Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Books read 2019

At the start of 2018 I resolved to read more books, and I’ve more or less kept it up in 2019. Purely quantitatively I’m trailing a bit (45 this year as opposed to 58 last year), but in my defence there were some very hefty tomes in there this year. Anyhow, on with the mini-reviews!

T. Craig Christy, Uniformitarianism in linguistics

A fine work of William Dwight Whitney fan fiction. I finally understand why everyone is so negative about this book. Christy is set on showing how Lyell’s uniformitarianism made its way into linguistics, that it was Whitney who was responsible, and that this was a paradigm shift in the Kuhnian sense. In so doing he first presents then ignores evidence that uniformitarianism had antecedents long before Lyell, and that Müller and others were using the idea before Whitney. He’s also unclear on what uniformitarianism is: at one point it boils down to “long timescale”, but this is then ignored in the second half, where the focus is on method. And he’s mean about Müller while at the same time asserting on no grounds that he’s wrong about things. Someone needs to write a better history of uniformitarianism in linguistics (and no, it won’t be me).

Miriam Butt, Theories of Case

A clear and accessible overview of the development of different theories of case. The focus is on GB/Minimalist-style structural approaches and “linking” approaches (Kiparsky, Wunderlich, LFG), with these two families each receiving a hefty chapter of their own. There’s also some historical context, from the ancient grammarians to Relational Grammar, and some considerations of other approaches (RRG, OT). The “ergative dragon” also gets anatomized. Very useful for me from the perspective of seeing why things are viewed the way they are today, even if I don’t particularly intend to become a case and argument structure pro any time soon.

Nicole Dehé, Parentheticals in spoken English: the syntax-prosody relation

At once an inspiring and a frustrating read. Inspiring because methodologically it’s pretty much breaking new ground (corpus prosody) and relates its findings to a ton of previous research. Frustrating because over every page I was expecting to see “here’s the theory of the prosody-syntax interface that actually allows you to make sense of this data”, which the author would certainly be capable of delivering. But even the predictions of existing theories (i.e. Match) which aren’t borne out are mentioned quite briefly. Well, I look forward to the sequel presenting the one true theory of prosody, anyway!

Noam Chomsky, Cartesian linguistics, 3rd edition

Here Chomsky meditates on some of his rationalist forebears – particularly Descartes himself, the Port-Royal grammarians, and Humboldt. Regardless of its merits as intellectual history (which it isn’t really supposed to be) or lack thereof, it’s certainly interesting, and contains some of Chomsky’s most explicit discussion of linguistic creativity. Even the nauseatingly hagiographic introduction by McGilvray contains some good discussion, e.g. as regards “common sense” and empiricist methodological dualism. (At 52 pages, this intro is almost as long as the rest of the book, and can easily be skipped by the reader in a hurry.)

Jun Terasawa, Old English metre: an introduction

I read this mainly to check whether it’d be good for students, but it’s also good for people like me who can never remember which of Sievers’ types is which. Chapters 1-3 are very introductory and very clear. Chapters 4-7 are more advanced, and provide up-to-date references on these more in-depth topics. And it’s nice and slender, too.

Steven Erikson, Forge of Darkness

Worst book I’ve read in years. Nothing happens for 660 pages while a host of characters with stupid names and no personality mouth ominous platitudes at one another. Only my completionist tendency got me through this one.

Güliz Günes, Deriving prosodic structures

An eye-opening, clearly written study. It’s hard to believe this is only a PhD thesis. First half presents a new way of thinking about prosody, based loosely on Match Theory but cashed out derivationally. Second half demonstrates very clearly the link between intonation phrases and illocutionary force in Turkish. Excellent.

Cixin Liu, The Dark Forest

Sci-fi as it should be. Daring, human, vertiginous, mind-boggling. Even better than its predecessor, I think.

Robert Fulk, A history of Old English meter

By no means an easy read, exacerbated by the author’s old-school philological style (section numbers, argument from authority, references in footnotes). In fact, it reads as if it were written in the 30s and 40s rather than 80s and 90s. And anyone who claims that generativists invented impenetrable formalisms in the study of language would do well to look at the bloated body of work on early Germanic metrics. Still, the weight of erudition behind this book is tremendous, and the conclusions are persuasive, in particular as regards the early date of Beowulf. No doubt I will be revisiting this one once I know more.

Private Eye Annual 2018


David Lightfoot, Principles of diachronic syntax

Still as stimulating and frustrating as it was on a first read. Widely known as “that book about the modals and the Transparency Principle”, there’s far more in here than most people realize (or acknowledge). Quite apart from the three whole chapters of case studies that are rarely if ever mentioned (chapters 4-6), there’s a full-blown theory of change in here. Though the tone isn’t as resolutely I-language-focused as it is in his later work (he says things like “grammars can undergo radical restructuring”, p81, presupposing that it’s grammars that change”, the seeds are there, including the famous “how could a child” passage (p391). There’s also detailed discussion of analogy, language contact, and more. People don’t, on the whole, write books like this any more, for better or for worse.

