I am a linguist who loves literature and who is fascinated by science. I quantify randomness. I paint. I travel in a power wheelchair, hoping to capture the ordinary.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Tree like music

création sur paysage
Originally uploaded by vivianeballez

The weeping willow was always my favorite tree, along with the blue spruce. There is something so delicate, fragile, and ephemeral about its silhouette. A paradox: a tree that is ready to be blown away. And it weeps...

The unexpected and the brain

In an article based on a study entitled "Unsupervised statistical learning underpins computational, behavioural, and neural manifestations of musical expectation", forthcoming in Neuroimage, ScienceDaily notes:

Music has a grammar, which, like language, consists of rules that specify which notes can follow which other notes in a piece of music. According to Pearce: "the question is whether the rules are hard-wired into the auditory system or learned through experience of listening to music and recording, unconsciously, which notes tend to follow others."

The researchers asked 40 people to listen to hymn melodies (without lyrics) and state how expected or unexpected they found particular notes. They simulated a human mind listening to music with two computational models. The first model uses hard-wired rules to predict the next note in a melody. The second model learns through experience of real music which notes tend to follow others, statistically speaking, and uses this knowledge to predict the next note.

The results showed that the statistical model predicts the listeners' expectations better than the rule-based model. It also turned out that expectations were higher for musicians than for non-musicians and for familiar melodies -- which also suggests that experience has a strong effect on musical predictions.
 Read more here.

One song that makes my brain feel a little tweaked by unexpectedness is "Conversations in Silence I":

Conversations In Silence I - Nashville Chamber Orchestra

Another piece that does this by (in my amateurish opinion) using the "end" note as a "beginning" is Schumann's "5 Stücke im Volkston, Op.102: 2. Langsam" (which starts at 3:20 in the video below). This one is much subtler than the one above in its unexpectedness. But it is enough to move me repeatedly.

If the "rules" of music are not "rules" at all, but rather the consolidation of experience, the nature of language, as sister to music ("Double dissociation between rules and memory in music"), seems clear: it is an accumulation of experience, not an imperfect activation of inherent rules. Linguists Joan Bybee and James McClelland argued for an experience-based model for language in their article, "Alternatives to the combinatorial paradigm of linguistic theory based on domain general principles of human cognition."

I wonder, then, if what "moves" us in music is also what "moves" us in language. Proust wrote of the breaking of habit, the intrusion of the unexpected, as the ticket to the richest memories, a cognitive flowering of the senses. Beckett viewed language as "a veil that must be torn apart in order to get at the things (or the Nothingness) behind it," and he wrote of wanting to bore holes in the language, to create something new (or new nothingness) (see Disjecta). And in Beckett's pitted and hole-filled texts, deep within the nothingness, lies a melancholy hopeless hope. It is like trying to think of what might be outside our universe, beyond where the big bang has expanded space.

Sometimes we encode concepts like unexpectedness into our grammars. See Leonard Talmy's work on the notion of "force dynamics" in language, and an article in Cognitive Linguistics on the grammatical marking of social unexpectedness in Spanish, "Quantitative measures of subjectification."

Our (at times perverse?) pleasure in the unexpected, despite our everyday hunger for structural predictability, gives us new eyes, new ears, and yes, over the centuries, new tongues.

Friday, January 15, 2010

by Aimé Césaire

such great stretches of dreamscape
such lines of all too familiar lines
                                         staved in
caved in so the filthy wake resounds with the notion
of the pair of us? What of the pair of us?
Pretty much the tale of the family surviving disaster:
“In the ancient serpent stink of our blood we got clear
of the valley; the village loosed stone lions roaring at our heels.”
Sleep, troubled sleep, the troubled waking of the heart
yours on top of mine chipped dishes stacked in the pitching sink
of noontides.
What then of words? Grinding them together to summon up the void
as night insects grind their crazed wing cases?
Caught caught caught unequivocally caught
caught caught caught
                     head over heels into the abyss
                     for no good reason
except for the sudden faint steadfastness
of our own true names, our own amazing names
that had hitherto been consigned to a realm of forgetfulness
itself quite tumbledown.

(Translated, from the French, by Paul Muldoon.)


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Bog bean : Menyanthes trifoliata

Another flower of whimsy... I hope to see it in real life one day.

