Thursday, December 31, 2009

The 11th day of Winter

The winter solstice is, technically, not the shortest day of the year, but the brief instant at which the Earth's axial tilt is farthest away from the sun; this occurred on Dec. 21, at 17:47 UTC. More colloquially, it is the day on which this instant occurs, which is commonly known as the first day of winter. So, today is the 11th day of Winter. The solstice can occur at varying times; in 2006, it happened 22 minutes after midnight UTC, according to the USNO. The solstice being an instant rather than a day can be a source of some confusion, as when pagans celebrate the solstice on the wrong day, showing up at Stonehenge a day early (since it seems Stonehenge observes the first sunrise after the moment of the solstice).

Measuring this precise moment is difficult for non-astronomers, but ancient peoples built many structures aligned with the changing position of the rising or setting sun throughout the year. The summer solstice is easier to determine using their methods than the winter, because around the winter solstice, the "sun stands still". More modern instruments can use this phenomena, the analemma, in an analemma calendar.

This New Year's Eve will also see the second full moon in the month of December, a "blue moon" (1, 2, 3, 4). The next winter solstice, on December 21, 2010, will feature a total lunar eclipse visible in all stages throughout North America.

I reckon everyone will celebrate the end of the Aughties tonight, since 2010 begins in a few hours. Of course, the 10th year is the final year in a set of ten years; 2010 is the last year of the first decade of the 21st century, and the second decade begins in 2011. We begin counting with the number 1, not the number zero. But the common parlance will have tonight as the end of the Aughties, and (not being a fan of the decade) I'd say we should move on to a new one sooner than later.

Happy New Year!


Saw "Avatar" yesterday. I'd been planning not to, because I surmised that the story was pretty terrible (boring, unimaginative dialogue and plotline that's a patronizing fantasy of white guilt), even if the graphics would be so amazing as to change the industry. I decided to see it after seeing it compared to "Dune meets Fern Gully": too weird to miss. It was fun, but the movie started to lose me somewhere in the inexplicably flying mountains, or when Na'vi begin having hair sex with animals.

Thinking on it further, it seems like one of the main reasons the Na'vi couldn't mount an effective response without Jake Sully's help is that our hero, who had primary responsibility to negotiate their relocation from the Home Tree, failed to even inform the Na'vi of the Sky People's goals in negotiation until armed gunships were poised to launch a surprise attack. Sully's failure to even begin pursuit of a diplomatic solution is what left the Na'vi so utterly unprepared. Although one might imagine that sniping the human soldiers with poisonous arrows might have been a more effective plan than a cavalry charge into machine gun fire.

Before I saw the movie, though, I had been thinking that the movie would be a flop, and the idea that Na'vi would be a new Klingon was badly overambitious. Now, though, I have a fear that it will be taken up in earnest...but by furries and creepily hot catgirls.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

37 Languages

Perusing the Anthropologist in the Attic, I happened on 37 Languages, written by a fellow Louisvillian. This blogger is reviewing a substantial number of languages as part of a process to settle on one that he would like to learn fluently.

I don't know if it's really a great way of going about this, but the project has captured my attention for some reason. His approach is relatively systematic, examining each language one by one, and relatively intensive, doing some of the work of studying the language seriously (such as learning to read and write its script). But his criteria is also idiosyncratic and aesthetic, and that subjective aesthetic assessment of a variety of languages is interesting. Maybe it's merely that, instead of learning some ~about~ the languages he might want to speak, he's learning some ~of~ those languages. If a smattering only.

Gaining a passing familiarity with a foreign language is fairly easy, but gaining fluency is fairly difficult: you have to master a different sound system, internalize a number of rules, develop strong fluency and listening comprehension, and memorize some tens of thousands of lexical items. It's a lot of work, usually for only occasional or intangible benefits; the ten-thousand-hour hypothesis may be relevant. Developing real fluency takes sustained learning over a period of years, during which time interests will shift and motivation will wax and wane. A language you choose to learn should be one that'll you'll be able to maintain a high level of motivation and interest in for a long time. The process of choosing a language is important, and it's probably an area that prospective language students don't spend enough effort on.

In terms of developing future fluency in natural languages, I'm probably limited by a certain path dependence: I've attained a certain proficiency in Japanese, which I would like to maintain and extend, which is fairly laborious. And the practical merits of Spanish will likely make it my next main target. But examining languages in the way that the 37 Languages blog has seems like taking "language vacations" away from my main interests, which sounds like fun.

