I Give Up, or How the NSA violated(?) the 4th amendment for a bunch of mostly useless data

So the latest scandal is that the NSA has been allegedly gathering large amounts of data on American phone calls and internet traffic. I’m pissed off about this, for the usual reasons and more.

Is it a violation of the 4th amendment? I would say yes, but I’m not the judicial system. Digital information is obviously not one of the things the framers of the Constitution foresaw, so it is, in kind terms, a clusterfuck trying to sort out how the Bill of Rights applies.

I’m not a constitutional scholar, so I’m not here to argue about the legality of all. My opinion on it is pretty set (it sucks). I’m pissed off at the Obama administration for continuing the Bush policy (it started after 9/11, of course), I don’t believe most of the Republicans taking him to task over it are doing so in good faith (where were they in 2006?), but none of the politics excuse the act. What I would like to talk about is the data itself and why it’s mostly useless (and why that pisses me off).

The problem is simply this: too much data. If you’re taking data from the communications of all Americans, or every tenth American with a cell phone, or even every twentieth American who sends e-mails between the hours of 10pm Tuesday and 5am Wednesday, you’re getting too much data to do a whole lot with.

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Bad Linguistics: purist fallacies

Linguistics is often misunderstood. It’s not a subject that gets taught in eighth grade, so the only people with much experience in it are specialists who pursue it in post-secondary education. As such, a number of fallacies persist among the general population around language and linguistics studies. I may make this a semi-regular series deconstructing and attempting to correct these false or problematic notions.

A language group is not an ethnic group

We’re used to thinking of languages in terms of families and trees. Even non-linguists are probably familiar with terms like “Germanic languages” and “Romance languages.” The analogue to the family structure is so strong that relations in language families are said to be genetic.

This confusion gets embarrassingly bad, though, with the kind of casual, unwitting racism that crops up when people assume that, say, a Mexican and an Argentinian are best buds because they both happen to be Spanish-speakers.

Languages are not ethnic groups. They are not transmitted in DNA. The Germanic language family, for instance, is not an in-group marking of Northern Europeans. If this were the case, no black people would be speaking English.

This sort of confusion unfortunately gave rise to one of the worst instances of racist pseudo-science in the history of mankind.

Back in the 19th century, people in Europe were getting all worked up over comparative linguistics (fairly enough; it is pretty awesome). But they were also still pretty racist, having very paternalistic notions of the superiority of the European race–White Man’s Burden and all that. Having solidified a fairly accurate picture of the Indo-European language family based on similarities between Sanskrit, Latin, Greek, and their modern descendants and relatives, they coupled this with romanticized notions of their ancestors and came up with the idea of a bronze-age “master race” who spread their language from Ireland to India.

This idea was seized upon by Hitler, who insisted these “Aryans” (Skt. arya, well-formed) were Nordic, and the rest is, as they say, history.

In reality, the original Indo-European speakers owed their rapid expansion not to anything genetic, but to a handle on equine technology. Some of them migrated, interbred with the locals, and took their language with them (which also became similarly mixed). The idea of a “pure” language spoken by a “pure” race or ethnicity is a misunderstanding of population dynamics at best, and racist fantasy at worst.

Languages spread like memes, not hair color. At best, there is a weak correlation between genetic markers and theoretical dispersion of language families in ancient times, such as the potential association of the R1a1 (M17) Y-Chromosomal DNA haplogroup with the initial stages of the spread of Indo-European languages after the Late Glacial Maximum. They, like every other group of migrants, picked up and dropped off words from the people they met, borrowed stray bits of grammar and twisted them around to make them fit in their brains, and broke down and rebuilt languages over time on substrates their grandparents had never heard of.

If you meet someone and you have to communicate with them, you will learn something of their language and they, something of yours, and both your speech patterns will be changed as a result. If you, a Visigothic soldier in the 4th century CE, speaking Gothic, a Germanic language, went looking for work, you were apt to wind up in Rome, where you learned to speak Latin, an Italic language, in order to, you know, survive. Your children would pick up your Latin habit, and may never have learned Gothic. It wouldn’t have made them any less Gothic ethnically.

Fortunately, the only people who claim that language equals ethnicity these days are Neo-Nazis, but the idea that “wrong” ways of speaking are the provenance of minority groups is a little more mainstream.

“Debased” language isn’t

English prescriptivists used to predictably howl with rage if you split an infinitive. And if you began a sentence with a conjunction, or decided it really needed a preposition to end on.

Maybe we’re a little less sticky about that now, but every so often someone still harps on about bad grammar. And they’re wrong. If they were able to understand you well enough to bitch about how improperly you spoke, you weren’t using bad grammar.

Let’s look at some non-standard varieties of English (I don’t have any direct experience with any of these, so I’m relying on Wikipedia).

First, African-American Vernacular English (AAVE): He finna go to work. With “proper” English grammar, this would “translate” to “He is fixing to go to work,” where “fixing to” means “about to” or “will, in the near future.” In AAVE, this has become grammaticalized as finna, to the point that finna actually introduces an entirely new temporal aspect of “irrealis, near future,” which in Standard English is marked modally (“about to”). In this respect, AAVE is no less complex than Standard English, and actually distinguishes temporal aspect constructions that Standard English does not.

Next, Irish English. Apart from an accent, Irish English isn’t particularly non-standard in sound or spelling, though it has some unusual grammatical features that come off as “incorrect” to Standard English speakers, such as: “John asked me would I buy a loaf of bread” for “John asked me to buy a loaf of bread.” This comes from an Irish Gaelic tendency to use the conditional “would” instead of a simple present tense, which persisted when the Irish started speaking English. In other words, it’s worked that way in Ireland for a thousand years, so why should they change just because English purists get snippy?

Lastly, Tok Pisin, an English-based creole of Papua New Guinea. On the surface, it seems like a completely different language, but some examination reveals what many people would consider to be “debased” English, as in Yu pinisim stori nau. This means “Finish your story now,” and the English sources of each word renders it “You finish-him story now.” This seems like a pretty grammar-less pidgin (indeed “Tok Pisin” comes from “talk pidgin”), but the inclusion of the marker -im (<< "him") is actually a transitivity marker, required by the inclusion of a direct object. Without the inclusion of this "him" particle, the sentence becomes ungrammatical. The "debased" grammar is actually crucial to understanding. It's one thing to have speech patterns that you dislike or that grate on your nerves, it's one thing to prefer that people speak a certain way, but if a style is used and understood by any speech community, it is in no way “bad” grammar.

Languages are never “pure.” They’re constructs we messy humans use to navigate our messy world. They change every day, and every day purists complain they’re going to the dogs. But today’s beautiful iambic pentameter was yesterday’s unsophisticated jibber-jabber.

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Soldier decapitated/Man shoots self in church

There have been two tragedies in the news lately.

Yesterday, a British soldier was attacked in London in broad daylight, hacked to death with machetes, and beheaded. The attackers say it was in retaliation for British military actions in the Middle East.

The day before, a French historian shot himself by the altar in Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. He left no note, but his last blog post strongly implies that it was a gesture of protest against France’s passing of marriage equality.

I can’t say for certain what any of these men’s motives were, but this, it increasingly seems, is what faith inevitably leads to. Not Islam, not Christianity. Faith: unfounded belief that tells you that wrong is right and right is wrong. Acts of this degree seem to go beyond orthopraxy, ritual, and way of life. When you believe that you can kill another human being and be rewarded in an imaginary paradise for it, or when you believe that other humans being granted the same legal rights as you makes the world a place you can’t live in, you’ve lost all claim to being human. You’re now a creature of faith. I hope it was worth it.

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U guize u guize i found the gratest thing!!!11

To paraphrase the dad from My Big Fat Greek Wedding: give me a word, any word, and I show you how the root of that word is… Hebrew?

Enter creationist linguistics. It hasn’t been a thing since Noah Webster in the 18th century, but it’s back, apparently. Here’s a site that lets you trace the root of a bunch of English words to Hebrew. They call it “Edenic,” and posit a biblical view of language development, as opposed to the one that has any evidence.

Sure, there are some English words that ultimately come from Hebrew, like “amen,” “hallelujah,” “kielbasa,” or maybe even “coral.” Most of those are religious or ethnic terms, so a Hebrew origin is the only explanation.

But according to this site, a word like “moron” comes from a Hebrew root meaning “young boy” (because morons are stupid like little boys, geddit?), and not from the Greek word moron, meaning “moron.”

In “Edenics,” “vacant” comes from vaQaQ meaning “valley,” while “vacancy” comes from BahQBOOQ–the same root as… “bucket”? Wait, what? How do I language?

The whole site is like this–random extrapolation with no consistency, and shows a fine example of creationist thinking. No rigor or regard for prior research, to the point that blatantly Native American word “skunk” allegedly comes from a root tsakhan, meaning “stinker.” If you want to see a real tsakhan, check out this site.

Apparently Japanese and Slavic are descended from Hebrew by way of Eskimo-Aleut and Celtic, respectively. Because the Proto-Eskimos made it all the way to Alaska before turning around and deciding to become samurai, and the Celts trekked all the way from the Middle East to the European periphery before deciding to turn around because they just hadn’t walked enough.

