Saturday, April 30, 2011

Library Surfing

I'm wandering in the library linguistics section looking for books worth reading. It's more like the Internet than you might think. You start out following one link, the shelving number of the book from the catalogue, but you can accidentally get distracted by things like the children's story of The Whiting and the Flatfish, written in parallel text in Russian, English and the endangered Siberian language Ös. (I'd tell you, but I already forgot how the flatfish became flat. I guess it wasn't that good a story. The pictures were nice, though.) You pick up a book and the table of contents leads you to something interesting, so you read that chapter and then follow the bibliography to more on the same subject. Sometimes you pick up a book and discover that the author knows less than you on the subject, has an irritating writing style, or has dedicated pages to ranting about the shortcomings of some other author. Sometimes the links are dead, and there is no book with that call number at that location. Sometimes you pick up a promising-seeming book and when you open it discover it's typeset in non-proportional Courier. Seriously. This is late 1970s technology at work. You even get the problem of inane comments. Almost all the books I read have pencil marks in them underlining passages some reader found important. Some of the books are in languages I can't read. (Can't as in don't know how to as opposed to can't as in it would drive me insane, like the ones that are just typewritten manuscripts someone slapped a binding on).

I pick up a textbook by David Odden. Introducing Phonology. Cambridge University Press: 2005. I'm hoping to learn about the muscles and other anatomy underlying the interesting phonology course. I had no idea that linguistics would go so deeply into how language is produced and interpreted.

This book doesn't go where I was hoping, but I read it anyway. (I have to stop doing that). Sounds are variations in air pressure. The vowels are periodic waves defined by amplitude and frequency. Prominent frequencies are those that resonate and which those are is related to the shape of the vocal tract. We use our speech apparatus, tongue, lips, and velum to change the shape of the vocal tract and produce the frequencies we want. A longer tube gives a lower resonance frequency, which is why when you blow in a recorder it sounds all squeaky until you can figure out how to get your fingers over all the holes.

Sound is a continuous property; soundwaves show little in the way of breaks between letters. Spectrograms show more than is needed for language analysis. We need a way to represent speech such that speakers of a language agree it is the same word, when it is, but that shows differences that are important to distinguish between words in a language. An assumption in phonetics is that there are systematic limits on what constitutes a speech sound in a human language. My problem with linguistics textbooks is you have to know how the author talks when they say "the æ sound is like a in hat." There are a lot of different ways English speakers pronounce /hat/.

Vowels are classed by height (high-mid-low) and vowels at the high and mid positions can be tense or lax. Any vowel can be rounded or unrounded, and front, centre or back. It is common, but not necessary for back vowels to have lip rounding. So multiply that out and it makes five times three times two equals thirty possible vowel sounds. And then there are more multipliers like nasalization, length, stress, tone, phonation (i.e. creaky or breathy), and glides such as y and w sounds.

There are eleven places of articulation for consonants: bilabial, labiodental, dental, alveolar, alveopalatal, retroflex, palatal, velar, uvular, pharyngeal, laryngeal-glottal. A consonant may have a primary and secondary place of articulation. There is also a manner of articulation: stop, fricative, nasal, or affricate, and a consonant can be voiced or unvoiced.

The chapter discusses laryngeal consonants, comparing series like p b pʰ bʰ bʱ b̤ʱ p’ ɓ according to movement of the larynx, but without the anatomical detail I was looking for. This whole chapter is leading towards the International Phonetic Alphabet, which is all very useful, but not what I was looking for. My problem is that this is a book on phonology and what I need is a book on phonetics. Here's the difference. With my luck my next try will be a book on phonics. Or telephony. In courier extra faint. Or maybe that early-1970s pseudo-computer font.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Personality Analysis: Suspicious

Someone e-mailed me to ask for my participation in a Pilot Personality Survey and I said bring it on, but the survey was ... weird. The cover letter requested that I forward it to other pilots, but later in the letter stated that the link was for me only, and not to forward it. I took that to be an issue with the survey software. The survey itself started all the right ways with the notification of approval from the ethics board, contact information for the research supervisor and so on, but if it was a real survey it was either done with poor preparation or it was researching something completely different.

It started with some unnecessary personal questions, like salary and the actual names of the airlines you have worked for. Then it asked me to "Indicate the endorsement obtained from the federal agency National Transportation Safety Board." Now the survey was based in a US possession, and not being an American commercial pilot I know I don't know every wrinkle in their licensing and endorsements, but I've never heard of an NTSB endorsement, and couldn't find anything out about it at the FAA or NTSB sites. Neither organization is a paragon of user accessibility, so that still doesn't mean an NTSB endorsement isn't a thing. I know that the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) investigates accidents and that the FAA grants licences and endorsements. The Canadian equivalent of the NTSB, the TSB, is completely and deliberately separate from Transport Canada, and I thought the same relationship existed between the NTSB and the FAA. The FAA sets and enforces regulations and licensing standards and the NTSB investigates why people crash anyway. What kind of endorsement could a pilot get from the NTSB? Options are 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and above, not very descriptive. And they are check boxes not radio buttons. You can choose as many as you like. Anyone know what this is? I move on to the personality survey.

There's a question asking how many children I have and it has the same answer options as the NTSB endorsement question, only this one is with radio buttons. So I can't have simultaneously four and five children, but I can't have zero children, either.

Many of the questions are too transparently like generic statements about CRM to separate pilot personality from pilot knowledge of what research shows good CRM engenders. It's like filling out the CRM awareness annual exam. What can they possibly learn from such a thing? The obvious answer CRM questions are interspersed with "most people have done ... even if just once in their life" questions, for various bad things like stealing and lying. Often those types of questions are honesty markers on a survey, catching people who are putting what they think they should, instead of the truth. Or they are really asking if I have done these things, using the psychology that people imagine that that they are better than most people, so if they have done a bad thing, then most people have done it. I'm not sure it necessarily follows that if someone believes that most people have done a thing that it's an indication that the person himself has done it.

Why yes, I am overthinking the questions on this little survey. I seem to be thinking more about them than the person who wrote it, anyway. After about eighty questions they start repeating. And I don't mean that they ask a similar question again with different words. That's normal on a survey to test for honesty and attention span. No, the last twenty questions are all repeats of earlier questions, or almost repeats with trivial editorial differences. At the end I didn't hit the DONE key, just abandoned the survey, left wondering if this was some kind of strange phishing attack.

I e-mailed the researcher to ask, but received only a form letter thanking me for my participation. I think that e-mail was triggered by my visiting the link, or starting the survey. I notice that the NTSB question now includes the words "only applies for USA pilots," and the children question now has an option for none, so perhaps she updated the survey but didn't get around to acknowledging me. I also e-mailed the purported supervisor, in case it's a phishing attack using her name.

Here's the survey link, purportedly uniquely tied to my e-mail address, so if you want to put nonsense in and click through to see if I'm more likely an ignorant paranoid bitch ragging on some well-meaning researcher's Master's project or a savvy scam-spotter, go ahead. And if you're a statistician or psychologist and would like a platform for an educational rant on survey methodology, send it here.

Meanwhile other things that people have sent here, lately include an article on why there are so few female airline pilots. It omits to mention, as do most such analyses, that the state of the industry reflects not the role of women today, but the role of women fifty to sixty years ago, when today's senior captains were making their career choices. Ten years ago, when today's junior airline FO was making her career choices, it's quite possible her parents told her women weren't allowed to become pilots. That's what I was told ten years ago on the bus, by one of my fellow citizens.

Heck, you want to know what life advice I was give, by a well-meaning relative born in the 20th century?

  • Don't compete with a man, but if you have to, let him win.
  • Always wear a bra to bed.
  • Muscles on a woman are unattractive.
  • Only ride your bicycle on the sidewalk.
  • Treat frostbite by rubbing snow on it.

Let me tell you, she was not pleased when she saw the big muscles I had from riding my bike up steep hills, on the road, in order to win races, against men. But that's how slow change is. Those ludicrous ideas were held by a person who influenced me growing up.

