Saturday, February 25, 2006

Old Slang

One of my pet peeves is the idea that there is a right (and hence a wrong) way to speak your native language. This has always struck me as snobby and, well, unscientific. There are few things I care about less than when you're supposed to use "who" or "whom". The great thing about humans is that we make stuff up: Shakespeare did it, blog commenters do it (although some worry we are running out of new material). Language, as spoken by actual humans, seems to be in a state of constant and rapid evolution. Why try to constrain all that with arbitrary rules?

A paen to this diversity is the Urban Dictionary, which attempts to collect and define slang from a myriad of English sub-cultures. Much like Wikipedia, it is largely user-driven, so, of course there's a fair bit of humorous fakes thrown into the mix (like this, for example). And of course, you've got your usual crop of slang from hip-hop and internet subcultures, like grillz and 1337. It's also disappointing, but not super-surprising, that a lot (most?) of the definitions are not-so-clever ways of saying misogynistic and homophobic things about sex. Sigh - so it goes.

After a bit of browsing, I was particularly gratified to find accurate definitions for slang words that were really common when I was a kid, but that I haven't heard since. For example, on the playground we used to say "moded" or "face!" when someone did something stupid and you wanted to make fun of them. One definition for "moded" described it as 80's San Fran hip-hop slang, which sounds about right. I pretty much haven't heard anyone actually use those words in a sentence in twenty-odd years, although they still get a laugh out of my sister.

Steven Pinker wrote an excellent book on language acquisition several years ago called The Language Instinct that is well-worth the read. He smashes the notion that "proper" language use is indicative of anything besides cultural mores, and highlights the beauty and power of often discredited linguistic traditions: African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), teen-speak, creole and pidgin languages and the like. Of course, the book is mostly about the controversial Chomskyan view that all languages share a universal grammar which arises out of our brain (and genetic) structures (which is interesting, but maybe not the whole story, according to many linguists). Although he's become something of a right-wing, ev-psych tool in recent years, TLI is still an eye-opening, egalitarian celebration of spoken language in all its diversity.

An extra level of hell for...

After watching the women's figure skating the other night, I just want to say that figure skating commentators are complete tools. Overheard: "A lot of other girls will skate to 'Romeo & Juliet', but Sasha Cohen is Juliet!" Are you kidding me? I mean she's a great skater and handled losing the gold medal pretty gracefully, but sheesh. And then the not-so-subtle digs at the non-American skaters? Gag.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Hamas and Israel

I was doing a little reading after Hamas's election, and I stumbled across a factoid that shocked me (and here I thought I was unable to be shocked by the situation in Palestine). The Palestinian city of Qalqilyah (with 50,000 inhabitants) is at present completely surrounded by a concrete barrier, with access in and out of the city controlled by the IDF at two checkpoints.

I'd been keeping up with the demoralizing progress of the separation wall, but somehow this had escaped me. Wow. That must beyond suck for the people who live there. Ali Abunimah points out that after this encirclement was decided, the good citizens of Qalqilyah tossed out the Fatah-dominated city council and gave every seat to Hamas. And this was several months before the recent election. I said I was shocked by Hamas's gains, but perhaps I should have been paying closer attention.

The media seems to have fixed on the issue of Fatah's corruption as the reason for the Hamas election; but it would seem to me they're blinking at looking the real problems in the eye. Israel exercises military control over the fundamental fact of daily life in the West Bank, who can travel where and when, and daily metes out collective punishment for the actions of a few. And most importantly, the separation wall has eaten into the body of the (supposedly) future Palestinian state, isolating and destroying existing Palestinian communities, while legitimizing and strengthening the settlements. The map of the wall's route looks like something drawn up by Tom DeLay on a bender (a highly detailed PDF here). The Israeli human rights organization, B'Tselem, along with many others, have condemned the separation wall as nothing more than a land-grab. They provide evidence that the routing of the wall was driven more by the desire of established settlements to expand than any real security.

In my mind, there are a few ground rules for a just solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Every person living in the region has the right to life and liberty and security and other good things. They have the right to live under a democratically elected government that considers people of all faiths to be equal partners in society. The notion of a one-state solution, whereby Israel would simply annex the West Bank and grant citizenship (and franchise) to the Palestinians living there, is anathema to many Israelis, since the new state would not be a guaranteed majority Jewish. It's an attractive idea, but fairly unrealistic if you think about it. The notion that Israel would keep military control of the land, but not grant self-determination to its inhabitants (the status quo) is to contemplate either apartheid or ethnic cleansing (IMHO). Therefore, many people imagine a two-state solution to be the only way out, with the border between sovereign Israel and sovereign Palestine marked by the 1967 Green Line (putting aside for the moment the UN Resolution in 1948, the right of return, the status of Jerusalem and the settlements, etc.).

