philena: (Default)
2014-07-18 10:08 am

Some envelopes!

A  month or two ago I joined IAMPETH, which is a calligraphy association that is awesome. They have a yearly conference (for various reasons I can't go this year, but I'm already planning to go to such a thing next summer) and publish a newsletter with lessons on letterforms and decoration and so on. They also run an envelope exchange, in which you are assigned five buddies, to whom you address an envelope beautifully and send it off. Apparently, envelope-addressing is an art. One of the best calligraphy suppliers I've ever seen, John Neal Bookseller, has a whole gallery dedicated  to displaying the beautiful envelopes that its customers have sent it. I have completed two of mine so far and sent them off. I won't post them here unaltered, because they do contain private name and address information. Fortunately, the address is not actually the point, because I was focusing more on my celtic-style decoration. So, here they are, with addresses blurred out! (I left the New York in one, because that doesn't seem like much of a privacy issue. Also, so you could see the script.) *

*Unlike Jean Wilson, who customizes each envelope she sends to John Neal Books according to the design of the stamp, I simply used what I had. It clashes a bit; I don't think that the 9th-century Celts and Northumbrians had much use for Hannukah.

Next up I will be showing off a new script I've been learning: English roundhand, also called copperplate. Sometime in the next week or two; stay tuned!

philena: (Default)
2014-06-20 11:32 am

A thank-you card

My grandparents sent me a graduation check. I decided to employ my newly acquired skills to create a thank-you card. As with the previous creation I've posted here, the lettering is not particularly good, but as I think you'll agree, the lettering is not really the point here. (All the same, I need to remind myself to practice the ostensible point of these documents more than I have been.)

As before . . . )

philena: (Default)
2014-06-17 07:38 pm

Celtic knotwork

One script that I have always loved is called Insular Majuscule. It's the main script used in the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels, as well as a large variety of manuscripts written in England and Ireland in the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries I haven't ever really mastered it, but I think in part that is due in (very small) part to my tools. See, the pen angle for Insular Majuscule is extremely shallow. This means that the thin lines are at the top and bottom of a curve, as in the O on the left in the picture below, rather than occurring at the top left and bottom right portions, as in the O on the right.

Now, a broad-edged pen, as used to create the letters above, can have its nib cut in two ways. One of them is so that it is perpendicular to the line of the pen, as in the nib on the left below. Imagine holding such a pen and writing naturally. If you're right-handed, your arm will be positioned in such a way that the nib will naturally have a steeper angle, creating curves like the O on the right above.

For a long time, I've been using only nibs like the one on the left, and as a result it's been very difficult to keep my pen angle constantly shallow for scripts such as Insular Majuscule, which leads to unsatisfactory lettering. By contrast, the nib on the right is cut obliquely, rather than perpendicularly, so that it counteracts this angle of the arm. This makes it much easier to write letters with a shallow pen angle.

The point of this little preamble is that I have now received from an excellent, excellent calligraphy supplier a large number of oblique-cut nibs, which means I've been diving into Insular Majuscule, and, by extension, other varieties of Insular manuscript decoration. To start with, I've been learning Celtic knotwork. The remainder of this entry will illustrate my adventures in this area.

Knots! )

philena: (manuscript)
2014-06-06 07:52 am

I am in awe

 This guy. I'm struck by how many people (like me) seem to enjoy both medieval stuff and sci-fi and fantasy. The combination could be a result of a desire for escapism (to a Type C world), which can be satisfied both by inventing a universe with magic and dragons, or by returning to a period of time so remote that it might just as well be such a universe (helped, no doubt, by the fact that the people in that era believed in magic and dragons). The fact that fantasy stories often take place in pseudo-medieval settings is another, more mundane, link between the two interests. In any event, whatever the reason for this cooccurrence, I've discovered someone amazing, who is both a fantasy/sci-fi illustrator, and also an amazing book artist. I've spent years playing around with lettering, but only now have I started branching out into decoration and pseudo-illumination. I justify the specialization to myself (as if a hobby needed this sort of justification) to saying that the scribes in the olden days specialized. The same grunt who did the lettering was not necessarily the expert who did the illumination or the binding. Randy Asplund, however, has scorned such thinking. He does it all himself: He prepares the vellum, mixes the ink from authentic ingredients*, makes his own authentic-style tools, and, of course, does all the lettering, illustration, and illumination himself. I need hardly say that his lettering --- perhaps the simplest part of the endeavor --- is exquisite.

Please, take a look through his step-by-step account of making two books. One of them is a fifteenth century French-style manuscript, and the other is a 9th-century Northumbrian style manuscript. They are astonishing.

I should also mention that I very much want this book that he is writing, Secrets of Forgotten Masters: A 21st Century Artist's Exploration of how books were made in the Middle Ages. It doesn't look like it's out yet, but if someone is looking for a birthday present for me when it is released, now you know what I want!

*I'm charmed by his slightly apologetic comment that one of his inks was made with Mexican cochineal (a type of insect), which is not authentic, but it's similar to the European cochineal that would have been used to make the ink.
philena: (Default)
2014-06-05 07:46 pm

Prologue: The sailor

Since I have last posted, I've bought about ahem $150 of calligraphy supplies. This includes a large number of nibs, some fairly pricey paper, and some gouache (pronounced "gwash"; I asked), which is apparently the authentic material to use for coloring and so on. I also worked through the demo on acanthus leaves that I linked to yesterday, and I have now put everything together into a little manuscript, which I present below.  Rather than the first 30 lines of the Canterbury Tales, I copied out instead a portion of the prologue in which the sailor is introduced. I chose it for three reasons:
  1. It was exactly the right length to fit on the paper I wanted to use.
  2. It did not begin with any text indicating that something came before it (e.g., "There was also . . . " or "With him was . . ." In other words, it is a stand-alone characterization.)
  3. A piece about a sailor is fun to decorate, as you shall see.
Because I felt like it, I also took step by step pictures of the illustration process.

