Hike a zombie up on your hip for a big harai goshi, and he’s probably going to bite you in the left tit as he sails right over it. But: sweep his foot, and he’s goin’ down.
We don’t bark as much as we used to.
People have the most ignorant ideas sometimes. Like, take natural selection. Survival of the fittest, right? But, what does “fit” mean? People got so caught up in that whole “nature red in tooth and claw” thing. But, “fitness” is more than, like, Cross-Fit. (“The first rule of Cross-Fit: Always talk about Cross-Fit.”) It’s fitness for an environment, for a context. Resources suddenly get scarce? Fitness can mean being small, needing fewer calories–I bet you don’t see a lot of large terrestrial mammals in your neighborhood. Competition for breeding females just got stiffer? Fitness can mean just looking hotter–peacocks didn’t evolve those big-ass tails because they let you fly better, believe you me. Fitness is a complicated concept, and people have the most ignorant ideas sometimes. They used to, anyways–the people with ignorant ideas are mostly dead now.
We don’t bark as much as we used to. People sometimes punished us if we barked at the wrong times, but a lot of people liked having a barking dog around. Scare away the bad guys, make the neighbors think you’re a badass–always a good thing, right? But: no. Fitness is relative to a context, and contexts change. And that’s when natural selection happens. Your environment changes, and suddenly fitness means something new. Bark at a bad guy, and he’ll probably go away. Bark at a zombie, and it just tells the rest of them where to find you. Get found by a bunch of zombies, and your days of passing on your genes are over.
People have the most ignorant ideas sometimes. Like, Chad. My former master. I loved him limitlessly and unconditionally. He had a car. He learned how to drive before he bought it, right? He also had a pistol. He was gonna learn how to use it–after he bought it. Well… he did get around to buying it. The night that the thing that apparently used to be an emergency room nurse showed up with a bite missing out of its forearm and an insatiable appetite for human flesh came crashing through the bay window, he didn’t even know how to take the safety off. Christ…it never even occurred to him that you can usually take care of a lone zombie with a pistol just by SMACKING IT UPSIDE THE FUCKING HEAD WITH IT. I tried to tell him. But, he never really thought to listen to other people–certainly not to a Blue Heeler mix. He can be so frustratingly ignorant. Well, he used to–the ignorant people are mostly dead now.
We don’t bark as much as we used to. The thing to be today: a pointer. I used to have this buddy. A German shorthair. His master used to laugh at him because he would point at butterflies. His master used to laugh at him because he would point at his fucking water dish. Now his master is dead. My buddy? Now people bring him bitches in heat. To fuck. Can you imagine people bringing you bitches in heat to fuck? I remember an old Saturday Night Live sketch where John Belushi gets so excited about the idea of being able to walk into an Amsterdam cafe and buy a bowl of hashish that he goes into convulsions and falls off of his chair. That’s how I feel about the idea of people bringing me bitches in heat. To fuck. Bummer that I’m fixed. Lucky unfixed pointers. Lucky goddamn unfixed pointers. Lucky goddamn shitty fucking goddamn unfixed pointers. Lucky goddamn shitty fucking goddamnit goddamnit goddamnit-to-fucking-hell lucky fucking unfixed piece of shit fucking unfixed pointers…. Wait, I gotta pick myself up off the floor…
People have the most ignorant ideas sometimes. Like, take judo. People thought that it would be useless in the case of a zombie apocalypse. Sure–hike a zombie up on your hip for a big harai goshi, and he’s probably going to bite you in the left tit as he sails right over it. But: sweep his foot, and he’s goin’ down–zombies are not super-agile. “Old man’s judo,” they called the ashi waza, the “foot techniques.” But, they’re perfect for escaping from a zombie or five. “You want a real dog, get a Doberman pinscher or a Rottweiller, not a funny-looking Blue Heeler mix.” But Dobies and Rotts–they bark. Blue Heelers? Why the fuck do you think they call us “heelers?” We’re shepherds. We go for the feet. Go for a zombie’s foot, and he’s goin’ down. Dog judo. People are so ignorant sometimes. Well, they used to be–the ignorant ones are dead now.
This is a work of fiction. The zombie apocalypse is not here–yet. Scroll down a bit for demonstrations of the judo techniques that came up in the story.
