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kottke.org posts about language

Your personality, according to IBM Watson

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 19, 2018

Watson is IBM’s AI platform. This afternoon I tried out IBM Watson’s Personality Insights Demo. The service “derives insights about personality characteristics from social media, enterprise data, or other digital communications”. Watson looked at my Twitter account and painted a personality portrait of me:

You are shrewd, inner-directed and can be perceived as indirect.

You are authority-challenging: you prefer to challenge authority and traditional values to help bring about positive changes. You are solemn: you are generally serious and do not joke much. And you are philosophical: you are open to and intrigued by new ideas and love to explore them.

Experiences that give a sense of discovery hold some appeal to you.

You are relatively unconcerned with both tradition and taking pleasure in life. You care more about making your own path than following what others have done. And you prefer activities with a purpose greater than just personal enjoyment.

Initial observations:

- Watson doesn’t use Oxford commas?

- Shrewd? I’m not sure I’ve ever been described using that word before. Inner-directed though…that’s pretty much right.

- Perceived as indirect? No idea where this comes from. Maybe I’ve learned to be more diplomatic & guarded in what I say and how I say it, but mostly I struggle with being too direct.

- “You are generally serious and do not joke much”… I think I’m both generally serious and joke a lot.

- “You prefer activities with a purpose greater than just personal enjoyment”… I don’t understand what this means. Does this mean volunteering? Or that I prefer more intellectual activities than mindless entertainment? (And that last statement isn’t even true.)

Watson also guessed that I “like musical movies” (in general, no), “have experience playing music” (definite no), and am unlikely to “prefer style when buying clothes” (siiiick burn but not exactly wrong). You can try it yourself here. (via @buzz)

Update: Ariel Isaac fed Watson the text for Trump’s 2018 State of the Union address and well, it didn’t do so well:

Trump Personality

Trump is empathetic, self-controlled, and makes decisions with little regard for how he show off his talents? My dear Watson, are you feeling ok? But I’m pretty sure he doesn’t like rap music…

Black Panther’s T’Challa competes on SNL’s Black Jeopardy

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 09, 2018

Chadwick Boseman, who portrays T’Challa in Black Panther, hosted Saturday Night Live over the weekend, appearing in character on Black Jeopardy. Let’s just say T’Challa finds it challenging to understand the cultural references and idioms of contemporary American Black English but eventually gets the hang of it. I laughed solidly, and at times uncomfortably, through the entire thing.

See also Tom Hanks’ appearance on Black Jeopardy, which Jamelle Bouie highlighted as a particularly astute piece of American political analysis.

What makes a tree a tree? Scientists still aren’t sure…

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 05, 2018

Broccoli Tree

In Knowable Magazine, Rachel Ehrenberg writes about the tricky business of understanding what a tree is. Trees are tall, woody, long-lived and have tree-like genes, right? Not always…

If one is pressed to describe what makes a tree a tree, long life is right up there with wood and height. While many plants have a predictably limited life span (what scientists call “programmed senescence”), trees don’t, and many persist for centuries. In fact, that trait — indefinite growth — could be science’s tidiest demarcation of treeness, even more than woodiness. Yet it’s only helpful to a point. We think we know what trees are, but they slip through the fingers when we try to define them.

Ehrenberg then suggests that we should think about tree-ness as a verb rather than a noun.

Maybe it’s time to start thinking of tree as a verb, rather than a noun - tree-ing, or tree-ifying. It’s a strategy, a way of being, like swimming or flying, even though to our eyes it’s happening in very slow motion.

This reminds me of one of Austin Kleon’s strategies for How to Keep Going: “forget the noun, do the verb”. Hey, it seems to be working for the trees. (via @robgmacfarlane)

Tracking the appearances of “rosy-fingered Dawn” in The Odyssey

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 03, 2018

Rosey Fingered Dawn

I had been slowly making my way through Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey, but on the advice of a Twitter pal, I backtracked and started reading it aloud to my kids. Which has been amazing…reading this story out loud really feels like we’re harkening back to the time of Homer.