The Shipman )
philena: (Default)
2014-06-05 08:07 am

(no subject)

We take a break from your irregularly scheduled series of calligraphy updates, to notify you of a job posting that has appeared on linguist list, which is a public forum where almost all linguistics jobs are advertised. Apparently, the CIA is looking for translators and languagy operatives, and so, appropriately enough, they advertised the job. This is itself slightly unexpected. Most of the postings there are from universities with professorships, postdocs, and PhD funding, with a second layer of postings from companies like Google and translation agencies. One doesn't expect spy agencies to advertise so banally.

Nevertheless, the CIA does its part to make its advertisement special. I am extremely entertained by the final paragraph of the posting:

Important Notice: Knowledge by non-Agency personnel of your association with the Central Intelligence Agency or the Intelligence Community may limit your ability to perform or preclude you from certain assignments. NCS applicants should therefore endeavor to protect the fact that they have applied and/or are thinking of applying to the NCS. We urge your discretion throughout the entire hiring process to ensure maximum flexibility for your potential NCS career. Further guidance will be provided as competitive applicants move through the hiring steps.

There it is, then. If I apply for this job, I will not tell anyone about it.
philena: (manuscript)
2014-06-04 07:43 am


 Greetings, world of LJ and DW! Since my last entry over a year ago, I have been doing things like finishing my PhD and graduating! You may now call me Dr. Philena, and please remember: No balloons!

Since that happened, I've been a little at loose ends. I belly-flopped on the job market, so I'll be hanging around here for another year, publishing various chapters of my dissertation (er, submitting for publication, that is), continuing my research, and applying for jobs once more. But the advantage of no longer having a dissertation to write means that I have tons of un-guilty free time.* I've been using it to return to a pastime I first discovered in middle school, and which has languished untouched for the past six years: Calligraphy! I'm hoping to post fairly regularly over the summer, to track my progress as I recapture the skills I once had. I also want to acquire some illumination and illustration skills, so that eventually I'll be able to write out medieval-style manuscripts. At the moment, I've only got the skills of some poor initiate in a scriptorium, who letters out the gospels and then hands the pages over to the high-ups who do all the fancy decorations.

*In the wise words of Megha Sundara, graduate school is mainly a lot of guilty free time.

My current skill level )

philena: (hippotortoise)
2013-08-03 12:58 pm

When I was fourteen and in love with Ronald Colman

A long time ago, my mother told me a story about my grandmother. My memory of it is very incomplete, containing only the following three fragments:

1. The story begins When I was fourteen and in love with Ronald Colman . . .
2. The story involves the movie The Prisoner of Zenda (released in September of 1937--when my grandmother was indeed 14)
3. The story ends with enormous admiration for a character (played, I always assumed, by Ronald Colman) whose final appearance involves a pithy farewell right before jumping out a window.

A few nights ago, Mr. Philena and I finally watched this movie, which is really quite good.* It did star Ronald Colman** but the fellow who jumped out the window was not our Colmanic hero, but rather the villain, who jumps out the window to make a swashbuckling exit, escaping retribution for his evil plans. And, with that, I believe I can fill in the blanks of this half-remembered story. It was not a tale of teenage idol-worship. Rather, it describes the moment when my grandmother discovered the Magnificent Bastard, and as I've grown older, I've come to admire magnificent bastardy much more than I did as a child. As a seven-year-old, I could not understand why my mother liked Ursula in The Little Mermaid. Didn't she realize that Ursula was the bad guy? As a ten-year-old, I was much more attracted to the clean red-and-white colors of the Starfleet uniforms than to the barbaric rags worn by Khan's crew in The Wrath of Khan, which were of course preferred by my mother. As a thirteen-year-old, I considered Darth Vader simply the bad guy, and sat through his scenes patiently, waiting for the narrative to switch back to the heroes. I was much, much older than fourteen before I realized that villains can be awesome, and as a result of this ignorance, an enormously formative part of my childhood, I now realize, was incomplete. I refer, of course, to Star Trek.

Darker and edgier done right )

*I mention in passing that it contains a very young David Niven, who has come to my adult notice by being pretty much the only good thing about the old film adaptation of Around the World in Eighty Days. In Prisoner of Zenda he was only 27, according to Wikipedia, and already he had those dramatic forehead creases.

**Who looks remarkably like Robert Downey Jr. I am not so great with faces so the resemblance might be carried entirely by the mustache. At any rate, I leave it to you to judge:

Ronald Colman (image from Wikipedia):            Robert Downey Jr (image from IMDB):
***The episode Waltz is one of the finest things ever produced in the Star Trek franchise, but it doesn't really work unless you've watched everything else leading up to it. Its success depends on the shared frame of reference that has been built up throughout the previous episodes and seasons.

****They do clever things with clones


philena: (pie)
2013-05-27 12:03 pm

Star Trek

The most recent Star Trek movie was, I confess, a disappointment. It was extremely entertaining, but as [personal profile] summercomfort 's husband said, it was sort of a fanfiction of classic Trek. One reason fanfiction works so well is that everyone writing and reading it all share a common background. You don't need to waste time describing Kirk's previous romances, for example, when an expression like "The woman in the soup kitchen" would evoke all the tragedy that more traditional fiction would need to have set up with pages and pages of possibly superfluous backstory. When this shared frame of reference is used well, it can make even very short stories much more powerful than stand-alone fiction, because very small references are pre-loaded with emotional punch. The problem arises when writers depend on the shared background to carry the emotional weight of the story, rather than writing it in themselves, and that's what JJ Abrams has done.
Here be spoilers! )
philena: (Pika!)
2013-02-09 02:57 pm

Ways in which I have been an utter doofus this week.

