Good Reason

It's okay to be wrong. It's not okay to stay wrong.

Category: writing (page 1 of 2)

School bans texting at breaks

Most school administrators are doing a great job, and are generally motivated by concern for their students. But this concern sometimes makes them do silly things. Like this:

School bans phones at breaks

Prestigious girls’ school Penrhos College has banned students from using mobile phones during their lunch and recess breaks because of concerns students are losing the art of conversation.

Principal Meg Melville said, even though girls were sitting in groups during breaks, teachers had become aware students were texting their friends instead of talking to each other.

“We decided we wanted to really encourage them during their break times at school to have conversations with one another, face-to-face,” she said.

Mrs Melville said technology was embedded in the curriculum and mobile phones had become an important part of that.

But it was just as important for students to develop conversation skills such as understanding the nuances conveyed by people’s reactions and body language.

“You can gauge how a conversation is going by looking at the way people are responding – you can’t do that in texting,” she said.

Schools can make their own phone policy — that’s valid. But here’s what I think is wrong with this.

First, electronic communication is still communication. I don’t know why people think it’s not valid, or needs to be restricted.

Second, we don’t have to worry that young people will somehow become unable to read people’s reactions and facial expressions. Human brains have been good at doing this for 200,000 years, and someone’s not going to lose that ability if they text on a phone for fifteen minutes a day. (Or, if they are going to lose it, they’re not going to get it back by having an extra 15 minutes of face-to-face.) Is f2f important? Sure, but they’re already getting some from their teachers and friends at school — their teachers are doing a great job at that.

There is no empirical evidence to show that texting makes people worse at reading facial expressions, at least not that I could find with diligent searching. On the other hand, there is a lot of evidence that digital communication (including texting) correlates well with literacy, including spelling.

Finally, while these educators are trying to help kids communicate, this won’t do it. They’re simply banning a form of communication (in writing, nonetheless), and then assuming that whatever’s left over will be the right sort of communication. That’s not how it works. If they’re serious about teaching communication — which is a laudable goal — then they’re going to need to do some modelling, with examples of the kind of conversation they want to see. I’d definitely get behind a programme like that; hell, I’d help them write it. But banning phones? An irrelevant distraction.

I’ll tell you what’s going on here. This is adults looking at kids with new technology, and thinking, “Oh, I don’t like that.” It’s bringing all their preconceptions to the front. And why do they have these preconceptions about texting? Unfortunately, a lot of adults are of the opinion that young people are kind of dumb. (And some of them maybe are, but I think they’re smarter than we give them credit for — and that’s true of most people.) Then they try to figure out why they’re dumb, and they leap on the first answer they can find: it’s those damn phones! Adults routinely blame texting for turning kids into morons, just like they used to blame television, comic books, and the fountain pen.

So let me be the voice of reason here: Smartphones are not some scary magical brain-draining thing. They’re getting students to communicate in writing like they never did a generation ago. Schools can and should have policies about their use, but these policies can be informed by data, and not by irrational fears.

Talk the Talk: Banned Books Week

We’ve been on quite a civil liberties thing lately, first with Blasphemy Day, and now with Banned Books.

I was all set to read some of Lady Chatterley’s Lover on air, but we didn’t get time. Even so, I think we would have tried it if someone had phoned in requesting it. It would have been good as a kind of readers’ theatre, with Jess as Lady Chatterley, and me as Oliver. On second thought, that might have been awkward.

One-off show: Here
Subscribe via iTunes: Here
Show notes: Here

Guest post in The Red Pen: Spotting linguistic baloney

Even though I eat linguistic prescriptivists for breakfast, I do have a soft spot for the odd copy editor, including Laura Moyer of On her blog, The Red Pen, she alludes to a clash we had once:

Soon after I started the Red Pen last year, I wrote a column blithely declaring myself a prescriptivist. I’m a copy editor, I said, and copy editors are supposed to be prescriptivists.

A linguist from Perth, Australia, scolded me via email. It was OK for me to be a prescriptivist if I couldn’t help myself, he wrote, but I shouldn’t contaminate others with my beliefs.

I apologized for contaminating him and offered to send a bar of soap.

No need, he replied. “I’ve already boiled my computer.”

Yes, that would be me. She continues by pointing out the need for prescriptive rules, at least in the editing sphere (and I can agree with that), but she does allow that some of the rules editors live by do seem a little arbitrary.

As a copy editor I’ve perpetuated many of [these rules]. I truly regret it, because these aren’t rules of good writing. They’re baloney.

So how does a careful 21st-century copy editor tell baloney rules from good practice?

I thought this was such a good question that I wrote a response, and I’m very pleased that she’s run it as a guest column on her blog:

A linguist responds: Guest column from Daniel Midgley

It’s mostly about using the Google Ngram Viewer to find patterns in what writers actually do.