Freedom, movement and pleasure

Feeling like a tree...
Originally uploaded by hajlana

Freedom means you are unobstructed in living your life as you choose. Anything less is a form of slavery. --Wayne Dyer

In the wake of the Haiti earthquake, it is hard to write about anything else. Upon seeing images of trapped bodies, dead and alive, on a small island, I can't help but think: they have no way out. So I'm thinking about movement as freedom, freedom as life, life as pleasure. Perhaps the last connection should not be made (it is generally naive). But for my purposes today, life as pleasure. (We'll leave Beckett out of this for now.)

In a recent article in French Studies, Ullrich Langer argues that the Renaissance poem offered pleasure because the poem was a landscape without constraints. All we ever want is to be able to sail away.

I am full of wanderlust, always. (I like something about the lady in this video; I find her rendition of this song touching. See lyrics.)

The trip is not always perfect, but the loneliness of human nature is less cruel when discoveries are being made.Joni Mitchell's entire album Hejira is about journeying.

To donate to help the trapped people of Haiti, here are some suggestions:

Grassroots International
Partners in Health
Haiti Emergency Relief Fund

I leave you with a 1962 video of Katherine Dunham, an American ethnologist and dancer in Haiti, who fell in love with the dances associated with Haitian vodou. After a brief interview (in French), you can see the dancing.

    retrouver ce média sur www.ina.fr

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Little Things | FlowingData

How our age correlates with our reaction to little things... Why do I get the feeling that I'm on both sides of the curve at once?

Data Underload #4 – Little Things | FlowingData


I'm not one to think of myself as a softy, but I'm certainly in a whimsical mood today. What evokes the whimsical in me? That funny sweet feeling of tender other-worldliness? Here are some tastes, sounds, texts, and other elements that pull me that direction:

Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum) flowers.I have never seen them in real life, and am sure they cannot grow in Florida since they are hardy through zone 4 only, but I imagine that if fairies were to have a garden, this would surely grow there.

The smell of old homes warmed by the sun and enclosure, perfumed by the lives of women who have inhabited them for decades: layer upon layer of richness contrasted with the fresh, cool air of early spring. Proust, in his À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), writes of such rooms, such smells:

C'étaient de ces chambres de province qui—de même qu'en certains pays des parties entières de l'air ou de la mer sont illuminées ou parfumées par des myriades de protozoaires que nous ne voyons pas—nous enchantent des mille odeurs qu'y dégagent les vertus, la sagesse, les habitudes, toute une vie secrète, invisible, surabondante et morale que l'atmosphère y tient en suspens; odeurs naturelles encore, certes, et couleur du temps comme celles de la campagne voisine, mais déjà casanières, humaines et renfermées gelée exquise, industrieuse et limpide de tous les fruits de l'année qui ont quitté le verger pour l'armoire; saisonnières, mais mobilières et domestiques, corrigeant le piquant de la gelée blanche par la douceur du pain chaud, oisives et ponctuelles comme une horloge de village, flâneuses et rangées, insoucieuses et prévoyantes, lingères, matinales, dévotes, heureuses d'une paix qui n'apporte qu'un surcroît d'anxiété et d'un prosaïsme qui sert de grand réservoir de poésie à celui qui les traverse sans y avoir vécu. L'air y était saturé de la fine fleur d'un silence si nourricier, si succulent, que je ne m'y avançais qu'avec une sorte de gourmandise, surtout par ces premiers matins encore froids de la semaine de Pâques où je le goûtais mieux parce que je venais seulement d'arriver à Combray: avant que j'entrasse souhaiter le bonjour à ma tante, on me faisait attendre un instant dans la première pièce où le soleil, d'hiver encore, était venu se mettre au chaud devant le feu, déjà allumé entre les deux briques et qui badigeonnait toute la chambre d'une odeur de suie, en faisait comme un de ces grands " devants de four " de campagne, ou de ces manteaux de cheminée de châteaux, sous lesquels on souhaite que se déclarent dehors la pluie, la neige même quelque catastrophe diluvienne pour ajouter au confort de la réclusion la poésie de l'hivernage; je faisais quelques pas du prie-Dieu aux fauteuils en velours frappé, toujours revêtus d'un appui-tête au crochet; et le feu cuisant comme une pâte les appétissantes odeurs dont l'air de la chambre était tout grumeleux et qu'avait déjà fait travailler et " lever " la fraîcheur humide et ensoleillée du matin, il les feuilletait, les dorait, les godait, les boursouflait, en faisant un invisible et palpable gâteau provincial, un immense "chausson" où, à peine goûtés les arômes plus croustillants, plus fins, plus réputés, mais plus secs aussi du placard, de la commode, du papier à ramages, je revenais toujours avec une convoitise inavouée m'engluer dans l'odeur médiane, poisseuse, fade, indigeste et fruitée du couvre-lit à fleurs. --Marcel Proust