  1. On Monday morning, I get a call from the landlady (not about the rent, yet), saying that there's an alarm going off which she can hear in our bedroom. (She lives in the other half of the house, so it's not creepy or anything that she could hear what was going on in our bedroom, since it's right next to her kids' nursery*). I respond that it's probably the alarm clock, and she can feel free to go in and turn it off if it's bothering her (they have a spare key). She says that's okay, it's not a problem, and I think no more of it till Mr. Philena gets home and calls me to say I left the stove on that morning, and the alarm was the carbon monoxide detector, and he has to call the gas company to come do an inspection of the house. Argh.
  2. Tuesday I get a call from the landlords. They very politely mention that we haven't paid the rent, and we should let them know whether we plan to do that. Argh.
  3. Wednesday and Thursday go smoothly, but Friday night I forget my wallet when I leave for campus, and so I have to call Mr. Philena to come pick me up at 7:45 because I don't fancy walking home in the dark. Argh
  4. Today I realize that I never responded to the conference organizers who accepted my submission and wanted to know whether I'm coming by Monday. Since this submission has been rejected twice already and my CV is pretty skimpy, I'm naturally anxious not to lose other items that I can put on it, such as conference presentations, and I missed the deadline for this one. Argh.

As it turned out, everything worked out this week. Mr. Philena took care of the gas company, I dropped off a rent check with no problems, Mr. Philena picked me up from campus, and the conference organizers just wrote back to my contrite email saying that they're happy to have me there. But I feel as if I'm constantly just one step behind the world, and it's getting really annoying, and I'm ready to start being successful at something.

Of course, I have been successful at other things this semester. For example, after almost a year of talking about it, I and my three office-mates finally made it happen that we cleared out all the junk left by a professor emeritus, re-arranged the furniture, and re-painted the walls. The office is actually to offices linked by an adjoining door, and years ago someone had painted a pipe in the ceiling a really nice color of green. So we built the entire color scheme of the office around that scheme. The room with the duct now has blue walls with green trim, and the other room (where my desk is) has green walls with blue trim. People in my department have been wandering by for the last two weeks to check it out, and the general reaction has been that the grad students say, "That is SO AWESOME", while the professors look doubtful and ask, "who chose the colors?" The fellow who originally donated the green paint for the duct has commented with some relish that the paint was left over from when his 7-year old son painted his room, and that this particular shade of green was therefore chosen by a 7-year old. I, however, think that this particular 7-year old has excellent taste.

*And, of course, since it's right next to the nursery, Mr. Philena and I get first hand knowledge of how well the kids are sleeping through the night. The answer is not very well. I'd say easily every other night one or the other starts screaming, and since the parents have just started the "cry-it-out" method of sleep training, we get awfully annoyed. It's been this way since last September.

philena: (Default)
2012-12-15 10:07 pm

On world-building

I am firmly in the camp of people who read for escape, rather than exploring the human condition. I don't want to learn about how my fellow man feels in today's disconnected and narcissistic society. I don't care about how your misunderstood childhood informed your love of jazz and rescuing puppies, and I really have no patience while you explore new horizons in structure and feeling in your poetry.* I read because I want to depart from this world and enter a new one, and I've found that there are roughly three types of worlds that one can find in fiction.

Type A: Our world. )

Type B: World confined to story )

Type C: world endures beyond story )

It's my preference for Type C fiction---world over story, world over people---that explains my love of science fiction and fantasy. In order to write science fiction or fantasy, the author has to create a new world, rules that govern it, and then on top of that create a story. This is hard to do well! If the world doesn't stand by itself, it's bad science fiction. If the writer is lucky, such an incomplete world is classified as "magical realism"---which I never really liked, because it didn't make sense. I like my fiction to make sense. I just want the sense to be invented.

*I find myself especially disgusted with people who write best-selling memoirs describing their feelings about their young child's long, drawn-out death from leukemia. It seems disrespectful to the dead to use them as a source of profit. If you want to get the feelings out for your own good, write a journal. If you want to share your experience with others because you think it should be more widely known, write a blog or sell the book for no more than whatever it takes to recoup the costs of publication and dissemination. The moment you start using the tragedy to make money for yourself or a publisher, you lose all sympathy from me. (Unless you donate all the royalties to leukemia (or whatever) research. Then you have my full support.)

**I have not been personally affected by any of these issues. I say "escape" in the most general terms. Please do not read this paragraph as a comment on Mr. Philena, my employers or colleagues, my criminal actions (if they existed), my deforested section of the Amazon (if it belonged to me), or my dog (which I don't have).

***Avatar was an exception. That was a full-fledged Type C world, which overcame any deficiencies in plot or tendencies toward social commentary.
philena: (Default)
2012-08-22 04:16 pm

On fairly dry linguistics matters (but, I hope, comprehensible to the layman)

The unaccusative alternation

When I was TAing for an undergraduate syntax class a couple of years ago, I was extremely struck by the analysis presented by the professor for a particular set of English verbs. The behavior of interest looks something like this.

1 a. I boiled the water (into vapor).
b. The water boiled (into vapor).

2. a. I stretched the rope (taut).
b. The rope stretched (taut).

3. a. I broke the glass (into little tiny pieces).
b. The glass broke (into little tiny pieces).