One of the things we’re discussing as we go along are the repeated epithets…the descriptions of gods and people that are used over and over in the poem. Zeus is often not just Zeus — he is “the great Thunderlord Zeus” — and Dawn (the Greek goddess of the dawn) is almost never just Dawn, as Wilson explains in the introduction:

Dawn appears some twenty times in The Odyssey, and the poem repeats the same line, word for word, each time: emos d’erigeneia phane rhododaktulos eos: “But when early-born rosy-fingered Dawn appeared…” There is a vast array of such formulaic expressions in Homeric verse, which suggest that things have an eternal, infinitely repeatable presence. Different things will happen every day, but Dawn always appears, always with rosy fingers, always early.

Wilson combats this precise repetition, which can sound antiquated to modern ears, by varying the epithets according to the context:

The formulaic elements in Homer, especially the repeated epithets, pose a particular challenge. The epithets applied to Dawn, Athena, Hermes, Zeus, Penelope, Telemachus, Odysseus, and the suitors repeat over and over in the original. But in my version, I have chosen deliberately to interpret these epithets in several different ways, depending on the demands of the scene at hand. I do not want to deceive the unsuspecting reader about the nature of the original poem; rather, I hope to be truthful about my own text — its relationships with its readers and with the original. In an oral or semiliterate culture, repeated epithets give a listener an anchor in a quick-moving story. In a highly literate society such as our own, repetitions are likely to feel like moments to skip. They can be a mark of writerly laziness or unwillingness to acknowledge one’s own interpretative position, and can send a reader to sleep. I have used the opportunity offered by the repetitions to explore the multiple different connotations of each epithet.

The appearance of Dawn has already become a source of comic relief while we’re reading — “here she is again, with the roses!” — and I was curious to see Wilson’s differing interpretations, I gathered all the appearances of Dawn from the text:

The early Dawn was born; her fingers bloomed.

When newborn Dawn appeared with rosy fingers…

When rosy-fingered Dawn came bright and early…

Soon Dawn was born, her fingers bright with roses.

When Dawn appeared, her fingers bright with flowers…

When early Dawn appeared and touched the sky with blossom…

Then Dawn rose up from bed with Lord Tithonus, to bring the light to deathless gods and mortals.

When vernal Dawn first touched the sky with flowers…

But when the Dawn with dazzling braids brought day for the third time…

Then Dawn came from her lovely throne, and woke the girl.

Soon Dawn appeared and touched the sky with roses.

When bright-haired Dawn brought the third morning…

When early Dawn shone forth with rosy fingers…

But when the rosy hands of Dawn appeared…

Early the Dawn appeared, pink fingers blooming…

When early Dawn revealed her rose-red hands…

Then when rose-fingered Dawn came, bright and early…

On the third morning brought by braided Dawn…

Then the roses of Dawn’s fingers appeared again…

Dawn on her golden throne began to shine…

When Dawn came, born early, with her fingertips like petals…

The golden throne of Dawn was riding up the sky…

When rose-fingered Dawn appeared…

Then Dawn was born again; her fingers bloomed…

Then all at once Dawn on her golden throne lit up the sky…

…Dawn soon arrived upon her throne.

When newborn Dawn appeared with hands of flowers…

When early Dawn, the newborn child with rosy hands, appeared…

As she said this, the golden Dawn arrived.

…she roused the newborn Dawn from Ocean’s streams to bring the golden light to those on earth.

I think my favorite is probably “Soon Dawn was born, her fingers bright with roses” but I also appreciate the very first appearance in the text: “The early Dawn was born; her fingers bloomed”. Either way, what a great illustration of Wilson’s skill & the creative latitude involved in translation, along with a reminder for writers of the many different ways in which you can essentially say the same thing.

(The sunrise photo is from my Instagram.)