Aphra Behn, Oroonoko and other writings

Surely one of the most interesting people of the early modern period, so I was curious. This collection is a mixed bag. Oroonoko itself is a fascinating, multifaceted story, challenging preconceptions about race relations in the period. The History of the Nun is also fun to read. By contrast, Memoirs of the Court of the King of Bantam is well-nigh incomprehensible, and some of the others are forgettable. A more careful reader than me would probably be able to infer a lot about the state of being a woman in early modern England. The same goes for the poetry: some of it is fairly boring, including a lot of poems about people who’ve recently died (“So. Farewell then”), but there are more meaningful moments too, such as To the Fair Clarinda.

Rolf Bremmer, An Introduction to Old Frisian

Very useful. Someone at Benjamins probably could have seen their way clear to proofreading it, though; there are a ton of typographical errors.

Alice Walker, The Color Purple

A lot of the fiction books I read have weird and/or depressing endings, so it’s great to read something that starts from the ultimate low point and climbs steadily upwards. I don’t like using the word “life-affirming”, but this book definitely is. Only one quibble: I couldn’t really see the point of Nettie’s letters, which start out about halfway through and seem stylistically and thematically a poor fit with the rest. (Maybe that in itself is the point?) I feel like the book would have been just as good without them.

Richard Larson, Grammar as Science

Started reading this last year when teaching a course based on the first four-fifths of it, and finished it this year. I think this is pretty much the perfect book to use for introductory syntax, especially a) with students who don’t do much linguistics (like mine) and b) with students who may then go on to pick up other formal models of grammar like LFG. Not all of the arguments are equally strong (the bit about PRO is super weak, to my mind), but the general pedagogical approach seems to work well.

Deborah Harkness, Time’s Convert

A nice easy-reading vampire novel that I picked up to get away from some of the bulkier tomes that will hopefully appear later on this year’s list. I was expecting a bit more bodice-ripping and bloodspilling, but instead what I got was quite a wholesome family story in which, at the end of the day, not all that much happens. It has a nice jaunt through 18th-century revolutionary America and France, though.

Jonathan Hsy, Trading tongues: merchants, multilingualism, and medieval literature

In case you were in any doubt about the multilingual credentials of medieval writers in England, this is the book to read: Hsy clearly shows how people like Chaucer, Gower, Kempe and Charles of Orleans (as well as a range of lesser-known mercantile writers) were able and willing to skip from language to language as part of business as usual. It’s written from a literary-historical perspective, and the constant talk of challenging binaries while inhabiting translingual spaces, etc., is a bit grating for a reader like me. But there’s no doubt that this is an important contribution to our understanding of medieval multilingualism.

Susan Oosthuizen, The emergence of the English

The traditional story of swarms of warrior immigrants in the 5th century has long since been debunked. This provocative little book by Oosthuizen aims to take the debate one step further – calling into question whether the concept of “Anglo-Saxons” as an incoming ethnic group has any explanatory value at all. After briefly surveying the subject area in chapter 1, Oosthuizen discusses the empirical evidence in chapter 2, problematizes explanations based on ethnicity in chapter 3, and proposes an alternative in chapter 4, predicated on continuity (and based on a case study of common land rights throughout the supposed period of migration). She comes down particularly hard on approaches that equate Anglo-Saxon England to apartheid South Africa. Some of the argumentation is convincing to me, other bits aren’t – for instance, the treatment of Ine’s laws seems a bit loose. And the alternative explanation in chapter 4 is sketched in terms that are so broad-brush as to be difficult to evaluate (though in fairness this is just as true of traditional approaches). This will certainly stimulate debate, and I’d like to see more in this vein - especially as regards its implications for the history of the English language.

J. N. Adams, Wackernagel’s law and the placement of the copula esse in classical Latin

More of a long article than a book (at 90 pages), the key question here is whether placement of the copula esse in classical Latin obeys Wackernagel’s law. Adams argues convincingly that it doesn’t, and that it is instead generally enclitic to a focused constituent, which may or may not be in first position.

Andy Weir, Artemis

Needed some holiday easy reading, and this was just the thing. Action-packed sci-fi. Reads like it’s been written by a horny 14-year-old nerd, but still a good page-turner. Polished off in three days.

Natalie Braber & Jonnie Robinson, East Midlands English

I’m from the northwest of this area and, as the authors state in their opening chapter, the complete absence of any reference to it in most dialectological discussions is astounding. The appearance of this book was therefore very welcome to me. It gives a fairly cursory overview of all domains of the language (syntax getting very short shrift) which is nevertheless inspiring – I feel like I ought to use the oral history project from my village, Tideswell, to make a contribution along these lines at some point. That’d be particularly valuable as this book is really focused mostly on the Three Cities area of Derby, Nottingham and Leicester and the surrounding ex-coal-mining areas, and the Peak District has its own sense of identity and linguistic peculiarities.

Peter Kruschwitz, Römische Inschriften und Wackernagels Gesetz

Another slender volume. Kruschwitz basically replicates Adams’s studies on the placement of copula esse and personal pronouns in Latin, but this time in the epigraphic material. He finds that by and large Adams’s conclusions hold for this dataset too. (Major gripe: gloss and translate your damn examples, Latinists!)

William Gibson, Neuromancer

Having been immersed in cyberpunk for so long (Blade Runner, Deus Ex, Shadowrun, Altered Carbon) I was expecting to be underwhelmed by this. But no – it’s sublime beyond its prescience. I only wish my teenage self had been exposed to it. I could have done without the space Rastafarians, though.