I'm not going to go into the analysis of how this set of data is analyzed in concert with sentences like "I worked myself into a frenzy" and "I fainted into a heap on the floor," in part because it's not particularly interesting into non-linguists, and in part because the only reason I like the analysis is that it works so tidily within a narrow theoretically framework that I don't necessarily subscribe to. It's gorgeous, but I don't really believe it. Anyway, there's a whole slew of these verbs: boil, melt, break, crack, shatter, roll, spill, freeze, open, close, sink, increase, decrease, and lots more. The basic property that characterizes this class (sometimes called alternating unaccusatives) is that they can be used both transitively, as in (1a), (2a), and (3a), or intransitively, where the object of the transitive clause becomes the subject of the intransitive (as in (1b), (2b), (3b)). Now, on the basis of this property, one might want to include the verb grow in this class, because of data like the following:

4. a. I grow tomatoes.
b. The tomato grew.

If that is the case, though, why do I despise sentences like the following?

5. We are growing our business/customer base/market share . . .

I hate that use of grow. It's not just the transitive use that I despise, which might suggest that I simply don't include grow in the class of alternative unaccusatives in my ideolect. I do like transitive grow. Sentence (4a) is fine. So what's different about growing tomatoes and growing businesses? It's not simply an aversion to corporate jargon. I don't hate it the way I find sentences "Make sure you liaise with Susan so we can dialogue about how our marketing campaign is impacting the consumer base" stylistically ugly. It's not stylistics. It sounds wrong. It sounds ungrammatical. It sounds like (to bring out the big guns) a subcategorization violation, an argument structure violation. It's as bad to me as something like I confessed God my sins instead of I confessed my sins to God. But I simply can't figure out what's wrong with it. It's probably semantic, but what semantic category would include anything organic and exclude something organizational, but only for the verb grow? There's no such split in other alternating unaccusatives. It's equally good (syntactically) to say I'm going to shatter our customer base and I'm going to shatter this tomato. What's up with grow?

Split infinitives
Some stodgy grammarians hold to the claim that it's somehow ugly to split infinitives in English, along the lines of (6-9)a, and that modifiers should appear somewhere else, as in (6-9)b.

6a. My mission is to stodgily prescribe grammar rules.
b. My mission is stodgily to prescribe grammar rules.

7a. I expect the radicals to vehemently object to my tax proposal.
b. I expect the radicals vehemently to object to my tax proposal.

8a. I want to not get involved in this argument.
b. I want not to get involved in this argument.

9a. I told him to never do that again.
b. I told him never to do that again.

This is one of those old-fashioned rules that I try to follow just in case whenever it sounds okay, but which I freely ignore whenever there's the slightest hint of stodginess. Certainly in (6)-(7) I think that the split infinitive versions are better than the non-split ones, while in (8) and especially (9) the unsplit version is as good as or better than the split version . However, they really do mean the same thing. The difference is purely stylistic, rather than semantic.

I recently, however, came across an example where avoiding splitting the infinitive changed the meaning so much that I completely misunderstood the utterance. This came from Dickens's Little Dorrit, where the narrator is describing the Circumlocution Office. This government office has perfected the art of "how not to do it." To me, "how not to do it" means "the manner in which this thing should never be done, because that manner is utterly wrong." For example, "how not to stitch samplers" would involve sledgehammers and jaguars, and "how not to cook dinner" would involve dill. Under this reading, the Circumlocution Office has perfect the art of doing things wrong.

As it turns out, Dickens meant an entirely different meaning. He meant "how to avoid doing something." He meant that the Circumlocution Office is where any activity goes to be abandoned. For me, though, this second meaning is best expressed by "how to not do it," with the split infinitive. The meaning contrast is really stark. "How not to do it" could perhaps have the meaning that Dickens intended (avoiding action) if I turn my head and squint, but it's definitely dispreferred, and "how to not do it" could never, ever have the meaning of demonstrating the wrong method of accomplishing the action. It can only have the avoidance meaning.

I don't have any point to make. I simply was struck by the profound difference splitting or not splitting an infinitive makes in this case with respect not to style, but to meaning.
philena: (Default)
2012-07-09 09:28 am

Recent triumphs

For whatever reason, the last few entries have given a sense of general displeasure with the world, and I write now in an attempt to reverse that trend by describing my current sense of overall approval of the world. Here is a list of all the recent things that have gone right:
  • I finished teaching that summer class (upper-level introduction to linguistics) that was consuming every waking hour (two hours a day, five days a week, plus homework-grading twice a week) Overall, I think it went reasonably well. Of the seventeen people who stuck it through to the end, fifteen of them learned enough linguistics that they could take any other linguistics class in the department. Mission accomplished!
  • Related to the above bullet: I am a huge whiz not only at Beamer, but I've also taught myself a little bit about tikz. There is a lot of programming knowledge out there.
  • Yoga is done! Hurrah. It's a bit of a pity, because I loved how it made me feel physically, but I hated doing it. So I'll probably end the summer flabbier than I am now, but less annoyed.
  • I've started a jazz dance class. It's going to be much more fun than yoga; I can tell that already. The instructor is a super-smiley fellow who is really good at demonstrating everything in such a way that no one feels shy about trying what he shows us (and by "no one" I mean "me." There is one poor fellow who's extremely insecure and through the position of his name in the alphabet he always goes last in a much smaller group whenever we do across-the-floor exercises, so he always ends up trying a new step after everyone else has finished and are standing and watching him and the maybe one other person in his group. Poor fellow.) No matter how silly it feels, the instructor embraces the oddness and demonstrates all the moves in what I think must be a slightly exaggerated manner, and it works. All of the steps, when put together, I'm sure look terrific, but when you're practicing just one part--say, jazz walks--over and over again, back and forth across the floor, even the instructor looks a bit odd. I've had to make a bit of an effort not to feel shy, so I'm being almost aggressively not-shy, but as long as I don't start clamming up I think I'm going to have a blast.