People are so impatient about change. There are a number of children growing up in my extended family who believe that flying is for girls, and kids making career decisions now have seen female astronauts their whole lives. I don't think there is any great need to see the sexes, races, religions, and sports team fans proportionately distributed in the professions of the world, so long as people have the opportunity to do what they have the capacity to and want to do.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Topics, in Linguistics and Otherwise

I'm back to my fourth year topics class, the one in English about focus projection, not the Mandarin one. We're talking about focus still. I think focus is the entire focus of this course and I'm increasingly certain that a fourth year topics course, and probably most third and fourth year courses outside the rigid core curriculum in this discipline are nothing more than the professor taking advantage of a captive audience for his or her theories, rough drafts of papers, and favourite past publications. I don't think this professor has cited any paper yet that he didn't coauthor.

He says things like "Cleft clauses bring two implicatures: exostential and exhaustive," and I mentally scurry around like I'm doing a crossword puzzle, trying to fill in the meanings of the words such that they match up and make sense with the other things he is saying. Judging by context, cleft clauses are those in which the normal English word order is twisted around in order to change the focus. The exostential implicature means that you have to have established some external background knowledge before you can plunge into a sentence like, "It's John that Mary likes." And the exhaustive implicature is that John is the only one. To me, you could follow up on "It's John that Mary likes" with "And she also likes Randy, and Andrew, and Zach, and that guy who was flying the Beaver on Saturday, and I heard that guy from Weasel River was at her place on Friday," but perhaps that just means I've spent too much time in small northern communities. The professor did note that this implicature is not true in all languages.

He then tells us that "Into the room walked Bill," presumably also a cleft clause, can answer the question, "Who walked into the room?" but not "What did Bill do?" For me, "Into the room walked Bill would be a very marked answer to either question and would only be valid as a somewhat showy description of a game show, or as an answer to "What happened next?" This is a post-verbal subject and gives the subject a presentational focus which is a good name for it, as you can imagine Vanna White gesturing towards Bill as he arrives. A sign that this is a special focus for presenting someone, it is almost impossible to get a pronoun into that position. You could say, "Standing over the body was HIM!" but only if the last word was accompanied by vigourous pointing and probably a dramatic camera angle and music cue.

We're working towards establishing two different types of focus which in English are made by the same constructions, but in other languages may not be. So now we go to some examples in Hungarian. Ninety-nine percent of you will probably be really glad that I didn't copy them down, nor pay rapt enough attention to rave on about them. For those of you who were hoping to learn about its focus strategies, I'm truly sorry.

I did rediscover that the middle of an afternoon class is an excellent opportunity to focus on what you'd rather be doing. And seeing as right now in my life that's actually more important than Hungarian having deaccenting and stress, I might as well ignore the fact that Hungarian stress falls on the leftmost element of the stress clause, and ponder what it is that I really want to be doing.

  • I like the morning exercise of getting on my bicycle and coming to school. I should make that a regular thing, even if I don't go to school.
  • I like learning things, and human contact.
  • I'd rather learn most of them at a faster pace, skip to the next thing as soon as I grasp a concept, and have the opportunity to immediately find out more in depth if I like it.
  • I'd rather be improving some of the languages that I sort of know (Hungarian not among them).
  • It would be amusing to write a novel at the university, alternating between a quiet corner of one of the libraries and the back of dull classes.
  • I'd rather be improving my knowledge of aviation, both useful and trivial.
  • I like attention

As far as linguistics is concerned, I am interested in:

  • writing systems
  • deliberate language change or retention such as politically motivated dialectical divergence, or legislated prescriptivism
  • factors contributing to language survival in the face of non-recognition/persecution
  • anthropological linguistics especially with respect to population movement from Asia to and through the Americas

While I'm not completely uninterested in the different ways Hungarian establishes discourse new versus contrastive focus, it's not my first choice.

Adjuncts, according to the professor--I think we're back to English now--can attach to anything, but are sensitive to what they attach to. Suck it up, adjuncts. You can't always get what you want. And we finish the class with a recursive infinite tree. I swear these things are following me.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Things You Don't Know You Know

Yesterday one of the professors thanked the class for "behaving" during the previous class in the presence of "the observers." I guess she was undergoing an assessment. I wonder if people think I'm an observer. I guess I'm old enough to be an administrator, and confident enough that I look as though I belong. And I take notes, but not necessarily in proportion to the density of information in the lecture, because I'm taking notes on the room and the other students, too. From their point of view I could be evaluating them. That would explain why they don't frown at my presence. I hope I'm not freaking them out.

It turns out that one of the women in front of me in this lecture hall is attending a class just for fun, too. She is enrolled in the university in other classes, but came along with her friend to find out what this one was like. I tell her about my Mandarin experience and she laughs. Human contact. I like humans.

The professor starts the class by choosing a random country from a website. Apparently we learn features of a "language of the week" in this class. His first spin is Northern Mariana Islands, but apparently we've already been to the same language family as there, and the same for the next spin, Guadeloupe. The following spin is United Kingdom, and everyone laughs, which is too bad, because we could have learned about Manx or Welsh or Old English but he spins again and we get Botswana. He promises that later in the week we will learn about a language spoken there.

The rest of the class is a really easy version of some of the other classes I've been in, especially the one with the trees. We learn that Aristotle's Problem is "How do children learn language?" and that we appear to form categories of words and follow templates to put them in sentences. Chomsky's Problem is phrasebuilding based on abstract categories of words. It's an elementary version of the same lesson on recursion that we had with the adjectives yesterday in structural analysis. Finding the same pieces in different classes is like doing a jigsaw puzzle and finding that two bits I have matched because they are blue connect to the two edge pieces I have put together.

I've swapped in a new class for the one that didn't exist. This one is called Historical Linguistics. The professor is new and young, and not super confident, but the subject matter is fascinating. They've been talking about language change the class before and he professor finishes up with some review on synecdoche (which I've heard of before but didn't know was pronounced [sIn'ɛkdɘki], pretty much like the town in New York) and metonomy. Synecdoche is when a part is made to stand for a whole, or vice versa, such as when tea, a type of drink, becomes the name for an entire meal, or the Old English word ceol, which meant ship, came forward into modern English meaning keel, just the bottom ridge of a ship. The word synecdoche comes from Greek syn (with) + ek (out) + dekhesthai (receive). That doesn't add up to "whole standing for part" to me, but that's what the prof said. Metonomy is when a related thing comes to stand for the thing, so "the bar" meaning the legal profession or a word that used to mean "hip" coming to mean thigh. For some reason that is common with body parts, especially the face, for words to move around a bit with time and interlanguage borrowing regarding the thing they really represent.

Next we have language birth. This occurs in one of three ways: dialectical divergence, creolization and invention. Creolization is what happens when a pidgin, a small-vocabulary trade language, becomes the native language of a new generation of speakers. We learn the typical features of a pidgin and look at some examples, such as Tok Pisin, now the official language of Papua New Guinea, and Chinook Wawa, an extinct trade language of the Pacific Northwest. Creoles can be full independent languages, but if a creole is still in contact with the superstrate language, it may undergo decreolization and the speakers move towards the standard form of the high status language.

We ended with language death. This occurs when either there is a massive loss of speakers of the language, through epidemics or genocide, or the people who speak the language shift to speaking another language, usually due to an imbalance of power. We learn a number of ways to classify endangered languages and that's the end of that class. I'm going to come back to this one. It's my favourite so far.

My final class for the day is on speech phonetics, how we make noises for language. It's a third year class with a couple of prerequisites I don't have, but then the first three quarters of the term would also be a prerequisite, wouldn't it? The professor is really interesting and it's hard to say whether he s teaching a class or just enthusing wildly about the computer modelled speech that is the focus of his research. There is an aspect of it that he perfected yesterday and now he's telling us about it. His course is a cross between anatomy and psychology. A student tries to sidetrack him by asking about the Brittney Speers video where she sticks out her tongue while enunciating, "Why does she do that?" The professor just counters with,

"How does it make you feel?" It's nothing to do with speech production, seeing as she is lip-synching in the video.

Speech is partly observed by hearing and partly by sight. We're back to this theme from another direction. Some of the interesting points of the lecture included:

  • People blind from birth actually use their lips differently to produce the same sounds, because they haven't had the opportunity to observe how others do it.
  • Facial movements are important in speechreading by the deaf.
  • If you see someone's mouth moving your brain acts differently, based on whether you believe they are speaking or not.