Poetry in America series on PBS

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 02, 2018

Poetry in America is an upcoming 12-part series exploring poetry on a variety of topics. Each episode features the discussion of a single poem — “I cannot dance upon my toes” by Emily Dickinson, “Skyscraper” by Carl Sandburg, “N.Y. State of Mind” by Nas — with a collection of notable people — Samantha Power, Shaquille O’Neal, E.O. Wilson, Yo Yo Ma, Bill Clinton. The first episode airs this week but is already available on Amazon.

Hear Beowulf & Sir Gawain and the Green Knight read in the original Old and Middle English

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 30, 2018

In this short video, MIT literature professor Arthur Bahr reads brief selections from Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in their original languages, respectively Old English and Middle English. You’ll notice that they sound almost completely like foreign languages. From Open Culture:

After the Viking and Norman invasions, Old English became “the third language in its own country,” notes Luke Mastin at his History of English site. More spoken than written, it “effectively sank to the level of a patois or creole,” with several distinct regional variants. English seemed at one time “in dire peril” of dying out but “showed its resilience once again, and, two hundred years after the Norman Conquest, it was English not French that emerged as the language of England,” though it remained a diffuse collection of dialects.

The entire page on Middle English at the History of English site — “how English went from an obscure German dialect to a global language” — is worth a read.

See also Shakespeare in its original pronunciation.

Translating Homer in public

posted by Tim Carmody   Mar 16, 2018

siren vase 2.jpg

I can’t claim to have finished Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey by Homer — epic poems are, well, epic — but I’m a huge fan of everything I’ve read, and especially Wilson’s Twitter feed, which is often devoted to explicating some small bit of Homeric text and comparing her approach to that of other translators.

Here, for example, she takes on the depiction of the Sirens. I’m going to pick and choose a few tweets, but you should read as much of the thread as you can.


This last observation prompted a haunting distillation by Lev Mirov of Odysseus’s journey and his encounter with the Sirens:

Back to Wilson, who translates the brutally short passage of the sirens this way:

She explains:

Translation is hard, but translation in public is harder and better. There’s a richness in the commentary, and also a reckoning with the accretion of meanings that have come down through past readings, that you don’t often get without diving into scholarly apparatus. It’s not just peeling back the plaster; it’s trying to understand the work that plaster did in holding the whole structure together. Just remarkable.

Update: Dan Chiasson wrote about Wilson’s use of Twitter for the New Yorker.

A literal world map

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 15, 2018

Literal World Map

Literal World Map

Literal World Map

This is a map of the literal translations for the names of the world’s countries (bigger size). Some of the translations include:

Panama: Place of Abundant Fish
Paraguay: People Born Along the River
Namibia: The Vast Place
Ethiopia: Land of Burnt Faces
Egypt: Temple of the Soul of Ptah
Spain: Land of Many Rabbits
Hungary: 10 Arrows
Qatar: Land of Tar
Israel: He That Striveth with God
Thailand: Land of the Free
Nauru: I Go to the Beach
Australia: Southern Land

A spreadsheet of the translations and their sources is available here. See also a world map of every country’s tourism slogan. (via @danielhale)

Update: See also the Etymological Map of Africa. (via @danielhale)

Update: Two things. 1. This is not my map. I didn’t make it…it seems that (based on the logo in the lower right-hand corner) an Australian credit card comparison company did, but I can’t find any record of them having posted it anywhere online. 2. I have gotten many messages indicating the map is incorrect in one aspect or another, so you might want to take the whole thing with a healthy grain of salt (despite the research).

A piece only a Vermonter could write

posted by Chrysanthe Tenentes   Mar 09, 2018

A guide to the proper usage of the word “dank.”

The protean adjective (or adverb if you want to slink dankly along) is now used for so much more than to merely describe things that are “unpleasantly moist.” In modern usage, dank can be used to pinpoint particular qualities in marijuana, beer, and internet humor, or as a general term of praise. If that sounds confusing, it can be.

“Airport Novella? Sounds interesting,” he said with a nod.

