Saturday, June 29, 2013

Revolutionary Graffiti of Tahrir

These pictures were taken on Mohamed Mahmoud Street off of Tahrir Square on June 15th of this year, while I was in Egypt accompanying Kelsey Jukam for her journalism research. I have posted about political graffiti and art on this blog before, and when I encountered these poignant expressions of the ongoing democratic struggles in Egypt, I decided to post a few of them here. Referred to as "Freedom Eyes Street," it is dedicated to those who were wounded during the revolution, and it is an ongoing project as works are defaced, whitewashed, and replaced. Here is some more information about the street, which also illustrates how different it looked in previous days.

Mubarek and Morsi, saying the same thing.

The black invitations to the June 30 Protests in the picture above were all over the city when I left on June 25, and agitations were already beginning. The protests should be beginning at about the time that I publish this post; vibes of luck and safety to everyone working to make their home a better place. 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Texas German Dialect Project on the BBC

There's a film clip about the TGDP and an interview with my boss on the BBC.

Check it out!

German dialect in Texas is one of a kind, and dying out

UPDATE 5/21!

Also there is an NPR story! OMG you guyz.

Remembering the Long Lost Germans of Texas

Although 'long lost'? Really? I saw my grandfather at Easter and he certainly seems to have more of a handle on what he is doing with his life than I do with mine. By which I mean to say that I can't help but wonder if some of the Texas Germans we have interviewed would take exception to being described as 'long lost.' 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


relating or moistened skipjack 
illegally brokerage fullback 
pictorial grasp 
utopian rasp 
hungarian sandwich comeback

methodically fishes restraint 
relinquishing threesome acquaint 
methodical psalm 
superiors calm 
essential successfully feint

In December and January I spent a lot of time working on a computer program that would automatically create limericks and other sorts of poems from random words. I call it the Autodadaist Limerick & Iambic Pentamabuilder. Short poems are now automatically posted twice daily at the Autopoetry Tumblr. Check it out!

The program was my first Python project, and I've had a lot of fun with it. I learned a lot of new things about programming language projects. The Autopoetry project uses a dictionary compiled from the CMU Pronouncing Dictionary, cross-referenced and edited for word frequency with the Brown Corpus. The CMU Dictionary contains (multiple) pronunciations for over 100,000 words, written in the Arpabet. This is what an entry looks like:


'R', 'AH0', 'F', 'R', 'IH1', 'JH', 'ER0', 'EY2', 'T', 'ER0'

'R', 'IH0', 'F', 'R', 'IH1', 'JH', 'ER0', 'EY2', 'T', 'ER0'

Each cluster of letters represents a single phoneme. There are two variant pronunciations for refrigerator. Each of the vowels ('AH', 'IH', 'EY', etc.) is appended by a 0, 1, or 2. This is information about whether that vowel carries primary, secondary, or no stress. So I wrote a Rhyme Generator class (under the supervision of my talented programmer buddy John Wood) that basically looks for the last stressed syllable of a word and all the phonemes that follow it, and then matches it with other words that have the same:

'G', 'R', 'EY1', 'T', 'ER0'  (greater)

'L', 'EY1', 'T', 'ER0'  (later)

So then I had to work on fitting the words into metered verse. I played around with iambs as a model, which is an easy model to get in your head (da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM...). I used 1's and 0's in my program to represented stressed and unstressed syllables.

'twas bril-lig and the sli-thy toves
0        1      0   1     0    1   0    1

After some thinking, I decided that the general rules of a rhyme scheme are this: An unstressed syllable can go where stress is expected, but a stressed syllable cannot go where stress is unexpected.

This works:

re-frig-er-a-tors ma-ting on the plain
0    1    0  1  0     1     0     1    0    1

This doesn't work:

the re-frig-er-a-tors ma-ting on the plain
0    1   0     1  0   1     0     1    0    1    0

In the first example, the word 'the' contains stress and yet it sounds perfectly fine to relegate it to an unstressed position. The second example doesn't even sound like English: 'the RE-fri-GER-a-TORs' sounds weird because the unstressed syllables are forced into being stressed.