He died in 1922. See this video from 1962 (in French), which discusses his unique legacy. 

Forget-me-nots, humble little blue flowers of the north. I remember seeing them as a kid in Oregon, growing like weeds on the side of the road. They were a sweet melancholy kind of flower, small, simple, in primary colors. Yet not wanting to be forgotten. Reminding us to pay attention to the everyday fantastical.

Joni Mitchell's "Amelia" has a funny chord at the end of each verse. Joni is known for her strange chords, but this one always has moved me. When I hear it, I feel like something inside my chest is being pleasantly twisted.

Ice cream bean fruit, or Pacai, which became my most sought-after fruit after trying it in Mexico. This funny pod has large black seeds covered in what looks like fuzzy white cotton. As the name indicates, the white fuzz is creamy and sweet. So good and otherworldly! See more of Dave's images here. In Puebla they call it something else, but I can't remember the name anymore.

Spanish moss at sunset, when it glows orange or pink. This was one of the phenomena that most amazed me when I moved to Florida. I remember looking up at the trees and exclaiming, "What in the world is that?" It seemed like something out of a horror flick, but then, like something out of a dreamland.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


Your soul is a dark forest. But the trees are of a particular species, they are genealogical trees. --Marcel Proust

A part of what was lost nearly a century ago now, along with my Cousin Benjamin (see previous post), in my family's migration to the New World (new only for some, of course), was the little language of Yiddish. My grandmother (pictured on right) grew up with this language, but like nearly all first-generation US-born children, taught only English to my mother and her other children. She has told me that this loss was not an easy one: rocks were thrown at her as she walked to primary school, the funny Jewish girl with the even funnier tongue.

The origins of Yiddish are the subject of some debate,and speakers struggle to maintain the language itself.

Let me come close to the joy of the Yiddish word
Give me whole days and nights of it
Weave me, bind me into it
Feed me crumbs, with the crows
I’ll sleep on a hard bed
Under a leaky roof
Just don’t let me forget the Yiddish word
For a single Moment

-Jacob Glatstein, 1961

Click here to listen to excerpts of Yiddish read out loud. Yiddish-speakers, of course, are not the only ones fighting to maintain their language. (image above found here)

Why preserve a language that is dying? Wouldn't it be easier if we all spoke in the same way?

National Poet of Wales Gwyneth Lewis addresses this point nicely:

You can read more of her work here. Our languages, like our bodies, are richly diverse. It is only through memory that we may hope to avoid the mistakes of our ancestors, and in language and body, memory is held.


My maternal grandmother's family came to New York from Poland before WWII, an orthodox Jewish family who found a new home just before it was too late. One cousin, however, cousin Benjamin, was not allowed entry into the United States. Benjamin had a hunched back, and used a cane to walk. When I was little, I saw a picture of him in my grandmother's old photo album. Yes! Someone like me. I was excited to see that I was not the first in our family to have a different kind of body. He was wearing a suit and tie, a young lad with a dark beard. I asked what happened to him. I was told that he died young. Was he sick? Yes, they said, he was sick.

A decade later, "old enough" to handle the truth, I was informed that Cousin Benjamin had been murdered by Nazis during the Holocaust. Unacceptable as an American citizen, he was returned to Hilter. The disabled were among the first to be killed, as the most obviously undesirable kind of human (image found at A Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust). I was appalled that my own country (surely in its intellectual and moral infancy) had made such a mistake. Yet it appears that this same practice continues today in Canada.