He showed the results of an experiment that showed that head movement is highly correlated with speech pitch, and eighty percent of vocal tract information is recoverable from facial motion. He recorded people speaking, collecting information about their head movements from tracking dots, like in motion capture for video games. He then removed all the pitch information from the recorded speech and analyzed the motions to reintroduce pitch. He had samples for Japanese and English. Both sounded completely natural. If I had paid for the class I would have put up my hand to get the citation for that paper because it was near-unbelievable. (I don't speak Japanese, but sometimes a non-speaker of a language can hear differences better than a native speaker, because we're not distracted by the meaning. I remember a time I asked a group of Norwegian friends, "Does Siri come from a different part of Norway than the rest of you?" They were stunned, because apparently her accent was not very strong, but to me who heard only the rhythms and sounds, there was a clear difference in the one voice).

The McGurk Effect is that when you hear a sound, the visual signal influences how you perceive it. So given ambiguous audio with a video of a person pronouncing a bilabial consonant, we will "hear" a b or p. If the audio and video are not synced, we notice, but if the visual signal leads by a little bit we don't notice as easily as if it lags. The professor speculates that we are used to perceiving the slight lag in hearing speech due to the speed of sound.

You think "like we'd notice that" but we do notice things that we don't notice we notice. They did an experiment where subjects put their hands on the face of a speaking person, following the Tadoma method, a language teaching technique for the deaf-blind. The experimental subjects had normal vision and hearing and had never had any training in the technique, but it gave them a ten percent improvement in comprehension. I think they had their hearing partially but not completely obstructed.

It was a good class. I'll come to this one again.

Friday, April 22, 2011

I Still Don't Know What That Means

Back to my course in linguistic theory and analysis. Different verbs require different sorts of objects, i.e. a verb like smile doesn't have any, a verb like take needs one, and a verb like give usually needs two, except in special cases like "gave blood," or when it means "give way." Chomsky eventually decided that grammar did not have to account for these things, and that they were lexically determined, part of the definitions of the words. This was groundbreaking stuff in the 1950s. (I'm allowed to make cheap quips about other people's areas of expertise even after I've mocked someone else for doing just that, because this is a blog not an academic textbook. It's a case where hypocrisy is allowed). A verb can have up to three complements (sorry, I don't seem to have kept an example of one that needs three) but a noun can have an infinite number of adjuncts.

The professor showed us a sentence similar to "You saw a green-eyed, fire-breathing, egg-laying, bandy-legged, scaly-skinned monster and I saw one too," where "one" replaces all the adjectives and the noun. But what about "You saw a green-eyed, fire-breathing, egg-laying, bandy-legged, scaly-skinned monster and I saw a feathered one," or "... I saw one with no eyes." One then substitutes for the noun and all the attributes that weren't revisited in the second part of the sentence. He asked us to break into groups and discuss whether this was true, but not using his example, coming up with examples of our own. So my little group is the people next to me and behind me. Seeing as I'm not actually in the class, I'm trying to fade into the background, but there are things you learn out of university that most university students haven't learned yet, and one seems to be leadership. No one else steps up in what seems a reasonable amount of time to start such a simple exercise. Lack of caffeine? It is a 9:30 class, and I hear that's considered early if you're in the arts faculty. I suggest a coffee house order example. Between the group of us we found enough adjectives to fill the bill.

I ordered a soy milk, super-sized, double-shot, extra-hot, latte with whipped cream on top. You ordered one too.

And we can manipulate this so that "you ordered one without the whipped cream," or "one with homo milk," or "a regular-sized one" or "an iced one." It didn't seem quite right that you needed to have so much semantic knowledge about the descriptors to know what "one" could or could not stand for, given the added descriptors, but the professor walked around the classroom to each group and approved our analysis. We then discussed infinite trees and recursion and drew trees showing the various descriptors.

The next class consisted of a class discussion of a paper I hadn't read but was interesting because students were bringing their own experience to it. The paper, I gather, was on a similar theme to that first class where experiments showed that what people heard depended on who they thought was speaking. Asked to report on how 'properly' people spoke, subjects had quite different opinions depending on whether they were told the recorded voice belonged to a university scholarship winner or a high-school dropout. Accents and other regional speech variations are processed differently depending on circumstances. There was a student who considered herself to have an Asian accent but reported that in Minnesota everyone commented on her Canadian accent. The idea that it could be stronger than the accent that to her was more closely linked to her identity was disorienting to her.

Another topic was forensic linguistics identifying a speaker based on phonetics and other discourse markers for investigative purposes. There was a kidnapper who had specified that the ransom money be left on a box on the "double strip" and the linguist involved reported that that term was used only in one county, which was enough to identify the kidnapper from among other suspects. A double strip is the grass between the sidewalk and the curb, also called "devil's row," or "boulevard," and according to a survey of the class, "the lawn." There are five aspects of the sound of someone's speech, says the professor: voice, dynamics, pronunciation, vocabulary and style.

At one point the professor asked, "Why do humans have language?" and I was trying really hard to be a good, unobtrusive observer of these classes, so I repressed the desire to say, "to get laid." I was really quite astonished that nobody gave that answer. There were only insipid non-committal answers produced. Isn't that why we do pretty much anything? Language is not all that useful for fleeing or fighting. Except if you're going to include internet flamewars in fighting behaviour.

The last class of the day is called something like "Topics in Grammar" and is held over in another faculty's building. Even though I've never been here, it feels comfortable. It's a science building for an area I have a degree in, from another university and some combination of the decor, sounds and smells make me feel at home. I find my classroom and sit down near the back. The overhead projector is turned on and displays a slide which is the cover of a book, titled in what I think is Chinese. I guess today's topic in grammar is Chinese grammar. I don't know anything about Chinese grammar, so this should be interesting. Looking around, I notice that almost all the students are Asian, and so is the professor. Hmm. What if the class is conducted in a language I don't speak? There's a student near me looking at a handout or a homework assignment that is in English, and I can hear students chatting in English. But there's a map of China at the front of the classroom, also in Chinese. I'm holding my breath to find out what language the class will be in.

The professor starts to speak. Shoot. I don't know that language. It's probably Mandarin. I slip out, noticing as I go that the girls I had tagged as Caucasian have Chinese features. Ther naturally black hair has been bleached and dyed. I've learned one thing though. No one cares what classes I attend. No one even stared at me for being so obviously in the wrong class.

There's a meme I can share on this topic. A UCLA student posted a rant about Asian students who talk on their cellphones in the library, and rather than being shocked and outraged, Jimmy has written her a tribute song, using many of her own phrases to great effect. If everyone who found themselves maligned by haters could rise to such a height of creativity and hilarity, what a world we would have.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Stress and Focus

It's a challenge to find some of these classrooms. By this point in the term, everyone else has figured out that Room B141 is behind the door marked B140 and in the building marked C. I have to wander around a lot. I miss a couple of classes this way, because I don't want to walk in late and disrupt a class I'm not paying for.

I'm on time for a fourth year course called something vague like Topics in Linguistics. It's a little sparser in pupils than most of the classes I've been in, but there was nothing else on in this time period. We start with a class presentation by three students who are up at the front of the class looking nervous. They draw a couple of trees on the board, just like the ones from the last class. Damnit, I'm going to have to learn this tree stuff. There's a handout. I take one as they are passed along, only later realizing that they wouldn't have made enough up for me to have one, but someone must have been away. There were enough. The title of the presentation is "Topic and focus as linear notions: evidence from Russian and Italian." They're reporting on a particular paper they have been assigned. The first student speaks fluent English with a Russian accent. She explains the sample sentences with terms like c-commanded and with reference to the "right edge" of the tree. When her bit is done, the next woman in the group speaks. She has a Canadian accent but mumbles a bit and it takes me a few phrases to adjust to understanding her. My ear seems to be 'tuned' to the Russian accent. It's clear that the first student did the work and the other two are coasting off her. The guy actually has to interrupt himself to ask the Russian woman for the name of the author of the paper they've been studying. And no, it's not a complex pronunciation issue. I wonder if all three of them share the group mark. I used to hate projects like that.