So, for instance, what about Laura’s idea that “comprised of” is always wrong? Let’s take a look at the data and see what authors really do. We head to the Google Ngram Viewer, look up the search term “is comprised of, comprises“, and:

Looks like ‘comprises’ has the edge. The data breaks in Laura’s direction. Does that mean it’s wrong to say “The committee is comprised of…”? Not really. What it means is that if you’re trying to decide which to use, you’ll be safer going with the choice that many other writers have chosen. Doing it that way will help your writing fit into a body of work, seem more appropriate, and be less distracting.

It’s fine for editors to run a tight ship so their publications appear the way they want. But now it’s easy for them to look at real language data so their pronouncements will have more validity than just their own opinion. Descriptivism informing prescriptivism? Could be a paradigm shift.

Talk the Talk: Really Old Art

A good Talk today — it’s always fun with Stacy G. This time we’re talking about cave art, and what it has to do with language.

So they’ve found a limestone slab dated to 37,000 years ago, it’s got a carving on it, and it’s a vulva. Here’s a pic (from this article): (SFW)

No, not the circular thing with the tail. The thing inside the circle. Or am I just seeing things? I’m not used to looking at vulval imagery.

One-off show: Here
Subscribe via iTunes: Here
Show notes: Here

Learn to read Korean in 15 minutes

This is a surprisingly simple guide to Hangul, the Korean writing system.

Another fun fact: Hangul was once called “Achimgeul” (아침글) or “writing you can learn within a morning”. It was intended as an insult, but I think ease of learning is a good thing, don’t you?

Talk the Talk: Words With Baboons

On ‘Talk the Talk’ this week: Baboons have learned to distinguish English words (like KITE and FLIP) from non-words (like SNUT and PALK). Even better, they could tell non-words from new words they hadn’t seen before. Maybe this work will help a bit with research in dyslexia; I just think it’s interesting that you don’t need language to perform language tasks.

Running the show today was the ever-popular Ray Grenfell.

One-off show: Here
Subscribe via iTunes: Here
Show notes: Here

Cyrillic meets Roman

It’s funny when people try to use Cyrillic letters as Roman ones. I understand why they do it — for English speakers, Russian has acquired connotations of militarism and toughness. And people have been tossing in the odd Cyrillic character for a long time.

(cue music)

But when you actually know how to read Cyrillic script, it’s a little jarring. Here’s a movie poster that sidled up next to me at a traffic light this morning.

More like ‘the dorkest hour’, amirite?

See, the Д that they have standing in for an ‘A’ is actually a /d/ sound, and the Я is a vowel that sounds like ‘ya’. Also, that Ц covering for the ‘U’ is the sound of /ts/ in ‘tsar’.

So really, the movie’s title should be pronounced ‘The Ddyakest Hotsr’. Or ‘Notsr’ if the ‘H’ has an /n/ sound, as Cyrillic Н does.

But let’s not be pedantic. We’re stuck with it now. We’ll be seeing posters, ads, and maybe even action figures in Toys ‘Ya’ Us.

The atheist temple

The big news in atheism this week: Alain de Botton wants to build an atheist temple. Which seems strange — atheism isn’t a religion, so why would it need to borrow religion’s trappings? I think de Botton tipped his hand, though, in this pronouncement:

The philosopher and writer Alain de Botton is proposing to build a 46-metre tower to celebrate a ”new atheism” as an antidote to what he describes as Richard Dawkins’s ”aggressive” and ”destructive” approach to non-belief.

Rather than attack religion, Mr de Botton said he wants to borrow the idea of awe-inspiring buildings that give people a better sense of perspective on life.

”Normally a temple is to Jesus, Mary or Buddha but you can build a temple to anything that’s positive and good,” he said. ”That could mean a temple to love, friendship, calm or perspective … Because of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, atheism has become known as a destructive force.

Destructive force? For me, Dawkins and Hitchens are two guys who have come to epitomise well-tempered reason, intelligence, and courage in the face of mortality, so de Botton’s criticism doesn’t ring true for me. I’d like to suggest a little test which I’ll call the S.E. Cupp test: When someone says they’re an atheist, do they spend more time promoting atheism, or castigating other atheists because of their tone? If the latter, then what’s the difference between them and a theist?

Dawkins has called the project a waste of funds, PZ says it’s a monument to hubris.

Me? I say it’s redundant. We already have a temple. I was there earlier this month. Or, at least, at one of them.

The atheist temple I went to was the Temple of Knowledge, and it’s better known as the New York Public Library.

It gots lions.

Why would I call it an atheist temple? Because it’s filled with the work of people. People; not gods. People (and you can see them there every day) engaged in the process of gathering knowledge and combining it to make new knowledge. This is the goal of science, which is an atheistic form of reasoning.

I walked along its halls of solid marble, where generations of humans have come to read and learn.

No gothic arches, these. How could you help but be in awe of not just the building, but the building’s purpose?

Like a temple, the magnificent Reading Room prompts a hush. 

And the people who built this place — yeah, they were tycoons who made their money from the skins of small furry animals. But they wanted to build a place where the knowledge of the world could be preserved, and they cared enough to make it amazing. And they inscribed this on the walls, in letters big enough for anyone to read:

“On the diffusion of education
among the people
rest the preservation
and perpetuation
of our free institutions.”

I read that, and I think, you know, they got it. They really got it! Even back then. Our society depends on education. Our freedom depends on it. You can’t preserve freedom in a population of ignoramuses; they’ll just tear it down again the instant they feel afraid. It’s such an alien concept in this age, when one political party has dedicated itself to the destruction of the Department of Education, and (through homeschooling) constantly works to undermine the public school system so that children will be protected from education. It seems like a quaint and noble sentiment, but we need to relearn this thinking that came from better minds than ours. Just as we need another quaint and antiquated notion symbolised by libraries: the public good.

But that’s not all I saw. There were treasures.

Holy shit! It’s a Gutenburg Fucking Bible! One of only 40 perfect ones left. Yes, it’s a bible because for some reason, people thought the Bible was important back then. But what this book did was make reading and publishing commonplace. That’s much more important than the book’s rather poor contents.

And check this out: it’s Christopher Robin’s toys! That’s not just Winnie a Pooh — it’s Winnie THE Pooh. And the others! It was great to see them there, even though it made me think of Toy Story 2. I look at Tigger and realise that Ernest Shepard really nailed it.

These are clay tokens with cuneiform on them, some of the earliest writing that people ever used. That made it possible for people to transmit knowledge over generations.

And while I was in this Library, I felt so connected to people in other ages and to the future. It was a feeling that I can only describe as spiritual, even though I don’t like that word. But it was the same feeling that I felt in the old religion but more intense and meaningful.

You can keep your paltry theist cathedrals. Do not copy Mormon temples — they are monuments to superstition and foolishness. Let St Patrick’s fall. Instead, build a library, Mr de Botton, or an observatory, or a university, or a museum. They’re the only temples that atheists have any business building.

Actually, St. Patrick’s will make a very nice reading room in about 100 years.

Reflecting on 30-Day Blog September

Congratulations, everyone who accepted the challenge! I hope you had a good experience.

As for me, I found my blog revitalised, and it was very gratifying to see more visitors and a higher density of great comments.

It wasn’t hard — I go through the news every day anyway, and it was easy to pick the story that I found the most interesting. In fact, some days it was hard to pick just one. The more I looked, the more I found. It’s hard to believe I had such big breaks between posts just a few months ago. I would notice things, but I wouldn’t post them because I felt like every post had to be such a big deal. Not anymore!

I think I’m going to try to keep up this pace. I actually enjoyed the kind of posts that I found myself writing.

Baby names for linguists or celebrities

Natalie Portman has named her firstborn child after a letter.

Natalie Portman and her fiance Benjamin Millepied welcomed a baby boy last month and have finally revealed the name of the baby to be Aleph.

Aleph, also spelled “Alef” and pronounced “All-Eff,” is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Much like how “alpha” is the first letter in the Greek alphabet. In Judaic Kabbalah, its esoteric meaning in the theological treaty Sefer-ha-Bahir, relates to the origin of the universe, the “primordial one that contains all numbers.”

Why the fuss? People name girls ‘Beth‘ all the time, and no one says anything. And if we’re talking about Roman letters, ‘Bea’ or ‘Jay’. In fact, a letter is a great idea for a baby name.

So for the more adventurous parents, here are some characters from the world’s writing systems that might make good baby names, along with their likely consequences.

Character: Zel
Writing system: Ottoman Turkish alphabet
Sounds like: [z]
Expect the child to be: Extroverted
Future Career: Real estate agent, or MLM scammer

Character: Fita
Writing system: Early Cyrillic
Language that uses it: Russian
Sounds like: [f]
Expect the child to be: Colicky
Future Career: Yoga instructor

Character: Kaunan
Writing system: Runic alphabet
Language that uses it: Norse
Sounds like: [k]
Expect the child to be: Needing a search and rescue team at least once
Future Career: Artist, cheesemaker, or bikey

Character: Delt
Writing system: Phonecian
Sounds like: [d]
Expect the child to be: Albino
Future Career: Personal trainer, or assassin

Character: Yat
Writing system: Glagolitic alphabet
Languages that use it: Slavic
Sounds like: [æ] as in ‘cat’
Expect the child to be: A little slow
Future Career: Colour consultant, or unsuccessful real estate agent

Character: Lo Ling
Writing system: Thai
Sounds like: [l] (initial), [n] (final)
Expect the child to be: Mysterious
Future Career: Personal assistant to evil genius, or successful call girl
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