Ukraine Notebook: What medications to bring when you volunteer

Bring these medications to Ukraine when you come to volunteer and your contribution will be even bigger.

  1. Moxifloxacin is what an American combat medic will give you if you have a penetrating wound. I have no idea how to find it in Ukraine, but your doctor can give you a prescription for it. I was very, very happy to have some with me here when a frightened cat sunk a fang very, very deep into my arm. (I was also very, very happy to have clear ballistic glasses with me when I was trying to get her out from under a bathtub while she was trying to scratch me to death, but that’s a topic for a post about ballistic glasses, right? Fang explained in the English notes at the end of the post.)
  2. Do not bring aspirin or ibuprofen. US Department of Defense guidelines say not to take them for a week before entering a war zone. And, yes: since Putin deliberately targets civilian targets of no military value, all of Ukraine is a war zone.
  3. Meloxicam is what an American combat medic will give you for any battlefield injury. See above regarding the situation in Ukraine.
  4. Acetaminophen (sold in the US as Tylenol or in generic form) is the third thing that an American medic will give you if you are injured.
  5. The antidiarrheal medication of your choice. You shouldn’t travel ANYWHERE without this anyway.
  6. All medications that you normally take. Bring more than you think you will need. All problems in Ukraine are supply chain problems, so do not assume that you will be able to buy ANYTHING wherever it is that you happen to find yourself. Yes, I do understand that it is difficult to get more than your allotted quantity of prescription medications in the US, since your insurance company rations your health care.

Want to help the situation in Ukraine? Base UA/База ЮА is an excellent organization doing evacuation of civilians from the front lines (and a bunch of other stuff). I vouch for them completely. Send PayPal contributions to, and please mention that you found us through the Zipf’s Law blog.

Photo source:

English notes

fang: “A fang is a long, pointed tooth.” (Wikipedia) Fang often occurs with the verbs to bare and to sink into. Examples from Sketch Engine, purveyor of fine linguistic corpora and tools for searching them:

  1. He sank his fangs into her shoulder.
  2. Spike longed to sink his fangs into Xander’s hot flesh.
  3. “Then you deserve this,” he said as he sunk his fangs into the man’s throat and drank hungrily.
  4. Sink those fangs into one of our mini milk chocolate caskets.
  5. How I used it in the post: A frightened cat sunk a fang very, very deep into my arm.

To bare means to uncover completely:

  1. He raised his lips, baring his fangs.
  2. His ears lay back and his fangs were bared.
  3. But a beaten dog will bare its fangs eventually.

Ukraine: The Russian army against a bunch of grandmothers

This feels less to me like a war of one country against another than of the Russian army versus a bunch of defenseless grandmothers…

This message from a friend who is volunteering as a medic in Ukraine showed up in my Inbox the other day…

Yes, I’ve been in Ukraine since the beginning of May. I’m a medic, as I was in the Navy. You asked about my safety. “Safe” is a very relative concept… When I’m not in the field, my morning routine consists of making a cup of coffee, grabbing a pack of cigarettes, and then sitting on the balcony to watch the morning rocket attack on my entirely residential neighborhood. I say “morning rocket attack” because there has been one almost every day since I got here. Probably sounds horrifying, but since the only people carrying guns around here are soldiers, I actually feel safer in the city than I do in the US.  When I’m in the field, it’s a different story. I mostly do evacuations of civilians from the front. The Russians enthusiastically shell refugee collection points and clearly marked emergency vehicles, and evacuating civilians from the front means going to refugee collection points in clearly marked emergency vehicles. As it happens, I have a relatively high tolerance for danger, so although it’s certainly not “safe,” that’s fine. What’s not OK is that because the Russians hit those places and vehicles so hard, and by this point a large proportion of the people who have not yet left the front are old folks, this feels less to me like a war of one country against another than of the Russian army versus a bunch of defenseless grandmothers…

English notes

in the field: In a military context, this means being out doing whatever it is that you do. Examples:

  • Your service member is headed out into the field and it looks like the entire military gear issuing office is located in your living room. No matter what their training mission might be, they will want to prepare and pack a few things for the field that will make things a little bit easier while they are “work camping.” These are things that have been suggested by actual service members who have been in the field for countless hours, days, weeks, and even months. Source: 35 things every service member needs for the field, from the Daily Mom web site.
  • A good razor with a shave gel that protects throughout the day is key for a service member who is shaving in the field. Source: the Daily Mom web site.


The picture at the top of this post shows old women sheltering in the basement of the refugee collection point in Lysychansk, in the Donbass region, during an artillery strike. My friend spent the attack outside, listening to debris bounce off of his helmet with every hit. The Russians eventually flattened the collection point.
The picture is a screen shot from this video by documentary filmmaker Marharyta Kurbanova, a member of my friend’s team.

Heading childhood anxiety off at the pass

Untreated anxiety in children is associated with all sorts of bad things later in life. The good news is, if you do treat it, it can usually clear up.

