01.13.08

expressiveness of Esperanto

Posted in Random thoughts at 11:14 am by ducky

Every once in a while I will see people who don’t speak Esperanto comment on how, since it is not a natural language, it is not as expressive.

With all due respect, I don’t think those people know what they are talking about. I have studied five natural languages (French, German, Dutch, Italian, and Spanish) and in my opinion, Esperanto is more expressive than any of them.

  • In Esperanto, not only are there very few (sixteen) formal rules, but also very few informal rules. For example, there is no formal rule saying whether you have to put adjectives before the noun or after. You could imagine that a social convention would evolve to put them one place or another, but in fact there is not. It is perfectly okay to put the words pretty much wherever you want them. It’s even rather seen as creative to do non-standard things while staying inside the rules! This means that there are very few things that you are not allowed to say, so the universe of things that you can say is bigger.
  • Verbing nouns is discouraged in English. In Esperanto, it is totally fine to verb nouns. (In fact, words have no part of speech until you put an ending on them, so it almost doesn’t make sense to talk about changing the part of speech.)
  • Esperanto allows compound words, meaning you can stick something like “zoo” and “keeper” to make “zookeeper”. This is different from French, where you are not allowed to smush words together; you have to say “the keeper of the zoo”.
  • Esperanto has a rich set of affixes that can get tossed into the mix, too.
    • In English, there are some words that end in “ery” to mean “place of” (bakery, penitentiary, tannery), but you can’t put that ending on most words. Carwashery, punishmentery, shoery, miseryery, jogery, and sleepery are all words that are not legal (and in fact look laughable) in English, but whose Esperanto equivalents would look and sound just fine.
    • The “mal” prefix (meaning “opposite”) is particularly useful for nuance. It allows you to easily distinguish between neutral negation (using the word for not, “ne”) and a more active negation using “mal”. In English, you can say “I don’t like X” or “I dislike X”, but both carry the connotation that you dislike X. In Esperanto, “mi ne ŝhatas” is distinctly different from “mi malŝatas”. “Mi ne ŝatas X” means that I am neutral about it: I don’t like it, I don’t dislike it. “Mi malŝatas X” means that I dislike it, which you could translate as “I hate X”, but that would be too strong. To express hatred, you would put the enlarging suffix on it: “me malŝategas X.”

      There are words in English for the opposite of liking (dislike or hate), but there are not opposites for most words. For example, there is no word for the opposite of sitting. You might wish to distinguish between a neutral not-sitting (I happen to be standing, lying, walking, whatever, not that important) and anti-sitting (I am actively avoiding sitting, perhaps because my bottom is sore). In English, you can get the idea across, but it is convoluted. In Esperanto, you can express the difference easily with “mal” and “ne”.

There is another, completely different form of expressiveness where Esperanto totally excels: the ability to learn the language well enough to express yourself in it. In some sense, it doesn’t matter how expressive some constructs of a language are if you can’t master those constructs. After seven semesters equivalent of college French, I wasn’t able to express myself as well as a 9 year old native speaker. In Esperanto, you can get fluent much, much faster. (In natural languages, you spend an enormous amount of effort learning the things you are not allowed to say. In Esperanto, zero.)

The only thing that I can see as a “problem” is that it might be harder to be ambiguous in Esperanto. In English, because the structure of the language makes nuance more cumbersome to express, it is perhaps easier to be ambiguous. (Does “I don’t like it” mean dislike or neutrality?) I see this as a feature in Esperanto, not a bug: I would rather have to put effort into being ambiguous and have clarity be easy than the reverse.

I will admit that Esperanto is pretty useless from a tourist perspective, but it is absolutely fantastic from a pedagogical perspective — much like LISP. The chances of being able to get a job programming in LISP are only slightly higher than your chance of being able to order in Esperanto in a restaurant, but learning either will help you understand languages in that domain (computer or human) much better than learning most other languages in that domain.

Also note that studying a natural language is pretty worthless from anything but a tourist perspective. Nobody in France speaks Beginning French.

Disclaimer: I haven’t spoken much Esperanto in 30 years. This post is based on my memories of a summer of Esperanto when I was 12, including a week at an Esperanto summer camp.

01.12.08

funny statistics?

Posted in Canadian life, Random thoughts, University life at 11:30 pm by ducky

Last night, my beloved husband and I went to see Zarqa Nawaz (the creator of Little Mosque on the Prairie) speak at our local gorgeous performing arts hall.

Her talk was wonderful and funny and thought-provoking — I’m really glad I went.