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 05, 2017

Airport Novella by Tom Comitta is what he calls a “literary supercut”. Constructed exclusively from the kinds of novels one normally finds in airport bookshops, the 48-page book contains four chapters, one each for the gestures most often found in airport prose: nodding, shrugging, odd looks, and gasps. An short excerpt from the shrugging chapter:

Jeremy was silent for a moment before finally shrugging.

She shrugged without answering. “Can I be frank now?”

He shrugged. “Anything that might help me with the history of the cemetery and the town.”

She shrugged. “Shows me what I know. Being that you’re a journalist from the big city.”

He shrugged, acting innocent.

She suddenly remembered that he’d been trying to guess her age yesterday. “Yep,” she said with a shrug.

He gave a sheepish shrug, and she had a sudden vision of what he must have looked like as a small boy. “Hey, I know it’s none of my business, but how did it go with Rodney?”

She hesitated before finally shrugging. “You’re right. It is none of your business.” He could almost hear her shrug.

He gave a sheepish shrug. “I suppose that depends on the perspective.”

For source material, Comitta used books like The Da Vinci Code, the Twilight series, and a novel commissioned by Donald Trump (tagline: “Leave your modesty downstairs. Trump Tower is the sexiest novel of the decade.”)

Scrabble pros recount their best and worst plays

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 30, 2017

The New Yorker interviewed a bunch of top Scrabble players about favorite moves they’ve played…their best, worst, and most humbling. I dislike playing Scrabble1 but love watching expert practitioners talk about about their areas of expertise.

  1. When I’m playing and an opponent lays down “qi” or some shit, I want to take the board and throw it across the room. I love Boggle though. It’s basically pattern matching at speed, something my brain seems to be particularly good at.

Reaction GIFs and digital blackface

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 29, 2017

In the latest installment of the newish video series Internetting with Amanda Hess, Hess discusses The White Internet’s Love Affair with Digital Blackface. From Teen Vogue, an explanation of digital blackface by Lauren Michelle Jackson:

Adore or despise them, GIFs are integral to the social experience of the Internet. Thanks to a range of buttons, apps, and keyboards, saying “it me” without words is easier than ever. But even a casual observer of GIFing would notice that, as with much of online culture, black people appear at the center of it all. Or images of black people, at least. The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Oprah, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, NBA players, Tiffany Pollard, Kid Fury, and many, many other known and anonymous black likenesses dominate day-to-day feeds, even outside online black communities. Similar to the idea that “Black Vine is simply Vine,” as Jeff Ihaza determined in The Awl, black reaction GIFs have become so widespread that they’ve practically become synonymous with just reaction GIFs.

If you’ve never heard of the term before, “digital blackface” is used to describe various types of minstrel performance that become available in cyberspace. Blackface minstrelsy is a theatrical tradition dating back to the early 19th century, in which performers “blacken” themselves up with costume and behaviors to act as black caricatures. The performances put society’s most racist sensibilities on display and in turn fed them back to audiences to intensify these feelings and disperse them across culture. Many of our most beloved entertainment genres owe at least part of themselves to the minstrel stage, including vaudeville, film, and cartoons. While often associated with Jim Crow-era racism, the tenets of minstrel performance remain alive today in television, movies, music and, in its most advanced iteration, on the Internet.

Why is it called Black Friday? (Oh, and some Cyber Monday shopping deals…)

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 24, 2017

Psst, I added some Cyber Monday deals to the bottom of the post.

Good morning! I hope you had a good Thanksgiving…or at least annoyed your family with this NY Times piece, Most Everything You Learned About Thanksgiving Is Wrong.

Today however, is “Black Friday”, which…wait, why do they call it that? Ben Zimmer explains that the term originated in Philadelphia’s law enforcement circles:

Today is the day after Thanksgiving, when holiday shopping kicks off and sales-hunters are in full frenzy. The day has come to be known in the United States as “Black Friday,” and there are a number of myths about the origin of the name. Retailers would like you to believe that it’s the day when stores turn a profit on the year, thus “going into the black.” But don’t you believe it: the true origins come from traffic-weary police officers in Philadelphia in the early 1960s.