While Benjamin's story will always stand out in my mind, denial of the human right of mobility through migration (especially but not only to escape violence) is only one of many ways disabled folks are "dumped." William J. Peace writes:

"Wheelchair dumping is the antithesis of inclusion. Disability rights activists coined the term inclusion over the well-known concept mainstreaming. For nearly two decades disabled people have fought to be included, their existence valued. This effort has met stiff resistance -- especially in the court and educational system. Disability rights activists have fought for inclusion because it reflects the idea that all members of society are equal and capable. In theory this idea is accepted but rarely if ever put into practice. It's easier and cheaper to ignore the rights of disabled people and "dump" all those who don't fit in. In the past we had institutions to dump people into -- most of which were closed in the 1980s, thanks to Ronald Reagan. In their place we have a host of inaccessible facilities, like my local police station, or other government facilities, many of which contain "resource rooms". The vast majority of these rooms accomplish what institutions once did -- segregate those that are not wanted. It is easier for institutions such as public schools to "dump" all children with learning disabilities into a "resource room" than include them in classrooms with other children. If the parent or child balks, they can deem the child disruptive and the district can literally force the child out of the district and into "special programs". It is up to the parent to hire experts and prove their child is not a disruption to other students. To me, this is the legacy that Reagan should be known for because he took dumping to an extreme -- especially for those with mental illnesses who were dumped on urban street corners across the country." (from "The Outrage is Misplaced: Wheelchair Dumping", 2008) 

We also have the questions of abortion, which I was lucky enough to escape because technology did not detect the shape of my body in utero, institutionalization, which was recommended for me on the day I was born (also narrowly escaped), and sterilization (which was unsuccessfully pushed upon me at the age of 12 in 1990). Just as Cousin Benjamin was worth more dead (valued at zero) than alive (negative value), I was reminded of my "selfishness" in keeping organs that I should never use. Never mind my love for writing, my talent with languages, my artwork; none of this could make up for the undesirability of my body, a reproductive catastrophe. Now a linguistics professor, I am reminded yet again that my mind is not enough to make me human: I should not think to try to build a life in another country. These phenomena are not of a distant past at all.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Beauty in numbers

Lovely article in New Scientist:

'Most beautiful' math structure appears in lab for first time - physics-math - 07 January 2010 - New Scientist

Connectedness and category formation

My reflections on Teresa Brennan's Transmission of Affect have taken a (not-so-unpredictable) turn toward the linguistic. Surely I am attracted to this model of affect and humanity (interconnectedness, touching without touching) for the same reasons I find usage-based models of language much more palatable. A formal model (continuing the analogy) would posit separate human bodies, each autonomous actors, though with rules of co-occurrence, causation, etc. Nothing personal against Aristotle and his categories (image from Knowledge Representation Book), but it just doesn't feel right. Things are not this or that. Things are this and that. Sometimes what constitutes "this" and what constitutes "that" is debatable, even among the most highly informed.

OK, not only does it not feel right. The evidence suggests (convincingly) that it is not right, not in language, not in cognition. See, just to name a few, Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition, Phonology and Language Use, Regularity in Semantic Change, and Usage-Based Models of Language. In these models, units are not self contained. There is the commonplace but mind-blowing evidence of priming at all levels, in semantics and syntax. There are the strikingly similar cross-linguistic paths toward abstract meanings. Everything is connected, shared and moving. 

Why would anything else in human consciousness be any different?

The ephemeral and empathy

Les gens ne disent pas des textes. Ce ne sont pas des textes. Ils parlent, tout simplement. Et vite ils oublient ce qu’ils ont dit, qui d’ailleurs ne compte pas : ils n’ont parlé que pour parler ; leurs paroles ne sont que prétextes pour parler nous-même, c’est ainsi depuis que va le monde et ce sera ainsi jusqu’à sa fin. ("Il se souvint du minium", Bernard Deglet)

I am tempted most of the time to believe this, that we are disconnected self-centered insecure beings whom mortality dooms to be pointless and whose very nature of self-as-center allows our one possible contribution beyond this life to slip into the ephemeral. Your words are just an intonation unit of waiting, and at the first hint of a chance to take my turn I will hit the floor running. Conversation as masturbation, not as intercourse. We seek out company merely for self-mirroring validation?

But no! There is something precious and painful about being near others. We are something bigger, and our empathy, ephemeral, contributes somehow. Floats out between us, within us. I have to believe that. There is evidence presented in the posthumous work of Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect, that we are not self-contained in the ways that we tend to believe.