Untreated anxiety in children is associated with all sorts of bad things later in life–mood disorders, alcohol and drug abuse, suicidality, underachievement in school, and low earning potential. The good news is, if you do treat it, it can usually clear up.

It’s usually easier to prevent something than it is to treat it, so it would be great if we could predict which kids are likely to develop chronic problems with anxiety, and head it off at the pass. That might actually be plausible, since anxiety has a trajectory of development. As Strawn et al. put it, “…the adolescent with panic and generalized anxiety disorders was once a boy with separation anxiety disorder and…a toddler with extreme shyness…”

But, how would one do that prediction?

(If you’re mainly here to improve your English, you will find an explanation of head it off at the pass in the English notes at the end of this post.)

I am a happy practitioner of the write-about-what-you-don’t-know approach to scribbling. Right at this moment I am realizing that I don’t know very much about the development of anxiety in children and adolescents. So, I am reading the paper Research Review: Pediatric anxiety disorders–what have we learnt in the last 10 years?, by Jeffrey Strawn, John Walkup, and a bunch of other folks. It describes a number of risk factors for the development of a variety of anxiety disorders. The risk factors fall into categories of cognitive bias, behavioral tendencies, family environment, parental disorders, substance abuse, and environmental exposure.

When I’m trying to understand a new disease, I sometimes play this game: walk into a restaurant, look around, and pick out the person most likely to suffer from it. (At my advanced age, that is often me, but that’s another story.) For the kinds of risk factors that are related to pediatric and adolescent anxiety disorders, that’s not really an option, so instead, I’m trying something different: I’m writing about some kids who I would expect (based on my limited knowledge) to develop anxiety–or not. So, here’s what we’re gonna do today: we’ll look at my little vignettes, say for each one whether we think the kid is at high risk or low risk of developing an anxiety disorder, and then explain why. I have written these vignettes in the style of the notes that a physician (doctor) writes when they examine a patient. That’s why it sounds odd. (We’ll talk about some of those oddities in the English notes.) Ready? C’est parti.

John is a 5y3m-old male with an uneventful medical history. He is referred to the psychiatry clinic because of bursts of tears and screaming when dropped off at school, persisting into the third week of the school year. He is in his third foster home since his mother was hospitalized for anxiety and depression six months ago.

Reminder: this is not the story of a real child. I have made it up myself for educational purposes.

Likely outcome? John is at high risk of developing an anxiety disorder. His behavior at school–not wanting to be dropped off even after three weeks from the beginning of the academic year–is a kind of behavioral inhibition, and behavioral inhibition is a risk factor for later development of anxiety disorders. Childhood separation events are, too, and John has experienced these multiple times–first with the long and continuing hospitalization of his mother, and then due to repeated changes of foster care placements. Having a parent with an anxiety disorder or depression also increases a child’s risk of developing an anxiety disorder, and John’s mother has both of those–that’s why she’s been hospitalized for so long.

Mary is an 8 year old healthy-appearing female. She is referred to the environmental health clinic after routine screening at her school suggested a high probability of lead and mercury exposure.

Mary lives with her paternal grandmother since her mother was imprisoned for sale of controlled substances and child endangerment and her father died in an automobile accident soon after. The grandmother seems quite controlling, but reports that she has changed household routines in response to Mary’s fear of sleeping alone.

Reminder: this is not the story of a real child. I have made it up myself for educational purposes.

Probable outcome? Mary is at high risk of developing an anxiety disorder. Exposure to environmental contaminants increase a child’s likelihood of developing subsequent problems with anxiety. Like John, she has experienced multiple separation events, with her mother being sent to prison and her father dying soon after. Over-controlling parenting, such as she is getting from her grandmother, also increases the risk of developing an anxiety disorder. “Family accommodation,” or changes made to group behavior in response to a child’s early anxiety symptoms, also increase the likelihood of developing an anxiety disorder, so despite the use of “but” in the example, this is not a good thing for this kid.

Harry is a cheerful, outgoing adolescent who presents in the Emergency Department with exquisite point tenderness in the right femoral area after a fall experienced while practicing his newly-discovered passion for rock-climbing. His father died in Iraq when John was six months old. His mother remarried two years later, and she reports that John has been close to his stepfather ever since. He denies alcohol, drug, or tobacco use.

Reminder: this is not the story of a real child. I have made it up myself for educational purposes.

What does the future hold? Harry is at low risk of developing an anxiety disorder. He clearly does not have a fear of trying new things, and is not shy. Although he lost his father, it happened so early in his life that he probably did not experience it as a separation event–recall that his father was deployed to Iraq–and he has always had a close relationship with his stepfather. The lack of alcohol, drug, or tobacco use is relevant in that these kinds of substance abuse (and I say that as someone who cheerfully enjoys fine American tobacco products) are often associated with anxiety disorders.