So. If I were to do something like this, what languages would I nominate? Probably something like: Old English, Latin, Coptic, Greek, Hindi, Farsi, Icelandic, Frisian, Armenian, Spanish, Welsh, Irish, Gaelic, Cornish, Czech, Russian, Evenki, Ainu, Tibetan, Korean, Hungarian, Turkish, Tatar, Tuvan, Mongol, Arabic, Kriol, Fon, Khoekhoe, Iñupiaq, Hawaiian, Myaamia, Chickasaw, a Dhegiha Siouan language, Cherokee, Caddo, Nahuatl, and Quechua.

That's 38. Lots of those languages sound as if they'd be great to visit, even if I couldn't live there. The list includes some widely varied languages, and a few clusters of closely related languages, which seems like a good way to pick between competing options. The main things to overview would be some background; obvious hurdles; phonology and orthography; cultural, linguistic, and aesthetic appeal; and educational resources.

The Internet has heralded such a golden age of language learning opportunities; it's like the opposite of the Tower of Babel. And helps information about language revitalization spreading over the globe.

A nice discussion of "Difficult languages" at Language Log.

Monday, December 14, 2009

A River of Stars in a Dark Sky

In Japanese, the Milky Way is known as "天の川 (あまのがわ)", the River of Heaven, because it appears as a mighty river of stars flowing through the night sky. Every summer, people celebrate "Tanabata", a festival that recognizes this phenomena.

Long ago, there was a princess named Vega, who was the daughter of the king of heaven. Every day, she went to the banks of the Milky Way River to weave clothes for her father. But since she worked so hard, she was very lonely. One day, she met a cowboy tending his herd on the other side of the river. His name was Altair, and they fell in love and soon got married. But after they were married, the princess didn't weave clothes for her father, and the cowboy let his animals wander all over the sky. This made Vega's father angry, so he banished Altair to the other side of the river to separate the couple. Each of the pair could only sit on opposite sides of the river and look wistfully at each other. But on one night every year, on the seventh night of the seventh month, the pair of stars are allowed to meet one another, since a flock of magpies agreed to form a bridge over the river with their wings.

This phenomena is hard to see, because of pervasive light pollution in the developed world, the extent of which is apparent in maps of Earth's city lights. In most cities, light pollution is so severe that only the very brightest starts are faintly visible, while in truly dark areas, the light of the Milky Way can cast a visible shadow.

The International Dark Sky Association advocates against light pollution. There are a few locations in the eastern US designated as a dark sky preserve, including Cherry Springs State Park in northern Pennsylvania. The park has annual star parties that attract hundreds of astronomers, which began in the late 1990s when individual hobbyists noticed an isolated black patch on nighttime satellite photos.

Similar maps can be seen at the World Atlas of Artificial Night Sky Brightness. One of the largest patches of dark skies in the eastern US appears to be in eastern West Virginia in the Monongahela National Forest. This area is the heart of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, which has the world's largest fully steerable radio telescope in a radio quiet zone at Green Bank, WV.

For nearer places, the DarkSky Finder is a Java application that works in Firefox. Near Louisville, the darkest sites are southwest of Leavenworth, IN, in the southeastern portion of the Hoosier National Forest and across the river in the corresponding section of Kentucky. There is a slightly darker area immediately west of Hazard, KY, around Buckhorn Lake (an area with a high incidence of communities with interesting names). There are some maps and brochures of the Daniel Boone National Forest for this area; the Redbird Crest Trail, especially the eastern side, is in the middle of this dark spot. The topo maps could useful as well; 17 is Buckhorn Lake; 44 shows the area around Thousandsticks west of Hyden; and the Redbird Crest Trail is on 11 and 28, centered on Creekville.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Multiparty democracy in parliamentary systems

Matthew Yglesias points out Clay Risen's reflection on the recent German election and Germany's experience with multiparty coalition democracy, although Yglesias and his many commenters note some problems with the piece.

But as American liberals tend to wistfully wish for a system more like Germany's, with multiparty coalition politics in the context of a parliamentary system or proportional representation, it's healthy to have a splash of cold water now and then. I certainly wouldn't endorse the view that the American two-party system is the best possible, but I tend to think that electoral fusion is a likelier and possibly more productive way for third parties to coexist in American politics than the electoral system underlaying Germany's party system.