Also, this:

It was thought that Asians, Africans and Semites evolved from separate monkeys than did the Aryans, and so these foreign tongues could have no extensive relationship to that of the different (thus superior) Indo-Europeans who dominated from Ireland in the West to India in the East.

I guess actual linguistic theory is somehow racist because 19th century racial theories equated Indo-European with an Aryan master race. Yes, that was a dark chapter in linguistics, in anthropology, and in history in general, but what science gets wrong is what science later gets right, to the point that “Indo-Aryan” is these days a valid linguistic term without racial baggage used extensively by one of my Jewish professors.

I don’t even want to go into the site’s ideas about sound symbolism and how metathesis (changing the position of letters) and sound change are functionally equivalent and have no distinct distributions. There is so much wrong here I can’t even

Unfortunately for MBFGW fans, “kimono” is not one of the words that can be traced to Hebrew. Neither is “creationist loon.”

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The Washington Post has a very odd definition of “understandability.”

Tū, mewom klneudhi! So pūr tosmōi senei manei dō. Negwrias kwṛmis apo bhergod deukdhi, tod mātrei dō. Ne askoisu spyeudhi!

That’s a pseudo-Proto-Indo-European version of what the WaPo claims is a sentence that could be understood across 150 centuries. Did you understand any of that?

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The only good idol is a breakable idol

I was standing in an un-air-conditioned room with two people who wouldn’t stop making out blocking my view, one of whom smelled kind of funny. I had tried to buy a T-shirt, but the merch girl was out of those, so I bought a long-sleeved shirt instead, which made me sweat like a pig the moment I put it on. On the stage below me, a band I didn’t know was playing a song I’d never heard and the drums were so overpowering it was impossible to hear the melody.

Three hours later I was screaming myself hoarse and considering physically fighting a guy for a used drumstick (spoiler alert: I didn’t). And it occurred to me that this kind of thing is the closest I’ve come to a religious experience.

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The End

That gasping sound is me coming up for air.

When I left you, I was but a learner. Now I am the master.

A master.

“A master of what?” you say.

“A master of the dark arts,” say I.

“The dark arts of what?”

“Um–okay…” I stammer. I haven’t thought this one through. “Just regular arts. A master of arts.”

Best part about completing a grad program? Getting to go home afterwards and watch TV in your underpants. Now you get to live with that image. Enjoy your evening.

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Fiction and the Language of Conspiracy

Maybe it’s getting worse, maybe we’re just hearing about it more. In the wake of the recent bombings at the Boston Marathon and the ensuing manhunt, the weird part of the Internet has been more excitable than usual.

In a previous post, I alluded to some of the conspiracy theories that have sprung up surrounding the recent bombings at the Boston Marathon. Some time has passed, but the theories and their proponents are not going away.

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Know When It’s Bullshit

I’ve never been this close to terrorism before. I was not exactly close to the Boston Marathon bombings, being at work 14 miles away when I heard about them, but this is closer than I was to 9/11 (I was a freshman in a New Mexico high school), and far closer than I am to any of the innumerable acts of terrorism, both state-sponsored or otherwise, around the globe.

So seeing bombs go off in an area I walk through pretty much every time I go into the city really brings it home. I’ll admit the concept never really seemed real to me. If that sounds like a mark of my privilege brought on by the good fortune to be a relatively well-off, well-educated man in a first-world country, that’s because it is. If this is what gets me thinking about our ethical responsibilities in the wake of tragedy, so be it. I started thinking. And as I thought, the same douchecopters started shooting up MIT, at a building where I once attended a conference. The manhunt for the second guy is still playing out right now as I write one town east of where I live. It’s been a shitty week for Boston, for sure, but one that’s prompted a lot of thought.

And my thinking always brings me back to the same conclusion. I’m no ethicist, but I’ll put it as succinctly as I can. In times of tragedy, it is an ethical responsibility to not succumb to irrationality. Continue reading

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Bombs in Boston

It’s been an eventful day. I was at work, not the Boston Marathon, though a friend of mine was about a half-mile from the finish line when the bombs went off. Why Boston? Why the marathon? Why today? I don’t know.

I do know that I read comments on the Internet about today and felt ashamed to be a human. But then there are the stories about marathon runners who ran to the hospital to give blood. Sure, it might not be the smartest thing to do, as you could end up in the hospital yourself, but human beings have an incredible spirit to care for each other when tragedy strikes. We have monsters among us, but we also have enough heroes that in the end, the monsters don’t stand a chance.

It’s not that I necessarily believe that people are inherently good. People are just inherently people. As a species, we produce individuals who could throw a baby to crocodiles and individuals who could jump in front of a train to save a child, and depending on circumstance, that person could be the one and the same. But as a group, I think most of us realize at some level that we either improve together, or we don’t improve at all.

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