Chally, at her blog Zero at the Bone, comments that, with disability, "I no longer trust that people will stick by me when things get inconvenient, when being my friend gets messy; that I’ll get the support I need." True. But I've been lucky. There are those few who stick around through the mess and still look me in the eyes. So few, these folks, that my gratitude may seem in unfortunate disproportion to the facts. Wipe my ass for free, speak to me in soft languages, and allow me to offer some reciprocation, some comfort in return, when your life gets messy. And there I am, bursting with all of my Leo loyalty.

At the memorial service I attended yesterday, one of these few in my life was among the principal mourners. Front and center. Those who usually see only sourness in her walked single file to greet her, touch her hair, hold her in circumstantially loving embrace. I sat midway back, parked in my wheelchair, the space small and cumbersome. She came back to greet me, touched my fingertips because I moved my arm to reach for her. Gratitude and sorrow a heavy pearl in my heart. My frustration was paramount. I could not wrap my arms around her. So I locked onto her gaze. Not just waiting for my turn to start. Just waiting. Dr. Brennan believed that empathetic reactions were just as real (and reliable?) as chemical reactions: "The origin of transmitted affects is social in that these affects do not only arise within a particular person but also come from without. They come via an interaction with other people and an environment. But they have a physiological impact" (Brennan 2004:3). I hope she was right. That we can touch without touching.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Little things

The fastest velocity is a dead stop. I learned that from Sam Beckett, maybe in "The Unnamable"? I can't remember. But there comes a point when the extreme expression of a quality becomes everything it appeared not to be. It circles around and begins/ends again.

Lately it is magnitude, in my life, that has caught my attention in its paradoxicality. My recent posts have focused on the minute: one moment recorded by a fallible frail memory, one touch of flesh (how do we measure touch, anyway?), one wary root wrapping ever more tightly around a crumbling rock-turned-sand. Of no importance to anyone, unnoticed, unnamed. Yet filling my throat and my soul and spilling out of me as text as the center of some universe I have built for myself. And this universe is not a shabby one; these nothings are everything. To me. Right now. But step back, and they are nothing again. Not visible, not seizable. Forgettable? C'est pas la peine.

"Better hope deferred than none. Up to a point. Till the heart starts to sicken. Company too up to a point. Better a sick heart than none. Till it starts to break. So speaking of himself he concludes for the time being, For the time being leave it at that." Company, Beckett

Our planet, she is magnificent:

Yet she is tiny, humble, nothing:

Nothing, and everything. Love, too, is like this, I think.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


Originally uploaded by Jane_W
What does this feel like? How many times can roots grow?

Death and affect in the sub-tropics

One difficult thing about living in Florida--over three years now--is my sensation that the roots are missing. Instead, I find myself in a pulsating jungle, where the life and death smell hot and shocking for a Northwestern sapling gone astray. (image, right, from "History & Images of North Florida", Images, D. Penney, 2003") Lizards scurry in front of shuffling feet; armadillos lie, furry bellies exposed, shells cracked and bleeding; irises pop up out of sidewalk cracks; moss hangs orange in the setting sun. Grasshoppers as big as my hand. Owls, hawks and vultures. Spiders. Waiting for the inevitable. Nothing lasting long enough to resist the next hurricane. Uprooted, start again.

The relationships to people, too, here, feel that way. Only after these three years, do I feel roots entangled in mine, have I made connections that do not feel haphazard. (Am I talking about the fibers in Avatar? Maybe.) Yet affect has sprouted from the sandiest regions of my heart; I have better things to do than grow roots in this little landing strip! Even when we know it is all temporary, we can't help ourselves from clinging to the nearest solid bit around.

This week, my friend's young step-daughter died, circumstances unclear. Alone. Death in Florida, and one of my solid bits is crumbling beside me/within me. I hold on by growing deeper roots around the one left living. Holding off the inevitable.

Another recent death, much more distant in terms of relationships but much closer in terms of personal identification, was that of the singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt. This week, his tune "Florida" feels particularly apt:

Suicide is not for me right now. The balance of affect and intolerability still weighs in on the side of staying around to see what happens, of not blowing away too soon, uprooting lives attached to mine.