Pedantry - Moved to http://pedantry.fistfulofeuros.net
Saturday, July 26, 2003
More time wasting from Quizilla
God, it's Saturday night, I'm sick, I'm at home, I'm watching Have I Got News for You on BBC2 and I must be bored out of my mind.
Is this the end for Christiania?
Via Beatnik Salad, it seems Denmark's centre-right wing government wants to close Copenhagen's 30-year old experiment in hippie ideals.
Pusher Street dealers face up to the shove
In America, weapons of mass destruction get you the Presidential Medal of Freedom
Via, this week's What's New:
Weapons of mass destruction are hard to find in Iraq, but in this country, contributions to methods of mass fatality are recognized with the Medal of Freedom. Recipients this week included: Edward Teller for the H-bomb, Charlton Heston for the Saturday-night special, and Dave Thomas for Wendy’s square hamburger with fries.
Confirmed by Voice of America.
Friday, July 25, 2003
My carefully considered and well earned aversion to Noam Chomsky
Several people have written posts critical of Chomsky lately. I don't think I've ever posted anything about Noam Chomsky here. It is likely that a few of my readers know that I hold him in a fair amount of disdain. Of the principles he advanced in linguistics, nothing remains. Even among Chomsky's advocates, universal grammar has been replaced by an amorphous "language instinct." The separation of syntax from semantics is now viewed as a deeply foolish, if not outright contradictory position to hold. Phrase structure grammar is a meaningless formalism if you add headedness to it, and modern theories of grammar are almost without exception lexicalist theories. Virtually nothing remains of the competence/performance distinction. And, that isn't even the worst of it. Chomsky's rise actively discouraged work in empirical linguistics, valence theory, and any sort of lexical semantics - all the fields I work in now.
His principles ultimately produced nothing, and may well have set linguistics back decades. The day will come when his legacy is compared to Skinner's, and when historians of the social sciences will debate which one ultimately caused the most damage.
The thing is, I earned the right to say that. I took ten semester-hours of Government & Binding coursework, and God-only knows how much pablum about the formal properties of natural language in other classes. NP, VP, X-bar, move-alpha and the hierarchy of grammars were a sizeable chunk of my existence for about a year and a half. I believed in it all, for a while, until I got to my first dependency grammar class, and watched an unfortunate young woman go completely ape-shit when the prof said that there was no such thing as an NP. That was the day when it first occurred to me that there might be problems with Chomskyan linguistics, that it might have decended into a political position divorced from any actual linguistic phenomena. I spent roughly five years unlearning Chomsky, bit by bit.
This is why I swear I will go postal the next time somebody tells me how revolutionary his linguistics has been just before going on to slag his political writings. The great irony of Chomsky is that among linguists - who tend to be fairly leftish sorts of people like so many other social scientists - his reputation is exactly the opposite.
The flaws in Chomsky's linguistics are equally apparent in his political work. Notably, a failure to cite his oppenents honestly, to entertain alternative arguments, to provide adequate context to the events he describes, or to develop or even think it necessary to develop a theory to explain how his interpretation of events could come to pass. These things are all quite serious flaws, and yet, they just aren't compelling reasons for blanket condemnation.
Had Chomsky destroyed active, functional schools of political science or media theory, as he did in linguistics, I would be more inclined to condemn his poitical works. But that is simply not the case. As far as I can tell, he has had very little impact on either of those fields. He is an advocate of a political stance, and like most advocates he is not the most trustworthy person to evaluate the accuracy or completeness of his work. Chomsky is inclined to jump to conclusions about past events, and sometimes those conclusions border on the insane. He should not be read in isolation from other accounts, nor is it safe to draw conclusions from his work alone.
And yet, in the general dishonesty department, I am ill-inclined to view him unfavourably when compared to a great many folks. I find Pinker's work - both public and academic - easily worse than Chomsky's in terms of dishonesty, pretentiousness and poor basis in fact. I find it far more dishonest to advance any opinion that can be summarised with the words "the problem with Arab society is..." than anything I've ever read from Chomsky. Chomsky at least restrains himself to jumping to conclusions about government officials, not whole peoples. To Chomsky's knee-jerk revulsion to US foreign policy, one must balance the simple truth that US foreign policy has been quite repulsive quite frequently, and that the promoters of US foreign policy are not themselves on the whole any more honest than Chomsky, and often far less careful about their facts.
So, I no longer read Chomsky, on language or on politcs. And yet, I have no desire to waste my breath bothering to condemn his politics. It seems pretty pointless.
In most any argument over Chomsky, one eventually finds his opponents and his supporters sound identical, each claiming the other has dishonestly read them. The argument quickly decends into a pickiness over small quotes and textual context that leaves you uncertain what has actually been said at all. The first one to turn to name calling loses, and in 99% of cases, it will not be anyone personally close to Chomsky.
That is part of Chomsky's gift and power, and it is why his most vocal detractors are complete suckers for him. In almost every instance, Chomsky's defenders actually have the case with more merit because Chomsky is always very careful with words.
The trick is to pay attention to his use of hedge words. (Yes, Professor Delong, I mean you.) For example. Chomsky is frequently charged with claiming that presumed anti-Semite Robert Faurisson is a “relatively apolitical liberal." Chomsky, of course, said no such thing. He said "As far as I can determine, he is a relatively apolitical liberal of some sort." Note the words as far as I can determine. This shifts the burden of proof onto his opponents, who must not only show that Faurisson is, in fact, an anti-Semite and Nazi sympathiser, but must also show that Chomsky's conclusions were impossible given the materials he chose to read and the standards he might reasonably apply to them. This is more or less impossible.
However, taking that route misses the whole point. It is not Chomsky's words that damn him but his actions. Chomsky agreed to write a preface for a book that by his own admission he had not read, by an author about whom he claims to know next to nothing. Chomsky's name added credibility to the work, even if Chomsky denies that that was his intent. That is pretty irresponsible.
It is the same argument against Chomsky in linguistics. Chomsky denied no one a grant, refused no one a teaching position and said virtually nothing directly about empirical linguistics (offering instead his "introspective" methods), valency (which goes away if you believe in an independent syntactic competence anyway) or lexical semantics (which he locates outside linguistics altogether). But the result of his rise to popularity was the near disappearance in the United States of those fields of study for a period of some 20 years.
Chomsky's primary tool in doing this was to shift the burden of proof onto his opponents, just like the use of a hedge in his statement about Faurisson shifts the burden of proof. Consider, for exmaple, the "poverty of stimulus" argument. Chomsky offered nothing in support of this notion - not one observation or empirical study. He simply said that it seemed quite obvious that language was too complicated for a child to learn. Since then, it has been very difficult to fight back against this shift in the burden of proof, even after it could be shown that there exist huge statistical redundancies in language even when extracted from a meaningful context, and that neural networks are readily able to pick up on those redundancies.
By focusing on Chomsky's words, you will almost always lose or end in a draw, because once you have taken out the carefully hedged claims, you will find little left of Chomsky except innuendo. This is what makes standard methods of criticism so frustrating in his case. You are better served by concentrating on actions - Chomsky's wherever possible - and his conclusions when they are far fetched. The weak point in a Chomskyan argument will usually be the shift in the burden of proof. At some point, you will be asked to accept an account of events deemed "plausible", even when it lacks any evidence from primary sources, and then the burden of proof will fall on those who disagree with that account.
The other approach is to simply ignore him. His methods are more worrysome than any of the opinions he actually advances.
