Wednesday, 30 December 2015

some groups of people don’t use their language properly

From Mapping Applied Linguistics: A Guide for Students and Practitioners by Christopher J. Hall, Patrick H. Smith, and Rachel Wicaksono:

You can substitute several adjectives here for variations on the same myth. Among the most common: some ways of using your language are more beautiful, more complex, more pleasant, more efficient, more logical, more civilized... Many such beliefs arise naturally because of mistrust of ‘the Other’, but in large part language judgements follow from the notion of a ‘standard’ form of the language against which all other varieties can be measured — and found wanting. But in what sense do standard languages exist? They certainly seem to exist in forms of discourse such as newspaper editorials, national language policies and school textbooks. Standard forms of language are appealed to, often when people feel that their national or regional identities or interests are being threatened. Despite the social power of the belief, standard languages don’t exist in the minds of individual speakers; rather, groups of speakers share different degrees of awareness of a set of conventions about what is acceptable, prestigious and desirable. Written language has played perhaps the most important role in ‘fixing’ these conventions as the basis for how others should write and speak.
An extension of this dead end is the belief that some languages are better than others, for example that some are harder or easier to learn, some are closer to God(s), some are more beautiful, more complex, more pleasant, more efficient, more logical, more civilized, etc. Descriptive linguistics and sociolinguistics are useful here to expose the patent nonsense of such beliefs, by comparing the same linguistic unit in different languages or dialects. This allows us to see how the same or a similar element of phonology, for example, can have different linguistic value in different languages, without requiring or entailing any measurement of efficiency, complexity, logic or aesthetics. The /l/ and /r/ sounds of English and many other languages are not differentiated by Chinese speakers, for example, just as the tonal features of Chinese can seem indistinguishable to speakers of atonal languages, such as English. And the ‘illogical’ double negative of many English dialects (‘I ain’t got none’) is part of the ‘standard’ versions of French and Spanish.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

lol my thesis

What, lol my thesis blog wasn’t updated for a month? That sucks. According to its creator, Angela Frankel,

Initially intended as a means of procrastination from my own thesis, this blog has documented some of the stress, hilarity, and chaos associated with undergraduate (and some post-graduate) theses.
In fact it serves to illustrate that most of the theses out there are simply not worth the paper they are printed on, or maybe even the disk space they occupy. They would be totally disposable if not for lol my thesis. Just think about that before adding “M.Sc.” or “Ph.D.” to your name. (What if I modify my CV by replacing “Ph.D.” with “Ph.D.LOL”? I don’t think anybody would notice.) Could it be that it’s not updated any longer because at long last people have realised that? I seriously doubt it.

Here are some of my favourites.

Friday, 25 September 2015

academia is a weird thing

This is one of the best writings on research academia I’ve ever read.

This week, I resigned from my position at Duke University with no intent to solicit employment in state-funded academic research positions in any foreseeable future. Many reasons have motivated this choice, starting with personal ones: I will soon be a father and want to be spending time with my son at home.

Other reasons have to do with research academia itself. Throughout the years, I have been discovering more and more of the inner workings of academia and how modern scientific research is done and I have acquired a certain degree of discouragement in face of what appears to be an abandonment by my research community of the search for knowledge. I found scientists to be more preoccupied by their own survival in a very competitive research environment than by the development of a true understanding of the world.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

zàijiàn, MX101x

After finishing the Spanish MOOCs, I thought I may try starting another language course at edX. I was in for a disappointment here. No languages apart from English and Spanish! Then — hey, what’s that? Starting, wait a minute, yesterday?

I have to say that learning basic Mandarin was not on my wish list, let alone to-do list. On the other hand, why not.

Now I’m sure you’ve came across many misguided opinions that rank Chinese among the hardest languages to learn. Take orthography. For instance, in Finnish, each phoneme (sound) corresponds to exactly one grapheme (letter), and each grapheme represents exactly one phoneme. On the opposite side of the spectrum, we find Chinese with no correspondence between graphemes and phonemes whatsoever. English and French fall somewhere in between. From this, one may conclude that Finnish must be easier language to master, compared to Chinese. Now let’s see, how many native speakers of Finnish versus Chinese are there? That’s right, 5.5 million vs 1.2 billion. Granted, one more Chinese speaker won’t make much difference, but why don’t give it a shot?