    I've found in my grad school career that there is a huge difference between teaching an introductory academic subject and teaching an introductory skills based subject. With math or linguistics or whatever, it's always possible to start with very simple topics and build them up as necessary, not moving on until each previous step has been mastered. It's much easier to separate arithmetic from, say, algebra, or to learn the basics of simple phrase structure grammars before elaborating them into Minimalist type theories of syntax. But with skills-based subjects, from the beginning, no matter how small you start, you're never going to master even the most basic skills until you've gotten a lot better at it as a whole. If you're learning a foreign language, your accent is going to be bad on day 1, and it will continue to be bad as you learn your tenses and declensions and subordinate clause structures. If you're learning volleyball, your footwork is going to be bad on day 1, and it will continue to be sloppy as you learn passing and setting and spiking and serving. And if you're learning jazz dance, your jazz walks are going to look and feel absurd on day 1 (as I discovered on Thursday). But although it is probably smart not to teach your students algebra until they know how to deal with fractions, and I would never dream of trying to teach phrase structure grammar to students who don't know the different parts of speech, it would be foolish to say, "No, I'm not going to learn how to conjugate a verb until I've got the accent right," because in skills based classes, every sub-part is tied to every other sub-part much more intimately than in other academic subjects, and you can't separate them out and learn them piecemeal as easily as you can separate algebra from geometry from trig, or phonetics from phonology from syntax. So teaching an introduction to a skill, like dance, where the nature of the beast is that you're going to look and feel ridiculous from the beginning, requires that the instructor be inviting and friendly and create a safe space where the students feel minimally embarrassed to try and fail and look ridiculous. I had the good fortune to take a Russian class with such an instructor here last year, and I think that this jazz dance instructor is another such a one, so I expect to have a great time over the next five weeks.
  • I finally flipped an omelet without a spatula! Two of them, in fact. Mr. Philena and I received a very nice non-stick skillet as a wedding gift, and every time I make omelets in it I've observed that, at the moment when they're ready to be flipped, they always seem to be sliding around so smoothly and freely that I should be able to make it work just by doing that in-the-air pizza-dough type move that you see in fancy cooking shows (and that I saw in my college dining hall when Carly was manning the omelet station on Thursday nights.) But, of course, I like omelets, and I hate cleaning the stove, so I always did it the safe way so that I wouldn't make a mess and lose my dinner if I the omelet missed the pan on the way down. But this time I felt adventurous, so I gave it a try, and it worked! Twice!
  • I finally cleaned the bathroom. Although Mr. Philena and I have never formally sat down and delineated who does what chores, we've sort of settled into a routine. We both do laundry and vacuuming and cooking and washing up (with me a bit more leaning toward the cooking and Mr. Philena a bit more leaning toward the washing up). Mr. Philena does car maintenance and pays the bills. I do computer maintenance and clean the bathroom. And the bathroom had not been cleaned in a very long time while I was teaching, with the result that there were some pretty impressive yucky deposits in various places that I attacked with a spray bottle and a toothbrush, and the result was extremely gratifying. And even more gratifying was my successful attack on the bathroom sink with baking soda and vinegar. That stuff really works, and brings back memories of papier mache volcanoes in the process. 
  • I've been reading science fiction! Recently I've been working through the Honor Harrington series by David Weber. The first three are pretty good, but in the more recent books he's been having too much fun dealing with how various political machinations by ambitious but unscrupulous government types lead to war because political machinations are bad things that are done by bad people, and it's been getting rather tiresome. I'm hoping that now that there's a new war that's been started by the bad peoples' political fumbles we'll get back into the space-ship battles, but I'm a bit concerned that he'll have trouble pulling himself away from plots that are based mostly on people sitting around tables and talking. Even Tolkien couldn't make that (Council of Elrond) work.
  • Oh! Tolkien! I saw a preview for the new movie of The Hobbit! In true Peter Jackson style it's coming out in December, and it looks just wonderful. Like, really wonderful. Really, really wonderful. I didn't agree with all of his changes to LOTR, but he has an earnest approach that I think is true to the books in every way that matters, and I thoroughly enjoyed the LOTR movies, and I can't wait to return to that world for the Hobbit. And I must say, from the previews, it looks as though it will be undeniably the same world. And I love Martin Freeman.
philena: (Default)
2012-06-07 08:46 pm


When I told my mother that I had signed up for a yoga class, she was unimpressed. "I went to a yoga class once," she said, "and I found it awfully boring." Well, I've been going to a yoga class for an hour and a half a day, four times a week, for three weeks now, and I'm taking a break from lecture planning to share my opinions of my class.

The philophical bit )

The physical bit )

So, to summarize: yoga good physically, awfully silly philosophically, but inoffensive, unless you start trying to connect it to Western science and culture, which, alas, my instructor has decided to do, and then it just becomes absurd.

Okay, that is all. Back to lecture-planning!

philena: (Default)
2012-05-20 06:44 pm

It's the end of the world!