There was some more stuff I was going to say about Cambodia. There's something about that country that seems to drive its students mad. I mean, I've seen academic fights in regional studies, but I've never seen the level of bile Cambodian studies seems to generate. I have read exactly two serious books on Cambodia, far too few for me to make any real judgements of the positions various people have taken on the country's history. One of those books, Michael Vickery's Cambodia: 1975-1982, is both the more thorough and to me the more plausible account. It is, however, sympathetic to Chomsky and nonetheless appears to be well respected among scholars of Cambodia. Even Sophal Ear, who is hardly a defender of Chomsky and even less sympathetic to efforts to downplay the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, seems to take Vickery seriously enough. The biggest serious criticism I could find was the claim that Vickery is biased by his sympathies for Cambodia's peasants over their urban cousins. That doesn't bother me in the slightest since Vickery more or less admits it in his book.
Yet, Vickery considers Chomsky's contribution valuable. Vickery's point is fairly clear: It was wrong to come to the conclusion that the Khmer Rouge was undertaking mass murder on a scale of hundreds of thousands of lives at the time when most people came to that conclusion, and Chomskly was right to call the conclusion into question when he did. I don't know if this is an accurate assessment of Chomsky's writings on Cambodia and I have only Vickery's arguments that it accurately reflects the information that was available at the time, however, it is exactly the kind of carefully hedged conclusion I can imagine Chomsky coming to.
Even today, it is impossible to find a number of dead untainted by someone's politics. My tour guide in Cambodia claimed that three million had died and that the Khmer Rouge executed everyone with an education. I decided that I couldn't take her figures too seriously since she had not five minutes earlier told me that her mother had been a school teacher in Phnom Penh, that she herself was in the lycée in 1975, and how neither one of them had been killed nor threatened with death, nor knew anyone who had been.
It appears that there are mass graves in Cambodia, yet I have not been able to find any source (admittedly, I could look harder) able to say what percentage of those found in the graves died violent deaths. I doubt that the figure is 100%. Is it 50%? 20%? That a lot of people died in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge is undoubtedly true, but it seems unlikely that they were all, or even mostly, executed, even if they were buried in mass graves. That a regime executed tens to hundreds of thousands and saw a million or more die of starvation, disease and overwork is not an endorsement of a regime, but it legitimately debateable whether it constitutes genocide, or merely incompetence and brutality on the part of a thoroughly nasty regime.
The difference it makes now is purely rhetorical, but Chomsky is a rhetorical figure. I'm afraid trying to nail Chomsky for his words on Cambodia is no more likely to work than it does with the Faurisson affair.
Wednesday, July 23, 2003
Europe's unions go left?
Between Bill Hayes editorial in yesterday's Guardian, and the appointment of Juergen Peters to Germany's IG Metall a few hours ago, I'm beginning to wonder of it isn't possible that there is still some life in Europe's unions? Yesterday's post mentioning the value of coordinated wage rounds has sensitised me a bit to the notion.
Is it possible that we are on the brink of a new model of European syndicalism, one built more on the Dutch and Irish model than the British or German ones?
A draft for polyglots?
Via Silt, I see that the Pentagon is considering expanding the draft to a few new categories. I was dimly aware of the Health Care Personnel Delivery System, but, as so many conservatives allege, give the government a little power and all they want is more. According to the Charlotte Observer, "At the Pentagon's direction, the [Selective Service] also is examining whether that plan for a "special skills" draft could be adapted to address critical shortages that might arise for military linguists, computer experts or engineers."
And remember folks, if you are in an affected category (as health care workers already are), you are not exempt just because you're older than 26. You are eligible until you're 45 and you can't get out of it by being a woman either.
English without anglophones
Via Universal Language (which, in turn, comes via Language hat but is now on the blog roll), an article on the state of English today.
English Is Language of Business, but Americans Aren't Fluent
I have seen exactly the phenomena described here. English speakers don't generally realise that the power they derive from being native speakers of the world's most politically and economically important language is not a power they can necessarily keep. It is quite easy to imagine a world full of creole Englishes that bear more power and prestige than more standard dialects.
I have some issues with this article, for example, the following:
Watson also cautions against using absurd assumptions, such as "suppose you were me" as a preface to a statement, because it's difficult for ESL speakers to form a mental picture of something contrary to fact.