Mike Smith, Derbyshire Dialect

This is a slim volume even compared to the other books I’ve been calling slim. And it’s not really about Derbyshire dialect, instead dealing mostly with interesting traditions and historical peculiarities of the region. I learned several things nonetheless!

Michelle Obama, Becoming

As well as shedding light on White House life, this book reveals a genuine, dedicated, brilliant woman who’s fashioned herself into a weapon against injustice. Many lessons here for anyone who wants to use their own resources and position – whatever it happens to be – to make the world better.

Lionel Davidson, Kolymsky Heights

This thriller builds like an avalanche: very slow at first, then hurtling towards the end. The nuts-and-bolts buildup we get in the first half of the book is crucial for setting out exactly what’s at stake. We don’t get much insight into any of the characters other than the protagonist, even the woman he sleeps with. It’d also be nice to know how he became so awesome at absolutely everything. But hey, lots of fun.

David Goldstein, Classical Greek Syntax

Using so-called Wackernagel clitics as a springboard, this book is a wide-ranging investigation of clause structure in Classical Greek. It is scrupulously exemplified, and information-structurally very sophisticated. The syntactic approach (e.g. in terms of adjunction to S) strikes me as somewhat dated, but the analysis seems to make clear predictions that can be tested in future work. On some points - e.g. the question of clitics as non-projecting words – I’d have liked more discussion.

Neal Snape & Tanja Kupisch, Second language acquisition

Books by colleagues n+1! While this book is packed full of interesting things, and I learned a lot from it, my overarching impression is that it’s not very successful qua book. Rather, it’s a succession of short summaries of experimental studies, organized into useful categories. Some of the meatier theoretical issues are glossed over quite briefly. To me at least it would have been handier to have a bit more of a frame narrative to glue everything together, even if that meant covering less material.

Joan Bybee, Language change

I won’t lie, I came to this textbook expecting to hate it. What I actually found was not as bad as I imagined. The three chapters on analogy and grammaticalization are really nice, and I could imagine using them in teaching. The bit on sound change is pretty taxonomic, despite Bybee’s stated desire to avoid “a disjointed laundry list of named types”. The section in syntactic change is very dated, relying heavily on work from the 70s with a gentle gesture in the direction of modern construction grammar work. The nadir is the glowing write-up of Greenbergian mass comparison. There’s an interesting theory-comparison bit at the end that I would also happily give more advanced students to read.

Simon Bradley, The Railways

It’s always an unpleasant experience to realize that you weren’t quite as passionate about something you thought you were passionate about as you thought. Sadly, this book had that effect on me. It’s 550 pages long and the anecdotes and information come thick and fast, ranging from the evolution of carriage layouts to the minutiae of the spotter’s life. I got a fair bit out of it, but most of it will have washed over me without any lasting effect, to my great shame and regret.

Adele Goldberg, Constructions: A Construction Grammar approach to argument structure

This book is way more... generative than I imagined it being. Despite the title, it’s exclusively about English. The references (of which there are many) are almost all to works written in America since 1965. Some use is made of corpus examples, but mostly only to illustrate grammatical sentences, and the judgements drawn upon strike me as sometimes being more subtle and disputed than they are reported to be. That said, this was 1995 (and it’s an updated version of a PhD submitted in 1992). Plus there’s some cracking syntactic analysis and argumentation in here. Far from being obsessed with minor idiosyncrasies (my perhaps slightly unfair assessment of a lot of CxG work, which Goldberg herself actually hints at in the conclusion), this book is about how to capture robust generalizations that otherwise don’t receive satisfying accounts. It sometimes gets a bit hand-wavey about the specific verbs that can occur with a given construction, but for the most part it’s clear and explicit about what’s going on.

Marlon James, Black Leopard, Red Wolf

An epic fantasy written by a Man Booker Prize winner and drawing on African history and mythology. Given those things, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I’d hoped, and it took me a very long time to plough through it. The quest-style middle section, with a LotR-style cast of supporting characters, is great, but it was hard for me to discern any narrative progression at all towards the start and the end. And I find the style sometimes extremely disjointed: pages of direct dialogue without any indication of who’s speaking had me losing not only the plot but also the will to live. Still, at its best the book is fabulous, deviant and powerful.

Ursula Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

I’m surprised this book isn’t more widely known, especially now, given its exploration of themes surrounding gender in human society. It seems like a disservice to call this book sci-fi, but that really reflects more on the snobbishly pejorative connotations attached to the term (and ‘genre’ fiction more broadly – as if there is such a thing as non-genre fiction!) than on the book itself. Beyond gender the book addresses questions to do with nationalism, political propaganda and face-saving, prediction, and more. Plus it’s a good story.

Lourens van den Bosch, Max Müller: a life devoted to the humanities

This hefty, wide-ranging, and at points dense book is one of the reasons I didn’t read as many books in 2019 as in 2018. The protagonist, who has pretty much vanished without a trace in the popular historiography of linguistics, is an incredible thinker, bridge-builder, and activist whose ideas bear substantial similarities to some independently arrived at more recently. He was no respecter of disciplinary boundaries, making impressive contributions not only to linguistics but also to the comparative studies of mythology and religion (in these two fields there’d be some justification for calling him the founder figure). It’s hard to see why his reputation sank as much as it did after his death.

Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea

I’m not emotionally intelligent enough for this book, I think. It’s easy to see that this is beautiful prose, but a lot of reading between the lines is required to figure out what is going on and why, and I mostly couldn’t. One to revisit when I’m older and wiser.