Retailers love invented holidays, and the name with the negative connotation was later twisted into a shopping event. But with carefully targeted online shopping, you can now skip the rush and get some great deals on things you might need or gifts for family & friends. Poking around a little this morning, I found the following:

- The 6-qt pro version of the KitchenAid stand mixer for $280 (51% off).

- Everyone loves the Instant Pot. The larger 8-qt and the smaller 3-qt are both on sale for $82 (37% off) and $49 (30% off) respectively. The 6-qt model, the one I have in my own kitchen, was also on sale for $68 but is totally sold out already.

- Kindles are on sale. The regular one starts at just $50 (38% off) while the Paperwhite (my fave) is $90 (25% off).

- Build your own computer with The Kano Computer Kit for $100 (17% off).

- The 23andMe DNA test kit for $99 (50% off).

- I know, I know, Moore’s Law and all, but it still boggles my mind that you can buy a 4TB portable external hard drive for only $96 (26% off).

- For easy sous vide cooking, the Anova Precision Cooker is only $109 (40% off).

Update: That sound you hear is Cyber Monday kicking in. Here are a few more deals to be had today:

- This 11.6-inch Acer Chromebook is on sale for $99 (44% off). $99!

- The 6-qt Instant Pot is going for $75 (38% off)…I bet this sells out pretty quickly.

- A bunch of LEGO sets are on sale today, which is a pretty rare event.

- My pals at 20x200 are offering discount codes on orders of $75 or more today only…20-30% off.

- This quadcopter drone is only $30 (46% off).

- I’ve heard good things about these Amazon-branded t-shirts, on sale for $8.40 (30% off). I just ordered a couple to see how they compare to American Apparel b/c who knows how long that’ll be a thing…

An AI makes up new Star Trek episode titles

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 21, 2017

Star Trek Ai Titles

Dan Hon, who you may remember trained a neural network to make up British placenames, has now done the same thing with Star Trek. He fed all the episode titles for a bunch of Treks (TOS, DS9, TNG, etc.) into a very primitive version of Commander Data’s brain and out came some brand new episode titles, including:

Darmok Distant (TNG)
The Killing of the Battle of Khan (TOS)
The Omega Mind (Enterprise)
The Empath of Fire (TNG)
Distance of the Prophets (DS9)
The Children Command (TNG)
Sing of Ferengi (Voyager)

Spock, Q, and mirrors are also heavily featured in episode titles.

The Lost Words

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 03, 2017

Lost Words

Written by Robert Macfarlane and illustrated by Jackie Morris, The Lost Words is a collection of words related to the natural world that are fading from our children’s minds as the “wild childhood” disappears from western society.

All over the country, there are words disappearing from children’s lives. These are the words of the natural world — Dandelion, Otter, Bramble and Acorn, all gone. The rich landscape of wild imagination and wild play is rapidly fading from our children’s minds.The Lost Words stands against the disappearance of wild childhood. It is a joyful celebration of nature words and the natural world they invoke.

Ohio high school sports teams with Native American names/mascots

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 02, 2017

Daniella Zalcman

Daniella Zalcman

For Topic, photographer Daniella Zalcman went to Ohio to document high school sports teams using names and mascots that refer to Native Americans.

Outside of professional sports, words and names referring to indigenous Americans abound: there are high-school teams and squads called the Redskins, Redmen, Big Reds, Braves, Warriors, Chieftains, Indians, Savages, Squaws, Apaches, Mohawks, and Seminoles. Many of them are in the state of Ohio, which, some reports say, has over 60 high-school mascots with names considered to be slurs. (It’s worth considering the cost of “tradition”: a 2014 report by the Center for American Progress found links between these team names and the lowered self-esteem-and increased suicide rates-of young Native Americans.)

