July 2009

First, read the story of Edith.  (Via Agto.)

Second, keep up with your Krugman– both columns and blog.  Some key facts about health care:

  • If you have employer-provided health care and are happy with it, thank the government– both for the tax break, and for requiring that employers who get that break offer insurance to all employees, and can’t screen out pre-existing conditions.
  • We already have a more-than-half-nationalized health care system: governments pay 47% of health care expenditures, private insurers 35%. 
  • Medicare costs rise slower than those of private companies (since 1970, 8.8% vs. 9.9%).
  • Whatever the free market is good for, it’s not health care.  Health doesn’t work like buying bread or computers– it’s a huge unpredictable expense, and the decisions involved are beyond consumers.  We need insurance to handle this sort of problem.  But if you let the market handle it, insurers will work hard to pay as little as possible.  This is socially destructive, adds to the health bill, and is eliminated in government programs.
  • The system of getting insurance through employers is slowly crumbling.  The percentage of employers who offer insurance is declining, and for some industries it’s a global competitive disadvantage.

(I assume you already know that US health care costs are far higher than most other industrialized countries while our actual health care is worse, and that Britain or Canada is not the only option out there.)

Insurers are scared to death of the “public option”, not because it’s “socialism”, but because it would reveal how much better the government could do at insuring people.  (If they thought they could do better, it wouldn’t worry them.)  Thus you see strange things like demands that the government not be able to negotiate price breaks… often you hear this from the same people who claim to be concerned about runaway health care costs or the deficit.

I finished Beyond Good & Evil last night, and I’m still jazzed about it. Kind of a dumb title, but a near-perfect game.

I couldn’t find a way to make screenshots, so what the heck, here’s my own interpretation of Jade, the main character:

Jade, ready for action

Ready for action, with dai-jo and green lipstick.

The game is from 2003 and looks a little cartoony, but it’s worth getting past that.  Jade is a reporter; as the developers are French I suspect this is inspired (consciously or not) by Tintin.  She has a camera and isn’t afraid to use it; taking pictures is both the major way to get money and to advance the plot.  It doesn’t sound difficult, but it can be tricky to get pictures of monsters you’re fighting.

Everything about the game is well done– the art design, the characters and story, the animation, the music, the voice acting– but what’s best about it is the balance.  It’s what Dreamfall tried to be without quite making it.  All the skills you learn, with the possible exception of the air hockey minigame, are needed, and often enough that you do master them.  The action is generally not difficult, but it’s varied enough so you never get bored: combat, sneaking, puzzle solving, racing, chase sequences, spaceflight.  Cutscenes are not too long or intrusive. 

(Dreamfall, by contrast, was trying to tell a story and be a game at the same time, and did it so clumsily that one wondered if it was possible at all.  BG&E makes it look effortless.)

I started the last sequence under the impression that I was well supplied with repair kits; it turned out I had just three.  I barely got through the last vehicle fights.  The last boss fight is difficult too, though not so bad once you’ve figured out the tricks.

Jade is well designed to appeal to both sexes.  She’s cute and has a bouncy walk that’s fun to watch; but she’s tough yet caring, dresses sensibly, and isn’t tied down by any romance. 

Sadly, the game didn’t do well when it was released, probably because it just doesn’t have the badass factor that brings out the 13-year-old boys and their wallets. 

I spent about 18 hours on it; an experienced gamer would probably take much less… I took my time on the races and the air hockey.  But hey, it’s $10 on Steam, so go get it RIGHT NOW.  I’m not sure how replayable it is, though I’m tempted to try the French version.

I don’t really have any complaints, except that the spacecraft controls are very wonky.  It’d also be nice if you could move the camera to look up or down (though you can do so by using the camera instead). 

There have been teasers for a sequel, one a little scene with Jade’s adoptive uncle, a humanoid pig, which mainly shows off a huge leap in rendering; and one where Jade using some amazing parkour to get away from some cops.  BG&E with Mirror’s Edge moves?  I would buy that game so hard.

I read about the world’s lop-sided linguistic situation— where handful of big languages (e.g. English, French, Spanish, Arabic, various Chinese languages, etc.) dominate, and how the ones that do not (e.g. Welsh, Breton, Hawaiian, various aboriginal languages of Americas and Australia, etc.) are dying off, with some people and organizations (even governments) to prevent and try to reverse this trend. Do you think it is possible for these small languages to survive in the modern world; or is it enviable that they will just die off, the attractions of the big languages being (like cities) too great. I’ve heard that only one language has really successfully been revived: Hebrew. Is this true? If it is, why is so. If it isn’t, what can be learned from the Hebrew revival that can possibly be applied to other language revivals? Also, how important do you think government policy on language is? What do you think is the best government policy toward language.