Cynthia Allen, Dative External Possessors in Early English

There’s quite possibly no one who does theoretically informed, philologically reliable, corpus-based work on the syntax of early English as well as Allen. In this book, she tackles the question of dative external possessors, showing in detail that they were on the decline throughout the Old English period. A causal scenario based on the loss of dative case can be convincingly rejected, but Celtic influence (of a certain kind) remains plausible. This should pretty much be the last word on the issue. On a personal note, I’m glad to see my little HeliPaD corpus enjoying some use.

Manfred Krug, Emerging English modals: a corpus-based study of grammaticalization

This is an empirically very rich study whose theoretical side leaves something to be desired. Lots of linguists, unfortunately, especially in the philological traditions, treat their literature reviews as group identity signifiers rather than hypothesis drivers (in this case, usage-based linguistics and grammaticalization theory), and then develop particularistic post hoc explanations. It’d be unfair to single Krug out for this. There’s an important exception, though: the gravitational model developed in the final chapter, which is (or should be) genuinely predictive. The subsequent literature seems not to have picked up on this, however, which is a shame.

Arkady Martine, A Memory Called Empire

A good dose of sci-fi intrigue. Not massively original, but intelligent and well-crafted, with the twin themes of memory and belonging running like a river through it. Better characterization of the key figures than a lot of sci-fi I’ve read. And there are enough loose ends to make me pretty keen to read the sequel, when it comes out.

Colette Moore & Chris Palmer (eds.), Teaching the history of the English language

Stay tuned for a review of this, hopefully! The tl;dr version is “useful, but too North-America-centric”.

Shadowrun Sixth World Core Rulebook

When I read books like this as a teenager I skimmed eagerly over the flavour text and images in order to get to the stats. It’s interesting to discover as I get older that I’m leaning back towards the text (not the images). Perhaps it’s part of my general personality change. Anyhow, this is supposed to be a discussion of the book, not of me, so: it’s great! If you’re into that kind of thing. Good for getting the creative juices flowing.

Ibram X. Kendi, How to be an antiracist

A punchy, clearly written book that’s part autobiography and part manifesto. A good starting point for the relatively uninitiated like me. Kendi clearly explains what the problems are with assimilationist and integrationist views on race, as well as “race-blindness” (which might work in an ideal world, but that’s very far removed from where we are now). More interesting and novel to me was Kendi’s critique of the concept of structural racism as depersonalizing. And the key take-home is probably that racism is motivated more by self-interest than by ignorance or hate.

Guangshun Cao & Hsiao-jung Yu (eds.), Language contact and change in Chinese

A collection of essays originally written in Chinese and translated into English, dealing with two contact situations in particular: Sanskrit (in the context of translated Buddhist texts) and Mongolian (in the context of Mongol rule). The papers and the translations both vary tremendously in quality. The inclusion of Lansheng Jiang’s paper on four-character state adjectives, which has nothing to do with contact, is mystifying. But I learned a lot about potential cases of syntactic transfer from Sanskrit and Mongolian, and I’m glad this material is being made more easily accessible to a Western readership.

N. K. Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate

Not nearly as good as its predecessor – suffers from middle-of-trilogy syndrome. We get much more of a sense of what’s at stake, and lots of buildup for an epic confrontation in the next book, but ultimately not much of great import happens and we also don’t get much in the way of character development (at least not for Syenite/Essun). It’s still well-written and powerful but not as engaging, and, like the first volume, the pacing wasn’t very satisfying to me.

Diane Watt, Women, writing and religion in England and beyond, 650-1100

This book opened my eyes to the tradition of powerful and literate women in the early medieval period, which I’m sorry to say I was completely ignorant of – so it’s useful for the history of English I’m co-writing. Not all of the details were equally thrilling to me, though.

Private Eye Annual 2019

With all of its stupid, surreal awfulness on the geopolitical stage, 2019 was a hard year to satirize, so respect to everyone involved here. Except possibly the cartoonists, who seem to have dealt with the situation by going on an acid trip – I couldn’t make much sense of most of the cartoons, and even when I could they were odd rather than funny.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Where can I get to in 12 hours from Konstanz without flying?

The Scientists4Future at the HU Berlin have launched a project to eschew short-haul flights, provided that the journey can instead be completed within 12 hours by rail. This blog post gives an overview of some of the places you can get to this way. (Hopefully, a few of them will SHOCK you!)

The Deutsche Bahn website was used to calculate all the below journey options, with 28th Oct 2019 as the (fairly arbitrarily chosen) notional day of travel.

So, what are your options...?

1. Anywhere in Germany

Okay, this is a slight exaggeration. The shortest time I can see to get to Westerland, on the island of Sylt, is 12:25. And Ostseebad Binz, on the island of Rügen, takes at least 12:59, with the quickest route to Stralsund coming in at 12:06. Hopefully you won't begrudge me the extra few minutes, though, especially since none of these are particularly common destinations for academic business trips.

Hamburg, on the other hand, can be done in 8:13 with only one change. Berlin can be done in 8:36, and Köln in a mere 5:01. This may not be particularly surprising to anyone, though, so let's move on.

2. Anywhere in Austria, Belgium, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, or Switzerland

Austria is not as long as it looks. Graz can be got to in just over 10 hours, Klagenfurt in just over 9, Vienna in less than 9. The longest trip I've been able to find is to Jennersdorf, on the border with Hungary, and apparently a fairly unremarkable place. Still doable in under 12 hours.