Otherwise known as a solar eclipse. One gets the best view of it from a pinhole camera, (see below), but I think the eeriest effect is visible in the shadows of the trees (see belower.)

philena: (hippotortoise)
2012-05-20 01:14 pm

Haffily Gaffily Gaffily Gonward

This past week I've been working roughly twelve hours a day putting together my lectures for the first week of the intro class I'll be teaching this summer. I think I have a series of pretty rockin' lectures, and one reason I've been having such a good time putting them together is that my approach to a topic goes something like this: Hmm. I want to introduce sounds of other languages. Well, Melissa in my program mentioned that the UCLA phonetics archive has a lot of good recordings of other languages. I think I'll pop over to their website and choose one.(Notice my use of the word "pop"---implying a quick perusal of the website, click click download a sound file, and on to lecture planning.) Three hours later, and I'm still scrolling through, listening to word lists in Western Apache and incredibly Soviet-inspired narratives about Pioneers helping collective farmers with their harvest in Chechen and stories about traveling to a wedding in Kabardian and not getting much lecture planning done. I eventually chose a story in !Xóõ, which I strongly recommend listening too, because !Xóõ is a Khoisan language, noted for having clicks. Lots of clicks. It is really remarkable listening to the recording of this person with an elegant, flawless British accent reading the English translation of his text, and then switching over into !Xóõ and sounding like something not of this world.

The reason for the title of this post comes from the lecture I prepared yesterday for Thursday, in which I will talk about speech perception, introducing the concept with some examples of Mondegreens. Mondegreens (if you cannot be bothered to click the link) are cases where people mishear some lyrics to a song or some portion of a poem (usually by misplacing word boundaries), and impute some other meaning to the relevant portion of speech. The particular term comes from a Harpers article by Sylvia Wright in 1954, where she describes her childhood misunderstanding of the first stanza of The Bonny Earl O'Moray, which goes:
Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl O' Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen.
When, in fact, the final line should read And laid him on the green.

Now, it is very useful to know the origins of these coinages like mondegreen, but it also strikes me that this sort of misparsing of a line of a now-obscure poem that none of my students will ever have heard will not be very useful for illustrating how easy it is to misperceive these sorts of things. Far better examples include hearing for which it stands in the Pledge of Allegiance as for Richard Stanz, because most American students have experienced that themselves. The folks over at Language Log were particular amused by a YouTube video in which the song "All By Myself" is reinterpreted as "Obama's Elf", and I do plan on showing that one in class. My favorite Mondegreen (described in the Wikipedia article), however, comes from the first few lines of The Charge of the Light Brigade, in which the nonsense sequence Haffily gaffily gaffily gonward is heard in place of the actual initial lines Half a league, half a league,/Half a league onward. I don't know why I should like it so much: I've never been particularly touched by the poem and I've certainly never experienced that mondegreen myself (even though I'm sure my mother must have recited it to me when I was little. I certainly remember her telling me the story, and she does have something of an encyclopedic memory of bits of famous English verse). But it sounds so great: Haffily gaffily gaffily gonward. I was muttering it to myself all last evening as Mr. Philena and I walked to our favorite burger-and-cider/(beer)-and-basketball-watching-joint to watch the Oklahoma City Thunder whup the Lakers in game 4 of the NBA play-off series. (Good game: the Thunder were behind by ten points for most of it, only slowly inching up and zipping ahead right at the end.)

In other summer-school related things, I've signed up to take a yoga class, and the course website has just gone up. Here is my favorite bit from the course description: My pedagogical approach is holistic in nature and eclectic in synthesizing the empiricism of western science and medicine with Eastern thought. Hmm. Well, I've always been a bit curious about yoga, and it seems as if I'm going to get the whole crunchy hippy liberal West Coast experience! Honestly, I just signed up because I enjoyed taking volleyball this past semester and the scheduling was convenient. And I guess if I reach enlightenment during my convenient schedule that's not a bug, but a feature. And if I don't reach enlightenment, I'll deal with it and move onward. Haffily gaffily gaffily gonward.
philena: (Default)
2012-05-08 01:43 pm

In which I step out of the Ivory Tower

I am an intellectual snob in many ways. I've noticed this about myself: when I read the newspaper in which the results of data-driven studies are reported, my first thought is not, "Oh, how interesting to observe this connection between X and Y," but rather, "Did they control for Z? Are they aware that there could be a selection bias? They know it's just correlation, not causation, right?" Sometimes this sort of skepticism is justified. I remember in particular an article in which some breakthrough in cancer research is supposed to be able to provide a cure, according to the headline and journalist, but in the interview with the actual researcher they print unabashedly a direct quote in which the researcher says that, in fact, the research is beginning to show that there might be a connection that, in five years or so, if it holds through further research, might allow researchers to exploit it to improve treatment outcomes.

Most of the time, my reaction to these news stories does not necessarily reflect any disbelief in the findings, but arises from pure cussedness. My mother has often quoted me announcing, at the age of nine or so, that I loved correcting people, and it seems that this personality trait has not faded with age. Whenever I hear about new research, my first instinct is to pick holes in it, even when it's in a field (like cancer research) that I know very, very little about. I've taken about a semester and a half of fairly shallow statistical training, and from that I tend to think that I know more about statistical analysis than the researchers whose work is being reported. (I may know more than the journalists reporting it, but I doubt the experimenters themselves failed to control for all those nuisance variables*.) I try to fight against it, but sometimes I run up against the sort of thing that makes my intellectually elitist sensibilities crawl, and for that, I turn here. Please be warned: this is an extremely snotty post about people whom I consider less able than myself, and it will probably be disagreeable to read if you have any amount of empathy for your fellow man or any reasonable amount of healthy aversion to self-satisfied entitled snobs. I am aware that people who participate in the sorts of crimes against academia (or simply against my own preferences) described below are good, honest people who have the same goals in mind that I have, but what I've written below expresses none of this empathy; rather, it is an outpouring of disdain at how these people go about their goals in ways that I disapprove of.