In praise of Cookie Monster, the literary muppet

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 26, 2017

monsterpiecekcomp.jpg

In De pueris instituendis (On the education of children, 1529), the great Renaissance humanist, borrowing from the classical rhetoricians Horace and Quintillian, helped reintroduce an important idea:

I have now come to the stage of my argument where I shall briefly explain how love of study may be instilled in children - a subject which I have already touched upon in part. As I have said, through practice we acquire painlessly the ability to speak. The art of reading and writing comes next; this involves some tedium, which can be relieved, however, by an expert teacher who spices his instruction with pleasant inducements. One encounters children who toil and sweat endlessly before they can recognize and combine into words the letters of the alphabet and learn even the bare rudiments of grammar, yet who can readily grasp the higher forms of knowledge. As the ancients have demonstrated, there are artful means to overcome this slowness. Teachers of antiquity, for instance, would bake cookies of the sort that children like into the shape of letters, so that their pupils might, so to speak, hungrily eat their letters; for any student who could correctly indentify a letter would be rewarded with it.

In grad school, I worked with a British literary historian who expertly broke this down into a post-psychoanalytic framework. Biscuits, like speech and writing, form a circuit between the eyes, hand, and mouth. The regulation of desire clears the way for the discipline of discourse. Like Plato, we move from the immanent and particular to the abstract and universal, but this is always mediated by the body, whose conflicting drives trouble these ideal categories.

I responded: “It’s Cookie Monster.” Growing up in England, he’d never heard of him.

Cookie’s idiosyncratic pronouns and truncated consonant clusters are a ruse. He’s easily the most verbally adept, best-educated character on Sesame Street. He teaches children the alphabet and vocabulary, and of course doubles as Alistaire Cookie on Monsterpiece Theatre. The growly voice, googly eyes, and outsized yearnings mask the heart of a scholar.

I bet he used to be a graduate student. You can’t show any of us free food without us reacting like this.

cookies.gif

He even loves absurdist metafiction:

Cookie is all of us who always get underestimated, just because we refused to always change how we talk and how we act because we went to school. But we love those sweet leatherbound books, too.

NOTE: Cookie Monster was invited and was originally slated to collaborate on this post. He was excited; I was excited. Unfortunately, due to a scheduling conflict, he wasn’t able to appear. You have his and my regrets. (I swear on Mr. Snuffleupagus: All of this is 100 percent true.)

Dictionary of Ikea product name meanings

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 16, 2017

The Ikea Dictionary is a listing of the meanings of the names of more than 1300 Ikea products.

Part of what makes IKEA unique is their product names. Each name means something, often in a funny or ambigious way. When IKEA went international, they decided to use the same Swedish names everywhere. This makes sense from an organizational sanity standpoint, but it deprives most of the world of this particular joy.

Some examples:

JERRIK - Ancient Scandinavian boy name
TROLSK - magic/enchanted, troll-like
MÖRRUM - city in south east Sweden
SNITTA - (to) cut (flowers)
SOLVAR - Norwegian boy name
VÄGGIS - made up -IS word ‘Vägg’ means ‘wall’, so ‘väggis’ could mean ‘wall thingie’

Dictionary Stories, a book of short stories composed entirely of dictionary example sentences

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 12, 2017

Dictionary Stories

From illustrator, designer, and writer Jez Burrows comes a book called Dictionary Stories, a collection of illustrated short stories that are composed entirely of example sentences from the dictionary.

One day, while looking up a word in the New Oxford American Dictionary, Jez Burrows was stopped in his tracks by an example sentence: “He perched on the edge of the bed, a study in confusion and misery.” It seemed like a tiny piece of fiction had gotten lost, wandered out of another book and settled down in the dictionary. With that spark, and a handful of experimental stories posted to Tumblr, Dictionary Stories was born.

Super clever.

Our collective happiness on Twitter reaches a new low

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 04, 2017

Twitter Happiness 2017

The Hedonometer measures the average happiness of Twitter on a daily basis and the shooting in Las Vegas has pushed the index to a new low. The previous low point was after the terror attack in Orlando last July. The two other lowest scores have occurred in the past year and a half: the mass shooting of Dallas police officers and the election of Donald Trump, which is the only non-shooting or non-terror attack to achieve such a low score in the 9-year history of the index.