MX101x is a six-week course with estimated effort of 4 hours/week. Each of the six lessons contains the following sections:

  • Introduction
  • Vocabulary
  • Supplementary Vocabulary
  • Grammar and Sentence Patterns
  • Dialogue
  • Quiz (Homework)
  • Dictation & Cultural Notes
Each section, apart from the quiz, contains one or two videos. In addition, there is Workbook (four or five pages of exercises for each week; you are supposed to print it out) and Textbook (which is basically a transcript of the video lessons on Vocabulary, Supplementary Vocabulary, Grammar and Dialogues). Both Workbook and Textbook is available in both traditional and simplified Chinese. Well I don’t have a printer and to print out all of this elsewhere is too much a bother. Instead, for the first time in any edX course I did so far, I was taking notes. Which, I think, was useful because I’ve got to practice writing down the Han characters. On top of that (or shall I say on bottom of that?) there is Before You Start... section which explains tones, Pinyin, numbers, and traditional and simplified characters.

MX101x Chinese Language: Learn Basic Mandarin

  • Overview / syllabus
  • Before you start: tones, Hanyu Pinyin, Chinese numbers, traditional and simplified Han characters
  • Lesson 1: greetings; introducing yourself; countries and continents
  • Lesson 2: arrival to Taiwan
  • Lesson 3: checking in a hotel; things that can go wrong in a hotel and how to deal with them
  • Lesson 4: talking about food
  • Lesson 5: getting around; transportation
  • Lesson 6: intonation and tone; small talk; making friends; joking
  • Final exam

As you can see, the topics range from mundane/boring (how to say “the air conditioner in my room does not work”) to exciting and perhaps too subtle for this basic course (small talk). Vocab, grammar points and cultural notes are presented by a “talking head” of the course’s charming instructor, Estella Y. M. Chen. Most of the dialogues feature the very same Estella and an American tourist called Calwin. So if you expect some visuals of China, Taiwan and other places where they speak Mandarin, you’d better look elsewhere.

Some of the dialogues used the words which were not given in the vocab sections. This is all right, you don’t have to know all of them. But, while I was trying to figure out the meaning of those extra words, I made an important discovery. Google Translate works much better translating Chinese to English than, say, Russian or Spanish. Also, there is a number of ways of entering Chinese, including Pinyin and handwriting. Could it be that there are more Chinese-speaking programmers employed by Google?

Grading is working like this: each weekly quiz is worth 10% of the final score and the final exam is worth 40%. You need to get at least 80% to pass and earn a certificate.

100 = 10 × 6 quizzes + 40 for final exam

I found the quizzes far too easy. You have 10 (ten!) attempts for each multiple-choice question. You can pass all of them just by brute force. In the final exam, you are only given two attempts: that’s more like it.

“But can you speak any Mandarin now?”, you may ask. Alas, the answer is “no”. My vocabulary is still restricted to a few polite expressions and those Chinese words that everybody knows. One has to practise daily, which I find impossible without looming deadlines. However I started to understand how the language works, and as such the mission of MX101x is accomplished. I am looking forward to further instalments of MandarinX series.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

dos MOOCs en Español

For a long while, there was no Spanish-language course of interest to me available at edX. Then, suddenly, there were two, both starting in February 2015: La España de El Quijote (Quijote501x) offered by Universidad Autónoma de Madrid and Advanced Spanish Language and Culture (ASLCx) by St. Margaret’s Episcopal School. My past experience taught me that it’s a bad idea to take two (or more) MOOCs at the same time. But which one to choose?

In the end, greediness won and I enrolled for both courses. However, given that I had to go to work, and even actually work, I had to make some sacrifices. Like (o horror!) skipping homeworks.

Advanced Spanish Language and Culture

Of course it’s cool to put something “advanced” on your CV but for me ASLCx, a ten-week course presented by Marta E. Moore-Austin, felt more like intermediate than advanced. To pass the course, one has to score at least 70% of the grade. Grades were assigned as follows:

  • 12 quizzes (readings, videos, grammar) — 40% of the grade
  • 17 homeworks (readings, recordings, discussion forums and two emails) — 20% of the grade
  • Final exam — 40% of the grade
From this it was blindingly obvious to me that I should concentrate on quizzes and don’t waste my time on homeworks (each worth only 1 point). Especially I couldn’t bother with recording myself.

The topics of this course included:

  1. La identidad personal y pública
  2. Las familias y las comunidades
  3. La vida contemporánea
  4. La belleza y la estética
  5. La ciencia y la tecnología
  6. Los desafíos mundiales
The grammar points such as future, conditional and subjunctive, were presented rather formally and without much connection to the rest of the material. There were pleasant discoveries too, such as Ella o yo, or Nosotros, no, a short sci-fi story by José Bernardo Adolph.

