Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Some Blogs I Read and Maybe You Should, Too

Part of a series of Lists of Cool Things.

Why don't you write me?
A letter would brighten my loneliest evening. 

"Why Don't You Write Me?" Simon & Garfunkel

Lots of folks out there have blogs, and some of them are really cool. I wanted to share a few that are written by friends of mine and that I think deserve a little more attention. Each item on this list has a link to the blog, a short description, an excerpt from a post I think is a good place to start, and a selection of other posts to check out if you're intrigued.

Between Times

My friend David is a former assistant pastor and current vagabond DJ/independent musician. If you're interested in modern Christianity, independent music/art, or both, you should consider checking out his blog, Between Times. The excerpt below is from a post about visiting a Sikh temple in the aftermath of the Wisconsin Sikh temple shooting last August.

I haven’t talked about it before, but my church building is next door to a Sikh temple. I’ve driven by it almost every day for a year, but I have never gone in. But as we were praying, God spoke to me and asked me, in no uncertain terms, whether I was going to practice what I had been preaching to these young people all week; whether I was just a fan, or a follower. So after the meeting finished, I got back in my car and I drove home. I passed the temple. I told myself I would go later. I heard there was a memorial service at 6, so I would show up for that. But when I walked in my door and hung up my keys, I couldn’t sit down anywhere in my house. I simply stood in my kitchen, shoes on, staring at the couch in our living room. I had a choice. And I almost blew it.

I turned around, grabbed my keys off the key hook, hopped back into my car and drove back to the Sikh temple. The whole drive, which wasn’t very long, I just prayed, “God, what do I say? I don’t know what to say.” So I pulled in to the parking lot, put on my name tag, and walked through the doors to the temple.
Politics - Dave describes emerging from politically conservative Christianity into a more apolitical stance
Tunage Tuesday: Bandcamp Discoveries - an entry in a weekly feature highlighting independent music

Intersections: Urban Mission Blog

My friend Phil is a Salvation Army Officer who has served in urban settings like Detroit and Chicago throughout his career. His blog is about faith, life, and troubles in the inner city.
the love of life in quiet Detroit:
When in the Detroit area I like to visit the old neighborhood.  We worked for six years on the west side near the New Center.  The last eighteen months we were based out of a new building on West Chicago at Dexter.  But for the first four and half years we worked out of an older building at the corner of Grand River and Dundee near Livernois.

I exited the Lodge Freeway, west on Chicago Boulevard through the Boston-Edison Historic District.  On the corner of Chicago and Dexter, the new building with a prominent Red Shield.  Can’t miss it.

North on Dexter.  Stopped by the traffic signal at Tuxedo.  Bad feelings.  Twice I was stopped at this light when shots started.  This time no shots.  But it’s afternoon, the wrong time of day for gunshots.   Evening.

A few blocks up I turned east on Buena Vista.  While we served in Detroit one block of Buena Vista between Dexter and Wildemere caught my attention.  Its old brick homes were well-kept.  Yards tidy.  Older folks and a few families.  A quiet street without the drama which typified too much of the neighborhood.  Like drug sales.  Teddy bears and plastic flowers at the base of utility poles.  Drama.  This afternoon I wanted to check on Buena Vista.
What people are saying about Detroit - a short reflection on a piece of journalism about Detroit's crumbling infrastructure
imago urbs - a post about how transit maps shape views of a city

Tiny Fix Bike Gang

An acquaintance of mine from my days in AmeriCorps co-writes (under the name "Lorena Cupcake") this blog about cycling and Chicago. It's got a feminist, liberal activist twist to it, which I enjoy, and I think other folks I know might also. Below is an excerpt from a post discussing cycling and gender norms. (Note: this blog contains some vulgar language.)
The Gender Candy Store: Biking While Genderqueer:
There’s an episode of Roseanne where her daughter Darlene is throwing away all her sports equipment because she’s a girl. Roseanne plucks her beloved baseball glove out of the trash, and tells her “These are girl’s things, Darlene, as long as a girl is using them.”

That’s exactly how I feel about my bike. It’s not a girl thing or a boy thing. My bike is mine. That’s it.