It is the dream of legitimate statehood, prosperity and self-determination that will give Palestinians reason to negotiate. That dream has been seriously jeopardized, in part yes, by illegitimate targeting of civilians by terrorists, but also by an internal political decision to appease settlers. True, Sharon has in recent years stepped back from this, but perhaps it is too late? Ha'aretz has opined about the separation wall, "it looks like a border and behaves like one." What now for our Palestinian state?

So: simple ground rules, complex state of human affairs. I won't offer a simple solution. I suspect reaction against Hamas will make things much worse in the short run. This will be aided, of course, by our leaders' immeasurably hypocritical talk of ousting Hamas (I'm sure they have a list of other democracies they wouldn't mind ousting also: Hugo Chavez this means you). But in the long run, perhaps some sort of shake-up is needed. The peace process has been a disaster for ordinary Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories. And Israel should realize by now that military might alone will not gain you security. I'm reminded of a quote from the man who was once recruited to become Israel's first president:
"Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding." - Albert Einstein

Saturday, February 04, 2006


We finally got around to seeing Serenity at DocFilms last night, and I have to gush a little bit: wow, what a cool movie! I love the way Joss Whedon punctures the usual solemnity and self-importance of too many sci-fi movies, while still managing to make it serious and exciting. Although I love Star Trek and its ilk, the ghost of Jean-Luc Picard does not hang heavily over this film; it has some genuinely funny moments (without becoming Douglas Adams goofy) and, as usual, Joss writes some clever clever dialogue. It was a lot of fun to see the film at Doc, where the crowd is super-vocal (with die-hard Firefly fans well-represented, apparently). Obviously, my next big obsession will be to checkout the 14 Firefly episodes.

To provide an antidote to all this gushing, the hoverbike blog critiques Firefly (links here and here) as right-wing libertarian sci-fi with a pro-Confederate, anti-Indian subtext. Given the setup of the show, its hard to argue that there's nothing to this point, but I would pretty much disagree that it is the only or the best interpretation (especially given the big reveal at the end of Serenity, which the hoverbike guy hadn't yet seen). It's interesting reading, at any rate, especially some of the rebuttals in the comments section. Sci-fi always seems to invite political interpretations (I'm thinking Orwell and Huxley, as well as Hollywood), but anything more complex than Ayn Rand should have enough subtlety to carry multiple interpretations. If I had to put a slogan to it, Serenity spoke more to the seemingly inevitable corruption that comes with any rigid ideology coupled with the power to enforce it. 'Tis much better, Joss says, to be pragmatic and humanistic, to stick by your friends and try your best to figure out what the right thing is, and then do it. Which isn't so bad.

Going to jail...

Our church is beginning to participate in a program call Aunt Mary's Storybook Project, which tries to help mothers incarcerated in Cook County Jail to stay connected with their children and their communities. So this past Wednesday night, I went to jail. It was just an initial orientation required for all volunteers in the jail, but in the near future we hope to have a couple sessions a month.

Cook County Jail is an enormous complex (as can be seen here). It is one of the largest county jails in the country; someone said it houses about 10,000 people, mostly those awaiting sentencing. Security was, of course, crazy -- a pat-down, an ion-detector followed by a metal-detector (although as we were entering, this cop was trying to get his girlfriend through with a wink, and the other guards weren't having it), barbed-wire curls topping 12-foot fences. There was a lobby with several dozen family members were sitting around waiting for bail to be processed for their loved one. We walked briefly through the detention units and were afforded quick glances into the cell units: usually we saw 20-30 men sitting around at tables, talking, playing cards, looking bored.

For the Saturday sessions, any interested mothers can select a children's book from a cart and we provide a tape recorder. They record themselves reading to their kids, and then the kids get the tape and the book. We, the volunteers, pretty much hang out and chat and give any assistance that might be needed. All told, it seems like a well-thought-out project with a concrete goal (it's being organized by a group called Companions Journeying Together), and I'm excited to see how it goes in practice.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Optical Illusions

One of my partners in my museum internship is developing a demonstration focusing on optical illusions and the brain adaptations that cause them. She found this really cool website that collects a lot of the famous illusions together with images and movies.

It's a great website with a lot of trippy visuals and comprehensive explanations of what's going on, so I thought I would share. Definitely worth a half-hour of clicking.

For my project, I proposed to develop an exhibit to teach astronomy using the GeoWall, which is a new technology that allows museums to implement 3-D virtual reality exhibits really cheaply. My idea was to develop a hands-on, video-game-esque exhibit that allows kids to fly-through space and learn a bit about astronomy on the way (hopefully). With luck it'll get selected and someday come to fruition, but we'll see.