English notes

To head something off at the pass: to take action in order to prevent something from happening. This is a cowboy thing: a pass is a narrow path at a low point in a mountain range that lets you get through the mountains without having to climb them. You can prevent someone from getting somewhere that they’re trying to go if they have to go through a pass to get there–they’re narrow, and therefore easy to block. Some examples of the use of this expression:

  • Dilbert tries to head off criticism of Trump at the pass by defining it as coming from some “other side.” (Source: Twitter)
  • The apologists for Trump & Trumpies sure managed to tone down his rhetoric & head off his bigotry at the pass, didn’t they. (Source: Twitter)

How I used it in the post: It’s usually easier to prevent something than it is to treat it, so it would be great if we could predict which kids are likely to develop chronic problems with anxiety, and head it off at the pass.

Now let’s look at some of the odd aspects of medical English:

to refer to: in this sense, to refer someone to a treatment facility is to send them to that facility for consultation by a specialist. Your insurance company will usually require you to have a referral from your primary care provider for this kind of thing. How I used it in the post:

  • He is referred to the psychiatry clinic because of bursts of tears and screaming when dropped off at school
  • She is referred to the environmental health clinic after routine screening at her school

to present with something: this expression is used to describe a patient’s state when first meeting with a health care provider. How I used it in the post:

Harry is a cheerful, outgoing adolescent who presents in the Emergency Department with exquisite point tenderness in the right femoral area after a fall experienced while practicing his newly-discovered passion for rock-climbing.

Burstiness in language and the liberation of Paris

In which language displays interesting statistical properties, some people get fired, and I learn a few words about the Army.

Twenty-plus years ago, I got my first job as an actual, card-carrying linguist, working for a company that did things with big collections of linguistic data, using them to improve computer programs that did speech recognition, i.e. figuring out what words a person is saying.

One fine day the people that gave us the vast majority of our income sent their big-collection-of-linguistic-data specialist to visit us. We demonstrated to him the computer program that we had built to answer the question how can you tell when a big collection of linguistic data is big enough? We pointed out how to spot the tell-tale sign on a graph that means “it’s big enough.” “Oh, that just means that linguistic data is bursty.”

The blue line shows a big collection of linguistic data that is not nearly big enough. The other lines show big collections of linguistic data that are big enough. The telltale sign: a line that has gotten flat. Picture source: Irina Temnikova, Negacy Hailu, Galia Angelova, and K. Bretonnel Cohen. “Measuring closure properties of patent sublanguages.” In Proceedings of the International Conference Recent Advances in Natural Language Processing RANLP 2013, pp. 659-666. 2013.

What did he mean by “bursty?” We had a guess, but weren’t exactly sure, and given that his company paid us a lot of money and he was their expert, my boss thought it best not to push back. A few months later, they declined to renew our contract, and our owner laid everyone off and went away to do something else. Was it because we didn’t push back on the big-collection-of-linguistic-data expert’s dismissiveness? Probably not–our little company committed far bigger errors, and on a sadly regular basis. Whatever–the job market for computational linguists was not terrible in those days (it’s pretty wonderful now), and I found my second job as an actual, card-carrying linguist pretty quickly. But: burstiness is pretty important, and it continues to bump into my life today, in various and sundry ways, some of which will be of interest to readers of this blog.

What burstiness means: per Wikipedia,

In statisticsburstiness is the intermittent increases and decreases in activity or frequency of an event.

Wikipedia, Burstiness

In plain English: burstiness is present when something doesn’t happen for long periods of time, but then happens a lot, and then goes back to not happening very often. Some things that have this characteristic: hurricanes, and pandemics. Statisticians care about burstiness because bursty things are difficult to characterize with normal statistics, so you have to come up with new techniques to work with them; people like disaster planners and public health experts care about those statistics because it is difficult to predict, and therefore to plan for, things that have weird statistical properties.

From a computational linguist’s perspective, burstiness is important because in big collections of language, you don’t see new words very often, but when you do, sometimes you see a lot of them at once. If you’re trying to do something like build a dictionary for a computer program, you typically do that by finding all of the words in a big collection of linguistic data. But, how do you know when your collection of linguistic data is big enough? See above; the problem is that if you kept growing the collection, you know that there will be bursts of new words, but you can’t keep growing your collection forever–at some point, you have to stop and work with what you have at hand.

Many of our dear fellow readers are engaged in learning a language that they don’t already speak. I am one of them–if you have been reading this blog for a few years, you have followed my feeble attempts to learn la langue de Molière, also known as “French.” By now I know the language well enough that I can pick up a book in it and not have to turn to a dictionary very often. But, when I do, it typically happens like this…

Right at this moment, I’m reading Paris brûle-t-il ?, “Is Paris burning?,” the work of reference on the liberation of Paris. I typically get through about three pages before I have to look up a word. But, then this morning, I’m reading about the French 2nd Armored Division rolling from Normandy to Paris when I come across this sentence. I had to look up all of the words in bold face:

Glissant en silence sur leurs six roues de caoutchouc, les automitrailleuses des spahis à calots rouges, “chiens de chasse” de la division, ouvraient la marche.

Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins, Paris brûle-t-il ?, published by Robert Laffont in 1964.
  • l’automitrailleuse: a light armored vehicle.
  • le spahi: native cavalry trooper of the Maghreb.
  • le calot: garrison cap in English; when I was in the Navy, we called them “cunt caps.” A calot has no brim or visor, and therefore can be folded flat and tucked under the epaulet of a military jacket.
A Russian garrison cap, or calot in French, pilotka in Russian.

After that, it was back to my normal rate: about one word every three pages. That certainly counts as “not very often,” and is pretty good for a non-native speaker. To then jump to three words in a single sentence, and then go back to my base rate of one word every three pages, is a good example of burstiness. Once again, we see why one might right a blog like this one–a blog about the statistical properties of language and their implications for people who are trying to learn one. What happened to the dismissive big-collections-of-linguistic-data expert? I don’t know for a fact, but I do know that people who are dismissive of the opinions of others don’t typically have much professional success. Personally, I took what I learned from the experience of working at a failed software start-up to do a better job of being a computational linguist, and have had a wonderfully fun time with it. Want to try a career in computational linguistics yourself? Start here if you are not a graduate student, or here if you are, and I hope you have as much fun with it as I have!

French notes:

Despite what its name would lead one to think, an automitrailleuse does not necessarily carry a machine gun. Here some pictures of modern automitrailleuses. You’ll notice that some of them look a lot like tanks. The salient differences are that (1) they weigh less, and (2) they have wheels, not treads.

How we’re sounding stupid today: On the propriety of examples

My first language is (American) English, but I speak French well enough that if I want French people to believe that I’m an American, I have to convince them of it. Comparing and contrasting French and American political appartenances helps, as does my ability to explain the difference between felonies and misdemeanors and how they affect the length of your prison sentence. Why it doesn’t occur to me to just speak English with them, I couldn’t tell you–I’ll have to try it some time…

My ability to speak French well doesn’t mean that I don’t make absolutely stupid mistakes, though. Case in point: propreté and propriété. One means “cleanliness” and one means “property,” but if I need to say either “cleanliness” or “property” in French, which of those two words propreté and propriété will come out of my mouth is pretty random. How random? I’d guess a 50/50 chance for either of them. So, how often do I say the right/wrong word? Let’s figure it out.

First, we have to make some assumptions. Assumption #1: the probability of me needing to say cleanliness and the probability of me needing to say property are equal. If we don’t make that assumption, then we have to adjust the calculation of how often I say the wrong word to account for how often each of those two words get said. By me. In French. Complicated? Yes. Hence: Assumption #1.

Assumption #2: the probability of me saying the right word and the wrong word are equal. Otherwise, we have to adjust our calculations of how often I say the wrong word to account for different probabilities for each. By me. In French. Complicated? Yes. Hence: Assumption #1, and Assumption #2.

With those assumptions in place, let’s figure out the possible outcomes in a situation where I need to say one of those words: “cleanliness:”

  1. I need to say “cleanliness” and I say propreté (the right word)
  2. I need to say “cleanliness” and I say propriété (the wrong word)

We have two possible outcomes (that’s the technical term), so the probability of either of them is 1/2, or 0.50, or 50%.

It works the same way if I need to say “property”–there are two outcomes:

  1. I need to say “property” and I say propreté (the wrong word)
  2. I need to say “property” and I say propriété (the right word)

Back to our original question: how often do I say the right/wrong word? Well… we need to change the question. To wit: to know how often I say the right/wrong word, we would need to know the probability of me saying every word that I say, and calculate the probabilities of me getting them right/wrong.

However: I don’t give a fuck about that. What seems funny to me about the fact that I am equally as likely to fuck up the words cleanliness and property is that they’re so fucking…common. I mean, I don’t have a problem with the vocabulary for talking about, say, why we have the Electoral College or why Beaux Arts Victorian houses aren’t built any more, but I can’t talk about the fact that if my little corner of New Orleans gets flooded in the next couple days, I am going to have some hot, sweaty, bug-infested work ahead of me as soon as I can get a plane ticket back there. Yes, friends and family: I am safe and sound in Colorado.