As for Belgium, a trip to De Panne, on the North Sea coast near the French border, will be over in the blink of an eye (9:59). The pretty little town of Couvin, at the end of a branch line in Wallonia near Namur, will take you 10:26. More usefully, you can reach Brussels within seven hours.

Liechtenstein is obvious, as is Luxembourg (just over 6 hours). Almost everywhere in Switzerland is accessible within 5 hours; if you want to train it to Brusio with its spiral viaduct, high in the Alps on the Bernina railway, you'd better leave 6:20.

The Brusio spiral viaduct (CC-BY 3.0, by Kabelleger)

3. Most places in Czechia or the Netherlands

Ostrava, the Czech town that's the furthest from Konstanz (near the border with Poland), will push you over the limit at 12:20, as will Olomouc at 12:09 (just). But Prague can be reliably got to in a piffling 9:32, and Brno in 10:38. Meanwhile, Amsterdam is a comfortable 8:35, and Groningen or Rotterdam can be reached in under 10. If you want to go right to the North Sea coast on a branch line, brace yourself for a longer journey, though.

4. Denmark, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia

Bratislava is only 10:13, and Ljubljana a mere 10:24! As for Denmark, Hungary and Poland, admittedly, you probably won't get to anywhere useful within these countries in 12 hours. But Budapest, for instance, is only 12:09, Poznan is only 12:16, and places like Aarhus, Copenhagen, Warsaw and Wroclaw are doable as part of a longer day. Zagreb, in Croatia, is only just out of reach at 12:44, and there's also a sleeper that goes there from Zurich.

5. Northern and Central Italy, and almost all of France

At 5:41, Milan is embarrassingly easy to reach. From there you can travel onwards to lots of other major cities within the 12-hour limit: Florence at 7:37, Rimini 8:29, Venice 8:31, Rome 9:14, Trieste 10:30, Naples 10:47. Only the far south and Sicily take longer.

France is astonishingly accessible. With Paris less than five and a half hours away, you can be there in time for a leisurely lunch. Connections via Paris, Dijon and Strasbourg will also get you to places like Lille (7:17), Marseille (7:42), Bordeaux (8:16), Nantes (9:07), Toulouse (11:05), Bayonne (11:07), and even Brest at the very tip of Brittany (an incredible 10:08, if you can leg it across Paris fast enough). You'll only struggle with getting somewhere in France within 12 hours if it's at the far end of a tiny branch line.

If you are a fan of micro-states, Vatican City (via Rome), San Marino (via Rimini) and Monaco (10:15) are all within your grasp. And Barcelona is SO DAMN CLOSE to being under the limit (12:21), putting you not that far from Andorra (okay that's a stretch but work with me here). Another Spanish destination that's easily doable within a day is Irun, in the Basque country, at a fairly comfortable 12:36. And if you stay on that last train you'll end up in Lisbon in the morning.

6. The UK

London is reachable in 8:59 by Eurostar via Paris, if the patron saint of connections extends his blessing to you. More usually it'll be about 10 (you need to hang around a bit in Paris). The Eurostar will also allow you to travel on to Cambridge (10:23), Oxford (11:04), Birmingham (11:17), York (11:29), Sheffield (11:55), and even Manchester (11:56), just. Within a slightly longer day you can also get to the capitals of Wales (Cardiff, 12:36) and Scotland (Edinburgh, 14:22), as well as Leeds (12:07), Newcastle (12:44) or Lancaster (12:46).

So that's not a bad range of places for half the time it takes for the Earth to rotate on its axis. Here's a map giving an overview:

With options like this, why would you fly short-haul to any of these places?

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Ritter Sport Winter 2019

The three new winter varieties Bunte Vielfalt varieties are here! Novelty value is low, however; two are repeats not only from 2018 but also from 2017. Spekulatius is a well-deserved 9/10 and Gebrannte Mandel is a worthy but not hugely inspiring 6.5/10. There's also:

Dunkle Minz Crisp: 9/10
Mmm, a dark chocolate variety with just enough crunchy minty sugary bits to taste like a gigantic After Eight – but without the annoying squidginess. I would dearly like to see this one again in future.

Monday, August 05, 2019

6 weird German things

Ever since I moved to Germany in March 2017 I have been an astute observer of local customs. These six quintessentially German weird things have made their way onto my Facebook wall, and here they are compiled for your reading pleasure. Most of them turn out to be related to buses.

1. Bus seating rituals

When someone sits down next to an occupied seat on a bus, the person on the inside will often immediately start a conversation about when they are planning to get off. If it then turns out that the person on the inside is getting off first, the two people will often permute. This whole process seems less efficient than the person on the inside simply saying "Excuse me, I want to get out" when it's time for them to do so.

2. Opening times for the bottle bank

Bitte beachten Sie die Einwurfzeiten!
Using the bottle bank on a Saturday? VERBOTEN. Using it at 2pm? VERBOTEN. Using it at 8pm? VERBOTEN. Using it at 7 in the ****ing morning? Yeah, sure, go right ahead.

3. Oh deer

"der Rentier" vs. "das Rentier". When the WWF started sending me emails about "Rentier under threat", I was a bit confused about why they wanted to protect pensioners/people living off their capital. Turns out that morphology, pronunciation, and gender are important. Who knew?

