gutenberg.org), Dracula being one. I…

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Weighty Words of Yesteryear

Vintage-40s-UNDERWOOD-Standard-Manual-Typewriter-Art-Deco-_57Nowadays, thanks to the internet (which has lost its capital letter in the AP stylebook, for becoming too ordinary) and our numerous computers, smartphones, and other devices, our words flit from device to device to publication as light as their weight in electrons.

But as we veterans of the 20th century know, it wasn’t always that way. There was a time, back before anyone had thought of cluttering our (literal) desktops with computers, when our words were always hard copy, beginning with ink on…

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Word-Processing Misery

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John Cleese

In a long-forgotten Monty Python sketch, John Cleese is driving a panel truck for the BBC. “I wanted to be in program planning,” he remarks acidly to a colleague, “But unfortunately I have a degree.”

I wanted to work in linguistics. But unfortunately personal computing was invented, and I ended up an amateur software engineer specializing in file format conversion and workarounds for word-processor bugs. I try to do a bit of linguistics in my spare time.

Left to my own devices, I wou…

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Data Mining for Personally Targeted Politics

Brexit vote mapRegular Lingua Franca readers may recall that I am a skeptic about both machine intelligence and the dangers of computers invading our privacy. But do not imagine that I am dismissive of all developments in the fields bracketed under the misnomer “artificial intelligence”: Some of the claims made about what computers can do are true, even a little scary.

I know I mocked the pathetic artificial stupidity exhibited by the devices that purport to communicate linguistically with us. I dissed 2013-vi…