How to Talk Minnesotan: The Power of the Negative

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 14, 2017

In the Upper Midwest, particularly in Minnesota and the northern part of Wisconsin (where I’m originally from), there’s a tendency to never say exactly what you’re thinking. Which, dontcha know, can lead to some misunderstandings when communicating with people who didn’t grow up in the area. This short video, taken from a longer documentary on How to Talk Minnesotan, demonstrates how a Minnesotan speaker uses negative words (e.g. bad, not, can’t, worse) to express positive feelings. For example, a translation of the phrase “I’m so excited, I can’t believe it!!” into Minnesotan yields:

A guy could almost be happy today if he wasn’t careful.

The pattern for color names from around the world

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 07, 2017

If you look at the basic colors from a variety of cultures & languages from around the world, there are differences in the number of colors represented in each language. Some languages only have words for black, white, and red while others have words for more than 10 basic colors. Surprisingly, there’s a pattern behind the development of these color words across many of these languages: the words for colors were often invented in the same order.

See also one of my favorite segments of Radiolab on the color blue.

Premium mediocre

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 29, 2017

Venkatesh Rao recently coined the phrase premium mediocre to denote a certain type of product, service, or experience with which we are all very familiar these days.

Premium mediocre is the finest bottle of wine at Olive Garden. Premium mediocre is cupcakes and froyo. Premium mediocre is “truffle” oil on anything (no actual truffles are harmed in the making of “truffle” oil), and extra-leg-room seats in Economy. Premium mediocre is cruise ships, artisan pizza, Game of Thrones, and The Bellagio.

Premium mediocre is food that Instagrams better than it tastes.

Premium mediocre is Starbucks’ Italian names for drink sizes, and its original pumpkin spice lattes featuring a staggering absence of pumpkin in the preparation. Actually all the coffee at Starbucks is premium mediocre. I like it anyway.

Premium mediocre is Cost Plus World Market, one of my favorite stores, purveyor of fine imported potato chips in weird flavors and interesting cheap candy from convenience stores around the world.

The best banana, any piece of dragon fruit, fancy lettuce, David Brooks’ idea of a gourmet sandwich.

Premium mediocre, premium mediocre, premium mediocre, premium mediocre. Mediocre with just an irrelevant touch of premium, not enough to ruin the delicious essential mediocrity.

A friend used to say that if something is described as being “classy”, it almost certainly isn’t. Premium mediocre is knowing that and being fine with it. (via mr)

Fictional names for British towns generated by a neural net

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 20, 2017

Dan Hon recently trained a neural net to generate a list of fictional British placenames. The process is fairly simple…you train a program on a real list of placenames and it “brainstorms” new names based on patterns it found in the training list. As Hon says, “the results were predictable”…and often hilarious. Here are some of my favorites from his list:

Heaton on Westom
Brumlington
Stoke of Inch
Batchington Crunnerton
Salt, Earth
Wallow Manworth
Crisklethe’s Chorn
Ponkham Bark
Buchlingtomptop
Broad Romble
Fuckley

See also auto-generated maps of fantasy worlds.

Update: Tom Taylor did a similar thing last year using Tensorflow. Here are a few of his fictional names:

Allers Bottom
Hendrelds Hill
St Ninhope
Up Maling
Firley Dinch

There’s also an associated Twitter bot. (via @philgyford)

Also, Dan Connolly had a look at the etymology of the names on Hon’s list.

Buncestergans. At first glance this doesn’t look a lot like a place name but let’s break it down. We’ve got Bun which is definitely from Ireland (see Bunratty, Bunclody, Bundoran) meaning bottom of the river, and I believe we’re talking bottom as in the mouth rather than the riverbed (or there are whole lot of magical lady-of-the-lake towns in Ireland, I’m happy believing either). Cester is our Roman fort, then we have -gans.