So the project contains an underlying stress pattern, which can be anything at all. I've experimented with limericks and iambic pentameter and song lyrics. A line is created by first picking a word, then finding a list of rhymes for it, and then working backwards by adding words and checking whether they fit the prescribed stress pattern.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Texting before Telephones

The following quotes are from an article written in 1902, entitled "Telegraph Talk and Talkers: Human Character and Emotions an Old Telegrapher Reads on the Wire" (L.C. Hall, from McClure's Magazine, and available online here). It is easy to see parallels between the written culture that developed around telegraphers and what we see today with texting:

For "telegraphese" is a living, palpitating language. It is a curious kind of Volapuk, a universal tongue, spoken through the finger tips and in most cases read by ear.  In its written form telegraphese, or "Morse," as it is called in the vernacular, is rarely seen.  Yet as a vehicle of expression it is, to the initiated, as harmonious, subtle, and fascinating as the language of music itself...

Expressed in print a laugh is a bald "ha ha!" that requires other words to describe its quality.  In wire talk the same form is used, but the manner of rendering it imparts quality to the laughter. In dot-and-dash converse, as in speech, "ha! ha!" may give an impression of mirthlessness, of mild amusement, or of convulsion.  The double "i," again, in wire parlance, has a wide range of meaning according to its rendition.  A few double "i's" are used as a prelude to a conversation, as well as to break the abruptness in ending it.  They are also made to express doubt or acquiescence; and in any hesitation for a word or phrase are used to preserve the continuity of a divided sentence.  When an order is given in Morse over the wire, the operator's acknowledgment is a ringing "ii!" which has the same significance as a sailor's "aye, aye, sir!" The man would be put a poor observer of little things who, after "working a wire" with a stranger at "the other end" for a week, could not give a correct idea of his distant 'vis-a-vis' disposition and character.  And it would be quite possible for an imaginative operator to build up a fairly accurate mental image of him, whether he ate with his knife, or wore his hat cocked on the side of his head, or talked loud in public places...

You could write about the scholarly distinction between 'lol' and 'lmfao' in the same way. I mean, if you really wanted to.

A telegrapher's Morse, then, is as distinctive as his face, his tones, or his handwriting and as difficult to counterfeit as his voice or writing. Of this individual quality of telegraphese, the old war telegraphers tell many stories.  A Confederate, for example, encounters on the march, a line of wire which he suspects is being used by the enemy. He taps the wire, "cuts in" his instruments, and listens.  His surmise is correct; he "grounds off" one or the other end, and, trying to disguise his style of "sending," makes inquiries calculated to develop important information.  But the Southern accent is recognized in his Morse by the distant manipulator, who, indeed, may have been a co-worker in the days "before the war."  So the intruder gets only a good humored chaffing.  "The trick won't work, Jim," says the Federal operator.  "Let's shake for old times' sake, and then you 'git' out of this." 

Shibboleths! Sweet. This is sort of similar to how people can tell I'm from Texas when I text them because I frequently refer to objects and events as "wompy-jawed." 

To continue in the same vein, here's a article from the Atlantic, Radio Free Cherokee: Endangered Languages Take to the Airwaves. There's a lot of interesting stuff about language revitalization efforts through community radio stations throughout the world.

And finally, there's the Indigenous Tweets Project, which gathers texts from the web written in indigenous and minority languages. 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Can Meditation Be Bad For You?

Considering my experiences with the Vipassana meditation retreat in Cambodia, I found a lot to relate to in this article from The Humanist:

Can Meditation Be Bad for You?

It refers to Goenke's meditation retreats specifically. As somebody with occasional anxiety problems, I knew I was taking a risk when I clicked the box saying that I was of fit mind when I signed up for the course. The risk was there because I was a complete novice with meditation. Still, I was surprised at how intense the experience of silence for a week and 15 hours of meditation a day can be. I talked to other people after the course was complete. At least two of the five foreigners had had terrifying hallucinations and panic attacks (and at least one Cambodian lady had a panic attack during the retreat).  One was on anxiety medication.

