Saturday, September 29, 2007

D(r)iver Boy

For many years I've loved listening to Old Time music and marveled at the myriad names and lyrics used for the "same" song. The oral composition and performance of these songs virtually guarantees variation like this, as happens in the children's game Telephone (a.k.a. Chinese Whispers).

A few years ago I bought an album by Natalie Merchant containing the song "Diver Boy", a classic Appalachian murder ballad whose lyrics describe a girl's family trying to get rich quick by killing her suitor – a diver boy / Who sailed upon the ocean to gather up some gold. (It's close to this recording.) While listening to the incredible Hober internet radio broadcast recently, I heard one of the many variants this song, in which the suitor is a driver boy / Who ploughed the lowlands low. In another version, he drives a stagecoach. In some versions, he ends up buried at sea or "floating down the stream", regardless of whether he's a diver or a driver; in another, it's his blood that "appeared in streams".

So, the point is, not only are the names and lyrics of these songs changed by misperception; the entire premise of the song gets a new back-story based on the changing of one word:
the Kiss this Guy and Eggcorn phenomena run wild. In general, one wonders how much form really does follow function, as opposed to the other way around, in songs, poetry, and other cultural artifacts. Scholarship on non-literate poets like Homer often runs into such questions: was a phrase used because it conveyed the poet's intended meaning, or because it was the first thing that came into the poet's mind that fit the meter? In light of Simon Kirby's Chinese-Whispers-like iterated learning model of language evolution, one wonders how much of grammar might come from this sort of re-analysis, too.

Beat / Geek / Nerd

A beautiful article by Louis Menand in this week's New Yorker presents the Beats (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, et al.) as what we might nowadays call geeks or nerds. Far from the cool, hep-cat image peddled by the popular media that exploited them, these guys were shy, serious, scholarly types who struggled constantly with loneliness, depression, and multiple failed relationships. (Kerouac lived with his mother until he died.) Notably missing is the outsize ego associated with modern American male writers (Hemingway, Mailer): Ginsberg, as others have pointed out, continued to idolize Kerouac well after his own star had risen. Menand's closing paragraph alone makes the article worth a read.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Vocaloid 2 Anime Song Generator

This review links to mp3 demos of some bestselling software by Yamaha that synthesizes vocals from melody and lyrics you type in: leenk

Colbert confronts endangered languages

David Harrison (see our Endangered Languages entry from Sep. 24, 2007) is quickly becoming the King of all Media. David appeared on The Colbert Report last night (Sep. 26, 2007). David emailed us a link to a video of the show, but a better link appears here (please note that David's segment is preceded by a short Doritos commercial). This is a nice segment in which, among other things, David teaches Stephen Colbert to say "I'm going to stab you in the gut with a knife" in Indian. David is also the author of the new book, "When Languages Die," which has also been discussed in Language Log.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Endangered languages

Our friend, K. David Harrison, has received a lot of coverage in the New York Times recently. On Sep. 19, 2007, his work and that of his colleague Gregory D. S. Anderson was described in an article by John Noble Wilford entitled "Languages Die, but Not Their Last Words." The article summarizes work detailed in the October issue of National Geographic and on their Enduring Voices website. A followup article, "Vigil for the Vanishing Tongue," by Mary Jo Murphy, appeared on Sunday, Sep. 23, in the Week in Review section of the Times. David, an associate professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College, is also the co-founder of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. Greg Anderson, the other co-founder, is the current Director of the Living Tongues Institute. Xeni Jardin, posting on Sep. 19 in Boing Boing, discussed some of the equipment used in field recording.

I am particularly pleased to see this interest in endangered languages. During my tenure as Division Director for Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences at the National Science Foundation (NSF) I helped to spur support for this important area and am delighted to see its growth and evolution. The early NSF efforts involved the hard work and guidance of many individuals. A partial list includes the Linguistics program officers, Cecile McKee and Joan Maling, and Wanda Ward, then Deputy Assistant Director (AD) of NSF for the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences directorate (SBE), and Norman Bradburn, then AD of SBE. James Herbert of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) served as a Senior NSF/NEH Advisor and helped develop the Documenting Endangered Languages funding opportunity. On May 5, 2005, the NSF and NEH announced the first recipients of fellowships and grants from this program. Under the combined leadership of the current SBE AD, linguist David Lightfoot, and other NSF administrators, and program officers from NSF and NEH, this interagency partnership, which now includes the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, has become an annual funding effort. Cognizant program officers include Douglas Whalen, Joan Maling and Anna Kerttula de Echave from the NSF, and Helen Aguera and Jane Aikin from NEH.

Doug Whalen, an IS group regular and Vice President for Research of Haskins Laboratories, is currently on loan to the NSF where he has worked as a program officer for Linguistics, Documenting Endangered Languages, and Cognitive Neuroscience. Doug is also the founder and President of the Endangered Language Fund, which supports endangered language preservation and documentation projects.

Top Ten Transhumanist Technologies

Lifeboat Foundation
has a special report on the
Top Ten Transhumanist Technologies.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Don't tase me, bro!

Simon Levy wonders if one of our favorite blogs, Language Log, may be getting a little lazy. Simon points out that there has not yet been a feature from them "... about the back-formation of the verb "tase" from T.A.S.E.R."

View the "Don't tase me bro remix."

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A call for machine morality

Wendell Wallach, chair of the Yale University Bioethics Center Technology and Ethics working group, and friend of the IS group, was recently a featured speaker at The Singularity Summit 2007: AI and the Future of Humanity. Wendell was well received, including an article in C/Net News called "A call for machine morality." Dan Farber in a ZDNet blog posting referred to Wendell as Dr. Doom because of Wendell's prediction that " ... in the next few years there would be a major human disaster caused by a mistaken decision taken by a computer."

Another friend of IS, Dr. James Hughes, was also a featured speaker. Jim is a professor at Trinity College in Hartford and the author of Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future.

Abstracts of their presentations can be found here.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Possible next topics

I recall we agreed to finish up Pirahã / recursion as our next topic, with systems biology after that. For the topic after systems biology (a long way out, perhaps), I suggest Phil's virtual-worlds theme. Now that I've started playing with Quake as a platform for teaching and research in AI (, and am reading about Machinima on BoingBoing, I think this in a really cool idea.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Venzuela to ban stupid names reports that Venezuela is considering approving a bill "... barring parents from giving their children 'names that expose them to ridicule, are extravagant or difficult to pronounce,' or that raise doubts about whether a child is a girl or a boy. ... If approved by the National Assembly, the bill could let authorities turn down names like some of the more unusual monikers currently on the voter rolls: Edigaith, Mileidy, Leomar and Superman."

Thanks and hit tip to Robert Remez and Aphrodite Finkelstein for bringing this to our attention.