Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

After nearly 10 years in operation, I’ve finally decided to disable comments on this website. My reasons are twofold:

First, I’ve been using Disqus for commenting since moving the site to Jekyll, as it’s the only option for dynamic comments on static pages. Since it’s a free service, Disqus sells information to advertisers and marketers and implements yet another form of user tracking, which you should probably be blocking anyways. So, although the service is free and works fine, I just didn’t care for that aspect.

More importantly, though, commenting just wasn’t being used that much. Although traffic here is surprisingly high (~1000 unique vists a day), I got something like one comment every two months, and even then, it was mostly people asking for help or asking questions.

So, given that there’s been little positive use for commenting, and some pretty severe privacy drawbacks, I’ve now switched off Disqus altogether.

If, in the future, you have questions, comments, or concerns on an article, just contact me, and if it makes sense to do so, I’ll edit the post or post a “letter to the editor” with your concerns, ideas, or comment!

Thanks to all those who have commented in the past, and to those who will continue to read (or email!) in the future.

~ ə ~

I just wanted to let everybody know that, after 3 months in the beta, and now using the Gold Master release version, OS X 10.11 “El Capitan” appears good to go for Linguistic work.

The OS is good, my previous tutorial on using IPA fonts with Mac OS X has been updated, my P2FA install guide still works, and Praat and R and LaTeX and everything else in my software toolkit are good-to-go.

In addition, to opine for a second, El Capitan, even in the Beta, has been far quicker and more stable than Yosemite, and is a good deal more resource-efficient. If you’ve not updated in a while, and your laptop supports it, I highly recommend you make the switch on September 30th, when it opens up to the public. It’s basically 10.10, but better. Nothing broken, lots fixed.

So, as a Linguist and a geek, Mac OS X 10.11 “Yosemite” gets my seal of approval.

Seal of Approval

~ ə ~

As I've continued to think about my teaching style and academic life, I keep thinking about some of the great teachers I’ve had in the past, and I want to show gratitude and share the people (and their actions) that changed who I am, academically and as a person.

Last time, I wrote an open letter to Mr. Morrow, a Math teacher who helped shape my style as a teacher. Today, an open letter to Kim Hinchey, who was one of the first people to encourage my passion for language.

Dear Sra. Hinchey,

You were my Spanish teacher for the last few years of Middle School. You weren’t my first Spanish teacher, and you weren’t my last. But you gave me a gift, and it stuck with me.

You probably remember that I was a little nerd. The kid always asking questions. Always wanting new words. Always wanting next week’s lesson today. And always frustrated that there was more to learn before I could actually talk in Spanish. That never really changed, and that’s probably why I kept in school forever.

Most of my language teachers didn’t handle that well. If I wanted to know how to say something different, maybe say that I might go to the park, or that I would, but I can’t, I’d go ask after class. But the answer was always “You’ll learn that next year” or “Oh, they’ll cover that in High School” or “Don’t worry about that yet.”.

This was really frustrating, because damnit, I wanted to speak Spanish, not repeat dialogues. I didn’t see why they’d teach us how to say “Pablo went to the park yesterday”, but not “Pablo will go to the park tomorrow”. I didn’t understand why they’d teach me to say “You stop.”, but not “Hey, You, Stop!”. But most of all, I resented the wall. Not just “Sorry, we’re not covering that until next month, look at Chapter 5 if you want to jump ahead”, but “No, I won’t teach you that. Focus on the dialogs from the chapter.”1

20 years later, I don’t remember much of Middle School. But I have moments that are clear as day.

One of these moments was after class, right before recess, standing by a bookshelf in the classroom. We’d just covered the compound future (“Voy a comprar un coche.”, ‘I’m going to buy a car’). But I’d heard there was another way to do the future (the ‘simple future’). And I went up to ask you about it. You explained that we’ll cover it next year, as all the other teachers did. But you went on. “Since you’re interested, though, I’ll make you a copy from the textbook for next year.”

A few minutes later (when I could have been at recess and you could have been eating), you handed me a piece of paper with a verb paradigm, showing the future tense forms for each person and class of verb. I may have been trying to act cool and not show it, but I was thrilled.

I had inside information! I could say something nobody else in class could. I could learn material on my own, and learn more about actually talking in Spanish. I went out on the playground, leaned against the building, and read over that sheet of paper like it had the solution to life, the universe, and everything on it. And I used that future tense, after class with you. At home. At work, a few years later. To this day, the simple future is my favorite Spanish verb tense2.

But the fact remains that I showed what a little language nerd I was, and you didn’t just dismiss it, or tell me to keep pace with the class, but instead, you encouraged me, and tossed fuel into the fire. And you kept encouraging me. Kept feeding me little bits of information based on questions. Kept filling in blanks, and letting me in on “secrets” we hadn’t learned yet. You even organized a school trip to Mexico, so I could actually try my Spanish with people who spoke Spanish every day.

I can’t blame you for my future life in language, as I probably would have ended up a linguist anyways, but you definitely got me going. You were one of few people to encourage me to push. And learn. And embrace my inner nerd. And for that, and for the Simple Future tense, I will be forever grateful.

Gracias, Sra. Hinchey

  1. This wasn’t just a rash of bad teachers in Middle School. It’s the same reason I dropped my Russian major in College. I wanted grammar and paradigms, but the instructors (and terrible textbooks) gave me dialog memorization a “non grammatical approach” to teaching grammar. This approach is about as effective for me as a non-swimming approach to teaching swimming.

  2. What, you don’t have a favorite Spanish verb tense?

~ ə ~

As many of you know, one of my hobbies is following advances in Cryptography. This makes sense to me, as Cryptography and Linguistics are oddly parallel (in ways that deserve their own post).

But one of the very best parts of Cryptography is how easy it is to do poorly. Given that I’m an amateur at best, I’m in an excellent position to do cryptography poorly, and thus, I’ve entered the Snake Oil Crypto Competition with my white-paper on Metalinguistically Hardened Caesar-Shift Encryption.

For those who don’t follow Crypto, it likely won’t be terribly funny (although there are several references to pigeons, who are usually at least entertaining). But hey, I had fun. And in information security, isn’t that what matters?

~ ə ~

As I continue to think about my teaching style and academic life, I keep thinking about some of the great teachers I’ve had in the past, and I want to show gratitude and share the people (and their actions) that changed who I am, academically and as a person.

What follows is an open letter to Rich Morrow, a teacher who I doubt will read it, but who influenced me considerably more than I would have ever admitted at the time.

Dear Mr. Morrow,

You taught my math classes in 4th, 5th and 6th grade at the “Challenge School” in Denver, Colorado, and you were so weird.

Your teaching was weird. Whereas most teachers were happy just writing on the board, you used elaborate overhead transparency overlays. Whereas most teachers just marked off answers on the page, you had us write all our answers on lines in the very edge of the page, then lined the 30 papers up on your desk, so you could grade each question with a single stroke of a pen, stopping the line only for incorrect answers. Whereas most teachers steamrolled ahead, you stopped. You would stop and bother people who looked confused, rather than moving on with the lesson, and seemed to actually care when somebody didn’t get it, because you clearly loved school, even though few of us did.

And you were such a strange person. You taught math, but you constantly talked about geology and nature. You peppered your class with weird anecdotes about the world, and just wouldn’t “stick to the subject”. And then, weirdest of all, you, a math teacher, arranged class trips to Moab, Utah, where you showed us Arches and Canyonlands national park, and parts of the backcountry that I would never have the guts to take 10 middle schoolers, but which are now among my favorite places on Earth.

I still remember the puns. You were a seemingly endless font of really awful groaners. During class, during hikes, and during recess (if you were within earshot), you provided a constant stream of puns so bad that I was in physical pain. I know that despite my eventual dedication to the art of punning, I will never match your ability to loose a terrible joke so bad it could stun a charging musk ox.

But the thing is, no matter how lame we thought you were, you simply didn’t care, because you genuinely loved what you did, and what you taught. You are geek, and we’d better believe we’re going to hear you roar. No shame, just math.

At the time, as a harbinger of math, I really didn’t much care for you. You taught me “useless” things while assuring us they’d be handy, and made me solve “silly” problems, and no matter how often I told you, you never remembered what X was. Not to mention that you just didn’t “fit the mold” as a teacher, with all those silly outside interests, those weird teaching techniques, and most of all, the constant stream of what I only now recognize to be humor. You were “so weird” and “so lame”, and so not what I wanted to do in my life.

Now, I’m doing statistics and mathematical modeling of speech for a living, and kind of needing all that silly math, like you promised. Like you, I am shameless in my geeking, wearing a Ph.D with pride, and taking as a great compliment a student’s assertion that I was “the nerdiest person she’d ever met”. I maintain a website dedicated to terrible puns. I still travel to Utah whenever I can, with a love of nature (and other non-language things), even though it’s “not my field”. And as I stand up in front of college classrooms and design tests to be graded, I find myself unconsciously using the same techniques you used for teaching, building assignments, and grading, only to realize later where I learned it.

Considering you’ve got the Rich Morrow Math Challenge named after you, and you apparently later became the principal of that school, clearly, others recognize your value and skill. But I always just thought of you as a weird Math guy who really liked school (for some reason), and really loved making his students suffer through Math. An odd memory, from an odd time, and somebody I’d never really “get”.

But this morning, 17 years later, I finally put 2 and 2 together1, and realized that despite my long time scorn and “not getting it”, you’re actually one of those handful of teachers in my past who shaped who I am as a teacher, academic, and probably a bit as a human.

So, in honor of my old math teacher, here I am, showing my gratitude by eating a big old slice of Humble Pi.

That one’s for you, Mr. Morrow.

  1. Sorry, couldn’t resist.

~ ə ~