German Lessons: Germany is a vibrant parliamentary democracy, yet its body politic is asleep. ...Next to European health care and European urban planning, the aspect of European life for which liberal Americans pine most often is the continent’s parliamentary politics. Whenever I run down the litany of niche German political parties–alongside the Greens, the FDP, and the Linke, there’s the Animal Protection Party, the new-age Violet Party, and the Retired People’s Party, among others–for left-leaning American friends, they sigh and say, "I wish." Parties that actually represent people’s interests? Coalitions built on cross-party compromise, rather than ideological stone walls? Wouldn’t that be great, they say. ...After seeing German politics up close, I’ll take my two-party system, thank you very much.

...Clinton’s welfare reforms of the 1990s also produced enormous disagreement on the left. But because there was nowhere for dissenting factions to go, they had to fight it out internally–and, over time, these centripetal forces created a new consensus, which formed the basis for Barack Obama’s ride into the White House and the backbone of support for his progressive agenda. The German left, on the other hand, simply picked up its toys and went to play elsewhere, thanks to the centrifugal forces of the parliamentary system. The result is a rump center-left, an eco-centric postmaterialist left, and a self-righteous neo-Marxist far-left, none of which had anything constructive to say during the recent economic crisis, a time when, typically, left-wing, pro-government parties are needed most.

The constant proliferation of parties is an expression of the system’s shortcomings, not its strengths; rather than adapt to sociopolitical changes, as America’s does, it fragments. ...The problem is that the big decisions in contemporary politics–climate change, global terrorism, international financial reform–demand a policymaking coherence and stability that only broad-based, pragmatic parties like America’s can provide. Not surprisingly, big changes, particularly on climate, are increasingly passed up the ladder to the EU, where less transparent, less democratic bodies can make the tough decisions that national parliaments can’t.

This post is probably the best place to link to Yglesias on The Real German Resistance to Hitler: The Social Democrats and Hendrik Hertzberg on the history of the German Social Democratic Party.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

SRS after three weeks

So, three weeks in, and I still think this SRS stuff is pretty cool. Even though I started reviewing even the most basic Japanese, I've polished up a recollection of Japanese postpositions of motion that I hadn't realized had gotten so weak. Starting with Japanese vocab and sentences that are relatively easy, as well as stuff that needed review, studying the flashcards has been fun.

It's fairly easy to make flashcards that review front and back, so that (for example) you're testing your understanding of the phrase from Japanese to English and from English to Japanese. Creating the cards to do this is a little different from the introductory instructional screencast video, possibly because Anki is frequently updated. I'm using Anki with the Japanese plugin. To create forward and reverse cards in the Basic model, choose "Cards: Forward, Reverse" before you create in the cards. In the Japanese model, make sure it's set to "Recognition, Recall".

My strategy is essentially based on sentence mining, studying grammar and vocabulary in full sentences (even if it is something as basic as "This is a chair"/"Iste es un sedia"/"これはいすです"), and say the phrase on each card aloud in the target language before I check and score it. For Interlingua, I've created Forward and Reverse cards focusing on vocab and sentences from "Curso de interlingua pro comenciantes anglophone"; I've gotten through the first four lessons in three weeks at the default settings (20 new cards a day). For Japanese, I've created Recognition and Recall cards for model sentences and vocab from "しんにほんごのきそ I" and "漢字マスター, Vol. 1: 4級漢字100, 100 Kanji in 10 Days, The Easy Way". In three weeks, I've gotten through two lessons of each book. At this rate, I'll finish the Interlingua text in about four weeks, the kanji text in 12 weeks, and the Japanese grammar book over a period of several more months.

The workload is pretty managable. As long as I study every day, reviewing the flashcards doesn't take more than about ten to 15 minutes. Making cards does take some time, but spending an hour or two once a week usually creates enough cards for the rest of the week. I'm working on two decks, which means I'm spending twice as much time reviewing cards.

So, for example, on December 1, I spent 13 minutes reviewing 86 cards, which was pretty typical. Then I spent a few days away from the computer, so when I came back on December 5, I had to spend 38 minutes reviewing 243 cards (with some modest distractions). On December 6, I spent 9 minutes reviewing 60 cards; on December 7, I spent 14 minutes reviewing 90 cards; and today I spent 5 minutes reviewing 39 cards, because I had run out of new cards.