I don’t need to, like, fill a Pinterest board with photos of tall bikes drawn in latte foam and ethereal model-looking girls with skinny pins posing with vintage Peugeots just because I’m a girl. I don’t need to go on cupcake rides or learn to bike with heels. But if I wanted to? I could. Because you can relate to biking however you want.

Biking makes me feel powerful, and yes, masculine...Wearing dirty bike tights and jorts and rain jackets all winter makes me feel like one of the messenger boys since we’re all in the exact same outfit.

But that doesn’t mean I’m ok with biking being a boys club.
The Myth and Truth of the Super Secret Chicago Bike Community - a post about some exclusivity in the Chicago biking community and Lorena's reason for starting up the Tiny Fix blog
How To Pack a Messenger Bag as Carry-On Luggage - one of many practical posts on how to do something challenging related to cycling


Another AmeriCorps acquaintance, Robert, has spent the last several years traveling through and living in various Middle Eastern countries and writing about the experience. While his blog follows the "leave them wanting more" principle a little too strictly in my opinion, when he does manage to post something, it tends to be equal parts funny and fascinating. Below is an excerpt from a post last year about a visit to Turkey. (No other recommended posts on this one: if you're intrigued, just start from the beginning and read 'em all; there aren't too many.)
When I first came to Lebanon it was so exciting to see beer and ham and the ocean and women’s necks and garbage collection that I was oblivious to all the things that have become so gallingly apparent when seen in contrast with America. So there’s no sense of public space, well there’s more than there was in Jordan. So people still throw things on the ground rather than take the minor effort to throw it in a bin, at least they pay someone to pick it up instead of burning it. So everyone drives stupidly short distances in stupidly congested traffic that belches horrifically toxic smoke; have you even BEEN to Amman? In retrospect, Beirut was just exciting because it was a break from the norm, a little weeklong adventure to help escape the drudgery of Arabic.

Istanbul’s the same way.

I think finding a new blog about something I care about is a great experience, especially if it's written by someone I don't know. If you read this post and know of a good blog by a friend of yours, share it with someone! (Share it with me, for starters!) People might be more interested than you'd think, and your friends will thank you for sharing their thoughts with new readers.

Image source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Blog_iconoiiiiiiii.jpg

Monday, May 20, 2013

New York, New York: We Wanted to be a Part of It

These vagabond shoes,
They are longing to stray
Right through the very heart of it:
New York, New York.

—"New York, New York," Frank Sinatra

For a long time, my only context for the song "New York, New York" was a Get Fuzzy comic strip. In the strip, the beleaguered human Rob, the cruel and self-centered cat Bucky, and the nice but clueless dog Satchel are riding in the car, when "Somewhere, Over the Rainbow" comes on over the radio. Satchel tries to sing along, but he gets the song wrong and blurts "I wanna be a part of it, New York! New York! Wait...is that right? That's not right." Bucky calls him a nerd, Rob tells Bucky to be nice, andscene: a classic three-panel comic strip.

I read this strip in high school, and without knowing what "New York, New York" actually sounded like, I was free to imagine it as I would. My mind created a sort of classic rock song with an uptempo guitar riff and a lead singer belting out "I wanna be a part of it!" with some back-up singers quickly chirping "New York! New York!" behind him. Needless to say, this is nothing like the original downbeat, groovy big-band lounge act that Frank Sinatra actually put on when he famously sang the song, and my mind was slightly blown when I heard it for the first time and discovered how wrong I was.

New York itself was the same for me. The city is depicted frequently in movies, TV, and other media that I frequently consumed as a child, so growing up I had a vague idea of what it was probably like: tall shiny buildings and bustling streets full of taxis and wise guys and cops and movie stars. Seeing it in person was radically different. Here's how it happened.

In college, my friend Daniel planned a trip to New York. I'm unsure what originally gave him the idea to do this; perhaps it was simply the new freedom of semi-adulthood combined with the realization that he'd never explored the nation's most well-known metropolis. At all events, he planned the trip and invited some relatively new friends of his: myself and our mutual acquaintance, Maxwell, as well as someone neither Maxwell or I knew, a fellow undergrad I'll call Allen. More about Allen in a moment.