I don’t think gans has any meaning in British place names. My guess is the net got this from Irish surnames like Fagans, Hagans, Duggans, that sort of thing. My Gaelic’s not so great (my mother, grandmother, and several aunts and uncles would all be better suited to this question!) but I think the -gan ending in Gaelic is a diminuitive, so Buncestergans could be the Small Fort at the Bottom of the River. I quite like that. It’s a weird Gaelic-Latin hybrid but why the hell not!

The United States of Food Puns

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 14, 2017

Foodnitedstates

Foodnitedstates

Foodnitedstates

Each of the 50 US states made of food and named accordingly, e.g. Arkanslaw, Pretzelvania, Tunassee, Mississippeas. Maps? Food? Language? How many more of my boxes could this project possibly check? Oh, this was a kid’s idea and his dad went over the top in helping him achieve it? CHECK.

Oh, and to teach the kid about capitalism, of course there are t-shirts and posters available.

The distribution of letters in English words

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 13, 2017

David Taylor analyzed a corpus of English words to see where each letter of the alphabet fell and graphed the results.

Letter Distribution

No surprise that “q” and “j” are found mostly at the beginnings of words and “y” and “d” at the ends. More interesting are the few letters with more even distribution throughout words, like “l”, “r”, and even “o”. Note that this analysis is based on a corpus of words in use, not on a dictionary:

I used a corpus rather than a dictionary so that the visualization would be weighted towards true usage. In other words, the most common word in English, “the” influences the graphs far more than, for example, “theocratic”.

Taylor explained his methodology in a second geekier post. (via @tedgioia)

This incredible State Word Map explains everything about America

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 02, 2017

State Word Map

No, not that one. Or this one. Or any of these. This one.

State Word Map

Translating music into American Sign Language

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 07, 2017

Amber Galloway Gallego is a ASL interpreter who has developed new techniques and expressions to translate popular music into a richer experience for deaf and hard-of-hearing people than just simply translating the lyrics.

If you frequent music festivals and concerts, you might see her — or an interpreter like her — grooving to the music, mirroring the emotions and physicality of the artists onstage, interpreting their imaginative lyrics for concert-goers who rely on visual accommodations. She’s interpreted for more than 400 artists at this point, and has a special knack for interpreting hip-hop acts.

Part of the challenge here, particularly with fast-moving rap or hip hop, is combine or abbreviate signs in order to keep time with the lyrics. See Shelby Mitchusson performing Eminem’s Lose Yourself or Gallego doing a faster song of his, Rap God:

A dialect coach demonstrates 12 different accents

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 07, 2017

Sammi Grant is a dialect coach and voiceover artist for television and theater. In this video, she demonstrates her expertise in speaking English with several different accents, including Irish, Scottish, German, the American midwestern accent, and the Transatlantic accent, an accent invented to sound both American and British simultaneously.

No, really. That’s not a real accent. It’s a now-abandoned affectation from the period that saw the rise of matinee idols and Hitchcock’s blonde bombshells. Talk like that today and be the butt of jokes (see Frasier). But in the ’30s and ’40s, there are almost no films in which the characters don’t speak with this faux-British elocution-a hybrid of Britain’s Received Pronunciation and standard American English as it exists today. It’s called Mid-Atlantic English (not to be confused with local accents of the Eastern seaboard), a name that describes a birthplace halfway between Britain and America. Learned in aristocratic finishing schools or taught for use in theater to the Bergmans and Hepburns who were carefully groomed in the studio system, it was class for the masses, doled out through motion pictures.

This short video has some more examples of the Transatlantic (or Mid-Atlantic) accent:

How MLK’s I Have Dream speech was composed

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 28, 2017

Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech is one of the greatest examples of American oratory. In this video, Evan Puschak looks at how King’s speech was constructed and delivered, examining King’s references to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address & Shakespeare, his use of lyrical techniques like alliteration and anaphora (the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses), and the mixture of plain and poetic language throughout the speech. Spoiler: King was a rhetorical genius and there’s a lot going on in that speech.

(Fair warning: Trump comes in abruptly at the 6:00 mark. I get the point he’s trying to make with the contrast, but I wish Puschak would have done without it.)