Note to self: propreté is pretty close to propre, “clean”–maybe that can help me remember? And for practice (just in case writing this blog post wasn’t enough), here are some sentences to practice with, courtesy of the Sketch Engine web site, your home for fine linguistic corpora and the tools for searching them. Scroll down for the answers:

  1. Je suis en train de vendre ma ______.
  2. Il y a des efforts à faire concernant la ______ de la piscine.
  3. Comment conserver la ______ d’une salle de bain ?
  4. Dans les années 60, on a étudié les ______ de trous noirs.
  5.  La couleur blanche est rattachée généralement à la pureté et à la ______ .
  6. Balai vapeur hyper polyvalent – pour plus de ______ dans la maison !
  7. Ton corps même n’est pas ta ______ ; comment pourrais-tu posséder le Tao ? (See Taoist scripture for an explanation.)
  8. Les jeux vidéo ne sont pas la ______ exclusive de ces hommes blancs cishétéros.
  9. Les oreilles : vérifiez régulièrement la ______ des oreilles de votre chien.
  10. Actuellement la ______ appartient à la commune.
  11. Tous les jeux flash présent sur le site restent la ______ de leurs auteurs respectifs.
  12. Votre langue, cher monsieur Walder, est révélatrice de l’état de ______ du sexe de votre femme, point barre.
  13. Les sanitaires sont d’une ______ immaculée et il y a même des machines à laver.
  14. …les métaphores qui transposent certaines ______ d’une catégorie à une autre : “l’homme est un loup pour l’homme”…
  15. Entretien des trottoirs : Chaque Soiséen est responsable de l’état de ______ du trottoir qui borde sa ______.
  16. Nettoyage: Les frais de nettoyage (50,00 Euros) vous seront rendus à la fin de votre séjour selon l’état de ______ de la ______.
  17. Un matériau aux multiples ______ – résistance, ultra______ – et qui s’adaptent aux dimensions de vos projets.
  18. Il n’a cependant pas les ______ ou la ______ du biométhane naturel.

Picture source: Scroll down for the answers to the exercise!

  1. Je suis en train de vendre ma propriété.
  2. Il y a des efforts à faire concernant la propreté de la piscine.
  3. Comment conserver la propreté d’une salle de bain ?
  4. Dans les années 60, on a étudié les propriétés de trous noirs.
  5.  La couleur blanche est rattachée généralement à la pureté et à la propreté .
  6. Balai vapeur hyper polyvalent – pour plus de propreté dans la maison !
  7. Ton corps même n’est pas ta propriété ; comment pourrais-tu posséder le Tao ? (See Taoist scripture for an explanation.)
  8. Les jeux vidéo ne sont pas la propriété exclusive de ces hommes blancs cishétéros.
  9. Les oreilles : vérifiez régulièrement la propreté des oreilles de votre chien.
  10. Actuellement la propriété appartient à la commune.
  11. Tous les jeux flash présent sur le site restent la propriété de leurs auteurs respectifs.
  12. Votre langue, cher monsieur Walder, est révélatrice de l’état de propreté du sexe de votre femme, point barre.
  13. Les sanitaires sont d’une propreté immaculée et il y a même des machines à laver.
  14. …les métaphores qui transposent certaines propriétés d’une catégorie à une autre : “l’homme est un loup pour l’homme”…
  15. Entretien des trottoirs : Chaque Soiséen est responsable de l’état de propreté du trottoir qui borde sa propriété.
  16. Nettoyage: Les frais de nettoyage (50,00 Euros) vous seront rendus à la fin de votre séjour selon l’état de propreté de la propriété.
  17. Un matériau aux multiples propriétés – résistance, ultrapropreté – et qui s’adaptent aux dimensions de vos projets.
  18. Il n’a cependant pas les propriétés ou la propreté du biométhane naturel.

English notes: In my defense, a big part of my problem, I would guess, comes from the fact that English has the word propriety. The Merriam-Webster web site gives these synonyms for it: decencydecorumform. Examples:

  1. Zipf, I’m not sure about the propriety of that example about the cleanliness of Mr. Walder’s tongue.
  2. President Obama was the very *model* of propriety. Never once did he say or do anything to make America ashamed of him. (Source: Twitter)
  3. Even inside the nation’s prominent law firms preparing to help President Trump wage a legal war challenging the results of the election, concerns are intensifying about the propriety and wisdom of working for Trump, the New York Times reports. (Source: a tweet from the San Francisco Chronicle)

Computational linguistics and misinformation

Computational linguistics takes on the infected swamp that the World-Wide Web has become

In the late 1990s, I worked at a start-up. At the time, it was one of the 25 largest web sites in the world.

Why “largest web site,” and not “biggest web site?” English tends to use “big” to refer to physical objects, and “large” to refer to abstract concepts. Note that I said “tends to”–this is a statistical tendency, not an absolute.

Like a lot of people working for internet-related businesses or causes, we thought that we were making the world a better place. The World-Wide Web was going to democratize so much–access to information, democratization of everyone’s ability to communicate their message to a broader world.

20+ years later, we all realize that everyone includes a lot of assholes. From a former president of the United States to random evil-doers in the former Soviet Union, there are people who use the technologies that so many of us well-intentioned people worked so hard on to spread hate, to attack democracy, to spread lies.