Language revival, and people’s thoughts in general about what other people should speak, often go astray for failure to address a huge fact: languages are hard to learn.  It’s a multi-year commitment, best done in childhood (not because children are better at it but because they have the time for it).  And at the community level, it doesn’t really work unless almost the whole community makes that effort.

The irony is that public policy through the 1950s or so was the opposite of today’s concerns: people seemed to be terrified that minorities had their own languages, and did their best to discourage and destroy them.  But languages that survived this now faced a greater threat: modern communications and mobility.  Learning the national language becomes is the easiest thing to do, and once the younger generation isn’t taught the minority language any more, it’s likely to die out.

You’re right that Hebrew is the one clear case of language revival.  However, it had two great advantages that most other attempts lack:

  1. There was a large population with a good non-native understanding of the language.  There was thus less trouble finding adults to jump-start educating the kids.
  2. It became the language of a state, and thus something people had to learn.  You’re not soon going to see this happening with Hawai’ian or Cherokee.

That’s not to say it can’t be done.  Many people are trying, with anything from Cornish to Ainu to Amerindian languages.  It’s just that token efforts (naming it “official”, sprinkling a few words around,  having a half-hour class once a week) won’t do the trick.

Modern communications offers advantages, too: activists and language learners can easily connect up; recordings make it easier to share the spoken language; desktop or web publishing is easier and cheaper than print.

Governments can help by e.g. funding immersion schools and production of cultural material.  Sometimes unexpected things help: e.g. the Peruvian government required a fraction of Peruvian content on the radio, which led to a lot of exposure of Quechua songs.  People respond to cultural content much more readily than government decrees!

As to how successful efforts have been, I found this interesting discussion from people who know more about it than I do:

Language Hat: Reviving Passamaquoddy

I recently picked up Geoffrey Sampson’s Empirical Linguistics. Sampson has a bone to pick with Chomsky– he wrote an earlier book called Educating Eve: The ‘Language Instinct’ Debate where he engages with Steven Pinker’s version of Chomskyanism, without apparently ever getting a response. But he’s actually a pretty good bone-picker. He thinks Chomsky carried some very unlikely propositions by sheer force of personality rather than argument, and he makes a good case.

Speaker intuitions

The target here is the idea that models of language should be based on speakers’ intuitions of grammaticality. Historically, probably Chomsky insisted on this as part of his reaction against Skinnerian behaviorism, which had little role for the mind; Chomsky asserted that speakers do have a model of language.  Indeed he reified this out of all proportion into a mini-organ precisely specified by genetics– though he never says how.

For decades, syntax was conducted by linguists consulting speaker intuitions– meaning their own. In effect they were making up their own data, which is an invitation to trouble. Sampson mentions William Labov scathingly documenting how Chomsky treated his own intuitions as scientific fact, those of others when they disagreed with his as fallible opinions.

More seriously, speaker intuitions can be demonstrably wrong. People can be quite sure that they never say something– one example is a speaker who convincingly insisted that he never used any more positively, as in John is smoking a lot anymore; but then he was caught spontaneously saying Do you know what’s a lousy show anymore? Johnny Carson.

Intuitions are all right for basic matters; the problem is that syntax today is so sophisticated that the sort of sample sentences people are asked to judge are so complicated and unlikely that it’s unlikely a pre-existing rule covers them. Only nativists like Chomsky can really maintain that the grammar covers all possible situations in advance. It’s simpler to maintain that as in other cultural domains like law or fashion, people creatively approach new situations when they’re confronted with them.

These delusions are especially dangerous when theoretical edifices have been built on top of them. Sampson recalls giving a seminar which covered center embedding; he referred to the conventional wisdom that multiple center embedding was impossible. Anne de Roeck asked, “But don’t you find that sentences that people you know produce are easier to understand?” Sampson was well into an extended answer to the question before he realized that de Roeck’s question was in fact a counter-example.

The experience spurred a new interest in empirical investigation of linguistic claims. He started to work with linguistic corpora, using computers for searching and analysis; much of the book is a set of reports on how such work is done and what sort of things come up. Not surprisingly, what people actually say and write is more varied and interesting than the somewhat artificial constructs linguists make up.

