Dexter

Series 3.
Dexter’s back and this time crosses paths and swords with the Prado family after accidentally killing the youngest brother when he goes to take care of a murderous drug dealer called Freebo. He finds that the eldest brother, Miguel, who is an assistant district attorney, is like him, but less restrained and manipulates Dexter into doing his dirty work. At the same time, a serial killer called the Skinner is killing people connected to Freebo, who Dexter has already killed, in a search for Freebo himself.
Dexter eventually manages to get Prado off his back, but the middle brother remains a problem and there’s still the Skinner to deal with.
It was never really made clear how Miguel Prado knew about Dexter or why he might put cow’s blood on a shirt when he went to kill Freebo himself without knowing Dexter was going to be there in the first place. Presumably, the guiding principle was that it takes one to know one. The final episode in which, predictably, Dexter is captured by the Skinner was an anticlimax. Dexter disposed of him in short order without his usual cleverness.
The B plot throughout the series was Dexter getting Rita pregnant and then marrying her. He suddenly finds that he’s made a connection to another person, albeit one that he can’t quite fathom.
In the C plots, Dexter’s sister, Deborah, got involved with an informant, but was also promoted. Angel met someone under inappropriate cir­cum­stances. Even Vince Masuka met someone. Yeah, a somewhat lame bunch of C plots.
But I think after I watched the first series of Dexter, I wondered where it might go next. Instead of the guest serial killer of the series being outside the law this time, he was inside. In the fourth series, is the guest serial killer going to be a woman as they try to find some new angle? Perhaps the baby will have horns and a tail. And perhaps Rita’s first marriage will come back to haunt her.

“Waltzing Matilda! Waltzing Matilda!”

Sang Will Scarlet.

Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood film is going to star Russell Crow and Cate Blanchett. I’m already hearing dialogue such as

“You scoundrel, Robin Hood!” exclaimed the Sheriff of Nottingham in outrage. “Those are my cans of Castlemaine XXXX.”

or

“Throw another kangaroo on the barbie, Friar Tuck,” said Robin.

or

“It could be worse. Nicole Kidman might be playing Maid Marion.”

or there’s a running gag so that every time the Sheriff or Prince John throw a boomerang, it hits the Sheriff in the face.

Core vocabulary is quite old

An exciting new find from the world of evolutionary biology.

‘Oldest English Words’ identified, trumpets the BBC. Let’s pretend that when Hengest and Horsa stepped off the boat at Ebbsfleet in 449, they and their business associates instantly started speaking English. That means the oldest words in English (which is all the native vocabulary which has survived since then) are 1,560 years old. But this is to be rather generous about what constitutes the English language.[1]

The article begins

Some of the oldest words in English have been identified, scientists say.

Reading University researchers claim “I”, “we”, “two” and “three” are among the most ancient, dating back tens of thousands of years.

But English isn’t tens of thousands of years old, which means that this is nonsense by implication. Instead, the study, which has been conducted by Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist, appears to demonstrate the comparative durability of core vocabulary.

The researchers used the university’s IBM supercomputer to track the known relations between words, in order to develop estimates of how long ago a given ancestral word diverged in two different languages.

I’m sure that the process is a little more complicated than this and a little more scientific, although glottochronology, a dubious idea at the best of times, bobs around in the back of my mind. Yet the more I read in the article, the more I wonder how plausible such research is. There seems to be too much use of words such as “estimate”, and I cannot reconcile

That is, the model provides a list of words that are unlikely to have changed from their common ancestral root by the time of William the Conqueror.

with

However, the model cannot offer a guess as to what the ancestral words were.

and the sentence which follows it:

It can only estimate the likelihood that the sound from a modern English word might make some sense if called out during the Battle of Hastings.

There’s a big difference between a sound and a word, and even sounds from the two periods of the language, though they might be represented by the same letter in Old and Modern English, are not necessarily phonetically identical.

What the researchers found was that the frequency with which a word is used relates to how slowly it changes through time, so that the most common words tend to be the oldest ones.

Yeah, this is that core vocabulary thing again. This isn’t exactly news.

For example, “dirty” is a rapidly changing word; currently there are 46 different ways of saying it in the Indo-European languages, all words that are unrelated to each other. As a result, it is likely to die out soon in English, along with “stick” and “guts”.