I’ve read it on a guided missile cruiser; in a sleeping bag on the floor of a just-got-divorced-and-don’t-yet-have-furniture apartment; …
I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve read Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1968 children’s novel A wizard of Earthsea. A children’s novel, yes, and I first read it as a child. I’ve also read it on watch in the engine room of a guided missile cruiser; stretched out in a sleeping bag on the floor of a just-got-divorced-and-don’t-yet-have-furniture apartment; most recently, deep into my 50s and huddled under a blanket taking refuge from the Colorado deep-winter cold. The children’s novel takes a position on the relationship between language and meaning that has been debated back and forth since Socrates–no wonder I became a linguist.
Before her death in 2018, Le Guin finished a book of poetry: So far so good. (Reminds me of the French joke about the guy falling out a window, with the punchline jusqu’ici, tout va bien–probably not an accident.) Here’s a little gem from it, titled Company:
A paw, a questing nose half waken me,
and I let him get under the covers.
He curls up and purrs himself asleep.
Cats are less troublesome than lovers.
Ursula K. Le Guin, “Company”
Le Guin, writing this at the age of 88, was still thinking about what it’s like to have a man in your bed.
It’s always worth the trouble to read a poem aloud–I didn’t even realize that covers/lovers rhymes until I did so.
Poeticality comes in part from unexpected word combinations. But, “unexpected” is very context-dependent–you wouldn’t be shocked if I used the word alliteration in a post about poetry, but it would probably surprise you if it appeared in an essay about that time I climbed the wall of a ravine to get to a Port-A-Potty. (It didn’t end well.)
Things could be otherwise. Take the last sentence of the poem–Cats are less troublesome than lovers–and put it at the beginning. The result makes every bit as much narrative sense as Le Guin’s version–maybe even more so. But, as a poem, it would kinda suck.
Why, if that last sentence gives you a better narrative at the beginning of the poem, does it give you a better poem when it occurs at the end? I think it’s related to an unexpected word combination. Specifically: when you’ve got a poem that’s mostly monosyllables and so far has had no word over two syllables long, troublesome packs quite a punch. Define the context in in terms of word length, and troublesome stands out quite a bit from a bunch of mono- and bisyllables.
It bears repeating: Le Guin, writing this at the age of 88, was still thinking about what it’s like to have a man in your bed. I wish I’d known her.
“No matter our intentions, lawyers like me were complicit. We owe the country our honesty about what we saw — and should do in the future.”
Irregular past-tense verbs in English are typically high-frequency–that is, compared to other verbs, they occur relatively often. Zipf’s Law captures the fact that most verbs, like most nouns, adjectives, and adverbs, occur only rarely, right? It also captures the fact that a very small number of words occur quite often, and some of these are verbs with irregular past tenses. It’s a problem for non-native speakers, because they give you a lot of opportunities to fuck up, and the better you speak English, the more people notice those little mistakes.
So: today, let’s practice production of English verbs that are irregular in the past tense. Today we’ll look at an opinion piece from the New York Times, America’s newspaper de référence. It talks about a government lawyer’s experiences in the past, so there are plenty of past-tense verbs. In the text, I’ll replace past-tense verbs with their base forms–your task is to convert them to their past tense. We’ll focus on these:
Some English verbs with irregular past tenses. To burst has an “umarked” past tense–that is, its past tense is the same as its basic form.
I be an attorney at the Justice Department when Donald Trump was elected president. I worked in the Office of Legal Counsel, which is where presidents turn for permission slips that say their executive orders and other contemplated actions are lawful. I joined the department during the Obama administration, as a career attorney whose work was supposed to be independent of politics.
All three tokens of be are in the third-person singular, so: was. Vocabulary items:
attorney: a lawyer. The term attorney is typically used in official contexts; lawyer is everyday language.
counsel: advice. It is the standard term in a legal context, and can also refer to an attorney themself. (My Oregonian dialect does some weird things with pronouns. It’s one of the few things about my regional accent that an American would notice–Oregonian pronunciation and syntax are mostly the typical forms of the northern regions of the continent.)
to contemplate: to consider; to think about. Very formal language, not common in speech.
I never harbored delusions about a Trump presidency. Mr. Trump readily volunteered that his agenda be to disassemble our democracy, but I made a choice to stay at the Justice Department — home to some of the country’s finest lawyers — for as long as I could bear it. I believed that I could better serve our country by pushing back from within than by keeping my hands clean. But I have come to reconsider that decision.