This is heresy from a Chomskyan point of view– isn’t a grammar supposed to generate all possible sentences and divide them into acceptable and unacceptable? Well, no, that’s just Chomsky’s pet idea. All a grammar has to do is tell us what people say and write– their positive performance. We don’t need to posit a mechanism to deal with the sentences people don’t actually utter or encounter. (It can be a convenient shorthand, of course, to say “We don’t say XXX”. It can eliminate pontes asinorum— or just contrast the dialect being described to others where XXX does occur.)

One chapter of the book departs from the overall topic to consider The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory, a huge work Chomsky wrote in 1955 and didn’t publish till 1975, but frequently referred to.  It had semi-mythical status when it could only be consulted by the priestly elite of Chomskyanism; once he could finally read it, he found it extremely disappointing.


Curiously, when it comes to meaning, Sampson takes the opposite tack. He thinks meaning can’t be investigated scientifically (that is, empirically, subject to falsification) at all. That doesn’t mean it can’t be handled at all, but the approach will be that of the humanities: essentially narrative documentation of human creativity.

He blisteringly attacks Fodor and Katz’s semantic primitives– the analysis of “bachelor” as [+HUMAN] [-MARRIED] [+MALE], for instance. As a minor point, he shows that the idea only works for nouns and adjectives anyway– it’s useless for verbs. For verbs you’d might as well just use inferences: e.g if John buys trout from Sally, then Sally sells trout to John. This can be extended to nouns: If John is a bachelor, John is human, unmarried, and male.

But worse yet, the primitives don’t hold up under analysis. Meanings are too fluid. Does a cup have to have a handle or not? Does it have width or height requirements? Labov tried to approach this by showing people specially constructed objects which were designed to test aspects of the definition of ‘cup’; he found that people’s responses weren’t atomistic, but probabilistic. A certain width-height ratio might produce a given probability that people would judge the object a cup. And he didn’t even get into (say) the usage of the objects. Other researchers concluded that far from coming to a consensus, people could come up with “a myriad” of possible common features.

Adam Kilgarriff, working on computational linguistics, concluded that “I don’t believe in word senses”.  Actual usage is so fluid and vague that it makes no sense to ask in the abstract how many meanings a word has; you can only ask what meanings it could be convenient to distinguish for a given task.

Barbara Partee apparently once found young children asking her whether she had a father. This confused her till she realized that they were asking if she had a husband. They didn’t understand the adult notion that fathers were related to conception; they understood them as male heads of household. Presumably once we understand the facts of life, we adapt our definitions. In other words, faced with new information, we either follow the social consensus or create a new one.

As an example of the latter process, Sampson notes the new reality that people can change sex. If a man fathers a child, then becomes a woman, is he now the child’s mother? Until society faces the question, there is no answer, except in terms of individual creativity. This can’t just be handled by fiddling with the [+MALE] node.

Sampson chides linguists for ignoring the philosophical debates on meaning… linguists’ books on semantics often barely consider Wittgenstein, White, or Quine.  (The sources I’ve read do mention them, but I think I should probably check them out directly.)

On the whole I think Sampson is mostly right about empirical verification of syntactic claims, and probably right about semantics. He obviously dislikes Chomsky’s work very personally, but he’s not a crank– he gives good arguments for his skepticism.

Via Lore, the amazing Fancy Fast Food:

bk quiche

That’s the BK Quiche, lovingly made by tearing apart and reconstituting a Crossan’wich and Ham, Egg & Cheese Biscuit from Burger King.

The unanswered question is, how do these things taste?  Given that most of them are breaded and fried, I imagine they’re kind of greasy…

My modem died the other day, leaving me in the near-Jurassic state of being off the net.  I decided to take the opportunity to finally finish Fallout 3.


The Enclave succumbs to a bit of faulty AI programming

I have to concur with those who find the ending disappointing.  It’s pretty similar to the ending of Oblivion, in fact– big, showy, and largely non-interactive– with the added annoyance of a single ham-handed moral choice.  At least it no longer ends the game, though I’ll have to wait till Broken Steel is available in stores to fix that.  (I’m not going to mess with the abominable Windows Live.)

Still, great game.  If you were thinking of getting it at all, it’s half off ($25) on Steam this weekend.

Amusing photos by Dina Goldstein showing Disney princesses living less than happily ever after:


A commenter points out that Jasmine is using ammo belts for a magazine-fed weapon, and not practicing proper trigger discipline.  But she’s a princess, who’s gonna tell her?  I like the camo harem top though…

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