The cool thing about this trip for me was that it was put together by someone else. I have never excelled at figuring out what I want in life, and trips to faraway places are no exception. Before going to New York, my biggest trip had been a family vacation to Mexico City and Puerto Vallarta. If my folks had come to me for advice, we all would have spent it inside with the blessed air conditioning and a good book. Thankfully, just as on our trip to Mexico my family and friends planned excursions to pyramids and restaurants and markets, on the New York trip, Daniel had put together an itinerary that included visits to The Museum of the Moving Image, Strand Book Store, MoMA, and a variety of other places I'd never heard of, as well as a plan to hit Broadway and meet a friend who lived in the city.

We got to New York, and I found that the key difference between my mental image of the city and the real thing is the utter, utter vastness of the real thing. I live in Chicago and work downtown; Chicago is the City that Works, and its downtown is busy, large, and full of people and big buildings. New York, though, is larger than Chicago in terms of both population and size by what must be at least an order of magnitude, right? It's excessive. If you head to the busier parts of the Loop in Chicago during rush hour, you can get a little uncomfortable walking because of the crowds; you might, say, brush past someone or even bump into them if you're not careful. In New York, there are parts of downtown where there are so many people on the sidewalk that breathing, not bumping, is the issue of concern. Put it another way: just compare the CTA rail map and the MTA rail map. The former is extensive but comprehensible; the latter is mind-shatteringly huge and complex:

In addition to all this, I had this notion that the city was full of crudity and rudeness in contrast to the more polite and refined Midwest of my youth. But while I occasionally saw such rudeness, there was nothing out of the way of what I would see in a given day in downtown Chicago; on the contrary, I noticed that people held doors for each other, chatted up strangers at the bus stop, and generally seemed human and normal. 

But I digress; what, you ask, actually happened when we got there?

To start, we traveled as cheaply as we could, which meant staying in a hostel rather than a hotel. The main difference, we discovered, is that in a hotel, your main problems are things like nothing good being on TV, broken ice machines, and tiny hotel soap, but in a hostel, your main problem is that you are suddenly roommates with other people who can also only afford to stay in a hostel, and that may literally be the only thing you have in common.

Our first night, we arrived and set up camp in our room together. It was getting late, and we didn't necessarily feel like exploring, so we started a card game on the floor of our room. When another occupant arrived, Maxwell greeted him and invited him to join our game. Instead of responding in any way whatsoever, the man ignored Maxwell and the rest of us in favor of hanging his sheets around his bottom-bunk bed to create a little fort and then blasting Latin music through his headphones, in an apparent effort to keep both the sight and sound of our quiet game of cards from intruding on whatever it was he had going on that night. Needless to say, we were surprised. 

Worse, perhaps, was the roommate we met the next night, an older man who chatted us up before we went to bed in a relatively friendly, if slightly off-putting, fashion. I don't remember much about him anymore, except that he claimed to be a professional movie extra and to have just returned from a shoot in Cameroon, which I suppose is enough to give you a sense of what he might have been like. At all events, he surprised us the next morning by waking up at the crack of dawn, putting a his credit card company on speakerphone, reading off his credit card and social security [sic] numbers aloud to the helpdesk employee, and then proceeding to curse the poor fellow out repeatedly for not telling him exactly what he wanted to hear. Again: imagine our surprise! We had never contemplated the existence of such a person, much less the possibility that he would keep us from sleeping one day in far-off New York.

Daniel, posing with a Magritte and referencing one of his works

When we actually got out and about in the city, things were better. We did see some truly incredible and fascinating stuff, thanks to Daniel's creative itinerary. I still occasionally long for the grand sea of used books that is Strand Book Store, and to once again plumb the depths of entertainment history at The Museum of the Moving Image. There was a remaining obstacle in all this sightseeing and exploring, it turned out, which was our companion, Allen.

