Bibliography management: A lesson in casual written American English

Research-funding grants are the lifeblood of most academic research, and nowhere more so than in a medical school.  I’ve been in the same lab at the same medical school for 15 years, and we’ve been a pretty stable group for some years now; we have an excellent funding record, so you’d think that we’d have the grant-writing process functioning like a well-oiled machine.  In a lot of ways, we do–at this point, everyone knows their role in the process, and we can write a good grant fairly quickly.  Seulement voilà, technology paradoxically slows us down.  Here’s an email that I wrote addressing our technology problem, with some possible solutions.  What do you care?  You probably don’t–unless you’re either studying or teaching English, as many of the readers of this blog are.  For you, here’s my email, written in a high-casual register of American English, with lots of typical lexical features of that kind of writing.  I’ll give you an annotated version that explains some of the weirder quirks of the language, and then the full text of the email.

 

Annotated version: English notes

Over the past few years, we’ve struggled with the citations and bibliographies of our grant proposals.  From a technical perspective, the issues have been that (1)

we write our grants in Word, (2) we used EndNote for years, but it eventually pretty much stopped working, for reasons that we were never really able to discover/fix, and (3) we tried Mendeley, which worked OK for individuals, but we were never able to get the group sharing functionality to work well, which is a problem for us, since the writing of our grant proposals has generally been a group effort.
WordEndNote, and Mendeley are commercial products that are widely used either for writing (Microsoft Word) or for managing citations (EndNote and Mendeley).
Our recent solution has been to have one person do all of the citation management for everyone.  
The interesting thing here is the noun phrase all of the citation management.  Normally, in informal writing (as on this blog), I would write that as all the citation management, without the preposition of.  Both are acceptable, at least to some speakers; if a speaker only accepts one of them, it will be the version with the preposition.  Presumably I used the version with of here, despite the fact that I tend to use the version without it, because I was writing at the high end of the casual register (since it’s a work-related email), and because I often adjust my writing style somewhat when writing stuff that I know will be read by non-native speakers, as is the case in our lab.
This has not been hyper-efficient, as the citations come from (potentially lots of) different people, and you have to repeatedly exchange the document containing the research proposal back and forth between whoever currently has the conch and the person who’s managing the citations.
ralph
Ralph with the conch. Picture source: https://goo.gl/xGRO94

Having the conch is a reference to the important/horrifying movie The Lord of the Flies, from Sir William Golding’s important/horrifying novel of the same name.  It’s the story of a group of British schoolboys who find themselves marooned on an island and quickly revert to a state of what one might call “savagery” if it weren’t for the case that “savages” typically behave a hell of a lot better than the aforementioned British schoolboys.  In the story, the boys find a conch shell, and whoever is holding it gets to speak without interruption.   One of my professors in grad school used the expression when managing data elicitation sessions in our courses on linguistic field work, and it stuck with me.  Incidentally: the French word for conch is le bulot, which is interesting because (a) it’s a minimal pair for the [u/y] vowel contrast that Americans can typically neither hear nor produce (and I include myself in that, despite having gotten a master’s degree for a thesis on phonetics and subsequently living on and off in France for the past three years), and (b) if you know the word, you can order conch in French restaurants, and it is really good.

 It’s hard enough to manage the conch-holding, and when you add the problem of passing the document back and forth between that changing person and the person who is managing the citations, it all becomes a bigger hassle than it seems like it ought to be.  
The interesting point here: is a hassle big, or large?  In theory, the two words are synonyms, but in practice, they have very different patterns of usage.  These differences are a matter of statistical likelihood, versus invariant patterns–you could see either big hassle or large hassleand I actually initially wrote this as large hassle, but it didn’t feel quite right, and I changed it.   You can read about a nice study on how the big/large thing works in English here; briefly, big tends to be used for objects, while large tends to be used for quantities.  A “hassle” is not an object, but neither is it a quantity; I guess that the not-a-quantity thing won here.
I suggest here some options, and will state up front that I advocate option (2).
1) Continue the system where we have a single person who manages the citations.
2) Bite the bullet and move from Word to LaTeX.  
leo-cullum-i-believe-in-traditional-western-medicine-bite-this-bullet-cartoon
“I believe in traditional western medicine. Bite this bullet.” Picture source: https://goo.gl/3GE7Ea

To bite the bullet: to do something that you know is going to be unpleasant and that you have been, and/or would like to, put off until a later time.  As far as I know, the way that it’s typically used is the way that I used it here: you follow it with the word and, and then follow that with a verb phrase that refers to the thing that you don’t want to do.  The expression comes from the old cowboy movie stereotype where the hero gets operated on without anesthetic, and to keep himself from screaming in pain (wouldn’t be manly), bites down on a bullet during the surgery.  I’ll just point out that this would be hyper-stupid—if you wanted to break a tooth, biting down hard on a bullet would be an excellent way to do it.

Costs/benefits of the two options:
1 (continue what we’re doing): I’ve laid out the costs out above.  The benefit is that we already know how to do this.
2 (move to LaTeX): The cost: not all of us are comfortable with LaTeX.  Crucially, Mandelbrot has historically not been thrilled with it, which is important not only because he’s the boss, but because as the PI, he is the one who is doing the last-minute editing, which makes his efficiency crucial at the moment when efficiency matters the most–that is to say: at the last minute.  The benefits: (1) the BibTex citation management system for LaTeX is hyper-good, and (2) we now have a mechanism for letting multiple people work simultaneously on a LaTeX document, as we recently bought a lab license for ShareLatex.  
Mandelbrot is a reference to Benoît Mandelbrot, a French/American mathematician who showed that Zipf’s own explanations of Zipf’s Law were super-unlikely to be correct.  I’ve used his name here to anonymize my boss’s name.  LaTeX is a typesetting language that is often used by scientists to write their articles; back in the days when Google was new, one of our natural language processing profs used it as an example of how word sense ambiguity could lead to getting very NSFW (Not Safe For Work) results for an innocent search.
Cordially,
Zipf

The entire email

Hello, folks,

Over the past few years, we’ve struggled with the citations and bibliographies of our grant proposals.  From a technical perspective, the issues have been that (1)

we write our grants in Word, (2) we used EndNote for years, but it eventually pretty much stopped working, for reasons that we were never really able to discover/fix, and (3) we tried Mendeley, which worked OK for individuals, but we were never able to get the group sharing functionality to work well, which is a problem for us, since the writing of our grant proposals has generally been a group effort.
Our recent solution has been to have one person do all of the citation management for everyone.  This has not been hyper-efficient, as the citations come from (potentially lots of) different people, and you have to repeatedly exchange the document containing the research proposal back and forth between whoever currently has the conch and the person who’s managing the citations.  It’s hard enough to manage the conch-holding, and when you add the problem of passing the document back and forth between that changing person and the person who is managing the citations, it all becomes a bigger hassle than it seems like it ought to be.  
I suggest here some options, and will state up front that I advocate option (2).
1) Continue the system where we have a single person who manages the citations.
2) Bite the bullet and move from Word to LaTeX.  
Costs/benefits of the two options:
1 (continue what we’re doing): I’ve laid out the costs out above.  The benefit is that we already know how to do this.
2 (move to LaTeX): The cost: not all of us are comfortable with LaTeX.  Crucially, Larry has historically not been thrilled with it, which is important not only because he’s the boss, but because as the PI, he is the one who is doing the last-minute editing, which makes his efficiency crucial at the moment when efficiency matters the most–that is to say: at the last minute.  The benefits: (1) the BibTex citation management system for LaTeX is hyper-good, and (2) we now have a mechanism for letting multiple people work simultaneously on a LaTeX document, as we recently bought a lab license for ShareLatex.  
Cordially,
Zipf

I bought some t-shirts

I bought some t-shirts because French people do not hate Americans.

cg_34_shirt
Picture source: beartshirtcompany.com

When I was in the Navy, I was in the habit of starting an overseas cruise by buying a small pile of t-shirts with my ship’s name on them.  I would trade them with random people–barmaids (by nature, I am shy, but I can fake outgoing when the occasion demands it), sailors from the navies of other nations, whoever.  By the time I transferred to shore duty, I had quite the collection.  One day I threw them all in the washing machine.  A red shirt from Sardinia bled, and I took them all out of the washing machine a sad shade of pink.  It was the last time in my life that I’ve ever owned a piece of red clothing.