That is not true, ESL speakers are no less capable than anyone else of manipulating contrafactual notions. Instead, it is important to understand that contrafactuals are one of the most idiosyncratic aspects of language. Even within a single language community, there are often quite sharp distinctions in the way a contrafactual situation is described and the kinds of things it's used to express. Contrafactuals are hard to communicate clearly across a language barrier.
Otherwise, the advice offered seems sound enough. It also offers a reason for anglophones to learn a second language - it enables you to both understand the limitations of second language speakers and to get a leg up on people who need to use "Business English" wherever they go.
It's Krugman's fault
Via, well, the man himself's website, the Internet Weekly Report:
Greenspan Blames Krugman For Sluggish Economy
Tuesday, July 22, 2003
More juicy rumours for the rumour mill
I haven't seen anyone else blog this except Shadow of the Hegemon, but then, I haven't been paying full attention.
It seems that Judicial Watch did manage to spring a few documents from Dick Cheney's now forgotten March 2001 "Energy Task Force." The documents released contain "a map of Iraqi oilfields, pipelines, refineries and terminals, as well as 2 charts detailing Iraqi oil and gas projects, and 'Foreign Suitors for Iraqi Oilfield Contracts.'"
Although this is hardly enough to prove that the entire war in Iraq was concocted on behalf of the oil industry, it is enough to make a nice juicy rumour to spread around.
Santa is from Greenland -- not!
According to the Father Christmas World Congress, Santa Claus is a Greeenlander. The deciding argument, according to Reuter's: "We have lots and lots of reindeer in Greenland. Didn't you know that?"
I have difficulty believing all this, since everyone knows that Santa has a Canadian address. The annual Christmas-themed convention seems to have ignored what every Canadian has known since childhood and remains the subject of Canada Post commercials all through December. You really can send your Christmas lists to Santa at:
Notes from a distant timezone
Now that it's getting to be circa 11am on the East Coast, the American bloggers are starting to wake up with a few interesting posts.
Bush "cares deeply" about Africa
Yet another international faux pas from the people in the White House. First, from the State Department's transcript of Powell July 8 interview on BBC:
Bush "Cares Deeply" About Africa, Powell says
And now, via The Head Heeb, a first person account of Bush's speech on slavery:
A Letter from Senegal
That's the sort of diplomacy that got the world so whole-heartedly on America's side in Iraq.
North to Alaska
According to NBC Alaska affiliate KTUU, John Ashcroft doesn't have too many friends in Anchorage:
Ashcroft says 'perseverance' key to fighting terrorism
Apparently, Alaskans just aren't that kind of Republican.
What threat to the Bush administration are you?
Yet another Quizilla link, via Alas, a Blog.
I was hoping for something higher than "Threat rating: Medium." Of course, all you have to do is answer "yes" to the first question to get:
Keep on smokin'
From my Sitemeter referrals, I see that Pedantry is both the number 1 and number 2 hits on AOL Search for "high and bored."
Europe and its so-called demographic crisis
I've been meaning to blog something on this for a while, but since last week's Economist covered it and has been linked to by many bloggers, I thought I ought to put something up.
First, let me point out that the folks who seem to be drawing the most dire conclusions from long term projections of European population growth are also those who are usually the first to say that long term climate predictions can't be trusted. Among the guilty on this count: the editors of The Economist themselves who have routinely rubbished global warming claims as the product of short term data series taken out of context. Indeed, if we looked at European birth rates over the last 1500 years instead of the last 20, we would find little support for the notion that Europe faces a demographic crisis at all, although the global warming data for the same period are a bit more frightening.