Then the professor starts the lecture proper. I'm not yet sure to what extent linguistics is a process of cloaking the obvious in obscure terminology. After ten minutes or so of "givenness calculation," "F-marking" and "F-projection" I divine that we're talking about the way languages use verbal stress and other strategies to emphasize part of a sentence, the focus. Givens are information already introduced, in contrast with new information. The lecture assumes I know some rules for focus projection, like normally stress on the final element in a phrase 'projects' focus over that whole phrase. The research the professor is discussing looks for things that go against these general rules. Here are some examples.

(a) John drove Mary's SUV today. What did he drive before that?
(b) He drove [her red convertible]F. (c) John drove Mary's red convertible. What did he drive before that?
(d) He drove her BLUEF convertible

Say sentence (b) as you would if you were just saying that sentence in isolation, then say it again as an answer to the question in (a). For the latter your stress is probably on "convertible," which projects over "her red convertible." But in (d) as a response to (c) the stress is on BLUE because that's the new information. That's okay, because convertible is old information, so the projection doesn't have to go to the right.

Then we meet the sentence "The success of our ventures depends upon the mood of the markets and [the mood of the markets]F depends upon [the state of the economy]F." The second "mood of the markets" is stressed even though it's not new information, because it's new as the subject of depends on. It dawns on me that a "topics in" course is just the professor babbling on about his or her research. This has been interesting, however. I'm slightly amused by the way the little I managed to learn about trees in the previous class got called immediately into use here, and how my musing about stress differentiating between the two meanings of "Who did John wrong?" for a speaker who doesn't use whom, was echoed here in serious scientific study of stress in English prosody. I'm starting to get how linguistics is a science. Linguists study the data they have, formulate theories and then either plan experiments or seek out structures in existing languages to gather data that supports or forces change in their theories.

I'm also remembering why I got out of academia. I realized at the time that I was in a position to stay in university forever, on scholarships, grants, and fellowships. It's such a comfortable place to hide out. Learning things is really fun, as is explaining things, and the need to relate them to the real world is negligible. But I liked having real world results to my actions. I wanted to be useful. So I need to focus on being useful again, even though it's a little stressful.

The telephone tag guy is still away, and the company I interviewed with said that it would be over two weeks before they made their selection, so I have to relax about that for now.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Lost in the Trees

The next day I attended a second year linguistics class which I believe was a prerequisite for one of the classes I was in the day before. It was on Linguistic Theory & Analysis, and was the first class that really made me feel like I had probably missed most of a term, and possibly a prerequisite, too. The professor is British, with wild woolly hair and his pet gesture is to rub his hands together at the breastbone level. He's wearing old jeans and a zippered sweatshirt. He starts be reviewing something about clauses and "DP"s from last class. Based on the answers he solicits from the class, no one who was there understands it either. He draws a diagram.

             /  \
    specifier   X'
                  /  \
                X    complement

Xmax --> (spec) X'
X' --> X (comp)

He states that "wh-phrases are in complementary distribution with complementizers in C," and "wh-phrases form a dependency with a gap further down the tree." From subsequent context I divine that wh-phrases are subordinate clauses such as "which I saw" "when the clock strikes" and "whether I like beets." His examples don't include anything like "whom I saw" because apparently linguists are hip to language change and prove it by eschewing moribund subordinate conjunctions.

Specifier is the subject, complement the predicate or possibly a subordinate clause or both, and I think C is short for complement. He compared:

I wonder [whether [he said [he was going to take that path.]]]

I wonder [which path [he said [he was going to take.]]]

Someone could say "he said he was going to take which path" so this theory of grammar imagines that "which path" has moved from the end up to near the beginning leaving a gap. Except that they pretend that it hasn't actually moved, but exists in both places at once. You just can't hear them both. I'm serious. That's what "The specifier and the head of the projection may not be simultaneously phonologically overt," means. And that's an actual quotation from the lecture. "Grammaticians (grammaticists?) say that evidence for the movement includes echo questions like "he said he was going to take which path?" and multiple wh-questions like "who was going to take which path?" In English only one wh-phrase can occupy the head position, so we don't say "Who where what ate?" unless we are being deliberately silly, but in Romanian and all the Slavic languages except Russian, that's a perfectly acceptable way to ask questions when there is more than one thing you don't know about a situation.

This pretending you have an unpronounced copy lurking at another point in the sentence apparently helps to unify language analysis. It's part of Chomskian contrast of the deep structure and the surface structure. Sentences that mean the same thing have the same deep structure and ones that are constructed the same way have the same surface structure and you hypothesize movements and rules to relate them. I really enjoy being dumped into the middle of something and having to put together what is going on from clues and guessing. But I also enjoy stability and regularity. I should be happy anywhere, then, right?

We did more stuff with trees, specifiers and complements. The professor pointed out that verbs don't get to define anything about their subjects, but the verb can have restrictions on what kind of complements it has. Apparently the absence of object expletives and of idioms with a free object but a lexically idiosyncratic subject is evidence supporting this.

I tried to read a library book on Chomskian grammar, that promised to explain the trees, but it was dulltastically unreadable and I put it back on the shelf.

I tried to come up with an example where you could possibly be confused if someone said who when your dialect called for whom. The best I could come up with was the two distinct questions:

Who did John wrong?
Whom did John wrong?

It's not the greatest, because both the verb "to wrong" and the expression "to do someone wrong" are bordering on archaic themselves. I believe that a speaker who did not use whom would distinguish them by stress and the rhythm of the sentence:

------------------------------ (very level tone)

 /                    / (rising on who and wrong)
WHO did John wrong?

When someone I expect to use whom (like a university professor or an erudite character on a television show) doesn't use it, I find it mildly distracting. But I suppose there are more people who find it distracting when the word does show up. I don't think there's a problem with different people speaking the same language and having slightly different pronoun systems, though. What do y'all think?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Language and Expertise

My in-class strategy was to note all the concepts I didn't understand and then go to the library and read up on what everyone else has been learning all term in class. Libraries are so awesome. You don't have to be a student to use the university library. You can go in, use the catalogue, find books and sit there all day reading them, already prepaid with my taxes.

I start with a book on language history, I won't name it because I'm about to mock the author, who is undoubtedly pompous enough to be a regular egosurfer. Or what do you think? The following is from the acknowledgements:

As I buckled down to work on this book, I consulted profitably with my colleague Valdis Zeps on a numberless variety of matters of both form and content. I looked forward with relish to his inspection of the completed text-- for the pleasure it probably would have given him; for the praise I smugly anticipated; and, most of all, for the valuable criticism he would have certainly offered. I am cheated of his pleasure; the reader is cheated of his wisdom and knowledge.

Okay, it's true that in the last year I have watched many more episodes of Law & Order than I have read scholarly books, but does that paragraph not make him look like the prime suspect in the death of Doctor Zeps? The course of the corresponding Law & Order episode would determine if it was a professional disagreement, a financial matter, or a sex thing. He comes off as pompous and opinionated, but so long as he knows his stuff, it should be interesting.

It starts, as I've discovered do most textbooks on linguistics, with some concrete examples demonstrating change in English. He reproduces an excerpt from a 1927 dictionary. It's the second edition of a dictionary first published in 1909, and the excerpt is from a section listing words new to this edition. Professor Pompous mentions that "The items are shown exactly as they stand in the source (including the baffling language under drag)." I scan the facing page for its entry on drag.

drag n. Aeronautics. The component parallel to the relative wind of the total force on an airfoil or aircraft due to the air through which it moves. It the case of an airplane, that part of the drag which is due to the wings is called wing resistance; that due to the rest of the airplane is called structural or parasite, resistance.

The only thing wrong with that definition of drag is the word It starting the second sentence. It should be In but I don't know if the error is in the original dictionary or the transcription in the linguistics textbook. It certainly doesn't count as "baffling language." The relative wind is the airflow resulting from the aircraft's motion, and seeing as Professor Pompous had a dictionary in hand at the time he disdained to understand the definition, he could have looked it up.

Parasite drag is still the usual term for resistance that increases with airspeed. It is itself composed of form drag, skin friction and interference drag. The specific terms for various components of drag wiggle around a bit from textbook to textbook, as no one wants to admit that lift and drag aren't actually separate things, just two components of the same force defined along perpendicular axes. The term wing resistance is unfamiliar to me, possibly it is synonymous to what I call induced drag, or perhaps it includes some of the parasite drag of the wing structure itself.

Below I quote from a 1918 aeronautics paper by Alexander Klemin (isn't the Internet amazing?) He gives plane resistance as a synonym and states that it decreases to a minimum at 65 mph for a certain wing and then increases with speed, suggesting that yes, wing resistance is the sum of induced drag and parasite drag attributable to the wing alone. Induced drag as it is defined today is inversely proportional to the square of the airspeed, so it continues to decrease with airspeed. Note that Klemin specifies that parasite drag "includes the resistance of the wing bracing, chassis, etc." but unless there's a missing comma before bracing, doesn't list the wing there. There's nothing wrong from a physics point of view with partitioning the drag differently. It still all adds up to the total drag. Presumably modern engineers find it more useful to use the partition that I am familiar with.

The body or parasite resistance which includes the resis- tance of the wing bracing, chassis, etc.. as well as the resistance of the body proper, is taken as varying as T'" 2 and allowance has been made for propeller slip stream velocity. The body resistance is seen to play an unimportant part at low speeds. But at about 53 miles per hour it becomes greater than the plane or wing resistance, and at high speeds it. is almost twice as great as the wing resistance. This emphasizes the impor- tance of minimizing the resistance for a high-speed machine. However good a wing section itself may be, high structural resistance will make high speeds impossible.

The plane resistance curve has a minimum value at about 65 miles per hour and increases on either side of this speed. It is interesting to follow out how this increase in resist- ance on either side occurs. At high speeds, the angles of incidence and the drift coefficients are small but the speeds are very great, and the increase in wing resistance is obvious. At small speeds on the other hand the airplane is flying at large angles of incidence to give the necessary sustentation and the drift coefficients are large. The shape of the total re- sistance curve follows from the summation of the two.

The Cambridge Aerospace Dictionary (nice online reference: bookmark it!) only uses resistance in its electrical sense, and defines wing drag as "When lifting, induced plus profile drags." Profile drag it defines as total drag minus induced drag, so my parasite drag. Some of these may be historical and some trans-Atlantic differences. I won't crawl any deeper into this hole today. I have made a note to research the history of drag-related terms at a later date.

Other aeronautics entries in the short excerpt include drift, drift angle, drip band or flap, and drome. Drip band is a balloon term, no idea if it's still in common use and I've never heard a pilot shorten aerodrome to drome, a demonstration that the up-to-date vocabulary of 1927 doesn't necessarily stick around. The years 1909 to 1927 marked a huge advance in aviation, so it's not surprising that aviation features here, but it's still a coincidence that he picked that span of time and that chunk of the alphabet. I like to take coincidences like that as affirming that I should keep trying to make a living in aviation. There's no reason language can't be a deeper hobby for me than it has been.

Back to the linguistics aspect of the book. We now know that the author is pompous, opinionated, contemptuous of fields in which he knows nothing, and proud enough of his lack of knowledge to boast about it. I hope the late Zeps would have known better and told him it made him look like an idiot.

One of the many ways language changes is by adding bits to or losing bits from words. Being that linguists like words, you can bet that there will be words to learn to describe this all. Here is a sampling of words to do with adding sounds.

anaptyxis - a vowel added between segments

gemination - lengthening of a consonant

prothesis - addition at the beginning of a word

excrescence - consonant added between segments or finally

So when people pronounce /nuclear/ as ['nʲu:kʲuləɹ], instead of freaking out, you can say "Cool, that's an example of anaptyxis." When people say things like "That's a whole nother story," it's prothesis in action: other is acquiring the n from its indefinite article, just as happened with newt in Middle English (used to be "an ewte"). I have a friend who always says "slaunter" when he means "saunter." I don't know why he does it, but it's an example of excrescence. I can't think of any English examples of gemination, probably because I can't think of anywhere in English where consonant doubling occurs. I mean in pronunciation, of course. There are lots of examples in spelling, like latter and later: but the real difference between those words is the sound of the first vowel. In my dialect they are ['læ ɾɚ] and ['le ɾɚ] respectively. Depending on where you are from, you may pronounce a t sound or replace it with a glottal stop, and you may do more with the r, but no one says [læt təɹ] (late-ter) repeating the t-sound.

These words are to do with losing sounds.

syncope - from between segments

apocope - from end of word

aphaerisis - from beginning of word

haplology - loss of a sequence of segments

metathesis - transposition of segments

My slauntering friend pronounces /ruin/ as [ɹun] and /mirror/ as [mɪɹ] compared to my [ɹuɪn] and [mɪɹɚ]. The former I guess is syncope, losing the vowel, and I suspect the latter is too, but you could argue that it was apocope, and that it's the middle r sound he's lost, from that word, not the ending one. Yeah, my friend is a one-man agent of language change. It's not the people who talk like everyone else who cause changes! I could probably call the childhood pronunciation of spaghetti (p'sketti) ['pʰskɛ ɾi] an example of metathesis, with the additional wrinkle that the hard g in the original is devoiced to k by the child, an example of lenition or weakening.

It's interesting that these changes are variously perceived as cute, lazy, uneducated or infuriating, but I find that knowing they have names and roles in inexorable language change makes them kind of cool. It's the difference in approach between "Eww, we've got ants in here!" versus "Look, Formicidae! I bet these are Leptothorax canadensis!" And then you rush to to find out more, before your roommate squashes them all.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Cunningly Stealing School

I apologize for the negativity lately. I don't actually feel as bad as the detritus from my subconscious seems to think I do. I do feel a little frustrated with aviation. I was good at stuff before. I was the one people counted on to know the answers. I remember when people were glad to have me on their team. I knew stuff and that was considered an advantage, but now what I know and what I am no longer seems to be an advantage. Having had just about enough of Netflix, I set out to find some way to feel as if I still had it.

There's a public university near me and their course calendar is on the web. I go online and look for classes that look interesting. I'm going to sneak into classes and brazenly learn things without paying. I don't think they'll care. They might even like it. I'll probably be paying closer attention than some of the students who have paid to be there, and the university is ripe for infiltration. I pick classes with no labs, just lectures, and class sizes over thirty, but not ones with full sections, so I can blend in, but still get a seat. I plan my course schedule. Some of them one have a prerequisite, but you know what, if I don't know something I'll read a book on it. I could read books on all of it, but it's more fun to be an infiltrator. I start with linguistics, write down a bunch of classes and times and plan my schedule.

It's an hour's bike ride to the university, so if nothing else, I'm getting a bit of exercise. I take a couple of pens and highlighters and a half-used notebook that has a history all of its own: leafing through it, I see it was my diary during the time I was quartered in a condemned building due to a forest fire. It contains an authorization number for flight into a NOTAMed forest fire area, a draft of a letter of resignation, the Greyhound bus times, notes for an interview I had with Jazz, and a grocery shopping list. Looks like I was planning on drowning my sorrows in Fettuccine Alfredo. Now it will be my school notebook.

I arrive at the school. It's kind of exciting to be part of this mass of people all coming together. It reminds me of airplanes converging on an airport, all different sizes and speeds following their traffic to join for landing as assigned. I find the building where my first class takes place, and lock my bike to a rack. I was going to leave my bike shoes in the pannier on the bicycle, but I notice that no one else has left panniers on their bike, and that there are a number of partial bicycles chained to the racks. I lock the helmet to the bike but take the shoes and pannier into class. It's a giant lecture hall in a building named after a resource extraction company. How's that for a generic Canadian campus building? Inside the lecture hall I take a seat near the back to see if I'm in any way obviously not a student. I have had my hair cut more recently than most, but the stretchy pants one wears for biking fit right into campus fashion. I should have fancy faux fur or patterned rubber boots if I'm really to be one of them. I guess I'm older than they are, but I don't feel older than they look. There are about equal males and females, lots of Asians. I notice a few people have devices kind of like a cross between a garage door opener and a television remote control. I suspect that the modern university campus uses some kind of electronic interaction instead of putting up your hand.