Perhaps there is a correlation between the range of words used for a thing in the Indo-European languages and the likelihood that it’s going to fall out of use in any of those languages to be replaced by something else. But I also wonder about the semantics. “Dirt”, which comes from Old Norse drit, meant “excrement”,[2] and while it’s still used in that sense as a euphemistic term for “dog excrement”, the general sense has moved away from it. In other words, does the study take semantic shifts into account?

Also, how soon is soon? In the next 50 years? Next hundred? Next two hundred or more?

I’ll finish with these two paragraphs in which “sound” is thrown about with gay abandon.

“We think some of these words are as ancient as 40,000 years old. The sound used to make those words would have been used by all speakers of the Indo-European languages throughout history,” Professor Pagel said.

“Here’s a sound that has been connected to a meaning – and it’s a mostly arbitrary connection – yet that sound has persisted for those tens of thousands of years.”

As before, I don’t know exactly what “sound” is meant to mean here unless it’s the whole pronunciation of a word and not a specific phoneme. The problem is that the word is being used in a singular sense which, to me, means an individual phoneme not a whole word.

Even if the BBC story has rather simplified the research for the uninitiated, I can’t help but feel that the research suffers from too many inherent uncertainties that may not survive close scrutiny. I’m also uncertain about the real value for linguistics. There is this penultimate paragraph:

The work casts an interesting light on the connection between concepts and language in the human brain, and provides an insight into the evolution of a dynamic set of words.

but it’s ever so vague. However, that’s the BBC hack at work picking out a suitable statement while avoiding being too specific.

Notes

  1. I think I’ve possibly mentioned before that I think English wasn’t really a distinct language until nearer the end of the Old English period at the earliest. In similar vein, I think Wulfilas’ Gothic is merely a dialect of East Germanic and not, in truth, some distinct language.
  2. This may be a little euphemistic, although I’m not sure. ON drit and the verb dríta may have had the same colloquial sense as “shit”. The dictionary may be glossing the word euphemistically.

[27.02.09. Language Log has now caught up with the story (Scrabble tips for time travellers?). It seems it’s not just the BBC which has mangled the story. Other papers have also managed to publish preposterous nonsense about it as well. The abstract for the original article in Nature doesn’t suggest that there are any great revelations to be gained from this research, but that’s not the same as poor reporting.]

Creative writing

Tell me a story. All right, sit there looking gormless.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I enjoyed doing creative writing when I was at school. It was fun to do that sort of thing. But these days on the few occasions we do creative writing in class, that vital spark seems sorely absent among my little darlings. As far as I’m aware they never do any creative writing in their Chinese class, which makes me wonder where China’s con­temporary writers come from if they’re emerging from a system that doesn’t foster creativity.

“I have to do this maths problem first for the glorious advancement of the Motherland,” said Jia Baoyu. [Long, complicated explanation about how to integrate long, complicated mathematical equation.]
“Homework is so boring,” remarked Xue Baochai languidly.
“But what would we do without it?” said Lin Daiyu. “All that leisure time and not the faintest idea how to occupy it.”

A Dream of Red Mansions (21st century version)

The classes are supposed to be doing Unit 15 from the Workbook which uses pictures of different sorts of watches as the starting point for a story about the person wearing one of them. The first part is easy enough. The kids have to say whether the watch would be worn by a man or a woman; the person’s age; and their personality. As an example, I chose the pocket watch and came up with the following idea:

Sun Wukong is in Tianfu Square waiting for his granddaughter, Xue Baochai, to arrive. Liu Bei has returned from the dead and wants his kingdom back. He comes to the square to resurrect Zhang Fei and Lord Guan using magic. Sun Wukong has to use his magic pocket watch, which was made by the watchmaker in the Jade Emperor’s palace, to stop Liu Bei, but the watch gets broken and has to be returned to the manufacturer. Liu Bei manages to summon his companions from the Peach Garden and they then travel to Xi’an to raise an army of terracotta zombies. (Apply Murphy’s Law.)

But Xue Baochai has a special watch, too – the Watch of Shaolin Power – and she goes Jin Dynasty on Liu Bei and his minions while her grand­father gets his watch repaired and sweeps back to Chengdu in the nick of time.

Well, at least I was doing something in class, which is more than I can say for most of them.

Meanwhile, Glen has been knocked out of action by his asthma which, not surprisingly, has been quite bad. Although we had a couple of nice sunny days, the air quality was fairly bloody awful. I can feel it on the back of my throat. From the phone call I had from Glen before, I’d say he isn’t going to be in any condition to teach tomorrow.