There are, in fact, an entire series of classic conservative arguments that could be deployed to mitigate claims of a demographic crisis. Here's an old favourite of mine that I got it from Conrad Black, but I doubt that it is original to him: Which would be better, a society where everyone had exactly the same amount of money, or a society where the poorest people had twice what they would have under the first scheme, but the richest people would have ten times as much? The claim that generally follows is that by letting the free market operate, and letting income inequalities increase, everyone's life is improved, albeit at different rates. Let's set aside for a moment whether or not any of that is true and consider an alternative formulation of the same problem. Which is better, a society where virtually everyone works, e.g. very few pensioners, housewives, unemployed or handicapped; or a society where only a third of the population works, but they are six times as productive as the first? The reasoning that lead to choosing the second option for income distribution is identical to the logic that would prefer the second option in the latter case.
There is a very simple argument that there is no problem. Even if taxes have to increase in order to maintain Europe's elderly, if productivity increases fast enough then everyone still comes out ahead. I have the impression that long term productivity trends in Europe are adequate to meet this challenge. Since there is no upper limit to efficiency (Julian Simon's argument against fears of resource depletion), there is no upper limit to productivity, and so there is no problem.
Of course, Simon's argument against resource depletion and overpopulation is a load of crap based on - you guessed it - assuming that short term trends will continue on the long term. Rapid productivity increases are a fairly recent phenomena and it is difficult assess how long they will hold out.
Europe does have demographic problems. I am ill-inclined to see imminent disaster in them, considering that Europe already has quite serious unemployment problems and that its already diminished working population is able to sustain pretty high standards of living for everyone. I am always surprised by those who see Europe's unemployment as a long term structural problem (like the editors of The Economist) and forsee labour shortages just a few years down the road.
No, just as the polyannaish views of the anti-environmental movement are based on a very narrow analysis of trends, carefully ignoring any factors outside of time-series data, the demographic problems of Europe are worth worrying about. Why? Because no matter what the productivity numbers suggest, it sucks to be young in a world full of old people, and it sucks to live in a nation of youth and poverty when there are lands of age and wealth.
There are some other issues worth visiting. Europe's demographic problems are unevently distributed, with some states enjoying quite reasonable growth rates, and others already in negative territory. The 2002 OECD data are quite illuminating in this respect. France is growing 35% more quickly than Germany, 67% faster than the UK and a whopping 700% faster than Italy. So, I want to remind those who see disaster in an ageing Europe to always remember: seeing a crisis in European demographics means predicting a Europe that is ever more French.
Insert foot A in mouth B
Via Eschaton and MSNBC:
"I think all foreigners should stop interfering in the internal affairs of Iraq."
Clearly, thinking before speaking is not Dr Wolfowitz' strong suit.
Monday, July 21, 2003
More on French language laws
Folllowing an exchange of e-mails with Eugene Volokh, I think I ought to put up a post specifying exactly what French law requires. The relevant language law is la loi du 4 août 1994 and there is an English translation on the Ministry of Culture's website.
The law requires the use of French in a number of contexts, mostly matters concerning activities commissioned or undertaken by the government or done using government funds and some matters like employment contracts and outdoor signs. It does not require any particular terminological choices - i.e., it does not forbid the use of the word "e-mail" in French - except under two narrowly defined conditions:
The term approved under the conditions defined by the provisions of the rules relative to the enhancement of the French language means the publication of a recommended alternative term in the Journal officiel, as occurred last month with "e-mail" and "courriel" and in 1997, when the translation "courrier électrique" was proposed. This law does not require anyone, anywhere, at any time to use the word "courriel." It does forbid the term "e-mail", but then only under two conditions:
So, there is no law in France that forbids anyone unassociated with the government from using the word "e-mail" under any conditions. The obligation the government has placed on itself only applies to private entities when they are doing work contracted by the government. There is no law forbidding the use of the term "e-mail" even in government documents, except in trademarks and brand names and in legal contracts except those undertaken by state-run companies.
The French government is actively promoting the use of French by mandating its use in a variety of places, but it only forbids foreign borrowed words under very narrow and rare circumstances, and it doesn't require specific terminology to replace that foreign word under any circumstaces.