The professor comes in. He looks just like I'd expect the professor for an introductory linguistics course to look. Caucasian, thirty-something, curly brown hair, little rimless glasses. I have his name written down on my "schedule" so I write it in my notebook. The right arm of my chair hinges up to become a writing surface. Some students have laptops, but lots are using Hilroy notebooks, just like mine. The professor asks us to take out our clickers for a quiz. I called it.

I obviously don't have a clicker, so I just sit there and look ignorant. I was going to do the quiz in my notebook, but then he told us to put our notebooks away. Oh, duh, it's a quiz. There are two 'practice questions' on the quiz. The first is Some people speak English with an accent and some don't. True or False? That's obvious and easy. Everyone has an accent. Surprisingly to me, over half the class has chosen True for that one. He says that the correct answer will be addressed later. The next practice question is How often have you observed students around you cheating on weekly quizzes? with answer choices ranging from Always to Never. He displays the spread of answer choices selected. Most students report having observed cheating to some extent.

The professor then harangues us all on the importance of academic integrity, pointing out that he can analyze answers to identify students who are sharing answers, and that cheating can lead to expulsion, which for an international student will mean loss of their Canadian residence permits. The worst threat he has is that you won't be allowed to live in Canada anymore. I look a little guilty through all this, because I don't even have a clicker. I don't know if professors in huge classrooms pay enough attention to notice one student who doesn't belong. There is then a fairly quick quiz. I don't remember the questions, but I didn't know all the answers or have any way of recording mine.

Next we have a guest lecturer from the sociology department. She is discusses research on accommodation, how we change our speech or even our speech perception depending on who we are with. This isn't as simple as trying to speak 'more proper' when we're with higher social status people, or trying to copy a local accent so that people will understand what you're asking. By default people will try to speak more like the person they are talking to, but if they don't like the group that person is affiliated with, they try to speak less like them, without necessarily realizing it. They had an experiment in an English speaking area where the way a particular sound is pronounced is changing so that two words sounded different when most older people said them, but many young people said the two words the same way. They had various people listen to recordings of the words being said while looking at photos of the 'speakers.' The listeners tended to say the two words were the same when the photo was of a younger person, but identify them as different when the photo was of an older person. The trick of course was that the pictures were arbitrary. The correlation was to the picture not to the age of the speakers, all of whom pronounced the two words distinctly to someone whose dialect maintained the distinction. You can participate in an experiment on perception at this link.

My next class was a second year course on language acquisition. The students are young. They still don't look much younger than I perceive myself, but they act younger. One is delighted to have landed a summer job tangentially related to her studies. While waiting for the class to start, the two ahead of me are discussing what kind of accommodations they can get for 300 euros a month for a study abroad term. The instructor is female, professionally yet casually dressed. I bet she's a mom. She has brownish hair just above her shoulders and waves her hands a fair amount in a forward patting motion at shoulder level, and she keeps adjusting her eyeglasses from the sides. A smell of doughnuts comes from the corridor.

This class is on statistical learning theories: people attempting to explain how children extract the information they need to start speaking a language out of all the sentences and words that are said to them and around them. Sure, they can identify individual words by association with objects, and memorize phrases like "want milk," but parrots and chimpanzees can do that, and parrots and chimpanzees never go on to construct wholly original subordinate clauses the way humans do. How do humans acquire grammar? We have to somehow learn about categories of words and relationships between the categories, without ever consciously knowing the categories. I had a friend in high school who was a fluent native speaker of English, but could not identify a noun or a verb in a simple sentence. His brain could, because he spoke original sentences with all the articles and adjectives in the right places, but he'd never learned to identify parts of speech. People do this, even quite dimwitted people, generalize the rules that govern their language and speak correctly.

One theory is that babies get a feel for how many times they hear things in a certain order, and identify relationships between components of speech by "dips in the transitional probabilities." To test this theory, and humans' ability to discern patterns from nonsense they exposed several adult volunteers to simulated sentences from a made up language, grouping the "words" randomly for the control group and according to phrase rules in the test group. The phrases they heard were arranged so that each transition occurred the same number of times in the data, so they couldn't be using the statistical method. The participants in the non-control group then listened to "correct" and "incorrect" phrases from the nonsense language and were able to identify the "correct" ones as sounding better. We looked at more experiments in that vein, such as this one. Sorry, I don't have a citation for the first one. It's a little tricky coming into a second year class that has been in progress for two months and pretending to know what is going on.

Thirty-eight minutes into the class, the professor proves my theory about her maternity by producing a video of her kid to prove a point about prosody and turn taking in language acquisition. This twins video makes the same point better, I think. These kids appear to have learned how to have a conversation before they actually possess the language with which to have one.

There was one more class I was going to take, an anatomy class, but I seem to have the room number wrong, because it wasn't there.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Unfair Fight ATC

Here's an update with the ATC dialogue during the incident. There's not a whole lot of information to hear. ATC uses the designation "Super" for the Air France A380, a step up from "Heavy" The Airbus is taxiing, apparently according to instructions from a perky, alert-sounding controller, when the Delta pilot calls in languidly to report that he's just been hit by the Air France. The controller immediately dispatches emergency equipment and asks the CRJ pilot if he needs any specific assistance.

I think some of the transmissions from the CRJ are not on the tape, and obviously we're missing a lot of dialogue inside the control tower as they decide which taxiways to shut down and how to reroute traffic. The controller asks the Air France to "shut your engines" and the pilot asks to confirm "close the engines?" Neither is normal English usage, but it's clear. I'm curious as to whether the controller was using an official phrase, or was used to French Québecois crews translating "fermer le moteur" directly into English and used that phrase for Air France. There's no indication that the Air France pilots are having any difficulty understanding normal English, they just have fantastically French accents. Update: See the comment conversation between myself and Ghislain for more about this. It appears that the Air France pilot actually says "hold the engines?" (not "close") and doesn't understand the "shut" instruction, because that does not correspond to the idiom in France.

I'm slightly amused that the offer of assistance for the A380 comes almost as an afterthought. I'm reminded of Hamish versus the MD-80. Did one Airbus pilot ask the other if he felt a bump?

Unfair Fight

An A380 struck a CRJ while manoeuvring on the ramp at JFK Monday night. No one was injured, but look at how far the Airbus spun that little jet around.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

First Man in Space

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's orbital flight, when he became the first human being in space. Even today I am amazed that there are people up there on the International Space Station, eating their lunch, cutting their toenails, and sending e-mails. I can't imagine the excitement of a person doing it fifty years ago. We got humans into space before flying cars, videophones and ray guns. Looking out at the Earth, Gagarin reported something that has been more or less echoed by many space travellers since.

Облетев Землю в корабле-спутнике, я увидел, как прекрасна наша планета. Люди, будем хранить и приумножать эту красоту, а не разрушать ее!

Translation: "Orbiting the Earth in the satellite-ship, I saw how beautiful our planet is. People, let us preserve and enhance this beauty and not destroy it!" I have a poster of Gagarin, with that written on it in his handwriting. It was visible on the wall behind me during a recent Skype video-interview, and the interviewer recognized him. I'm pleased. There were a lot of things that were right about that company and I really hope they call back this week with an offer.

Sadly, Gagarin's human achievement was both driven and marred by rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, so I understand that it engendered fear instead of wonder in many Americans to know that it was a Soviet 'Kosmonaut' who was leading the way. Some animosity still lingers between the two countries, even though they are now working together on the International Space Station.

The American space program was conducted more openly than the Soviet one, with their first manned launch broadcast live on television and no chance to hide their failures. Consequently, I believe the US had higher safety standards than the USSR during the 1960s. The Soviet space agency knew their programme was dangerous, and held Gagarin back from participating in subsequent missions, not wanting to lose their poster boy. There's are rumours that the ill-fated Soyuz-1 flight that killed Vladimir Komarov departed with many unresolved problems, responding to pressure to fly over desire to be safe.

That's a lesson that gets learned over a lot. For safety to be maintained there has to be a high standard and keeping it has to be not a priority, but the priority. The maintainers have to have the knowledge, the resources and the time to do it right and everyone in the operation needs the authority to say "no" if the situation isn't up to standard. Whether you're going to into space or just to Wetaskiwin.