One of the points that she made was that when a Muslim does something bad, there are cries about how this is just one more example of how Islam as a religion is repressive/bad/evil/ugly/whatever, but nobody tars Christianity or white culture if someone white does something bad. One thing that she mentioned was that the leading cause of death of pregnant women in the US was homicide, but that nobody talks about how US culture is brutal to women

I was shocked by the statistic. But thinking about that this morning, I started to wonder about how meaningful that statistic was. What else are pregnant women going to die of?

  • If a woman is pregnant, she’s not going to be old, so she is much less likely to die from diseases of old age. Pregnant women probably don’t die of heart disease very often.
  • If a young woman has some nasty illness, she’s probably not going to be pregnant. Either her body won’t have the resources to get pregnant, or she’ll have the baby and take steps to not get pregnant again, or the illness (or medications) will cause her to lose the baby.
  • Pregnant women usually don’t put themselves in dangerous situations. Women generally don’t hang out in war zones, mine coal, drive trucks, or enter motorcycle races once they find out they are pregnant. (And before they find out they are pregnant, they might also get missed by the statistics.)

While yes, it is bad that homicide is the leading cause of pregnant women in the US, I’d like to see how it compares to US women of childbearing age who are not pregnant, to US men of the same age, and the same numbers for different countries.

I did a little digging, and found some stats at the Violence Policy Center (VPC) and some stats at the US Bureau of Justice (BOJ):

  • Black women were more than three times as likely to be murdered than white women.
  • Women were more than 11 times as likely to be murdered by a man they knew than by a stranger (VPC).
  • When the woman knew her murderer, 60% of the time, it was an intimate or ex-intimate according to VPC.  However, according to the Bureau of Justice, about a third of women were killed by their intimates.  (Maybe the difference is due to different classification of “intimates”.  VPC includes ex-intimates.)
  • Only about three percent of male victims are killed by their intimates (BOJ).
  • In 90% of the cases where the race of both victim and murderer were know, the woman was killed by men of a different race!!! (BOJ)
  • The number of women killed by their intimates in the US was pretty stable for 20 years, and then started falling in 1993.  It’s at its lowest point ever right now. (BOJ)
  • The number of men killed by their intimates in the US has been falling steadily and dramatically for the past 30 years. (BOJ)

11.03.07

divergent reactions

Posted in Random thoughts at 12:19 pm by ducky

I blogged about divisions over the proper reaction to a programming contest entry; recently something similar happened at UBC. In this case, however, it was a group of resource management people.

At the relatively new Aquatic Ecosystems Research Laboratory, they obtained the skeleton of an orca, which they hung suspended from the ceiling of the atrium. This was kind of a big deal — orca skeletons are a bit rare — so they threw a party to note its installation.

Well, before the party, someone somehow managed to put a stuffed seal into its mouth! The building’s denizens were deeply divided by this.

About a third of the people thought that it was disrespectful to put the seal in its mouth.

About a third of the people thought that it was really funny.

The remaining third looked up and said, “But, but…. that’s a Ringed seal, and orcas don’t eat Ringed seals!”

10.30.07

Drat.

Posted in Random thoughts at 3:55 pm by ducky

Drat. This study says that vitamin D is not as good as the previous study I mentioned showed. Vitamin D does help against colon cancer, it says, but nothing else.

Drat.

10.20.07

consonant clusters

Posted in Random thoughts at 3:38 pm by ducky

A few people and I were sitting at breakfast talking about consonant clusters. Some languages — like Maori — are syllable-oriented: their words are pretty much consonant-vowel, consonant-vowel, consonant-vowel.

English, on the other hand, frequently has consonant sounds with no vowels in between, like school (S.K.oo.l) or desk (d.eh.S.K). I’m talking about sounds here, not letters, so taxi has a consonant cluster (t.aa.K.S.ee) in one letter, while phase has two letters but no consonant cluster (F.ay.z).

We got to wondering what the biggest sequence of consonant phonemes we could come up with in English was. The talented Bryan Theissen came up with sixth street (s.ih.K.S.TH.S.T.R.ee.t), which has six in a row. (Yes, yes, it’s two words, but I’m looking at spoken language, and there are no pauses between words.)

I did some searching on the Web and found that some Slavic languages have six consonants in a row (and they seem to mean spoken consonants, not just written), but I couldn’t find anything about seven (spoken) consonants in a row in any language. I wonder, is six consonantal phonemes the most that humans’ vocal production systems can handle?

10.15.07

Why don't women go into Computer Science?

Posted in Random thoughts, Technology trends at 4:56 pm by ducky

UBC CS Prof. Rachel Pottinger‘s door has an article asking Why Women Become Veterinarians but Not Engineers. Fifty years ago, both were highly male-dominated fields. Today, women get about 3/4 of Vet Med degrees, while only about 1/5 of CS degrees. Maines doesn’t have an answer, but she does a good job of making the question interesting.

Right after I read Maines’ article, I read an article titled Is There Anything Good About Men by Roy F. Baumeister. It probably would have been better titled, “What are Men Good For?” The answer in the picture he paints is “taking risks.” He acknowledges that at the top end of the society, men dominate. To a very good first approximation, men are in charge. Presidents, CEOs, generals, Nobel Prize winners are usually men.

However, he points out that men are overrepresented at the both ends of society. He says that prisoners, the homeless. and people killed on the job (including soldiers) are also usually men. Interestingly, both the Nobel prize winners and the mentally retarded are more often male than female.

He goes on to develop his thesis more, but the basic idea is that men and women might have the same average ability at something, but that the distribution is usually much “fatter” for men than women. There are more men taking risks than women. Sometimes they succeed wildly; sometimes they fail wildly. Women hold down the middle ground, neither failing nor succeeding spectacularly.

Now go back to CS vs. Vet Med. I contend that CS has a much higher risk associated with it than Vet Med. If you don’t keep right on top of emerging computing technologies, it is really easy to get obsoleted in CS. The whole industry has changed several times in the past twenty years. Meanwhile, the architecture of the dog has not changed much in the past 200 years.

Even if you stay current with computing technologies, you aren’t guaranteed safe harbour during the high-tech world’s booms and busts. There is always the threat that someone else will release a product that will put you out of business, in part because the cost of distributing the product is so low. It is hard to imagine, however, how Microsoft could release a new product that would eliminate the need for someone to put antiseptic on Fido’s cut. The “distribution cost” of applying a bandage is very high.

The high-tech world is also more sensitive to fluctuations in consumer tastes and consumer confidence. While someone might delay buying an iPhone because they were nervous about their job getting cut, very few people euthanize their cat because money is tight.

It might be, then, that one way to make CS more attractive to women would be to make it less risky. Unfortunately, even though I have a pretty good imagination, I can’t think of how to make the high-tech world less risky.

10.06.07

Elaine's cookies

Posted in Random thoughts at 3:35 pm by ducky

Elaine’s Cookies

If I recall correctly, the “Elaine” is Elaine Donotov, who lived down the street from us when I was just a wee child. She probably doesn’t remember me, and might not even remember my mom… but these are the best cookies in the whole world. This recipe makes a ton of really really dangerous cookies.

P.S. Apologies for the American measurement units. It’s how I got the recipe…

Melt together:

  • 1 pound butter or margarine
  • 1 pound brown sugar (which I have listed as about 2 1/3 cups brown sugar, but that doesn’t “feel” right to me)

Let the butter-stuff cool for a bit. While it is cooling, beat together

  • 3 eggs
  • 2 tablespoons vanilla

Get the dry-stuff measured out into a very big bowl and mix it all up.

  • 6 cups rolled oats
  • 1 cup wheat germ
  • 1.5 cups flour
  • 1 cup milk powder
  • 1.5 teaspoons baking soda

By the time you mix the egg-stuff together and then mix the dry-stuff together (not with each other!), the butter-stuff should have cooled down at least a little.

Mix the egg-stuff with the butter-stuff. NOTE! If you put the egg-stuff in too-hot butter-stuff, the eggs will curdle. (I found on the web that eggs curdle at about 180 degrees Fahrenheit.) You need to either let the butter-stuff cool way down or mix the butter-stuff slowly into the egg-stuff. Take a very small quantity of butter-stuff and drizzle it into the egg-stuff, stirring madly. Repeat, repeat, repeat, until the egg-stuff is very diluted with the butter-stuff. At some point when you get bored, you can decide it’s diluted enough, and dump this mixture into the butter-stuff and mix it in.

Dump all the egg-butter-stuff into the dry-stuff. Toss the egg-butter-stuff pot into the sink, you’re done with it.

Wash your hands, they are about to get dirty.

Go mix the egg-butter-stuff with the dry-stuff. It will feel like it’s more liquid and sticky than it ought to be. Don’t panic. Mix it all up as best you can, a little more, and then go wash your hands again. Get all the egg-butter-stuff off of your hands.

Now, magically, when you stick your hands in the batter again, the batter won’t stick to your hands nearly as badly. I’m not quite sure how this magic happens, but it does.  (Maybe because the butter-stuff has cooled down?  Maybe because the dry-stuff absorbed some butter-stuff?) Oh sure, you can make the batter stick to your hands, but it’s not nearly as bad as you feared about five minutes ago.

At this point, you could put walnut-sized drops of dough on a cookie sheet and bake them. However, this recipe makes a lot of cookies, and if you eat all those yourself today, you will need to buy new trousers. And if you bake them all, you will eat a good fraction of them. So instead, wash your hands again and tear out about ten pieces of wax paper about 20-30 cm wide.

Roll “logs” of cookie dough between your hands. I like to make the logs about 2-3 cm in diameter, and slightly shorter than the wax paper. You might need to make two half-logs and join them together. That’s okay, they will live.

When they are all snug in the wax paper, toss them in the freezer and take out as needed.

Cut the logs into slices about .5 cm thick, pop them onto cookie sheets, and cook them at some temperature until they are done.

I hear you complaining that that isn’t very precise. It isn’t, sorry. I don’t have written down what to use, and the oven that we just cooked them in is kind of flakey… so I’m not sure. Just try something and pay close attention the first time. I think I cooked these at something around 325 degrees Fahrenheit for around twenty minutes, but I’m not completely sure about that.

Good luck sayings

Posted in Random thoughts at 3:34 pm by ducky

Different subcultures have different sayings.  Among performing artists, you say, “Break a leg!” to wish them luck.  Among pilots, you say, “Blue skies!”

We were eating with one of our dormmates who happens to also be a pilot.  She finished and stood up to go, groaning that she needed to go work on writing up her thesis.  So I wished her, “Blue screens!”

For some reason, she didn’t appreciate the thought.  🙂

09.28.07

Marc Olson, RIP

Posted in Random thoughts at 9:33 am by ducky

Marc Olson shot himself on Friday; I went to the funeral yesterday.

Marc was a good man, a happy man when I saw him last, about nine months ago, over lunch in Vancouver. He exuded happiness and success. While I didn’t know him extremely well, I had spent a bit of time with him and his family, as they owned the property next to my husband’s family’s vacation property out on Stuart Island. I remember them at a New Year’s Eve party, I remember setting off fireworks at his property, and other relatively banal but fun family-ish gatherings.

He was a pilot, so he and my husband had things to talk about. He had been the design manager for Microsoft Outlook 2002, so he and I had things to talk about. (He is the one who arranged for me to get an evaluation copy of Outlook 2002 when I was working on my book.)

I have been struggling to understand why he would shoot himself. He was professionally very successful, had lots and lots and lots of friends (literally hundreds of people came to his funeral), and I always knew him as a happy vigorous guy.

My best theory right now about why he killed himself is that it was the result of damage he sustained in his third, most recent, and I guess now final plane crash. The first time, he was on a grass strip, hit a bump, and the propeller nicked the ground. Props are so strong and planes are so light that it flipped the plane over. He walked away from that one with no damage.

The second time, he was landing on a sandbar, and I don’t remember exactly what happened, but his body sustained some annoying but easily survivable damage — like a broken ankle or something like that. He was also away from roads, so apparently it was a real pain to get him out, but he wasn’t badly hurt.

The third time, he ran out of gas just short of the runway, and had to land in the trees. While he didn’t break any bones, he was banged up pretty badly. I heard that he was able to walk to a road, flag down a driver, and get the driver to take him to a hospital. (Can you imagine being that driver? Having some bloody guy walk out of some trees to the road? Would you stop?) I heard that he lost so much blood that the doctors wouldn’t let him do anything high-altitude (including getting in a plane, even as a passenger) because he was low on hemoglobin. I heard that he had a head injury of some sort.

The best story that I can fabricate is that the head injury messed up his brain somehow, or that the steroids they fed him to help him heal messed up his brain chemistry…. because I just cannot imagine the Marc I knew killing himself.

So long, Marc — the world is a sadder, poorer place without you.

Addenda:

  • There is a more formal obit.
  • Keywords: Marc Alan Olson, Microsoft, funeral, death, suicide.

08.21.07

meme: non-Indo-European programming languages

Posted in Hacking, Random thoughts at 1:30 pm by ducky

I had a very interesting lunch yesterday with Dan Delorey, who is a PhD student at Brigham Young University and interning at Google Kirkland.  While we covered a wide range of topics, there was one meme of his that stuck with me through most of the (four-hour) drive home:  Almost all of the programming languages today were developed by men whose native tongues were Indo-European languages.  (Obvious exception:  Ruby, by Yukihiro Matsumoto.)

What would a language developed by someone with a non-Indo-European background look like?

What would a language developed by someone whose mother “tongue” was sign language?

I was reminded of something I saw ten years ago: a woman commented that if a woman had invented the WIMP interface,  there would have been two cursors.

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