4. The vanishing bus

Fährt vom Pfingstsonntag bis zum letzten Tag in den Sommerferien.
A bus that only exists between Pentecost and the last day of the Baden-Württemberg summer holidays. Guess I’ll take the next one, then.

5. The Gutenberg gap

Your IP Address in Germany is Blocked
No access to Project Gutenberg in Germany. :'(

6. Stop the Germany, I Want to Get Off

By and large, Germans are awful at letting people get off the bus before they try to get on. They just stand in front of the door in a confused mass until someone asks them to move. I can only assume this is related to either a) the congenital inability of anyone without Great British DNA to queue properly, b) an apparently widespread German paranoia that minor things in daily life will go TERRIBLY WRONG, or c) both.

Then again, Konstanz bus drivers are psychopaths. They will quite happily lower the bus to ground level so that someone in a zimmer frame can trundle on comfortably, then close the door and stamp on the accelerator while that person is still looking for a seat.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

What's on George's bookshelf?

Having previously had fun with Mensa menus, I used the same methodology on the list of book titles to be found in my office. My research profile gives some indication of what to expect, and textgenrnn did not disappoint. Here are some of its plausible offerings:

Historical language change
The prose of the English phrase
A dictionary of complementation
Usage and context and syntax in dialect
English texts in English syntax
A dictionary of German linguistics
Syntax and the second language
The book of morphosyntactic finites
The beginning of English
Word order and comparative clauses in the English language
French accent in the Netherlands 1999
Germanische Grammatik
Old English phonologicalization

Of course it didn't get everything right:

Langenschrosy: a modision of complemanish
Historical languages verolant, II: Simpler Saga
Negation and the history of der Verbman of English language
Prose and a compronigonal comparative linguistics
The seastion of the Sprachwisch Strong Edenisher, I: Canbity 2001
Deutsche Sprachgeschichte III: Slaut-Proto-Germanic und a historical linguistic variation
Deutsches Sprachwisspecticalization
The and language productivity: a comparative linguistic comparation
The Bitcher of English attornal and what are theory case of index of syntax
Zis Grammatistics
Dialectologynical linguistics
Pissictional linguistics: a dictionary of the English language clause of the English
Cancelled to Prose Germanic Fellectoon
Historicle and the builds of proon on the history of English

And in some instances I would totally buy the book. Or maybe even write it.

Berk's Simpler English language
The strut of linguistic change
Fruits and the laws of the English structure in Middle English language
Word order and the history of the Endlands of English syntax
Syntax is the best century in the English vocabulary, I: a history of the English language clauses
A history of the English vocabulary, I: Old Old English
A dill of linguistics
The east of linguistic sociolinguistics
Der Saga des Urgermanische Sociolings
syntax on the syntax: a syntax of the English language
The grammar of linguistic cocainers: a comparative place in order and the history of English
Handwood: a syntax of linguistics

Once again, hat tip to aiweirdness.com, whose idea I've basically stolen here.

Saturday, June 08, 2019

Dominic Raab: "I deeply regret taking skooma"

Following yesterday’s explosive revelations, Conservative leadership hopeful Dominic Raab has expressed deep regret at his occasional skooma use earlier in life.

Raab, 45, admitted to taking the drug repeatedly when studying abroad at Winterhold College in the 90s. In his defence he claimed that his then-role as Dragonborn, destined to prevent the return of Alduin, was putting him under “immense pressure” leading him to make some “questionable decisions”, and that he had fallen into bad company.

“Some on the left will try to tell you that the skooma problem doesn't exist – that it's a fiction,” Raab added. “But I can assure you that the threat posed by skooma is very real.”

A former Brexit Secretary, Raab is known for his tough stance on Khajiit caravans and his unstinting support of leaving the EU, and has outlined plans for new trade deals with Elsweyr and Black Marsh in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Sunday, June 02, 2019

Ritter Sport Summer 2019

Interestingly, these are now called “Bunte Vielfalt” (colourful diversity) rather than “Sommergenuss”. Moving away from the seasonal pattern...?

This summer we witness the return of Zitronen-Waffel, which previously received a respectable 7.5/10, and on justifiable grounds. The caveat that holds for regular Waffel also holds here: it tends to fall to bits.

The other two are new, as far as I can tell.

Himbeer Joghurt: 8/10. Deliciously tart, with crunchy bits. The only reason this one doesn’t get rated higher is because I miss Brombeer Joghurt (which I’ve rated twice before, once with 8 and once with 9), and this one is a smidgeon less good.

Erdbeer-Mousse: 5/10. I’m not a huge fan of the mousse varieties (with their 3x3 rather than 4x4 layout) in general, and this one isn’t great even by those standards. Strawberry really needs to be complemented with something very creamy, but this mousse is, I’m afraid, rather too dry and fluffy while at the same time sweet and sticky - almost candyfloss-like. Not my thing.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

What's for lunch at the University of Konstanz?

A fun post for my 34th birthday. Inspired by aiweirdness.com, I trained a text-generating neural network, textgenrnn, on a dataset of meals served at the Mensa (cafeteria) of the University of Konstanz. Some of their offerings are on the creative side anyway: Banane-Lauchsauce, for instance. So I thought the university might be able to save a bit of money by firing the people who design the menus and replacing them with a bot. Long live full automation!