After a bright but overcast start to the day, the cloud has thickened up and the air feels heavy. Rain later? Perhaps. Plants need it to wash all the dust off them.

About Hume we speak

Just don’t mention Rousseau.
 
It was a bit by chance today that I happened to check out the main cif page on The Guardian site and found that Julian Baggini has been writing a series of pieces about David Hume:
Hume on religion, part 1: The agnostic philosopher. (I had to throw in a screen grab of the accompanying Google Ads just for their irony value.)
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I must remember to keep an eye out for the rest of these.
 
Meanwhile, it’s been sunny two days in a row after a thoroughly awful Saturday which made me think that winter had returned. I note that the 锦江 is a little on the shallow side in places. You can actually see the bottom of the river. There must be something in there worth eating since there are herons flying along its length. As I saw yesterday, there must also be frogs. I happened to go to a narrow, artificial riverside park roughly opposite the amusement park where I saw a group of girls catching tadpoles. One of them had a Coke bottle which was swarming with tadpoles. I don’t know what she might’ve done with them all apart from eventually wondering why most of them had died.
 
The boys have been building a low retaining wall in front of the wall on the east side of my gate over the past few days. I’m guessing that they’re going to put some shrubs in because there’s a large heap of dirt sitting on the pavement. Whether this signals anything beyond that because such walls are often a feature of building projects, I don’t know. It seems unlikely.

The evolution of language

Springing fully formed from the head of humanity.
 
Last week, Language Log had a guest post by W. Tecumseh Fitch about Darwin’s theory of language evolution. Derek Bickerton then offered some comments about the post which caused Fitch to rally with this response. I won’t pretend that I can follow any of this competently or make any intelligent comments about it, but it reminds me of a time after I’d finished my PhD when I happened to be doing some reading about the origins of language for some reason. It was also about the time Don Ringe published a series of articles demonstrating the flaws arising in reconstructions based on mass comparisons.
 
Whatever books I happened to be consulting, I’d encountered works by advocates of the mass comparison approach. Now I don’t doubt that it’s possible that the language families of Western Eurasia might have a common ancestor, but to attempt to reconstruct the language on the basis of reconstructed languages is to chase shadows, I think. It’s all right to talk about Nostratic as a probability (with ample room for doubt), but it’s almost impossible to say anything more than that about it other than perhaps citing a few examples of words from better known language that might really go back to the same source. As for reconstructing that source, it’s an exercise better not attempted.
 
But while I was reading about language origins and the usual theories, none of which as far as I’ve ever seen or can recall actually say when language first appeared, I remembered evolution. It seemed reasonable to assume that homo sapiens turned up with a language faculty which, in turn, had evolved through the hominid line.[1] As the brain evolved, so did the complexity of the way in which we communicated. In other words, like the development of any language, there’s no clear boundary between humanity’s current state of linguistic competence and what preceded it.
 
The matter seems to be fraught with speculation, just as I’ve speculated here about the language faculty evolving gradually rather than being something which suddenly came out of nowhere. Besides, that implies that some animals might’ve been similarly mute before suddenly developing a basic system of communication. That seems unlikely. As long as animals have had pulmonic egressive airstreams, I’m sure they’ve been producing noises – hominids included.
 
Notes
1. It’s worth noting that if homo sapiens really does go back half a million years, then UG as it currently stands may be a more recent product of evolution. Early homo sapiens may have had their own form of UG, which has subsequently evolved.

Neither gone nor forgotten

Distractions.
 
Having brought back all manner of distractions old and new from New Zealand, I’ve been less inclined to do any blogging recently. There is news. I had the interview for a job as an EFL teacher with the A-level on Wednesday and requests for references have been sent out. I’m quietly confident about the outcome. Finally, experience seems to count for something.
 
I’ve also been told by my sources that we might be losing the conversation classes some time next month when some exchange teacher comes over from the States. I’m sure the Dowager Empress will try to think of something else for us to do, but it’s be nice if we were just left to teach our classes and spared any unnecessary extras.
 
This term started much as last term finished. Class 5 are mostly all right – sort of – while Class 7 work hard at doing nothing. I’m trying not to get bothered about it because this is probably the last term the programme will be here. Meanwhile, the new building is supposed to be opening for business in April.
 