Allen was from New York, or at least from much nearer to it than Daniel, who is a Californian, and me and Maxwell, who are Chicagoans. As such, he seemed to feel license to dictate the terms of the trip to us, in particular letting us know what he did and did not deem worthy of a visit as an expert New Yorker. Presented in a certain way, I can see how this would be acceptable, and even helpful: after all, it doesn't feel great to be an obvious tourist, and it could be nice to know what the locals deem interesting and valuable and what they leave for folks from out of town. Allen pushed it a bit far, alas; the breaking point came when planning a visit to Katz's Deli, a famous kosher-style delicatessen that specializes in sandwiches that are friggin' huge and delicious. If its reputation for great food isn't enough to attract interest, it can be noted that the deli is famous enough to have appeared in movies like When Harry Met Sally and Across the Universe, among others. These details were enough to convince the rest of us, but Allen insisted that it was just a deli like any other in the city, and that it was practically a crime to go out of our way to get there, when we could "just walk five feet" and find one just like it anywhere in the city. We were stymied.

Thankfully, Allen left our group for home soon after, leaving Maxwell, Daniel, and I to our own devices, including repeated jokes about how you could "just walk five feet" to find any number of things in the city, an inside joke which still serves us to this day when we want to lampoon someone with an inflated sense of self-worth or a general propensity for grating obnoxiousness.

With Allen gone, we felt freer to explore and enjoy, partaking of such delights as the American Museum of Natural History, where we looked at tons of fossils and got a couple amusing photos, getting some cheap same-day tickets for Avenue Q and Spamalot, and even heading to a comedy club on a whim for some late-night comedy in front of an actual brick wall, just like in Seinfeld or Louie. It was quite cool.

That skeleton is attacking Maxwell kind of! My photography skills are still this bad.

We had a great time, in other words. I like to think that our small troubles along the way helped bring me, Maxwell, and Daniel together and enjoy ourselves more. Certainly, these troubles are what we remember to each other when reminiscing about the experience. At all events, after the trip, we remained friends and grew to be better ones, eventually all ending up as roommates. Maxwell and I still room together, actually, and Daniel visits from time to time. So not only did we "get to be a part of it" for a little while in New York, New York: we also got a lasting friendship out of it to boot.

Photo sources:
Photo 1: http://www.flickr.com/photos/imjustsayin/4080984817/
Photo 2: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pahudson/2069182494/
Photo 3: http://www.flickr.com/photos/fuzzcat/99674745/ 
Photo 4: http://www.transitchicago.com/maps/
Photo 5: www.mta.info/maps/submap.html
Photos 6 & 7: me

Monday, May 6, 2013

Historical Linguistics

Part of a series on Stuff You Might Not Know About

Language families of the world (click to enlarge)
Where have all your good words gone?
Where have all your stories gone?
Where are all the pleasures from
The timbre of your tongue?

—"Where Have All Your Good Words Gone?" Laura Gibson

Like many young Americans with more intelligence than sense, I studied linguistics in college, a discipline with few applications in the post-college world of having to get a job and be a real adult. Today's post is part of my ongoing efforts to justify my decision to spend four years studying this stuff by demonstrating how totally fascinating languages can be.

Historical Linguistics was a fun class. It was taught by a grad student who I'll call Ilya. Ilya was what many linguists wish they were but can never be: a true polyglot (a fluent speaker of multiple languages; note that most linguists know a lot about language but very few speak many languages). Ilya's parents made it a goal to teach him multiple languages as he grew up; they reserved certain days of the week for different ones: on Tuesdays, for example, his parents would only speak to each other or him in French, and would only respond to him if he did the same. Whether you view this parental strategy as ingenious or cruel, it certainly bore fruit. A typical linguistics instructor during my time in college, when confronted by a student with a question requiring an on-the-spot example from a real language, would use something either from English or the one obscure language they knew a lot about, a Native American language say, often struggling for a moment or two before answering. Ilya, though, would quickly pull examples from multiple languages, often only very distantly related; a typical response might include words from German, Greek, Albanian, the Celtic languages, and something long dead—Ilya's specialized in the languages of ancient Anatolia, like Hittite and Luwian, but he could just as easily give you examples from Latin and Old Church Slavonic, among others. 