I can see the need, apart from SRS, to create a language-immersion environment for yourself. This method doesn't teach you to think in the target language, or teach fluency or creativity. However, I always found memorization through flashcards to be rather a chore; this is more like a game. And making memorization of vocab relatively fun is both remarkable and useful.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

"The most beautiful toy in the world"

The Lousy Linguist is amused by this rather breathless profile of Paul R. Frommer, who created the Na'vi language for the film "Avatar".

"In fact, the average second year grad student in linguistics can do it, and typically they do, just for fun," Chris notes. Indeed. But that bar is too high; anyone can "create a language." Many conlangers began when they were children, including some fairly well-known ones; it's just harder to create something that's interesting to other people, or not merely a relexified English when English is the only language you can think in; and people with exposure to more languages can have a broader view of the variety of options.

To be fair, it sounds like much of the story's enthusiasm comes from Frommer, who (it seems) had a blast with this. A U.S.O. interview gives some more detail on the language (ejective consonants, infixing, and tripartite alignment) [EDIT: See also the NYT story Skxawng!, and the NPR interview with Frommer].

There appear to be few or no consonant clusters in the names of the film's Na'vi characters, to judge by IMDB. It sounds like Frommer is interested in further developing and releasing more information on the language, which is a good sign. Marc Okrand's instructional video on how to speak Atlantean on the "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" DVD was great fun.

The comments of this LanguageHat consideration of the most interesting language points us to this lovely quote: "I was fallen in love beyond limites with languages, for, as the renowned Italian Orientalist Alessandro Bausani told, languages are 'the most beautiful toy of the world.'"

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Electoral fusion in Kentucky law

I looked up some time ago where the Kentucky electoral law bans electoral fusion in this state, and then misplaced the link. It's KRS 118.405: No candidate's name shall appear on any voting machine or absentee ballot more than once, except that a candidate's name may appear twice if he is a candidate for a primary or a regular election and also a candidate to fill a vacancy in the same office required to be filled at a special election, when the special election to fill a vacancy is scheduled for the regular election day.

KRS 118.015 provides some definitions: A "political party" is an affiliation or organization of electors representing a political policy and having a constituted authority for its government and regulation, and whose candidate received at least twenty percent (20%) of the total vote cast at the last preceding election at which presidential electors were voted for; "Political organization" means a political group not constituting a political party...but whose candidate received two percent (2%) or more of the vote of the state at the last preceding election for presidential electors; and..."Political group" means a political group not constituting a political party or a political organization... KRS 118.105 informs us that any political organization not constituting a political party as defined in KRS 118.015 may make its nominations as provided in KRS 118.325. And it appears that KRS 118.345, preventing defeated primary candidates from having their name on a regular election ballot, would prevent something like what Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman did in 2008.

According to the 2008 Kentucky election results, Independent Ralph Nader received 0.8% of the vote, Libertarian Party nominee Bob Barr received 0.3% of the vote, and Constitution Party nominee Chuck Baldwin received 0.3% of the vote.

Why don't we have third parties anymore? The history of electoral fusion

I was looking into the history of the end of electoral fusion in Kentucky, and it seems that the Ohio River Valley was particularly significant in the end of electoral fusion and, consequently, the decline of third parties in American politics. Here are selections from a couple of monographs; RTWT. The "Australian ballot" is the secret ballot, printed at public expense. Previously, voters would use ballots printed by individual political parties.

Duverger's Law, Fusion, and the Decline of American "Third" Parties, by Howard A. Scarrow (The Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 4 (Dec., 1986), pp. 634-647):
During the latter half of the 19th century fusion candidacies were frequent at all levels of government. At the presidential level the first example is found in the election of 1856, when the American (Know-Nothing) party and the Whig party both backed the third party candidacy of Millard Fillmore. ...The last conspicuous example of a presidential fusion candidacy was that of William Jennings Bryan, who was the candidate of both the Democratic party and the Populist party in 1896.

...The introduction of the Australian ballot in the last decade of the century sounded the initial death knell for fusion candidates. The introduction of this ballot reform presented minor parties with the obstable of now having to gain access to the ballot by means of petition signatures, a burden not placed on parties which could gain automatic ballot access by virtue of having attracted a large number of votes in a previous election—that is, the two major parties. The decline of third parties in the United States has thus often been traced in part to this aspect of ballot reform. There was, however, another feature of the new ballot laws which has received insufficient attention... the new ballot laws presented a way for states to outlaw fusion candidacies. When the party-column type of ballot was authorized, the law could require that a candidate's name appear at only one place on the ballot. Where the office-block ballot format was introduced, the legislation could specify that a candidate have only one party label attached to his name on the ballot. By 1895 six states had enacted one of the other of these restrictions. By 1900 the list had grown to thirteen; by 1910 to twenty.