Be is again in the 3rd person singular, so: was. The past tense of to make is made, regardless of number or person. Vocabulary:
to harbor delusions: A delusion is a false belief. In its most central sense, it is one that comes from insanity. Less centrally, it can refer to something that is a form of self-deception. To harbor in this case means to have. In its most central sense, it is an intransitive verb, and its subject is a ship or other waterborne vessel. Its meaning in that case is to rest in a harbor, which is more or less by definition safe. In the transitive sense in which it is used here, it means to keep something safe, typically something that is in some sense illicit and/or being pursued by someone who would do it harm. So, you might harbor fugitives, or criminals, or refugees. In this expression, delusion works as an object of the verb because a delusion is inherently a bad thing, coming as it does from mental illness or from self-deception.
to volunteer that [+ assertion]: to say something without prompting, without even being asked a question about it. Yes, this is very different from the usual sense of the word to volunteer, and to evoke (as linguists say) this meaning, you need to have that [some assertion] after it.
My job be to tailor the administration’s executive actions to make them lawful — in narrowing them, I could also make them less destructive. I remained committed to trying to uphold my oath even as the president refused to uphold his.
Yep, it’s was again! Some vocabulary:
to tailor: in its central sense, this verb refers to what a tailor does. Think of cutting and sewing something so that it fits a particular person. In this case, the attorney is to tailor the president’s orders so that they would be legal.
executive action: things that are done in one’s capacity as president. The word executive is used in a political sense to refer specifically to the president, the head of the executive branch of the US government, as opposed to the legislative branch, which makes our laws, or the judicial branch, which makes decisions about what is and is not legal.
But there be a trade-off: We attorneys diminished the immediate harmful impacts of President Trump’s executive orders — but we also made them more palatable to the courts.
Yep: was again. Oh, and make. Nice of me to give you lots of practice on these, hein?
This burst into public view early in the Trump administration in the litigation over the executive order banning travel from several predominantly Muslim countries, which my office approved. The first Muslim ban was rushedout the door. It was sweeping and sloppy; the courts quickly put a halt to it. The successive discriminatory bans benefited from more time and attention from the department’s lawyers, who narrowed them but also made them more technocratic and therefore harder for the courts to block.
To burst has an unmarked past tense: burst.
After the Supreme Court’s June 2018 decision upholding the third Muslim ban, I reviewed my own portfolio — which included matters targeting noncitizens, dismantling the Civil Service and camouflaging the president’s corruption — overcome with fear that I was doing more harm than good. By Thanksgiving of that year, I had left my job.
The past tense of to leave is left. Yes, it is a homonym of the opposite of the adjective right. Technically, I had left is a past perfect construction, but the form of the verb is the same, so I have thrown it in gratis.
Still, I felt I was abandoning the ship. I continued to believe that a critical mass of responsible attorneys staying in government might provide a last line of defense against the administration’s worst instincts. Even after I left, I advised others that they could do good by staying. News reports about meaningful pushback by Justice Department attorneys seemed to confirm this thinking.
Yep: was again, and the past tense of to leave is left. .
I was wrong.
Was, once again. And… perhaps this is enough practice for one day? In any case, it’s time for breakfast. I leave you with the rest of the article; at the end, I’ll throw in discussion of a couple of additional vocabulary items that the author chooses in order to extend the metaphors that he used earlier in the piece. I do encourage you to read it.
Watching the Trump campaign’s attacks on the election results, I now see what might have happened if, rather than nip and tuck the Trump agenda, responsible Justice Department attorneys had collectively — ethically, lawfully — refused to participate in President Trump’s systematic attacks on our democracy from the beginning. The attacks would have failed.
Unlike the Trump Justice Department, the Trump campaign has relied on second-rate lawyers who lack the skills to maintain the president’s charade. After a recent oral argument from Rudy Giuliani, Judge Matthew Brann (a Republican) wrote that the campaign had offered “strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations, unpled in the operative complaint and unsupported by evidence.” Even judges appointed by Mr. Trump have refused to throw their lots in with lawyers who can’t master the basic mechanics of lawyering.
After four years of bulldozing through one institution after another on the backs of skilled lawyers, the Trump agenda hit a brick wall.