Hey, kids! Get off my Ivory Lawn! )

Sometimes, however, I do step out from the Ivory Tower, and often I am charmed by what I find. Most recently the thing that charmed me was seeing The Avengers with [personal profile] summercomfort. I thought it was great. I don't think I'm invested enough in the series to write a long reaction to it as [personal profile] newredshoes did, but I will make one comment. A number of people on the internet have commented that it was disappointing how evil Loki became, and how the sense of tortured uncertainty about his own identity and the indignation at the people who kept his true nature from him that so characterized Thor are entirely missing from The Avengers. He turned from a terrific, ambiguous, human antagonist to a fairly standard villain. I agree that this is disappointing given Tom Hiddleston's wonderful portrayal of the more complex Loki from Thor, but I actually think that the entirely evil one worked well. Most importantly, it worked well because it was based on the fact that this Loki fellow isn't human. Human emotion, human mercy mean nothing to him. The whole metaphor of him being a boot and humans being ants is good for making him seem callously evil, but it's also good for emphasizing the otherness of this kind of villain, and if it's done well an entirely other villain is just as good as a complex, conflicted human villain. Indeed, this is one reason I so like the portrayals of Faerie that we find in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and in Terry Pratchett's Discworld books. They aren't good or evil; they're just strange in a way we can't comprehend, and I for one would be very interested in seeing this side of Loki being exploited more. (It would be even more interesting to see it come out a bit in Thor as well, who is no more human than Loki, but I doubt that will happen.)
philena: (Default)
2012-05-06 04:39 pm

On civilized and efficient switchbacks

That "and" in the subject line meant to be taken more as contrastive than conjunctive: in other words, I have run across two types of switchbacks in recent memory, one of which was "civilized" while the other was "efficient."

What's that, you say? What are switchbacks?

Switchbacks, gentle readers, are a method of making a steep climb longer but shallower. Instead of going straight up a hill, you go back and forth, climbing a little bit on each leg, and then "switching back" so as not to go too far out of your way in terms of lateral distance while you cover the vertical distance. Now, good switchbacks are a careful balancing act, because you don't want to make people work too hard by making each leg too steep, but on the other hand you don't want to create too much extra lateral distance in building a path that covers the vertical distance slowly. I'd never really consciously thought about this before, until two weekends ago I discovered what happens if you do switchbacks badly.

The park in question: Olompali State Historic Park, which is right on the way to Mr. Philena's parents, and which we'd been meaning to stop and check out more thoroughly for a while now. Well, Mr. Philena did his research and found that there's about a ten-mile round-trip hike which takes you to the top of "Mt" Burdell. I write "Mt" in quotation marks because it's only 1558 feet high, and, to come to the point, the summit of "Mt." Burdell is not five miles from the parking lot. As far as I can tell from Google Maps, the summit of Mt. Burdell is about 1.1 miles from the parking lot. Why, then, was what could have been a nice little 2.5-mile stroll a ten-mile hike? Because of poor switchbacks. Figure A below demonstrates the problem.
Figure A (also Figure B) )

Now, it is quite possible that my fairly new snootiness with respect to switch backs is the result not of my recent, disillusioning realization that not all trail crews know what they're doing, but rather because I'm in somewhat better shape than I've been in for a while. See, I took a volleyball class this last semester, just for fun, and it got me sweating twice a week for an hour in a way that I haven't experienced since the days when I was regularly ice skating or fencing. And it was great! I loved it! And on the way up Mt. Diablo I didn't have to give up in exhaustion at Murchio Gap, but instead cruised right on up the Bald Ridge Trail to Prospector's Gap and thence to the summit. I won't say I did this all without breaking a sweat (indeed, I sweated so much that I had a fine crust of salt covering my face, making reapplication of sunblock awfully unpleasant), but I did it--which is more than I could say last time I attempted a Diablo summit. Clearly, this exercise thing has something going for it, so I'll be taking volleyball again next semester,* and I've signed up for a yoga class this summer. It meets four days a week, 7-8:30, which is perfect, because . . .

I'm going to be teaching Intro Linguistics! It's just me. I'm the instructor of record, not simply leading TA discussion sections. I'm writing the syllabus, giving the lectures, coming up with the homeworks, and it's going to be awesome! It meets at 10:00 in the mornings, so the timing of the yoga class gets me up and moving, with time for a shower and a snack before lecture. I'm super, super excited about this.

*The instructor said I probably have the skills to advance to the next level! This is encouraging, given that I feel I've made myself stand out in the class in ways such as the following:
  • The first few weeks, I once had to step out of the warm-up exercises to catch my breath. The warm-ups! Not even the drills proper!
  • During the footwork assessment, I fell flat on my face in front of the instructor the first time I had to show my one-step t-steps.
  • During a spiking drill, I not only missed the ball entirely, but so overbalanced myself with the swing that I fell over and rolled under the net. "Oh, for a camera," said the instructor.
philena: (dampskunk)
2012-01-29 09:36 pm

More electronic toys

You may skip the following if you care nothing about my forays into computer programming )

You may skip the following if you care nothing about my forays into linguistic research )

Mr. Philena and I went to see The Gondoliers today! It's the first time I've seen the play since I was in the chorus in college, and it was really lovely. It's certainly not one of the best Gilbert and Sullivans, but the singing and staging and music and acting was excellent, and even mediocre Gilbert and Sullivan is reliably good. The venue was in a sort of ritzy community that was easily accessible by public transportation, and we had a nice stroll around the neighborhood, which, in addition to the expected clothing boutiques and haircutteries, boasted no fewer than three piano stores, two of them on the same block, and a store dedicated to cupcakes, which we naturally patronized. It's the kind of neighborhood that is very good for taking one's parents to: lots of nice restaurants a (and piano stores), and a very large arts center that puts on productions of Gilbert and Sullivan and George Bernard Shaw plays. We're hoping to go there to see Arms and the Man sometime next month, and I hope we'll like it as well s we did today's play.