French people do not hate Americans.  This fact comes as a surprise to plenty of Americans.  I know this because plenty of my countrymen ask me some version of the following:

Isn’t it hard to be an American in France?  The French hate Americans, right?

In fact, the opposite is true.  No one, be they American or French, is “average.”  But, on average, you will meet about as many French people who hate Americans as you will meet Americans who hate French people, which is to say: hardly any, ever.  Ironically, there is a non-zero proportion of French people who think that Americans hate the French, too.  You will meet as many…well, I just told you: hardly any, ever.

Where do these beliefs come from?  I can only guess.  Certainly there is some very small number of Americans around who are old enough to remember a time in the late 1960s when if you wandered into a bar in a solidly Red neighborhood in the ceinture rouge (the “Red belt,” the ring of mostly Communist suburbs that surrounded Paris at the time) wearing a military uniform, you might have gotten some dirty looks.  Of course, you would have gotten similar dirty looks if you had wandered into many American bars frequented by hippies in the late 1960s wearing a military uniform, too–that’s about being on the left in the 1960s (for context, I’m both on the left and a veteran of nine and a half years in the American military), not about being French.  And, certainly there are many French people my age who can remember a small number of overly-publicized stupid Americans talking about “cheese-eating surrender-monkeys” and renaming their French fries and French toast to freedom fries and freedom toast.  (I have no idea what they called their French windows, French braids, French presses, or French kisses, if they were cool enough to get to French kiss anyone, which seems unlikely.)

What’s the truth?  The French in America: to Americans, French people are, first and foremost, super-sexy.  As Gerard Depardieu’s character put it in some movie whose name I have long since forgotten: begging an American character not to destroy his life in America, he says something like this: “In France, I’m a nobody.  Here, I can read the phonebook out loud, and women throw themselves at me.”  (Do I need to explain what a “phonebook” is?  Scary…)  Of course, every high school (lycée) student knows that American girls hate the French girl exchange students–because the American boys all fall in love with them.  If there is one piece of advice that I have for every French speaker of English: do not, not, not work too hard to lose your French accent.  In America, it will be your loveliest charm.

Americans in France: women are not exactly throwing themselves at me in droves in Paris, but from what I’m told, American accents are considered pretty adorable here.  This is another thing that surprises Americans: they are mostly convinced that the French can’t stand to hear French spoken with an accent.  As I point out to them: to speak French with an American accent, you have to actually speak French.  Butchering “komente alay voo” isn’t going to be enough to get you a date with that pretty French girl/French boy/French bulldog, or at least it isn’t going to be enough based on your Midwestern vowels alone.  But, for the American in France, it goes beyond adorable accents.  Europeans in general, and most certainly the French, have a sense of history for which we have no analogue in the United States, and many Americans who have visited Normandy, where the Allied forces landed during World War II, have told me of random Norman shopkeepers, restaurateurs, and passersby saying to them Thank you.  Thank you for what you did during the war–and I’m not talking about Americans who are old enough to have actually been there, either.

So, my t-shirts… I own very little in the world, but back in the US, I have an entire dresser full of t-shirts.  They’re mostly souvenirs–a visit to the Kodokan, a much-loved bookstore in Manhattan, the summer that I had one of everything on the menu at a wonderful ice cream shop in Ohio—and almost every one of them has something written on it–in English.  They’ve always been my go-to upper-body coverings, along with the sweatshirts that I habitually live in when I’m on the road, which mostly have the name of some university or another on them.  But, I’ve stopped wearing those things in France.  The reason: I got tired of random drunks stopping me on the Paris streets to tell me how much they love America.  This was super-cute the first 20 times or so, but one day I was sunning on a cafe terrace absorbed in a book when a drunk came over to tell me how great the United States is, and I thought: I find the atypical-in-Paris open friendliness charming, but at some point in this particular journey, I just wanna be left alone to mind my own business like my fellow parigots.  

image
Picture source: me.

My solution: the other day I walked to the shopping mall in the ritzy part of my arrondissement (which is by no means my part of my arrondissement) and bought a small pile of t-shirts.  There’s a photo of them below.  As you can see, they have nothing written on them.  That’s their point–to give me a bit of anonymity in Paris: because the French most definitely do not hate Americans.

 


English notes

countryman: someone from a specific country–typically used with a possessive pronoun.  Examples:

  • Friends, countrymen, voters: Every republican who has released a statement so far supports Trump‘s firing of Comey. This is unacceptable.  (Twitter)
  • I feel unhinged thinking that I’m here, working, faking normalcy while my countrymen are being terrorized and slaughtered in Marawi.  (Twitter)
  • Trump is a disgrace to our countrymen and a laughingstock to the world racking up criminal charges worldwide.  (Twitter)
  • Thanks. Researching the life of your remarkable fellow countryman was a pleasure and a privilege for me. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Hezký den!  (Twitter)
  • My dear countryman, you remind me how little our culture has advanced.  (Twitter)
  • Trump supporters have taught their children that it’s ok to stab your fellow countrymen in the back if it advances your agenda.  (Twitter)

Pool boys and reduction: how to understand spoken American English

Sordid tryst followed sordid tryst. Then there was some phonology. Want to understand what “gonna” means? Read on.

Some years ago, a beautiful summer afternoon found a much younger and cuter me at a picnic, chatting with a new acquaintance.  We quickly switched from English (my native language) to Spanish (not my native language), at which point he began telling me, in great detail, about what a slut his wife was.  Story of sordid tryst followed story of sordid twist–she even fucked one of the pool boys on our honeymoon…  


Linguists often split words into two categories: content words and function words.  Content words are words that you could think of as having a fixed meaning–nouns, verbs, and adjectives, for the most part.  In contrast, function words tell you things about grammatical and semantic connections–the, to, not–and include words without fixed meanings.  That means pronouns–I, we, she…

In languages that have stress, function words are often unstressed.  That makes them more likely to be misunderstood, or not to be understood at all.  It’s sometimes a problem even for native speakers of such languages, and it can be a really big problem for non-native speakers.  This lesson was brought home to me in a big way when I realized that I’d been confusing the pronouns that my interlocutor was using in our Spanish-language conversation.  He wasn’t telling me what a slut his wife was–he was telling me what a slut he was.  I even fucked one of the pool boys on our honeymoon…


This loss of distinctiveness of pronouns (and other function words) is an example of a process called reduction, which leads to things having a range of ways that they could be pronounced, some of which are less distinct than others.  Reduction processes are rampant in spoken American English, and they can make the language pretty difficult to understand if you’re not a native speaker.  I’m trying my hand at putting some videos together that aim to help people learn to understand these reductions.  You can find the second one, on the topic of the reduction of going to to gonna, at the link below.  If you’re as mystified by spoken American English as I am by spoken French, check it out–I’d love to have feedback on what does and doesn’t work, whether that be here on this blog, or in the Comments section on YouTube.  Unfortunately, I haven’t figured out the whole subtitle thing, and I’d like to know to what extent that does or doesn’t interfere with the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the video.  Any input at all would be appreciated, though!

Want to know more about reduction in American English?  Check out my video on the pronunciation of “let me” as “lemme:”

Achtung Baby

The history of scientific publication suggests that Trump’s travel ban could reduce the use of English as a scientific language. Here’s how it would happen.

I took organic chemistry in the 1980s.  Our very American professor enjoyed throwing the occasional German terminology at us.  What? You don’t speak German??, he would tease us.

It actually wasn’t that far-fetched of an idea.  (Far-fetched explained in the English notes below.)  Germany was a powerhouse in the early development of the science of chemistry, and German was the language of publication of a significant amount of the chemical research literature for a large chunk of the 20th century (and even more in the 19th).  Doctoral programs have traditionally required the demonstration of a certain amount of foreign language proficiency, and it wouldn’t have made much sense for our professor not to have studied German as one of his foreign languages while getting his PhD.

Today, German is not a player in the world of scientific language.  A lot of things contributed to that outcome.  Its decline started during the First World War; its use as a language of scientific publication picked up in the inter-war period, and it actually wasn’t much affected during the period of the Second World War, but it slowly dropped off after that, with English picking up all of the slack.

As Michael Gordin explains it in his surprisingly interesting Scientific Babel: How Science Was Done Before And After Global English, of the changes that the Second World War brought to the status of German as a scientific language:

…the most immediate and perhaps the one with the longest-lasting consequences [was] the rupture of the graduate student and postdoctoral exchange networks….One of the most salient indications of the importance of German science [before the war] was the centrality of German universities as the destination of choice for foreign students…. Travel by scientists to and from Hitler’s Germany became much harder.

Gordin describes the outcome of all of this disruption of scientific communication from the older generation to the students:  These networks [of collaboration and exchange of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows] did not reassemble until after the war, and they reassembled with the United States as the hub.  The decline of German as a language of science was not fast–but, it was complete.  In 1920, just under 45% of scientific publications were in German.  By 1970, that number had dropped to 10%.  In the 1980s, when my organic chemistry professor was teasing us for not speaking German, it was the language of publication of under 5% of scientific journal articles.  As of 2005, it was barely above zero.

Fast-forward to 2017, and Trump keeps trying to make good on his campaign resolution to do the most un-American thing imaginable–to keep people out of the United States on the basis of their religion.  (Muslims, at the moment, but it could just as well be Catholics, or Jews, or Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Mormons, or Hindus, or…)  The effects of this have been far-reaching, on every level from the very personal (say, my friend’s father–he’s a green card holder, and the United States is his home, but he went back to Iran to visit family and was not allowed to board his plane back to the US) to the macroeconomic level (reasonable estimates of job losses if he manages to get his unconstitutional crap past the judicial system range from just over 50,000 to just over 130,000–see here for a nice analysis).

Screenshot 2017-05-15 06.44.36
Change in average number of authors per paper in a typical computational linguistics conference. What you should notice: the average number of authors has always been more than one.  Source: Mariani, Joseph, Patrick Paroubek, Gil Francopoulo, and Olivier Hamon. “Rediscovering 15 years of discoveries in language resources and evaluation: The LREC anthology analysis.” In Proceedings of LREC, pp. 26-31. 2014.

In my little corner of the world–scientific research–the effect has been to call into question the ability of Americans to have international collaborations.  Here’s the thing about my field–computational linguistics, which in the case of myself and my colleagues, we use to do things like predict epilepsy surgery candidates, find targeted cancer therapies, and understand suicidality: nobody works alone.  There are almost no “single-author” papers in our field–that is, research work that’s published by just one person.  Here’s some data from a study on publication patterns by Joseph Mariani et al. of the Laboratoire d’Informatique pour la Mécanique et les Sciences de l’Ingénieur:

[T]he number of papers with a single author was 11% in 1998 and went down to 3% in 2012, while the number of papers with 3 authors or more was 70% in 1998 and went up to 82% in 2012. This clearly demonstrates the change on the way research is conducted, going progressively from individual research investigations to large projects conducted within teams or in collaboration within consortia, often in international projects and programs.

This is why you’re reading blog posts that I write from all over the world: I travel so much because I work with people everywhere.  At the bottom of this post, there’s a list of the countries of origin of the people with whom I have current, ongoing collaborations: there are 25 of them.  (That’s 25 countries, not 25 people.)  That’s not an unusual number–that’s just how science happens these days.  And that’s a good thing: there’s lots of reasons to think that the more people are involved in a research project, the better the quality of the research will be.  It’s not a too-many-cooks kind of thing.

So, what does Trump’s travel ban mean for science?  It’s a big, fat problem.  Part of why I am a very productive researcher–over 100 publications to date, and a system in use in a neurology clinic right at this moment–is that I can freely bop around the world to work with people, and they can freely bop around the world to work with me.  Seulement voilà, the thing is: even while it’s being held up in the courts, the Molester in Chief’s attempts to ban travel are choking scientific collaboration.  People think twice about coming to the US these days, and people in the US think twice about leaving for fear that they won’t be able to get back in.  My last post talked about the specifics of how just one little linguistics conference is trying to cope with the issue; for a broader perspective, here are some news stories on the topic:

Where can this lead?  As Kevin Murnane recently put it in Forbes:

Science will not wither and die because Donald Trump preaches fear and his response to fear is to pick up the welcome mat, lock the doors and windows and hide inside.  What may fade, however, is the position the US has long held as a world leader in science as scientists from all fields look to other countries where freedom of thought and the free exchange of ideas is not curtailed….

Kevin Murnane, “Trump’s travel ban threatens to turn the US into an international scientific pariah,” Forbes.com

nagasakibomb
Atom bomb exploding over Nagasaki.  We built one, Germany didn’t; we won the war (although we certainly didn’t drop it on them).  Picture source: By Charles Levy from one of the B-29 Superfortresses used in the attack. – http://www.archives.gov/research/military/ww2/photos/images/ww2-163.jpg National Archives image (208-N-43888), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56719

One of my colleagues, a major figure in computational linguistics for some years, put it more succinctly: I’ve said for decades that U.S. world academic leadership was only thanks to the effect of WWII on Europe, and was not guaranteed to last.  This is the opposite of what Trump promised to do–“make America great again.”

The title of this post, Achtung Baby, comes from the U2 album of the same name.  Personally, I don’t use the term “Nazi” to refer to Trump–I reserve “Nazi” for people who are willing to put children in gas chambers.  Nonetheless: ignoring the similarities between the damage that Trump is trying to do to English-language science and the damage that the Nazis did to German-language science would just be stupid.  Below you’ll find English notes, and for thoroughness, a list of the countries of origin of the scientists with whom I, personally, have collaborations, just to show you what the scale of the matter is.


English notes

to be far-fetched: to be not very believable, or to be not very likely to be true.  Some examples:

  • Although they have been successful in preclinical and clinical partial regeneration of dental tissues, whole-tooth engineering still seems to be far-fetched, unless certain shortcomings are addressed.  Source: Recent advancements in regenerative dentistryby P. Amrollahi et al.
  • It has been revealed that mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) express some of the nicotinic receptor subunits. Moreover, the crosstalk between MSCs and neutrophils is not far-fetched. Therefore, the aim of the present study is to determine the role of nicotine on the effects of MSCs on neutrophils.  Source: Nicotine can modulate the effects of the mesenchymal stem cells on neutrophils, by S. Pourtayeb and S.M. Abtahi-Froushani.
  • The need for equipping healthcare security officers with tourniquets may seem far-fetched, but it is not, according to the author, because such officers in their role of first responders may well face situations where they have to administer such first aid to save lives and limbs.  Source: Tourniquet use by security officers, by T. Naito.


Just to give you an illustration of how large of a role international collaboration plays in how science is done today, here’s a list of the countries of origin of scientists with whom I, personally, have collaborations, many of them going back years.  For context: I am a US citizen on the faculty of an American medical school.