To pass the final exam, one has to read five articles and answer multiple-choice questions. Easy, I thought, I had more than a week until a deadline, I can do one article a day or something. I started with a paper about Salvador Dalí, answered the multiple-choice questions and was about to go to bed (it was past midnight already) when by some reason I scrolled the page back to the top and read the following passage:

Contesta las siguientes preguntas de comprensión de lectura. Hay cinco selecciones. Debes terminar el examen dentro el tiempo en límite, 55 minutos, como el examen AP de College Board. ¡Buena suerte!
What?! I have only 55 minutes for all? Did the timer start when I opened the document about Dalí, or when I submitted my first response? In any case, I decided to carry on and, believe it or not, finished the remaining four tasks on time.

La España de El Quijote

I have to say straight away that this course, created and taught by Pedro García Martín, is not about Don Quixote, but rather about Siglo de Oro, Spanish Golden Age. I found it fascinating and challenging. The estimated effort (5—7 hours per week) sounds about correct... if you are a quick reader. In Spanish. I am not, and I some of the texts (all by Pedro García Martín) turned out to be rather demanding reading. On the other hand, I had no problems understanding the video lectures. And I did enjoy the Telenoticias. However, watching the videos is not enough to answer all the questions in the weekly exams. So you’d better do the readings.

Here’s the full program of the course.

Semana 1. Introducción: tiempo y espacio
  1. Tiempo.
  2. Espacio.
  3. El tiempo y el espacio en El Quijote.
Semana 2. La vida cotidiana
  1. La vida privada.
  2. La vida pública.
  3. La vida cotidiana en El Quijote.
Semana 3. Economía y sociedad
  1. Economía.
  2. Sociedad.
  3. Sociedad en El Quijote.
Semana 4. Política, religión e Inquisición
  1. Política.
  2. Religión.
  3. Inquisición.
  4. Política en El Quijote.
Semana 5. Literatura
  1. Escritores.
  2. Teatro.
  3. Literatura en El Quijote.
Semana 6. Las bellas artes
  1. Arquitectura.
  2. Pintura.
  3. Música.
  4. Las bellas artes en El Quijote.
Semana 7. La iconografía de El Quijote
  1. Iconografía de El Quijote.
  2. Adaptaciones nacionales.
  3. Cervantes, El Quijote y el Siglo de Oro en el cine.
Week 1. Introduction: time and space
  1. Time.
  2. Space.
  3. Time and space in Don Quixote.
Week 2. Daily life
  1. Private life.
  2. Public life.
  3. Daily life in Don Quixote.
Week 3. Economy and Society
  1. Economy.
  2. Society.
  3. Society in Don Quixote.
Week 4. Politics, religion and the Inquisition
  1. Politics.
  2. Religion.
  3. The Inquisition.
  4. Politics in Don Quixote.
Week 5. Literature
  1. Writers.
  2. Theatre.
  3. Literature in Don Quixote.
Week 6. The fine arts
  1. Architecture.
  2. Painting.
  3. Music.
  4. The fine arts in Don Quixote.
Semana 7. The iconography of Don Quixote
  1. Iconography of Don Quixote.
  2. National adaptations.
  3. Cervantes, Don Quixote and Spanish Golden Age in cinema.

Although the course started on 24 February, one could wait with weekly exams till April. The schedule as shown below could be fatal for procrastinators like me:

    Weeks 1 through 3: exams due 3 April 2015
    Week 4: exam due 10 April
    Week 5: exam due 17 April
    Weeks 6 and 7: exams due 20 April
As a result, I managed to miss a deadline for Week 1. Mind you, the task was not quite trivial: to adapt an excerpt from Quixote (there was a choice of three original fragments) by placing it in modern setting. I guess I could have done it by the end of the course. Oh well.

Monday, 4 May 2015

multifarious and took pride in it

From The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick:

No one doubted that Charles Babbage was brilliant. Nor did anyone quite understand the nature of his genius, which remained out of focus for a long time. What did he hope to achieve? For that matter, what, exactly, was his vocation? On his death in London in 1871 the Times obituarist declared him “one of the most active and original of original thinkers” but seemed to feel he was best known for his long, cranky crusade against street musicians and organ-grinders. He might not have minded. He was multifarious and took pride in it. “He showed great desire to inquire into the causes of things that astonish childish minds”, said an American eulogist. “He eviscerated toys to ascertain their manner of working”. Babbage did not quite belong in his time, which called itself the Steam Age or the Machine Age. He did revel in the uses of steam and machinery and considered himself a thoroughly modern man, but he also pursued an assortment of hobbies and obsessions — cipher cracking, lock picking, lighthouses, tree rings, the post — whose logic became clearer a century later. Examining the economics of the mail, he pursued a counterintuitive insight, that the significant cost comes not from the physical transport of paper packets but from their “verification” — the calculation of distances and the collection of correct fees — and thus he invented the modern idea of standardized postal rates. He loved boating, by which he meant not “the manual labor of rowing but the more intellectual art of sailing”. He was a train buff. He devised a railroad recording device that used inking pens to trace curves on sheets of paper athousand feet long: a combination seismograph and speedometer, inscribing the history of a train’s velocity and all the bumps and shakes along the way.
As a young man, stopping at an inn in the north of England, he was amused to hear that his fellow travelers had been debating his trade:
“The tall gentleman in the corner”, said my informant, “maintained you were in the hardware line; whilst the fat gentleman who sat next to you at supper was quite sure that you were in the spirit trade. Another of the party declared that they were both mistaken: he said you were travelling for a great iron-master.”
“Well”, said I, “you, I presume, knew my vocation better than our friends.”
“Yes”, said my informant, “I knew perfectly well that you were in the Nottingham lace trade.”

Sunday, 11 January 2015

ciao, GG101x

When I just started my first MOOC, the choice of courses at edX was very limited and most of them were called “Introduction to something”. Two and a half years on, edX has a bewildering array of courses, and not only in English but also in French, Spanish, Mandarin and Turkish. And check out the names: Alien Worlds, The Art of Poetry or How Stuff Moves. Somehow, Introduction to is not sexy anymore. On the other hand, even a verified course in Jazz Appreciation does not look that impressive on your CV (if you still care about these things).

As I did stop (or like to think that I did) to care about my CV, I thought one can do worse than take a course boldly named The Science of Happiness, “The first MOOC to teach positive psychology”. It turned out to be a happy choice indeed.

Now “happy”, together with “love”, is one of the most abused words in English. We ask “Are you happy with that?” when we merely mean “Are you OK with that?”. Likewise, one says “I am not happy with your service” meaning “Your service is rubbish”, as if one would be truly happy otherwise. No s/he wouldn’t. So why bring in happiness in the first place?

“Father, I must speak. I can be silent no longer. All day long you mutter to yourself, gibber, dribble, moan, and bash your head against the wall yelling ‘I want to die’. Now you may say I’m leaping to conclusions, but... you’re not completely happy, are you?”

In Monday Begins on Saturday, Magnus Feodorovich Redkin, who collects various definitions of happiness, quotes a poem by Christopher Logue:

You ask me:
What is the greatest happiness on earth?
Two things:
changing my mind
as I change a penny for a shilling;
listening to the sound
of a young girl
singing down the road
after she has asked me the way.
Logue himself once said: “Poetry cannot be defined, only experienced”. Could be the same said about happiness? If so, how could it be studied scientifically?

That’s what Science of Happiness is about. Created by the Greater Good Science Center (I love the name!), the interdisciplinary course was first offered in Autumn 2014 and ran for nine (or ten) weeks. This year, it is re-launched as a self-paced class so you can take it any time before May 2015. The last year program was as follows:

  • Week 1: Introduction to the Science of Happiness
  • Week 2: The Power of Connection
  • Week 3: Kindness & Compassion
  • Week 4: Cooperation & Reconciliation
  • Week 5: Midterm Exam
  • Week 6: Mindfulness, Attention, and Focus
  • Week 7: Mental Habits of Happiness: Self-Compassion, Flow, and Optimism
  • Week 8: Gratitude
  • Week 9: Finding Your Happiness Fit and the New Frontiers
  • Final Exam

Every week, the students were asked to “check in” by answering quick questions about how they’ve been feeling over the past few days. These weekly check-ins track the changes to the student’s general emotional state through the course. They are are voluntary, confidential, and do not affect the final grade.

Apart from lectures, readings, homework and exams (easy-peasy, I should say), the course includes optional weekly “happiness practices”, such as Random Acts of Kindness. Unfortunately, I took their “optionality” rather literally; in other words, I skipped the practices. But nothing really prevents me from doing them now.

As you can see from my progress chart above, even without “happiness practices” my emotional state (the left part of the chart) had improved quite significantly. Does it mean I am a happier person now? I am not sure, but strongly suspect that the answer is yes.