Ilya was the perfect person to learn historical linguistics from, then, because it's a discipline that frequently requires the detailed comparison of multiple languages. Originally, all linguistics was historical linguistics; the discipline was started by curious folks in the 18th century who noticed similarities among the different languages of the ancient texts they were studying, languages like Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit. The early linguists developed tools of study that allowed them to link these languages and others together into a family, with a common "ancestor" language from which all the others evolved—in this case, the common ancestor of Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit (not to mention English and many others) is called Indo-European and its descendants are known as the Indo-European languages.

Today, historical linguistics is just one branch on the big linguistics tree, one that many linguists don't consider all that important. Historical linguistics is about studying and reconstructing what languages used to sound like, whereas the most urgent activity of modern linguistics is investigating the languages we have now, especially the many, many languages that are dying, before we lose the ability to study them. Still, the discipline is important to the history of linguistics as a discipline and as part of the foundational knowledge and tools of people who want to investigate the inner workings of language.

The central tool of historical linguistics is the comparative method. The comparative method is a way of reconstructing what the words and event the individual sounds of an ancestor language were, by comparing the words of the "daughter" languages and applying some universal rules of language change. Let's take a look at some data!

(For these data, I'm going to spell things with some phonetic English spelling; importantly, "ch," "sh," and "th" will all sound like they do in English. If you're a speaker of any of these languages, I apologize. I know they don't usually spell words this way.)

Sardinian Italian Romansh French Spanish
"100" kentu chento chyent sa thyen
"sky" kelu chelo chil syel thyelo
"stag" kerbu chervo cherf ser thyerbo
"wax" kera chera chaira sir thera

We can look at words across these five languages and notice that the words we've selected have a lot of similarities, but there's a big key difference: within a language, each of these words starts with the same sound, but across languages they start with different sounds. A historical linguist sees this, and guesses that these languages are probably related, that they share a common ancestor. The historical linguist can then ask: what sound was at the beginning of these words in the original language?

The best guess comes from a knowledge of what kinds of change tend to take place in languages. There is a language change process called "lenition" (i.e., "weakening") which takes place all the time in language. Lenition is when sounds that have more obstruction of air flow in the mouth ('strong" sounds) become sounds with less obstruction ("weak" sounds); sounds like "k" where the air is stopped completely can become sounds like "ch" where the air is stopped briefly and then allowed to flow through a constricted passage, and "ch" can become sounds like "th" and "s," where the air is never stopped at all but simply passes through a constricted space. Given that this process is extremely frequent in the world's languages, it makes for a good guess as to what happened here. The original ancestor of these languages probably had "k" at the beginning of these words; in Sardinian, the sound never changed. In the others, it probably first changed to "ch," and in French and Spanish, it changed further to "s" and "th," respectively.

In many cases, this is where historical linguistics has to stop: a hypothesis about what an ancestor language sounded like. In this case, we can go a step further, because we have information about the ancestor language: these are all Romance languages, descended from Latin, a language well attested in written records.

Wikipedia has the coolest maps, guys. (Check here for giant, more readable version.)
Scholars have long known the ancestor words for these terms; they're centum, "100;" caelum, "sky;" cervus, "stag;" and cera, "wax." We also know for reasons independent of these data that the first sound of each was originally a "k" sound, just like we predicted from the data.

With these kinds of tools, historical linguists have done pretty fascinating things. They've been able to help chart the prehistory of the peoples of the world, not only reconstructing what the languages of our ancestors sounded like, but even using vocabulary analysis and other tools to make strong guesses about where certain cultures and ethnicities originated and track their migration across the ages (here's a book featuring one example). Hand in hand with archaeology and other disciplines, historical linguistics can teach us about ourselves by connecting us to our human past, back to times before written language even existed. I think this is pretty exciting.

Historical linguistics is really, fundamentally neat. If you're interested in knowing more, you can check out Historical Linguistics by R.L. Trask and Historical Linguistics, an Introduction by Lyle Campbell. Both are excellent introductions and relatively accessible to the lay reader.

More generally, if you're interested in getting an introduction to linguistics as a whole, you could start with the book that got me hooked, Language: The Basics (warning: do not give to impressionable undergraduates whose major is undecided), or you could take a look at the excellent Language Myths for a discussion and debunking of commonly held beliefs about language.

Image Sources: