November 2009

2009 11 29
Recently read: In the Land of Invented Languages

Posted by in: Books, Language

Arika Okrent. In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language

Why does language have to be so damn messy? Why do we have irregular verbs and inconsistently pluralized nouns and difficult to memorize and often arbitrary rules about the usage of prepositions and all the rest of it? The quirks of a language annoy and repel outsiders and almost as often stump native speakers too. And might this disorder in natural languages have consequences beyond the headaches involved in learning them? We have very muddled minds, do we not? Perhaps the muddle is linguistic in origin, and a clearer, more rational language would have us thinking clearer and more rational thoughts. And anyway, wouldn’t inventing an entirely new language simply be fun?

And so in a world already teeming with natural languages, many of which are suffering from neglect, we get people—a surprising number of people—who sweep all these languages aside in favour of new languages entirely of their own making. Arika Okrent’s In the Land of Invented Languages is a highly entertaining, insightful and well-researched look at several hundred years of attempts to construct artificial languages.

Okrent begins with early modern attempts to develop languages in which the names for things would indicate clearly what they actually were. (An artificial language with this ambition would use a term for a dog which would indicate precisely what a dog is, whereas our word “dog” denotes a dog simply by convention.) It’s an utterly nutty idea, and not just because you need to know how to break the entire universe down into categories before you can create, let alone speak, the language. It gives some sense of Okrent’s approach (and her goofy sense of humour) that the word she chooses to investigate is “shit,” and that she actually pulls off quite a nice discussion of some of the philosophical difficulties raised by her investigation.

As the dream of a language that would reflect the very structure of reality faded, many people retained a longing for the simplicity that an artificial language might offer. The most famous, and successful, of the attempts to produce a clear, rational artificial language is Esperanto, which is still spoken by many people today (though it seems to have peaked a while back). (Indeed, I know a guy who is fluent in Esperanto.) But there were, and are, an enormous number of rivals, many of which Okrent examines. And then there are modern languages developed to test theories of language (especially the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis). There is a language developed to embody a feminist perspective. And finally, there are languages invented as part of fictional worlds (Tolkien’s languages, which came before his books, Klingon, and more). Okrent does a great job of showing how these languages, and their strengths and their weaknesses, actually shed interesting light on natural languages. Recommended!

Howls of outrage (10)

2009 11 19

Posted by in: Music

On Friday Yoon will be performing a gig at the United Nations, of all places. (It seems I get to go to some sort of VIP party beforehand!) Details here. Briefly, it’s part of a larger simultaneous performance in San Diego, Banff, Belfast and Seoul, as well as New York. I’m told the music is avant garde improvisational stuff, which is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it sounds interesting, and they’ve got some really serious musicians on the gig.

Anyway, you can come too! It’s apparently being broadcast on the internet. If you scroll to the bottom of this page, you can get an RSVP for the web broadcast. The page says that space is limited to 200 people, but I hear that it’s been opened up since that information went up.

I’m looking forward to it. Yoon was a bit hazy on the details, but it sounds like they were rehearsing in the room they use for the general assembly, and I think that’s where they’ll be performing it. Neato!

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2009 11 12

For several years now I’ve been reading articles by Peter Galbraith in the New York Review of Books and elsewhere, and scratching my head at the mini-bio that accompanies the pieces. I knew that he had a consulting gig, and that that consulting gig took him to Northern Iraq, and that he was an advisor to the Kurds, and pretty damn tight with them. And it struck me as odd that the mini-bios didn’t really tip you off much about possible conflicts of interest. Here’s an example, from the NYRB:

Peter W. Galbraith, a former US Ambassador to Croatia, is Senior Diplomatic Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and a principal at the Windham Resources Group, which has worked in Iraq. His new book, Unintended Consequences: How War in Iraq Strengthened America’s Enemies, has just been released. (October 2008)

Doesn’t tell you much, does it?

Anyway, this irritated me just enough that I almost wrote a post about it a while back, going so far as to actually research the issue extensively (googled for 20 seconds). But I couldn’t figure out what his consulting group did, actually, and I thought it would be irresponsible to insinuate anything on a blog as widely read and respected as Explananda. (So much for citizen journalism.)

So it was with considerable interest that I just noticed this piece in the NYT about Galbraith. The NYT seems to be following the lead here of some Norwegian journalists (so much for NYT journalism). Anyway, here’s the lede:

Peter W. Galbraith, an influential former American ambassador, is a powerful voice on Iraq who helped shape the views of policy makers like Joseph R. Biden Jr. and John Kerry. In the summer of 2005, he was also an adviser to the Kurdish regional government as Iraq wrote its Constitution — tough and sensitive talks not least because of issues like how Iraq would divide its vast oil wealth.

Now Mr. Galbraith, 58, son of the renowned economist John Kenneth Galbraith, stands to earn perhaps a hundred million or more dollars as a result of his closeness to the Kurds, his relations with a Norwegian oil company and constitutional provisions he helped the Kurds extract.

In the constitutional negotiations, he helped the Kurds ram through provisions that gave their region — rather than the central Baghdad government — sole authority over many of their internal affairs, including clauses that he maintains will give the Kurds virtually complete control over all new oil finds on their territory.

Dude, that is one seriously sweet consulting gig. I was so distracted by the minor concern that Galbraith’s writing might be influenced by his consulting work for the Kurds, and was at least worth noting so that readers could make up their own minds, that I never even imagined a multi-multi-million dollar Norwegian oil angle.

Wowsers. Anyway, the article raises a whole bunch of ethical issues. I’m curious to see how the NYRB and other publications deal with this. Galbraith had an enormous financial interest in Northern Iraq as early as 2004. His readers should have been told this. The publications who published his writing should explicitly address this issue, and update their online archives to reflect those interests clearly.

UPDATE: The NYRB has this displayed prominently on their website now. Which is as it should be, I think.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2009 11 10
Recently read: The Philosophical Baby

Posted by in: Books, children, Philosophy

Alison Gopnik. The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life

I don’t think I’ve mentioned on here yet that Yoon is (19 weeks and one day) pregnant. I’ll try not to turn this into an awful baby blog, but the fact that I’m going to be spending a significant amount of time in the company of an infant come the Spring has got me interested in reading about babies.

The Philosophical Baby by Alison Gopnik (sister of the New Yorker’s Gopnik) tackles some really interesting questions: What is it like to be a baby? How do young children think, experience the world, view moral issues? Gopnik is pretty effective at challenging the classic view of children as cognitively defective adults. When you consider just how much children are absorbing, and how quickly, they start to seem anything but cognitively defective. Gopnik proves a thoughtful and engaging guide through some recent work by cognitive psychologists on these issues.

I thought the least effective part of the book was Gopnik’s discussion of morality and moral intuitions in children. Gopnik at least avoids confusing altruism and morality—they’re really completely different, the former being a kind of motivation, and the latter having to do with what we owe one another—as some writers sometimes do. But the connection between them seemed to me somehow muddled in parts of her discussion, as betrayed by a proliferation of vague expressions connecting them. I also noticed that her discussion of morality treated it as entirely concerned with what we owe other people. But that’s only half of it! Morality is also about what they owe us, and that side of it is important to understanding essentially moral emotions like indignation, to give just one example. It seems to me that there are also fairly rich and interesting connections between self-conception and morality (“Am I that sort of person?”) that would have served Gopnik better for reflection than the trolley problem, to which her discussion failed to add much.

But that’s just quibbling from a grad school drop out. This is a fun book, and people interested in kids and how they see the world will probably find lots here to enjoy.

Howls of outrage (3)

2009 11 07
Recently read: Thank you, Jeeves

Posted by in: Books

P.G. Wodehouse. Thank you, Jeeves.

Hmmmm, well, this novel, the very first full length novel in the Wooster/Jeeves series, does have its moments. Unfortunately, it also features the N-word and a plot that hinges crucially on Wooster’s wearing blackface. I don’t know—makes me uncomfortable, though as 1930s racism goes this is the mildest possible stuff. I still think the best place to start with Wodehouse is Code of the Woosters.

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