Misinformation: things that are not true. Disinformation: deliberately created untrue things. Unlike a simple mistake, misinformation is widely spread about. Unlike a lie, disinformation is widely spread about, too. “Diffused,” if you prefer a technical term. “Propagated.”

People like me who had a hand in developing the kinds of technologies that assholes use to propagate misinformation and disinformation have–belatedly, I would say–begun to try to address the kinds of problems that we helped create. One of these is a shared task on detecting online misinformation. A “shared task” involves a bunch of computer-sciencey-types getting together to define a task–say, finding emails that would be relevant to a court case. They come to an agreement about the definition of the task, about the right contents for a shared data set on which to evaluation performance on that task, and a metric for evaluating performance on it. You put together a schedule, everybody goes off and builds a computer system for doing the task, you distribute the data, and on some agreed-upon date, everybody submits their systems’ output to the people who organized the task. Then everyone gets together for a workshop in which we compare systems, compare outputs, and see what we can learn from those comparisons.

A day or two ago, an email appeared in my inbox about just such a shared task. Its goal is to deal with misinformation on the Internet. That’s a pretty goddamn big thing to take on, though, isn’t it? So, the participants agreed on a subpart of the misinformation problem that is a bit more tractable:

The TREC Health Misinformation track fosters research on retrieval methods that promote reliable and correct information over misinformation for health-related decision making tasks.

Right away, we know some of the ways that the organizers have defined their hopefully-tractable task definition:

  1. The word retrieval suggests that participants will be given a set of documents, and that their output should be documents from that set. This mimics the basic structure of the World-Wide Web: a set of documents (on a loose definition of the term “document”) that users search in order to find information.
  2. The word health-related suggests that participants will not need to be able to deal with every possible kind of misinformation–only health-related misinformation. This makes the task considerably more (potentially) achievable, and given the amount of misinformation that has recently been spread on health-related issues such as the current global COVID19 pandemic, there is potential benefit to the world as a whole if it can be accomplished. (Notice how I snuck in there the inference that health-related is a word, not a something…more than a word? I don’t actually think that–just showing you how discourse works.)
  3. Promote reliable and correct information over misinformation refers to a common aspect of any “retrieval” task (see #1 above): your system is expected to present not just a set of documents, but a ranked list of those documents. Think about it like the page of results that Google gives you when you do a search: you want the most relevant web page to be at the top of the page, not at the bottom, right? So, that’s what the shared task organizers are asking your system to do: rank correct information over misinformation. Of course, if all of the web pages that your system presents to the user are correct, then that is wonderful. (Normally only the top results are considered in terms of scoring your system’s performance.)

Want more details? See the TREC Health Misinformation Track web page. Note that all opinions expressed in this post are mine, and they especially do not represent those of TREC, the Text Retrieval Conference, an organization that has run shared tasks for…over twenty years now, wow… And if you feel like slapping a computational person of my advanced age for having helped to create the stinking swamp that the World-Wide Web has become: go for it. But, also recognize that computational linguists are trying to do something to…wait for it…drain that swamp.

The picture at the top of this post is from an article published by the New York Times on April 13th, 2020.

How computational linguists think about birds

Ask A Computational Linguist: Do “talking” birds have a catalogue of phonemes that they can and can’t (or do and don’t) say?


While listening to our budgie, Tucker, declaim last night, I realized that although he parrots English, he doesn’t say any words with “th.”
Do similarly verbal species, like African grays, have a catalogue of phonemes that they can and can’t (or do and don’t) say?

BTW, I watched a cute video on YouTube of a budgie from Japan. It’s immediately clear that he’s parroting Japanese, not English, just from the sounds. You could probably tell me why.


In lieu of my normal English notes, I have added links to the definitions of the various and sundry low-frequency words in this post.


Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any reason that a “verbal” bird would be unable to produce any sound.  My recollection from grad school is that their mechanism of “talking” works very much like that of a speaker, so within the limits of engineering, I can’t think of any limits.  Two questions come to mind for me:

1. Perception on the part of the parrot: to reproduce something, they presumably need to be able to hear it, which moves the area of discussion from the presence or absence of productive capabilities to the question of the presence or absence of perceptual abilities. Especially relevant in that th-sounds are of pretty low amplitude, so they fall into the category of sounds that you might be unlikely to be able to perceive, if you indeed had limits on perception, be they related to the anatomy of your ears or to what your brain does to process sounds.
2. Perception on the part of the human: it is within the realm of possibility that the bird is making the sound in question, but that the humans in the room aren’t hearing it.  
Finally: here is a delightful paper on mynahs.  More specifically: on one mynah, which points you toward my skepticism about the general state of research on verbal birds. 


Some relevant videos from Jeff:

A budgie speaking Japanese

One speaking Russian

A collection of similar videos for miscellaneous languages

Incidentally, in A budgie speaking Japanese… One speaking Russian, the “one” is an instance of what is called “one anaphora.”

I’ll shut up now.

The picture at the top of this post shows the location of the syrinx, the organ that “talking” birds use to produce their vocalizations. It is from this blog post on the Those with Pycnofibres blog.

Stupid questions, the Paris Métro, and some vocabulary

Yes, Virginia, there IS such a thing as a stupid question.

To the extent that the attention economy is a major cash cow, Quora is making a mint off of me. (See the English notes below for an explanation of the various and sundry linguistic oddities in that sentence.) I have trained myself to spend very little time on social media, and now that my native land no longer has a president who does not seem to be clear on the facts that Australia is our friend but Russia isn’t, and has complete and sole control over the world’s largest supply of nuclear weapons, I typically don’t check the newspapers more than twice a day. Quora, though–it can suck me down rabbit holes for hours. It lets people pose questions. Anyone. On anything. Anything. And anyone who feels like answering, can.


A common saying in English: there’s no such thing as a stupid question. When do people say it? When other people start questions with something like “this is a stupid question, but…” …followed by a question. There’s certainly some truth to that. In fact, asking “stupid” questions was the only way that I survived graduate school. Graduate students tend to be terrified to ask any question that they fear might reveal that they don’t know everything. But, since I am covered with tattoos (not unusual for young folks these days, but very unusual for people of my advanced age), I go through life on the assumption that everybody assumes I’m stupid anyway, so why not ask questions? As one of my professors said to me in a very short note that accompanied my A- grade in Syntax 102, which was much higher than I actually deserved: You asked the questions that other people were afraid to ask.

So, yeah: you, Dear Reader, are smart, and if you have a question, other people around you do, too. They won’t think that you’re stupid if you ask it–they might very well thank you for asking it.


So, yeah: the “no such thing as a stupid question” claim is not totally without merit. Absolutes are not often correct, and “no such thing” is most definitely an absolute. My personal candidate for questions that truly are stupid would be questions that assume something that is completely wrong, without any apparent awareness of the assumption. Case in point: this question that I ran across on Quora today…

Why are people allowed to pee in the Paris Metro? It always stinks.

Source: some dumbass on Quora

In fact, the Paris metro does not always stink. But, more pertinently: people are not allowed to pee on the Paris metro. Responses to this kind of stupid question should begin by countering the false assumption, as does this one:

People are not allowed to pee in the Paris Metro. If you see someone peeing there, it is either someone who is living there because they are homeless, or (MUCH less commonly), someone who is very drunk.

This blog post will tell you a bit about the smells of Paris, but before you go read it, think about this: people do not pee in random places in metro stations. Homeless people are careful to pee in the gutters that run along the bottom of the walls to keep water from building up on the “quais” (I don’t know the English word—the platform, maybe?) during wet weather. If you see someone peeing in the stairs or someplace stupid like that, they’re drunk, not homeless.

Source: some dumbass on Quora

…and with that rant off my chest, it’s time to step outside with a cup of coffee to enjoy a fine American tobacco product and watch the lizards frolic, ’cause Louisiana. But, first: English notes!


English notes

To the extent that the attention economy is a major cash cow, Quora is making a mint off of me.

cash cow: something that produces a lot of income very reliably.

to make a mint: to make a lot of money. A mint is a place where money is (physically) produced. Where bills are printed, where coins are struck. (Now there’s an obscure lexical item for ya!) The expression has some weird behaviors related to the verb to make, but before we get to them, let’s see its basic use:

  • Hey now, that film was game-changing. Do you realise how many genuinely terrible found footage films we would probably have been denied if Blair Witch hadn’t come out of nowhere and made a mint? Source: this tweet
  • My sister, a former rare book dealer, made a MINT selling new retirees bulk stock to open the used bookstore of their dreams in Vermont. They’d last 6-18 months… Source: this tweet
  • when this dude retires, he’s gonna make a mint doing sports talk in pittsburgh. i don’t mean that as a compliment. Source: this tweet.

In the last two examples, we see that you can specify what was done to make the money: selling new retirees bulk stock to open the used bookstore of their dreams in Vermont, doing sports talk in Pittsburgh.

There is another way to specify what caused that money to be made. In this case, you will use something that is a noun (or close to one), introduced by off of, or just off:

  • My paternal grandfather made a lot of money off of attractive young women. (True–family scandal.)
  • I made no money at all off of the sale of my first house. (Sadly, also true.)
  • You can’t make money off dreams. (Not true.)

So, now we go back to the first sentence of this blog post: To the extent that the attention economy is a major cash cow, Quora is making a mint off of me. Clear now?