It is possible that one reason I'm so eager to see more good theater is that Mr. Philena and I have been extremely unlucky with movies recently. I happen to really like the old Jack Lemmon and Cary Grant and Hitchcock type movies, as well as British costume dramas (Downton Abbey), but Mr. Philena has gotten bored with them (and I can see why). Mr. Philena really likes nature documentaries, but we've seen the entirety of Planet Earth, Life in the Undergrowth, Life of Birds, Life of Mammals, and Life in the Freezer, and as much as I find David Attenborough charming, I've gotten a bit bored with them (and I hope one can see why.) There are some movies that I don't even try to suggest we watch together (e.g., science fiction thrillers and action flicks), and Mr. Philena likewise doesn't expect me to join him watching biopics about musicians. Sometimes we find really, really good non-classic movies that we both adore (The Lives of Others and Clueless, in particular), but it seems that more often when we watch new movies or famous movies we're disappointed (Adaptation) or so dissatisfied that we simply turn them off partway through (Crash, Magnolia*, 2001: A Space Odyssey**). The most recent disappointment was Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It had been described to me as a sort of Clueless-type thing, only earlier and not quite as good, but worth seeing as a cultural icon. And it might certainly be a cultural icon, but I was certainly not expecting all the sex, and there was nothing clever or subtle about any of the rest of it. Mr. Philena and I could easily predict a lot of the dialogue, and about the time the girl who has been having lots of sex reveals that *gasp* she's pregnant! we simply couldn't take it any more and turned it off again. This is getting very tiresome. I know that it is possible to find good television and good movies that we both like. We've done it before. I just wish we could do it again.

*It is possible that there was some confusion between Magnolia and Steel Magnolias which led to the lack of success of this movie

**I must confess that we fall among the crowd who cannot see past the incredibly boring-ness to understand the brilliance. We did give it a fair try, though--we watched the whole monkey sequence and a fair bit of the space-faring bit before we simply couldn't take another lengthy shuttle-docking scene and turned it off.
philena: (dampskunk)
2012-01-15 07:49 pm


Occasionally when I'm talking to Mr. Philena I feel that it's very important to make a point clearly that he is either not particularly interested in, or else already understands perfectly without my elaborate clarifications. A situation like that arose today, and it occurred to me that this languishing journal is a good place to type it all out to my satisfaction.

Spoilers for NYTimes 1/15/12 crossword puzzle )

I figure that since I'm typing here now, I might as well mention something else that has been on my mind--none of the strident outrage tediously described above, but instead a memory of my very first consciously designed linguistic experiment. But first, a bit of background. In many languages (and by "many" I mean "English, Russian, Polish, and French" although I'm fairly sure it's pretty common and just can't be bothered to look it up) the word for language and the word for tongue are the same. English has language, but it also uses tongue to mean the same thing ("speak in tongues," "mother tongue", etc.) Russian язык and cognate Polish język, French langue--all refer both to a language and to the muscular hydrostat inside our mouths. I don't know if I knew this in second grade (I probably didn't know about the other languages, but I might have known the English usage of tongue), but I do remember the day I discovered that I used my tongue to talk. I must have had some suspicion that the tongue might be involved, but I was suspicious, because talking felt very different from consciously using my tongue to probe at loose teeth (second grade, remember) or stick it out at my sister. So one day at recess I made sure no one was around, opened my mouth, and started flopping my tongue around randomly while saying a vowel sound that started as a neutral schwa. The prediction was that, if the tongue is used for speech, then the noise coming out of my mouth should change when my tongue moved, while if it was not used for speech, the movement of the tongue should have no effect on the sounds I produced. (I don't remember forming any alternative hypothesis about how speech sounds are made in case the second prediction had been borne out.) Well, sure enough, my neutral "uh" turned into a set of garbled moaning noises, and I concluded that the tongue is used for speech sounds after all. 

I'm very fond of this memory, because it helps me remember not only one of my first linguistic discoveries*, but also my first and perhaps only truly unbiased experiments. I had absolutely no stake in the outcome, no theoretical claim that I was hoping would be supported--just a question that I wanted to answer and did answer. In fact, this experiment would have been an extremely good example for an experimental methods class, now that I think about it more. My advisor has a really nice five-step system for describing any theoretical investigation, and little second-grade Philena's experiment was a terrific example of how it works:

1. Big question (here: is the tongue used in talking?)

2. Significance of that question (here: I want to know more about how we talk)

3. Specific research question that can be used to answer the big question, along with the warrant for its appropriateness (Here: if I move my tongue around while saying "uh," does the sound I'm making change? Warrant: If the tongue is used in talking, which involves making different sounds, then moving my tongue around should have some effect on the production of different sounds, regardless of whether they are actual sounds of the language I'm speaking.)

4. Answer to specific research question : (Here: yes)

5. Answer to big question: (Here: yes)

I can only hope that my dissertation work is as well-designed as this experiment was.

*An earlier discovery was that words mean things. I have another memory of being really tiny and singing in the back seat of the car to entertain myself. I knew that it was more fun to use words rather than random sounds, but I didn't have much in the way of words to use, so I fell back on one of the sequences that I was good at--namely, "I have to go to the bathroom." As soon as this was out of my mouth, my mother said very quickly, "Do you actually have to go to the bathroom?" and I quickly reassured her that I was fine (feeling kind of perplexed at the time--didn't she realize that I was just singing?), but I didn't use that particular speech sequence any more for self entertainment.