It's a pretty small dataset, so the network struggles to learn what a German word is supposed to look like:

Gemuserauce "Joghurt" Joghurt (olikenkartocild) mit Vollgessauce
Brackarkuschsteet Ketchup | Kase-Artiatiraten | Paprika-Sauce
Kedablacher | Bokentomanela
Frollogghw | Blatter-Fractese | Blattsalat | Blattsalat-Balassauce | Blattsalat

Very often it settles on things that look at least like actual words, but which don't refer to anything (as far as I know):

Frucken | Kaperniger Wurst | Bratkartoffeln | Bratensauce
Gorgarbonn | Kartoffeln | Bratensauce | Romanescogressing | Asia-Quard | Pomulasus | Spatzle
Blattsalat-Balsamicodressing | Kot | Kartoffeln | Salat-Cordmendrondrick
Rindfleischstreinten | Paprika | Petersilienestreifen in Banane
Spatzle Burger | Put-Honig-Senf-Honig-Secktafartoffeln
Cannische Ripslauch | Kartoffeln, Zitronenecke | Brot
Frikaaghurt mit Rahmspinat | Salat-Balsamicodressing | Brot

It also doesn't have much concept of what combinations of flavours work best:

Kartoffel-Gemusesauce | Pudding mit Hahnchenfleisch | Brot
Milchreis | Kartoffeln | Karotten | Bohnen
Pasta | Gemuse | Karotten | Orangen | Bratensauce | Blattsalat-Balsa-Kase-Sauce
Hahnchengeschnetzeltes mit Kirschen

But there are also several dishes that are more than conceivable:

Kartoffelpfanne "Asia" | Brot
Currywurst | Paprika-Dressing | Kartoffelpuree | Brot
Hahnchenbrustschnitzel | Kartoffeln | Bananenjoghurt
Pasta | Schinkenberge | Basmatireis
Schweineschnitzel | Zuckerschoten | Basmatireis

And more that are not outside the realms of possibility at our Mensa:

Orientalische Frischkasesauce
Pasta | Apfelmus
Chili con Banane-Tomatensauce | Basmatireis
Kartoffelpfanne "Chili mit Kartoffel"
Fruchtige Bratwurst | Pommes frites | Ketchup | Krauterbutter | Brokkolisch | Batailin | Brot
Chili con Carne | Kabeljoghurt mit geriebener Bratwurst | Basmatireis
Lasagne "Cock" | Hahnchenbruststreifen in Bauernwurst | Blattsalat-Balsamicodressing | Salat-Balsamicodressing

One thing's for sure, though: this bot is Swabian born and bre(a)d.

Spatzle | Spatzle | Spatzle | Brot

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Remain tactical voting in NW: vote Green or Lib Dem

The tl;dr version of this post is:
  • If you want to vote Lib Dem, do that.
  • If you want to vote Green, do that.
  • If you want to vote Change UK, don’t. Instead vote Green or (if you can’t stomach them) Lib Dem.
  • If you are pro-Remain and want to vote Labour, consider voting Green or Lib Dem instead.
  • If you are pro-Brexit, spoil your ballot. None of the parties can give you the hard Brexit you know we all need. F*ck the system!
(This post assumes that you’re a voter in the North West England electoral district for the European Parliament elections on 23rd May 2019, and that your priority is to send the strongest possible pro-Remain signal, understood as electing the most MEPs for unambiguously pro-Remain parties. If you don’t want this, then this post is not for you.)

Remain United is recommending that all Remainers in England vote Lib Dem. The idea behind this is that everyone should simply vote for the predicted largest pro-Remain party in each region. This, however, is a bad strategy because it doesn’t take into account the electoral system. In an ideal world where all Remainers voted tactically for the predicted largest pro-Remain party, it would work fine. But this won’t happen, and sub-optimal tactical voting could seriously screw things up. In districts with several seats, as Heinz Brandenburg explains:
If, for example, tactical voting pushes one pro-Remain party close to 15% but reduces the two others to 5 or 6%, the bigger party will not have enough to win multiple seats ... while the others could both fail to win a single seat. That could reduce the pro-Remain parties to a single seat where three could have been won.
Indeed, Remain United’s own projections show that if 50% of all Remain voters in the North West vote in the way they suggest (Lib Dem), the distribution of seats would not change: 4 for Labour, 2 for the Brexit Party, 1 each for the Tories and Lib Dems.

It’s worse than that, in fact. In what follows I use the ComRes/Electoral Calculus estimates (also used by Remain United):
  • Conservatives: 12%
  • Labour: 36%
  • Liberal Democrats: 10%
  • Change UK: 8%
  • Green Party: 7%
  • Brexit Party: 24%
  • Other: 3%
I assume that this is a good model in what follows. Using the d’Hondt method, the seats would be assigned as follows:
  • 1. Lab
  • 2. Brex
  • 3. Lab
  • 4=? Lab/Brex/Con (it's not possible to be more precise)
  • 7. Lib Dem
  • 8. Lab
All else being equal, in order for the Lib Dems to get 2 seats rather than 1 by soaking up votes from Change UK and the Greens, they’d have to get 18-19% of the 25% Remain party voters, virtually doubling their vote share. Realistically that won’t happen; and it isn’t possible for them to get 3 seats that way. The most that shuffling the Remain votes around like this can achieve is to win 2 seats, the second of which would be at Labour’s expense.