...From their very inception, anti-fusion laws were challenged in the courts by aggrieved candidates. Almost invariably, however, state courts refused to support the argument that the laws violated the respective state constitutions.

...Dissenting opinions, however, used equally righteous language to defend the fusion practice. Fusion candidacies, it was argued, were often the only way of defeating an entrenched and corrupt political machine. They also provided a healthy antidote to narrow partisanship; and they increased voter interest. In only one state, New York, did these latter opinions prevail. In 1911 that state's highest court struck down an anti-fusion statue which had been pushed through the legislature by Tammany forces stung by successful fusion campaigns in New York City.

It should be noted that electoral fusion was used in the 1933 election of Republican Fiorella LaGuardia and the eventual demise of Tammany Hall.

"A Place on the Ballot": Fusion Politics and Antifusion Laws, by Peter H. Arsinger (The American Historical Review, 85:2, April 1980, pp. 287-306): least one little-known development in the electoral reform of the 1890s involved a conscious effort to shape the political arena by disrupting opposition parties, revising traditional campaign and voting practices, and ensuring Republican hegemony--all under the cover of procedural reform. This development was the adoption of the so-called antifusion laws, which also altered the political behavior characteristic of the Gilded Age, with varying effects on the role of third parties, modes of political participation, and the electoral process itself.

Fusion, or the electoral support of a single set of candidates by two or more parties, constituted a significant feature of late nineteenth-century politics, particularly in the Midwest and West, where full or partial fusion occurred in nearly every election. ...if fusion sometimes helped destroy individual third parties, it helped maintain a significant third party tradition by guaranteeing that dissenters' votes could be more than symbolic protest, that their leaders could gain office, and that their demands might be heard.

...Nationally, the Republican success in 1894 led to the passage of antifusion laws by other states in 1895. ...Michigan Republicans, now in complete control of the legislature, reintroduced their anti-fusion bill of the previous session and pushed it into law. Although some judges described it as "unconstitutional" and "revolutionary," the state upheld the measure in the same partisan spirit in which it had been enacted--four Republican judges in the affirmative, one Democrat in dissent. The Ohio legislature, meeting in 1896, concluded this first legislative flurry with the so-called Dana law, an elaborate measure based upon the customary antifusion ballot requirement. In Ohio, the local focus of antifusion legislation seemed particularly evident, at least initially. In the recent Cincinnati mayoral election, the Republican machine of "Boss" George Cox and Joseph B. Foraker had been challenged by a fusion coalition of Populists, Socialists, laborites, and dissident Republicans that had nearly received the Democratic endorsement as well. Some legislative observers regarded the subsequent Dana bill, prepared by a Foraker Republican, as primarily designed to prevent just such unified popular revolts against machine rule in municipal elections.

...The Michigan and Ohio experiences were not lost on Republicans in Indiana, the state in which Mark Hanna feared fusion most. Hoosier Republicans made two unsuccessful efforts during the campaign to secure the effects of antifusion legislation without actually receiving such a law. ...The lessons learned in, and the opportunity presented by, the sweeping 1896 Republican victory led Republican-dominated legislatures in many more states to enact fusion laws quickly. Republican legislatures passed antifusion laws in 1897 in Illinois, Iowa, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Wyoming as well as in Indiana. As Republicans gained sufficient legislative control elsewhere, the law spread further: California and Nebraska in 1899; Kansas, Minnesota, and South Dakota in 1901; Idaho in 1903; and Montana in 1907.

Ending the effective cooperation of Democrats and third party groups was both the primary goal and the major result of these efforts. ...By preventing effective fusion, antifusion laws also brought an end to another major characteristic of late nineteenth-century politics--the importance and even existence of significant third parties.

See also footnote 44:
In addition, the Democratic legislatures of three Southern states also enacted antifusion legislation in the early 1900s, and controversy over the law actually provoked a riot in the Kentucky legislature. Thus, while the focus here has been on the Northern Republicans, the law was obviously regarded as serving the interests of the dominant party wherever it was enacted.