The story of the Trump campaign’s attack on our elections could have been the story of the Trump administration’s four-year-long attack on our institutions. If, early on, the Justice Department lawyers charged with selling the administration’s lies had emptied the ranks — withholding our talents and reputations and demanding the same of our professional peers — the work of defending President Trump’s policies would have been left to the types of attorneys now representing his campaign. Lawyers like Mr. Giuliani would have had to defend the Muslim ban in court.
Had that happened, judges would have likely dismantled the Trump facade from the beginning, stopping the momentum of his ugliest and most destructive efforts and bringing much-needed accountability early in his presidency.
Before the 2020 election, I was haunted by what I didn’t do. By all the ways I failed to push back enough. Now, after the 2020 election, I’m haunted by what I did. The trade-off wasn’t worth it.
In giving voice to those trying to destroy the rule of law and dignifying their efforts with our talents and even our basic competence, we enabled that destruction. Were we doing enough good elsewhere to counterbalance the harm we facilitated, the way a public health official might accommodate the president on the margins to push forward on vaccine development? No.
No matter our intentions, we were complicit. We collectively perpetuated an anti-democratic leader by conforming to his assault on reality. We may have been victims of the system, but we were also its instruments. No matter how much any one of us pushed back from within, we did so as members of a professional class of government lawyers who enabled an assault on our democracy — an assault that nearly ended it.
We owe the country our honesty about that and about what we saw. We owe apologies. I offer mine here.
And we owe our best efforts to restore our democracy and to share what we learned to help mobilize and enact reforms — to remind future government lawyers that when asked to undermine our democracy, the right course is to refuse and hold your peers to the same standard.
To lead by example, and do everything in our power to ensure this never happens again. If we don’t, it will.
To nip and tuck: to cut (nip) and to sew in such a way as to make something fit better. To nip and to tuck both have other meanings in other contexts. Recall the use of to tailor earlier in the piece–the use of to nip and tuck in reference to what the attorney did to executive actions has the effect of continuing that metaphor.
The picture of a tailor and his client is from the Mohan’s Custom Tailors web site. One little bit of additional vocabulary: a tailor is necessarily male; the female equivalent is seamstress.
How do you get a master’s degree in computational linguistics? The first step is to apply to a master’s degree program–and here is one! “Natural language processing” is a field that overlaps a lot with computational linguistics, and many people use the terms interchangeably. (See this post from the Zipf’s Law blog for the subtleties of the differences between the two.) From the details of this call for applications, particularly the mention of internships at local tech companies, one would guess that this program is more oriented towards building software than towards exploring theory, which in my view of the world is the basic difference between the two. You’ll find some notes on the language of higher education in the English Notes at the end of the post. Bon week-end!
CALL for APPLICATIONS: 1 year M.S. Program in Natural Language Processing at UCSC Silicon Valley
Natural language processing (NLP) is a rapidly growing field with applications in many of the technologies we use every day, from virtual assistants and smart speakers to autocorrect. UCSC has created a unique Master’s program in NLP to provide students with the skills and in-depth knowledge of NLP algorithms, technologies, and applications that are in high demand in both industry and academia. Our program goes beyond the classroom by supplying students with industry-relevant projects for the kind of real-world experience that is essential for a successful career in NLP.
core course: A class that must be taken by all students in a program of study. In my graduate program, that means (a) an intensive one-semester course that is roughly equivalent to getting a master’s degree in biology–yes, it is fucking hard–and a two-semester course that covers the major fields of computational biology. In a typical linguistics program, the core courses include syntax, phonetics, and phonology.
capstone project: A research or software project that is meant to have you use all of the skills that you learned during your studies. (Capstone is another word for keystone–most literally, the stone in an arch that holds everything else together by being the focal point for the forces in the arc. See the picture at the top of the post.) In a doctoral program, that would be your dissertation; in a master’s degree program, it typically takes the place of writing a thesis.
Questions can be directed to…This is a pretty formal way of telling you who to send your questions to. (If you prefer: to whom to send your questions.) I think “to direct to” is maybe roughly equivalent to s’adresser à in French–a kind native speaker will tell me if I’m wrong about that.
Picture credit, directly from Wikimedia: This image comes from the Lexikon der gesamten Technik (dictionary of technology) from 1904 by Otto Lueger.