There is another way, however. The question to ask is: Starting from the projections, what is the minimal change that would need to be made in order to get 2 pro-Remain seats? The obvious answer is that Change UK are sitting on 8%, just below the 9-10% threshold they’d need to nab a seat from Labour. If they could grab another 1-2% from the Greens’ share, they could get that seat.

As a tactical voting recommendation, that’s probably not going to fly, however. A recent YouGov poll suggested that, of the three pro-Remain parties, Green voters are by far the least likely to compromise by voting for one of the others (and congrats if you’re a principled Green voter and have read this far). Change UK voters, on the other hand, are much happier to vote tactically, at least insofar as tactical voting is comparable to an anti-Brexit electoral pact. And in this connection it’s worth mentioning that the Greens have an established supporter base in the North West, and came very close to getting a seat in 2014.

The estimate puts the Greens on 7%, so if they can get another 2-3% from Change UK voters - or from Labour Remainers, who ought also to be shiftable - they could get a seat. To me, that seems the most achievable goal of the three.

It’s worth emphasizing, though, that all these scenarios involve the second Remain seat being pinched from Labour, not the Tories or the Brexit Party, who are the real hard Brexit flag-flyers. So at the end of the day it might not be worth it, depending on how you rank your personal principles. It’s also important that Lib Dems do get the seat they’re estimated to get, and that in itself is close. You wouldn’t have to massage the figures much for the Lib Dems to end up with no seats and the Brexit Party to pick up a third one (-2% Lib Dem, +2% Brexit Party would do it). So it’d be irresponsible to advise anyone who’s planning to vote Lib Dem to change their vote.

Saturday, February 09, 2019

A special place in hell for who?

European Council president Donald Tusk has been getting a lot of stick from Brexiteers recently for this comment:

Some on the Leave side have reacted angrily. Some on the Remain side have taken this reaction as a sign that they had no plan to begin with. For example:

James O'Brien is right about many things, but I don't think he's right about this. The crucial question is whether Tusk is describing all Brexit-promoters as having no plan (which is how I read it), or pointing only to those Brexit-promoters who had no plan (which is how James O'Brien read it). That's a linguistic question, and it has to do with how the prepositional phrase (PP) "without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely" is to be interpreted.

PPs within noun phrases can be interpreted in two different ways, just like relative clauses. They can be either restrictive or non-restrictive. Restrictive PPs pick out a particular subset of the people (or things) described by the unmodified noun phrase. Non-restrictive PPs add extra information about the people described by the unmodified noun phrase. Compare the following examples:

  1. The Brexiteers, who had no plan, are going to hell. (non-restrictive)
  2. The Brexiteers who had no plan are going to hell. (restrictive)
  3. The Brexiteers, with no plan, are going to hell. (non-restrictive)
  4. The Brexiteers with no plan are going to hell. (restrictive)

The first two examples involve relative clauses, and the last two involve PPs. In both cases it's the commas that make all the difference, at least if your intuitions are anything like mine. In the restrictive (2) and (4), only those Brexiteers who didn't have a plan are going to hell. In the non-restrictive (1) and (3), on the other hand, all the Brexiteers are going to hell, and in addition they're all described as not having a plan.

Looking again at Tusk's tweet, he used a comma, which suggests to me that the intended reading was the non-restrictive one. We can't be sure that was what he intended, of course: punctuation is one indicator, but it's not a particularly reliable guide to anything, especially on Twitter. But in the video version there's a pause, which also suggests a non-restrictive interpretation.

What's particularly interesting is that Tusk didn't actually assert that all Brexiteers had no plan, even under the non-restrictive reading. Non-restrictive modification is tricky like that: the information introduced by the non-restrictive phrase is backgrounded, which is one of the things that makes them particularly annoying to argue against.

Anyway, it's pretty clear that the point is mainly an academic one, since no one actually did have a plan for Brexit, either on the Leave or the Remain side (unless you count the weirdos and supervillains who were gunning for a no-deal Brexit all along; and even that arguably counts as not having a plan how to carry it out safely). But the broader point is that syntax and semantics are interesting! And hopefully I'll see you in that special place in hell that's reserved for people who turn serious political issues into fun linguistics problems. :)

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Ritter Sport Spring 2019

"Spring"? Well, these varieties were on the shelves on 1st February, so I guess so. The snow outside must just be an illusion.

We've had Johannisbeer-Streusel two years in a row, so no need to recapitulate its excellence (8.5/10). Buttermilch-Zitrone is also a well-known combo, though is more usually encountered during the summer months. Two new ones, though, one of which (Waffel) is not actually a spring variety, but a new addition to the regular line-up.

Haferkeks + Joghurt: 7/10
The crunch is very nice, but the yoghurt filling is not a favourite of mine, as it just tastes a bit too fake. So this one gets a compromise rating.

Waffel: 5/10
This one comes with a health warning: do not, under any circumstances, use the usual Knick-Pack technique to open this Ritter Sport. If you do, the whole package will explode, showering bits of waffle and chocolate everywhere. The structural unsoundness of this variety (plus the fact that I only ate about half of it, and the rest is still irretrievably lodged in dark corners of my sofa) contributes to my not-very-complimentary rating, which is probably unfair as far as taste and mouthfeel are concerned. Approach with caution.