As for the programme itself, from recent mail messages, it appears that people might’ve been asking about its future. It seems that there will be some new schools (although they might be replacing others) and there’s going to be some sort of name change.
 
I see that GB has just passed 40,000 hits, the winner coming from an RSS feed. Although I haven’t been blogging here as much as I used to (as I said, I have other distractions at the moment; I also feel a certain ennui about blogging), I suspect that a lot of the decline in traffic may have been the adverse reaction to changes to Windows Live.
 
At this point in time, I suspect that I may only post here intermittently for a while. I continue trying to avoid trivia posts, but this one hardly counts as a resounding victory in the fight against banality.

Stargate Atlantis

5th series.
I discovered from wikipedia that this was the final series of Atlantis, a fact which explained why the last episode saw our heroes defeat the supersized hive ship. The series seems to have run out of ideas. It was hard not to watch one episode without recalling one like it on SG1. The same kind of storyline in nearly every episode – if anything can go wrong, it will at the worst possible moment only for it to be solved under the least probable circumstances – was tired long before Atlantis saw the light of day.
Amanda Tapping departed from the series to be replaced by Robert Picardo and Jewel Staite, who’d previously been a recurring character, got promoted.
It could’ve been worse. SGA might’ve limped on, as ST:Voyager and Enterprise did, well beyond its use-by date. Apparently there’s going to be a straight-to-DVD movie sometime and some new series, Stargate Universe, is slipping down the launch ramp. According to incidental information in wikipedia, that will be about the Destiny, a city-sized vessel puttering around the universe. Sounds like Space 1999 all over again.

Sophie’s World

By Jostein Gaarder.

Sophie’s World is a cunningly disguised introduction to philosophy [Er, it does say ‘An adventure in philosophy’ on the cover. –ed.] into which is woven the story of Sophie Amundsen and her philosophy teacher Alberto Knox, and Hilde Møller Knag and her father, Albert Knag, who is a major serving with the UN in Lebanon.

The opening conceit is that Sophie is being sent a history of philosophy before she finally meets Alberto Knox in person. But there are numerous references to the mysterious Hilde until the truth is revealed: Sophie and Alberto are characters in a book being written by Hilde’s father from which Alberto plans to escape with a little help from Hilde herself. (Just to be ironic, Sophie and Alberto speculate that Hilde and her father might also be characters in a book.)

But the content of the book is a historical introduction to Western philosophy through which the novel part is woven. Unlike other periods, 20th century philosophy gets comparatively little treatment perhaps because most of the century suffered from the effects of 19th century philosophy. The reference to eco-philosophy and the pessimistic, Luddite views of someone called Arne Naess seem to be eclectic after which there’s just time to dismiss New Ageism as the porn of the philosophical world.

I’m not sure I liked being told that I’d snuggled deep down into the fur of a rabbit because Gaarder seems to have overlooked that we’re all philosophers in our own way. (Aren’t opinions a form of philosophy?) It’s just that unlike the pros, most people never try to establish their philosophy as a coherent code. Besides, children, having fewer responsibilities and being more ignorant, can afford to wonder about the world. Adults have to get on with their lives and be responsible. In theory.

For anyone who’s interested in learning about philosophy, Sophie’s World seems to be a reasonably good starting point especially if overt textbooks seem less approachable. The ideas in it seem reasonably well explained so that you’re not left trying to unpick the unpicked version of, say, Kant.

Oh frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!

He quoted in his joy.
 
I got word about mid morning that my suitcase had arrived at the airport. The contents were fine, but the suitcase was a little worse for wear. The side handle which had come away at one end when I put the case in the boot of my Dad’s car had completely gone. I assume that someone had tried to pick the case up by the handle and the other end had come out. The rear pocket was also torn away slightly. Unlike previous suitcases of this size, the internal superstructure has remained intact. If handles tend to come away, then the internal supports often get broken because of too much weight placed on them. Then again, the case would’ve been fairly resistant to crush damage because of all the stuff I had in it.
 
So I find myself replete to the point of having a surfeit of distractions.
 
And to celebrate the arrival of my suitcase, the day was warm and sunny. The blossoms are already coming out as well.
 
Meanwhile, I didn’t realise that the CCTV building which burnt down in Beijing had been bombarded with fireworks by the employees themselves. Anything to get out of work, it seems. (The episode would probably make a good script for a farce.)