Update: Sarah just commented that some cities have Yuri's Night celebrations of the anniversary.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Comic Strip Airplane

There's a humour website where I spend too much time these days overanalyzing comic strips. The current plot in Mark Trail involves the hero being shipwrecked on an island of drug smugglers, and trying to escape in an old airplane. It kind of looks like a Cessna 170 but the wing struts go almost to the wingtip and the C170 has a semi-cantilevered wing. I was willing to accept that as an art error, but I keep reading and wondering.

I think the artist Jack Elrod is working from photographs, because there's too much that is accurate compared to what you see when someone just makes up an airplane. He's clearly cutting and pasting older artwork, too. Notice how in the QUICK GET IN AND BUCKLE UP! panel he has forgotten to draw the foliage between the two wing struts. There are some details like what appears to be a change in the cowling paint scheme from day to day that suggest he's working from different airplanes, but comic colouring is often bizarre, so let's discount that.

Combining the QUICK GET IN AND BUCKLE UP! panel with the THE SHED--IT'S ON FIRE! one, we see that the aircraft registration begins in N2 and ends in 171. That makes it a US-registered airplane. Not counting the N, a US aircraft registration mark is not more than five characters long and only the last two may be alphabetic, which they are not. So the aircraft depicted is -- or is pretending to be -- registered as N2?171 where ? is either nothing, or a digit 0-9. That's eleven possibilities, all listed in the FAA database. Can I perhaps discover the actual airplane that has been immortalized in this very silly plot?

N2171 is assigned to an amphibious ultralight called a Searey. I've flown one, and can confirm that it's not suitable for long-range drug smuggling operations. The same registration was previously assigned to a small helicopter.
N20171 is assigned to a helicopter, and before that to a balloon.
N21171 is a 1972 C182P registered in California. Nice airplane, but newer than the one in the cartoon.
N22171 is a 1939 Aeronca 65C and that's very close to the mark. Still not a great drug smuggling airplane, but plausibilty isn't a forté of this strip.
N23171 is a 1939 model Piper J4B cub, so right era but the owner is female and women are never evil in this comic strip, so this can't be our smuggler.
N24171 is currently a helicopter, was a different helicopter before that, but in 1940 it was a brand new Akron B75L, also known as the Funk B. The cowling is wrong, but could have been modified for a different engine.
N25171 is a 1939 Luscombe 8A that the FAA says is in questionable condition, but what do they know about Drug Smuggling Island maintenance procedures?
N26171 is a Grumman Cheetah, a low wing and destroyed in 1994.
N27171 is another Piper Cub, this one a 1940 J5A.
N28171 is also a 1940 Piper Cub, a J3C-65. Different state, different owner, registered ten years apart, just happens to be a popular airplane.
N29171 was a Cessna 206, now deregistered.

I'm amused that six out of the eleven candidates were built in 1939-1940. I'm not sure how representative of overall US airplane ownership this is, but it's true that there were a lot of good airplanes built before the Americans even entered World War II, and lots of them are still flying. If we ignore the logistics and payload issue, it's plausible that Otto would be using one of these airplanes in his operation.

After I wrote the above, the later strips gave a clearer view of the airplane. It's clearer here that the registration is N2171, and we get a better look at the airplane. Also, judging by the apparent size of Mark inside the cockpit, it's doubled in size, but we'll ignore that.

So what do you think they're flying? And will they make it to safety? And how will I do on the phone interview scheduled for tomorrow for a really good company, I'd be happy to make the long move to join?

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Seagull Takeout

I have a soft spot for seagulls. I know they crap on everything, and I have had to clean one's guts off my airplane before when it decided to use the same runway as I was, but they're so cute. They can fly the hell out of most weather. They can float. They can walk. They can perch on things. I like their big shiny white bodies, the way they adapt to city life as if the lampposts were designed to be footwarmers, and their boldness in going after what they want.

This one is a little wary as it steals the cat's food, trying to keep one eye on the cat as it dines, and at 28 seconds into the video, solves that problem hilariously.

Can you be a pilot and not admire birds? They find the best thermals. They complete tricky crosswind landings with no knowledge of aerodynamics. They perform astonishing formation flight, carry awkward external loads, execute pinpoint landings and even fly underwater. For me it's the gulls, jays and corvidae: the clever, annoying problem-solvers. I know a lot of people prefer the high-flying, sharp-eyed raptors. Are helicopter pilots partial to hummingbirds?

Friday, April 08, 2011

Illogic Problem

I dreamed last night that I was in a classroom, but did I have your standard naked at school dream? No. Did I dream then that I had a test but I hadn't studied? No. God forbid something normal should happen around me. I dreamed that I was being asked to do a sheet of logic problems. They were logical in the dream, very simple problems, in the form of stories that you had a solve a little puzzle from. Situations like a description of walking with the sun in your eyes after dinner and having to surmise that you're going west, but simpler than that, with less requirement for basic world knowledge (like where the sun sets) and without the at least half a dozen loopholes in that one. It's possible that there is no such problem set possible in the real world, but there it was in the dream world.

One was a three-parter. It involved some people going boating. The first two parts were perfectly easy, the same fitting together of facts to reach the obvious conclusion as the other problems. (I really regret I can't give you examples, but you know how dreams are). The third part involved working out who was navigating the boat, based on the logical clues given. One of the people on board was said to be a naval officer and pilot, and I remember asking aloud in the class if he was the sort of pilot who flew airplanes or the sort of pilot who navigated ships in harbours and coastal waters. I was told the latter. The boat in the question ran aground. I examined the various parts of the questions and, while the teacher was walking up the classroom aisle watching me, I wrote "FALSE, this is not a logic problem," beside the question. I knew what they wanted, but the information did not lead logically to that conclusion. The correct chain of deduction was supposed to conclude that the pilot was not navigating, because he wouldn't have screwed up. The teacher told me I was wrong. I was aghast, and had only started to enumerate why this was faulty reasoning when I was interrupted and told that I was overthinking it. How can you overthink an exercise in thinking?!

The pilot could have made a navigational error; it doesn't matter how trained, professional or prepared you are; you can make errors. He could have been drunk, fallen asleep, or suffered a medical emergency. The navigation chart could be in error, or the boat's steering mechanism or power source became inoperative. I woke up very irritated with the instruction I was receiving.

Still playing telephone tag with that one potential employer. Apparently he has left the country.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Future Predictions

This book was originally published in France in 1911. Aviation was a daredevil sport, conducted in open cockpit single engine aircraft with negligible carrying capacity and unreliable engines. The artist Xaudaro mocked the pursuit of aviation by cartooning ludicrously implausible activities involving aircraft...

.. such as transporting sixteen passengers at once. Note the flight attendant, all the passenger baggage in the rear hold, and the baggage attendant. Both the transit time and the fare on Concorde were at least double that 'predicted' in the caption. And how many hundreds do we cram into one airplane now?

Here he has correctly demonstrated the importance of proper loading and baggage securing on a cargo flight. And I'm sure I told you that there was a dog on my first revenue cargo flight, moving house from one province to the next for a family, including a large dog. The dog rode in the passenger cabin, not on the horizontal stabilizer.

I've carried the mail, and I've picked up objects using a hook attached to my plane, but not quite this way. I love future predictions, whether or not they ever come true. I received e-mail from an editor at Popular Mechanics the other day. He was looking for the author of the information on Landing During an Earthquake. I couldn't help him, but I let him know how much I enjoy the visions of the future in his magazine. Someday I'm going to get my flying car.

The skydiving guy e-mailed back to say that he had just hired everyone he needed. I guess the combined delay of tax guy passing the information on to me and and skydiving guy getting my resume was enough for the pilots to be hired. That's how it goes. I would have liked that job, I think. Simple constraints, people having fun, an operation where I know I can operate safely, and lots of scope to excel in efficiency and customer service. It's kind of wry how quickly I imagine myself in a position. I'm mentally deciding which street I'll live on in the city of another job I've applied to and haven't heard back from. I can't help it! I predict I will get the job.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Opportunity Calls, Among Others

My tax guy calls me. It's not about my taxes. He talked to one of his other clients, a guy who owns a skydiving business. I name his name before the accountant does. He's been in business in Canadian skydiving a long time, owns places across Canada. My accountant mentioned me, said he couldn't understand how a pilot could be overqualified. Skydiving guy explained in terms he could understand. "Return on investment." I thought I told him that, but I guess with accounting people you have to use the exact words. He's calling to tell me skydiving guy says he'll look at my resume. I send him one. Dropping meat bombs is generally an entry level job, but I think the company has some larger airplanes, and there might even be an opportunity to travel to big skydiving meets. I've never jumped, but I used to work with a guy whose wife was a pretty well-known skydiver, well known in that community, I mean. I'm not sure there are any generally famous skydivers.