The notions of cash cows and of making money off of things reminds me of this vignette from Jacque Prévert’s epic poem Encore une fois sur le fleuve and its “gros vieux monsieur qui a fait une misérable fortune dans les beurres et dans les œufs”:

Et la Seine continue son chemin

et passe sous le pont Saint-Michel

d’où l’on peut voir de loin

l’archange et le démon et le bassin

avec qui passent devant eux

une vieille faiseuse d’anges un boy-scout malheureux

et un triste et gros vieux monsieur qui a fait une misérable fortune dans les beurres et dans les œufs
Et celui-là s’avance d’un pas lent vers la Seine en regardant les tours de Notre-Dame
Et cependant

ni l’église ni le fleuve ne l’intéressent mais seulement la vieille boîte d’un bouquiniste
Et il s’arrête figé et fasciné devant l’image d’une petite fille couverte de papier glacé

Elle est en tablier noir et son tablier est relevé une religieuse aux yeux cernés la fouette

Et la cornette de la sœur est aussi blanche que les dessous de la fillette
Mais comme le bouquiniste regarde le vieux monsieur congestionné celui-ci gêné détourne les yeux et laissant là le pauvre livre obscène

jette un coup d’oeil innocent détaché

vers l’autre rive de la Seine

The photo of Jacques Prévert at the top of this post is from 1977, and is one of the last. It is copyrighted by Agence France Presse. I found it here:

Pictures worth a thousand definitions

Google Images is not the *best* thing to happen to language learning, but it’s pretty fucking good sometimes.

Google Images is not the best thing to happen to language learning, but it’s pretty fucking good sometimes. Case in point: today I wanted to know what joufflu means in French. I might forget the definition I read, but I won’t soon forget the pictures that Google Images gave me when I searched for it:

Le Président, joufflu aux pommettes rosées, l’air austère, me regarde dans les yeux sans laisser paraître aucun sentiment.

Henri Charrière, Papillon

I wanted to check my guess that a cuistot is closer to a short-order cook than to a chef–Google Images pretty much confirmed it:

Picture source:

You’re confused because WordReference says that a flingue is a gun, but the Frenchies around you keep using it to refer to pistols? Google Images will straighten you out–turns out WordReference doesn’t quite have it right this time:

Is, as they say, a picture worth a thousand words? As a scientist, I’m always skeptical of exact numbers, but it’s certainly worth a lot of definitions…

English notes

Joufflu is a noun–there’s also a feminine form, joufflue. According to my Quillet (a damn nice dictionary, by the way), it’s a person qui a les joues pleines. As far as I know, there is no equivalent noun in English. We would use the adjective chubby-cheeked if we didn’t mean anything bad by it, and jowly, from the noun jowl, if we did.

Now, I know what you’re about to ask: does the noun jowl come from joue (French for “cheek”)? I mean, we stole, like, 80% of our vocabulary from French (the percentage varies depending on whether you’re talking about the contents of a good dictionary or the (relatively) common vocabulary of everyday life–we rarely escape from Zipf’s Law), so why not this word, looking as much like joue as it does?

Merriam-Webster says otherwise. It’s helpful here to know that the noun jowl has multiple, but related, meanings. Here’s the most common one:

usually slack flesh (such as a dewlap, wattle, or the pendulous part of a double chin) associated with the cheeks, lower jaw, or throat

Merriam-Webster entry 1

Note that it includes the cheeks–that’s why it comes to mind for me in this context–but, other parts, too. Most pertinent to the current question: the throat. For this specific meaning, Merriam-Webster postulates the following etymology:

alteration of Middle English cholle, probably from Old English ceole throat

Merriam-Webster, again

Where it gets surprising to me is that the second entry has a different etymology for a related, but different, sense. Here’s entry 2 for jowl:

1a: CHEEK sense 1

b: the cheek meat of a hog

2a: JAW especiallyMANDIBLE

b: one of the lateral halves of the mandible

more Merriam-Webster

…and its etymology as per Merriam-Webster:

alteration of Middle English chavel, from Old English ceafl; akin to Middle High German kivel jaw, Avestan zafar- mouth

…and yet again, Merriam-Webster

Two distinct etymologies for two pretty clearly related senses of the same word? Well: we are occasionally visited here by an actual lexicologist, and a good one (with whom I had the pleasure of having a nice cup of coffee a couple weeks ago, but that’s another story). See the comments below for his response (I hope)!

Who comes to mind for me when I think of the word “jowly:” Richard Nixon. He used to be thought of as the worst American president EVER–his much-later successor Trump has certainly restored Nixon’s reputation… Picture source:

…and one more thing, and I’ll shut up. Here’s a recording of Henri Charrière, author of the quote that I gave you above for the word joufflu. Charming Ardèche accent (I think it’s ardèchois–Phil d’Ange?):

“Haunted by what I did:” English irregular verbs, and some metaphors

“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:

to bewaswere
to makemademade
to burstburstburst
to leaveleftleft
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.

…and along the way, we’ll cover some vocabulary items, as well. The article, titled ‘I’m haunted by what I did’ as a lawyer in the Trump Justice Department, is by Erica Newland. It appeared in today’s New York Times (December 21st, 2020). Ready? C’est parti !

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 rushed out 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.

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