  1. Albania
  2. Argentina
  3. Australia
  4. Austria
  5. Belgium
  6. Bulgaria
  7. China
  8. Denmark
  9. Ethiopia
  10. France
  11. Germany
  12. Greece
  13. India
  14. Italy
  15. Japan
  16. Korea
  17. Nigeria
  18. Poland
  19. Romania
  20. Russia
  21. Spain
  22. Switzerland
  23. Tunisia
  24. Turkey
  25. United Kingdom

 

 

Just one little linguistics conference

Trump’s un-American attempts to block immigration on the basis of religion have far more effects than might be obvious. Here’s one of them.

walks-avm
HPSG representation of the English verb “walks”, as in “she walks”. Picture source: https://goo.gl/YRKyzJ

In the constant buzz of news about Trump’s various and sundry evils, with their implications for the entire world–Syria, Korea, China, Russia–it’s easy to lose track of the fact that all of this crap has implications for the daily lives of millions of individuals, in ways both large and small.  I came across the email that you’ll see below today while cleaning out my email inbox.  Sent in February of this year, it’s a letter from the organizers of a scientific meeting that will take place in the US this summer.  HPSG is Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar, an approach to modelling syntax that’s popular amongst computational linguists.  In one of those small-world things, I took my second semester of syntax from Carl Pollard, one of its creators.  He gave me an A-, which was much higher than I deserved.  Along with my grade, I got a little note, which read as follows: You were willing to ask the questions that everyone else was afraid to ask.  (Don’t get excited–my questions were primarily along the lines of What does X mean?)      

Not being sure whether or not you’ll be allowed into the country to attend an academic conference is not nearly as bad as, say, the situation of a green-card-holding Persian friend of mine who went to the airport in Tehran the day that the first executive order was signed–and wasn’t allowed to come home to the United States.  But, you heard stories like his on the news.  Here’s a view of the crappy situation that you might not have run into.  This is just one little linguistics conference–multiply it by…multiply it by a lot, and you get a view of just one of the effects of Trump’s un-American immigration-related crap.  Obscure vocabulary items explained in the English and French notes below.

Dear HPSG Colleagues,

As you are probably aware, towards the end of January the US President, Donald Trump, issued an executive order which sought to suspend entry to the United States for all refugees for 120 days; to bar Syrian refugees entirely; and to block entry to the United States to citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for a period of 90 days. This order has been widely condemned by academic and scientific bodies, including the Linguistics Society of America (LSA, see below), and the constitutional legitimacy of this order been challenged in the courts. It is not clear what the outcome of this challenge will be.

This is directly relevant to this community because the 24th annual HPSG conference is scheduled to take place at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, in the USA (between 7-9 of July).

The main implications for this community are: first that scholars and researchers from the affected countries may not be able to attend the conference; and second that scholars and researchers from countries not directly affected by the executive order may withdraw from the conference as a form of protest against it, and in solidarity with those who will be affected by it (e.g. by not submitting papers, not attending the conference, refusing to serve on the Programme Committee, declining invitations to be guest speakers).

Given this, the Standing Committee (whose primary task “is to see that the yearly conference is organized, preferably at accessible places”) have been discussing whether the location of the conference should be changed to somewhere outside the USA.

After considerable thought, and consultation with the Local Organizer, we have decided that it should not be changed. One reason is that simply moving the conference would not avoid the problems that the executive order raises (e.g. it will prevent citizens of the affected countries who are US residents from leaving the US, because they will not be certain of their right to re-enter the US).

We appreciate that this decision will be contentious, as would the decision to move the conference, because it raises the issue of how one should respond as an individual or an academic to the actions of governments that can be seen as violations of human rights and which have the effect of inhibiting open international dialog and which are therefore damaging to the whole scientific enterprise. Questions about whether one’s opposition should take the form of continuing to engage constructively, or of boycotting? Which is more likely to be effective in a particular case such as this?

These are questions for individuals, and we think it is unlikely that a consensus will be possible, even in a community such as this. We absolutely respect the right of individuals to respond to this situation as they see fit (e.g. by refusing to serve on the Program Committee, refusing to attend, etc.).

From a practical point of view, we will be exploring the possibility of providing remote access for any potential attendees who are unable to attend in person because of this ban.

Best wishes,

Nurit Melnik
Chair, HPSG Standing Committee



English notes

contentious: “causing or likely to cause an argument; controversial” (the definition returned by Google–I don’t know the source)

How it appeared in the post: We appreciate that this decision will be contentious, as would the decision to move the conference, because it raises the issue of how one should respond as an individual or an academic to the actions of governments that can be seen as violations of human rights and which have the effect of inhibiting open international dialog and which are therefore damaging to the whole scientific enterprise.


French notes

contesté ou controversé: potential translations for “contentious” (from WordReference.com)

Microchips and lexical semantics

When’s the last time you saw a dog shoot a bunch of kids at a grade school, or post a video of someone beheading someone else on Twitter, or vote for Trump?

I’m not necessarily that crazy about people, but I like animals.  (Except for man-eating rabbits–I hate man-eating rabbits.)  Seriously, when was the last time you saw a dog or a cat sell a teen-ager drugs, or kill a bunch of kids at a grade school (yes, this happened in the US), or vote for Trump (that happens in the US, too)?   Yes, my dog bit a couple people on the croupion when they walked into the house uninvited.  Yes, my cat once pooped in my favorite sandals.  But, rip off a tourist visiting from a foreign land?  Sell someone a counterfeit Beanie Baby on eBay?  Video someone beheading another living person in the name of God, and distribute it on Twitter? Only a human would do that.

Consequently, when I’m in the US, I carry a leash and a can of cat food in my car.  Dogs love cat food, and when I see an obvious runaway/lost dog trotting down the street, I pull over and offer him a whiff.  I can usually catch them, and I’ve gotten maybe 12 or 15 dogs back to their happy homes in the 20 years (almost) that I’ve been in my current town.

how_microchip_works
Picture source: https://goo.gl/EvXwQz

Something that makes this a hell of a lot easier is if people have had their animal microchipped.  In this context, a “microchip” is a little thing about the size of a grain of long-grain rice that a veterinarian injects under a dog or cat’s skin.  They don’t notice it in the least, as far as I can tell.  A veterinarian can wave a sort of wand over it, and it will send off a signal with an identifying number.  The vet sends the number to a company, the company sends back contact information from the owner, et voilà: Spot is home in time for dinner.  It’s quite wonderful, really.


This sign’s been around for a while.  I walk by it on my way to the train station after work.  The effort to get him back to his happy home will definitely be a lot easier than it would have been otherwise: Hector has been chipped.  Check out the poster, then scroll down, and let’s talk about how it’s interesting from a linguistic point of view.

img_0442

The linguistically cool thing is at the bottom: Hector est Pucé.  What that means: Hector has been chipped.  Now, we know that that’s going to increase the chances of Hector making his way home, but it’s cool from a linguistic point of view, too.  Recall from this blog post that French has a class of verbs that relate to undoing some noxious state of infestation–dératiser (to exterminate the rats in something), dénicotiniser (to remove the nicotine from something), and the like.  The interesting thing that we noted about these verbs is that they share an odd set of characteristics:

  1. They all have an -is– added on to the end.
  2. They all describe the reversal of a state of affairs that a human could create, but wouldn’t be expected to.
  3. None of them has a corresponding verb for creating that state of affairs.  That is, there is no ratiser, nicotiniser, etc. (or that is the claim, at any rate–read the other blog post if you don’t agree).

Now, puce, the word that is being used for a microchip here (it’s also the word for the chip on your credit card), comes from puce, a flea.  There is a verb épucer, to deflea, which clearly doesn’t fit the pattern of the verbs about which we just talked.  And, here’s an example of pucer!  Certainly the meaning here is to microchip, not to infest with fleas–but, it’s worth a second look and a quick blog post anyway, right?

I hope these folks have found their rouquin, their ginger (in the sense of red-haired).   I’d like to think that he’s found his way home.  If not: I hope he’s happily shacked up with some girl cat somewhere.  It would have to be a purely platonic relationship–in addition to being pucé, he’s also been neutered–but, a lifelong flirtation can be pretty exciting in and of itself.  The French are pretty damn good at that, too.

Want to be amused/horrified by the stupidity of the world?  Go to Google Images, do a search for microchips, and check out some of the “mark of the Beast” stuff that comes up.

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