The maybe job guy doesn't call me. Maybe I should call again. I'll call again tomorrow.

A charity calls to ask me if I have any used clothing or housewares to donate. I tell them not this time. Try again some other time. It's convenient having people haul off your stuff, and if I get a job out of town I'll have give stuff away rather than store it.

A telemarketer calls. I can tell it's a telemarketer because they use a weird version of my name. But this one not exactly a telemarketer. What? She says she's calling from "Computer Maintenance Optimizers" and they have detected a "Junk Malicious Virus" in Microsoft Windows on my computer. The bafflegab is so fluent and hilarious I let her keep going for a while before I interrupt to ask.

"How did you get my telephone number?"

"We have a research department."

"What kind of scam is this?"

"It's not a scam. We are calling to tell you about a junk malicious virus detected on your computer."

"And you're calling me from India to tell me this?"

"I am calling from 'Computer Maintenance Optimizers'."

Eventually she admits that it is in India. They want me to download some software to allow their 'technician' access to the computer to remove the virus. And replace it with spyware, or recruit my computer into a botnet, no doubt. I ask what their revenue model is, and she says it's not my concern, or maybe not her concern, I missed it in the accent.

At one point she asks,"Are you really interested, or are you just wasting my time?" I tell her truthfully that I'm absolutely fascinated by how this all works, and to learn more about this virus, but you know times are tough everywhere and if labour and telephony is cheap enough for them to use human beings making phone calls as a malware vector, she can't be making much. I ask her, if she is paid an hourly wage, per call, or by how many people she entices to download the information. She assures me somewhat indignantly that she is PAID. I tell her I actually use Linux, so their Microsoft Windows virus detector isn't working, but I'm still interested in what she is doing. She ignores that, or doesn't understand Linux and continues. I'm truthfully very interested in this whole scam, or whatever it is. It's hilarious. Are we going to get personal phonecalls from Nigerian princes next? She won't tell me at what point money is extracted from me, or anything more about the company, so eventually I've had enough. I really don't know whether or not she knows that she's peddling a scam, or at best a useless service. I admit that I am wasting her time, because I'm not going to do it. She says this is my choice, but I really should, because the virus may harm my computer. I tell her the Linux story again and she buys it this time, but doesn't seem to be in a hurry to hang up. I tell her I hope she is paid well for her work, that she and her family are well, and that she is enjoying her work. I'm usually civil with telemarketers, but how bored do I have to be? That was so weird, though.

A little internet research turns up their business model. This has been going on for a few years now, and they're doing it all over the world. They sometimes pretend to be from Microsoft or your ISP. They direct you to look at Windows Event Viewer, which always contains a long list of scary looking events, and tell you that's proof of the infection. They have you download a program to give their 'technician' remote access to your computer, and then they charge you a whack of money for it.

Actually, this is the second time I've had this call. I hope I didn't blog about it the first time. Sorry for the repeat if I did. The thing is, when you're job hunting, you have to keep answering the phone.

In breaking news, it looks like the French have found the wreckage of AF447.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Weathered In

I dreamed last night that I was in a large glass-walled airport terminal. It was a boxy shape, and may have had glass ceilings, too, or at least floor to high ceiling windows, giving an unobstructed view of the tarmac. (One of my colleagues hates that colloquialism. It's almost always concrete. I think heavy airplanes would punch holes into tarmac on a hot day). It's not a hot day in my dream, though. It's snowing, with snowflakes swirling everywhere then heavy rain, visibility not any better. I'm inside, not flying. I see some of my former colleagues, and former students, one I remember in a in a really dirty white shirt, but going flying. I'm not flying. I don't know why I'm there.

I'm starting to feel that I'm never going flying. All I want is an FO job with a good company. A King Air would be great, even a piston twin if you've got good two-crew SOPs and a company culture where your status doesn't depend on how much you can drink or deadlift. I don't want anything I can't do. I don't want a free ride. I just want to fly airplanes in a safe environment where my skills will be appreciated.

I applied to a job like that. I really wanted it. I had ten times the listed experience in each category they asked for, so of course they didn't call me. While sorting out last year's taxes the accountant can't understand why having too much experience is a minus. He knows tax law, though. God knows I don't.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Fair Play

I sometimes skip posting on April Fool's Day altogether because I feel obliged to perpetrate some stunt. I'm a horrible liar and I don't like tricking people. Then I came across a stunt too stupid to live, and decided it deserves this occasion to be outed. Just remember, if you think this is a really stupid blog entry, you're getting it instead of no blog entry, not instead of a dissertation on the inlet anti icing of the CRJ-200.

If you use Facebook you might remember a meme a while ago where women posted just a colour to their status, without indicating that it was the colour of their bra. The purpose of this was to promote breast cancer awareness. I suppose the theory is that some man would say "why do all the women have colours as their Facebook status?" and the woman would reply, "Do you know that regular mammograms over age forty used to be promoted as a crucial tool in reducing breast cancer mortality, but recent research shows that the technique finds fewer cancers than expected, that ten times as many women are subjected to the stress of unnecessary biopsies as are helped by the screening, and that its possible some cancers are actually caused by the screening radiation?" And then the guy says, Yeah, they really thought that through. But that's not the stupid part yet.

The next phase in women's stupid Facebook status required the poster to use a prepositional phrase to fill in the blank on her status of "I like it _____," and the "secret" was that the women were revealing not their kinky sexual preferences, but where they routinely leave their purses inside their homes. I don't know if this one was to promote breast cancer awareness or just to facilitate life for burglars, but some women were really into this whole, "We have a secret that men don't know," thing. I don't support arbitrary secrets just because, so when the latest one hit my inbox, now no longer in support of anything except annoying men, I decided to turn double agent.

In the next few days, if you see a bizarre female statuses, it's because your Facebook friends have constructed it according to the following formula.

Pick the month you were born:
January-------I kicked
February------I loved
March----------I karate chopped
April------------I licked
May------------I jumped on
June-----------I smelled
July------------I did the macarena with
August--------I had lunch with
September----I danced with
October-------I sang to
November-----I yelled at
December-----I ran over

Pick the day (number) you were born on:
1-------a birdbath
2-------a monster
3-------a phone
4-------a fork
5-------a snowman
6-------a gangster
7-------my mobile phone
8-------my dog
9-------my best friend's boyfriend
10-------my neighbour
11-------my science teacher
12-------a banana
13-------a fireman
14-------a stuffed animal
15-------a goat
16-------a pickle
17-------your mom
18-------a spoon
19------- a smurf
20-------a baseball bat
21-------a ninja
22-------Chuck Norris
23-------a noodle
24-------a squirrel
25-------a football player
26-------my sister
27-------my brother
28-------an iPod
29-------a surfer
30-------a homeless guy
31-------a llama

What is the last number of the year you were born:
1--------- in my car
2 --------- on your car
3 --------- in a hole
4 --------- under your bed
5 --------- riding a motorcycle
6 --------- sliding down a hill
7 --------- in an elevator
8---------- at the dinner table
9 -------- in line at the bank
0 -------- in your bathroom

Pick the colour of shirt you are wearing:
White---------because I'm cool like that.
Black---------because that's how I roll.
Pink-----------because I'm NOT crazy.
Red-----------because the voices told me to.
Blue-----------because I'm sexy and I do what I want.
Green---------because I think I need some serious help.
Purple---------because I'm AWESOME!
Gray----------because Big Bird said to and he's my leader.
Yellow---------because someone offered me 1,000,000 dollars.
Orange---------because my family thinks I'm stupid anyway.
Brown---------because I can.
Other----------because I'm a Ninja!
None----------because I can't control myself!

Do with this knowledge what you will. Happy April Fish.