The great advantage of a weeklong retreat in silence with no reading materials or music or eye contact is that it forces you to work really hard at meditation. With that amount of time, any random person can see what meditation is about, what actually doing it feels like. Before the retreat I had read the occasional book on meditation and been bored at my friend's yoga classes once or twice and gone to one or two hour-long sessions and tried to meditate on my own for a total of maybe 15 hours in my life, and I never really felt anything at all. In Cambodia, it took me two full days of complete silence to start to get it.

But I would hazard to say that a week is too long. With such an extent of sensory deprivation, the potential harm for a novice on these retreats is not worth the benefit.

Another thing: The New Scientist's list of uncracked codes! 

Monday, September 3, 2012

Multilingualism in Nepalese Education

I just now got around to reading an article that well summarizes multilingualism and education policies in Nepal:

"Multilingualism In/And Nepalese Education" by Shailaja Jha

From the article:

"[T]he forces of globalization, prevailing myths about the power of English (as if it is a magical potion that will create jobs and opportunities and intellectual progress on its own) make it very difficult for societies to develop educational systems based on their understanding of multilingualism. Due to the globalization of English, parents and teachers are attracted towards giving education to the students in English medium right from the very beginning. They wrongly believe that students will be able to better succeed in the competitive world if they have English proficiency. In reality, it is knowledge and skills that students most need. A lot of research regarding multilingualism shows that supporting children’s first language will enhance the acquisition of the second and third language. Similarly, there is a link between multilingualism and creativity. Multilingualism broadens access to information and offers alternative ways of organizing thoughts. But unfortunately, these realities get lost in the maze of myths about the magic of English."

At the Language Development Center my time was spent organizing the numerous reports indicating that multilingual education was clearly more beneficial for early childhood development and general education. Every linguist I met supported multilingual education at least in theory.

At the school where I was teaching in Nepal I was told that the government test scores had risen every year since the school had switched to become an English Medium school. They were in competition with private schools, who do indeed seem to tout English as a magical potion for success. I got the impression that proponents of multilingual education were seen as elite academics removed from the realities of the education system. Some people I met privately expressed the idea that encouraging "jungle languages" would impede progress and the development of the country and even that it would foment ethnic conflict.

For my job in Texas I interview German-Americans who are the last speakers of the Texas-German dialect. Many regret that they did not pass their native language on to their children. Most of them made a conscious effort to raise their children largely or entirely in English because of the belief that it would make them more successful. They themselves usually spoke German exclusively up until they attended grade school, at which point they were educated entirely in English and were penalized for speaking German at all.

Monday, July 23, 2012

MRC Film Series 2012

Back in January, I saw "Garbage Dreams," a documentary about a community of traditional waste disposal workers in Egypt that was put on by the Middle Eastern Studies Department at the University of Texas and screened at a movie theater. It reminded me of one of the activities of the Fulbright Commission in Kathmandu, a human rights film series. These weekly events were held in theaters and schools and in one of my regular cafes on Lazimpat Road, and through the  screenings of films like "Saving Dolma" and "Sari Soldiers" I met filmmakers and activists and learned about some of the contemporary issues in Nepal. It was a great experience. Halfway through "Garbage Dreams" I decided I wanted to recreate that experience in Austin for the Multicultural Refugee Coalition. I had just reconnected with the MRC, and I thought that this would be a good way to raise awareness for the MRC and to help people understand why the government of the United States is settling people from countries like Bhutan, Burma, Sudan, and Somalia in Austin.

That idea eventually became the MRC Film Series, which is a free public event that will take place on Sunday evenings all throughout August:

For this event, I looked at refugee and human rights film festivals around the world (many of them put on by the UNHCR) and picked films that represent different communities within the Multicultural Refugee Coalition. My plan is to screen these films and to have Q&A session after each screening with someone who is involved with the film or a member of the community who can speak to the films. Here are some of the films we will be screening: