January 2009 Archives

Remix into Music


Recently Stephen Colbert interviewed remix advocate Lawrence Lessig. In a fit of pique, he announced that "copyright was forever" and commented that he would be "litigious" if the interview was remixed with "some great dance beat."

But since we are the YouTube Generation, of course multiple people remixed the interview with some great dance beat. What's interesting here though is that most of the remixes involve looping short snippets of dialogue over and over.

As hip-hop artists know, if you loop a short phrase enough, you are one your way to a quasi-lyric. This was also noted on a NPR podcast which I've lost track of, but I think the remix here really shows how little looping is required to generate a rhythmic feeling.

There's been recent speculation on how music and language relate to each other, and clips like these do make a case that music is some sort of auditory cheesecake (to quote Steven Pinker). In other words, music is borrowing phonological aspects of language (pitch, rhythm), then "kicking them up a notch".

I don't think it's the full story of music, but then again visual arts are also a little mysterious to the neo-Darwinist. Still I'm glad I have both my screensaver and my iTunes to brighten my day.

The Discourse of the Inauguration


I was lucky enough to watch the Inauguration live today, specifically through a live feed with no commentary (surprisingly informative). The event was of extreme historical and political significance, but since I'm a linguistic I noticed some interesting elements about the ceremonial nature of the event itself.

From "sovreignty" point of view, the Inauguration may be the most important occasion in the United States political landscape. Like a coronation in monarchies, the Inauguration represents both the transition and the continuity of the Presidency. It is one of the few times in our state calendar where participants are guaranteed to be dressed in the most formal clothing. In fact, the live feed included an announcer officially announcing key people, including the children, as they appeared on the stage - very unusual for most Americans.

In fact the event was so formal, that it temporarily affected my linguistic style. On an ordinary day, I might observe "Michelle has a nice dress on" or "There's Bill Clinton." Today though I thought "Mrs Obama has a nice outfit on" and "There's President Clinton." It's not often that the United States culture embraces formality, but today was a day to do that.

Today of course, we also observed some performatives and near performatives. A performative is when stating a verbal formula causes it to happen. Today President Obama swore to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution by saying "I do solemly swear that will...to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." A nifty piece of legalistic magic.

The response from the Chief Justice was interesting. I was expecting him to say something formulaic to confirm a successful installation. Instead he merely said "Congratulations Mr. President", an interesting indication that the Chief Justice (unlike a bishop in a coronation) is not the "crowner", but merely a key official enabling the transition. It was also an interesting return to a more informal tone that we are more accustomed to. It may also have been part of a collective sigh of relief that we were finally in the era of President Obama instead of the ambiguous President Bush/President Elect Obama period.

Like the ancient Celts, a transition state is something that modern Americans are not necessarily comfortable with.

Update: Retaking the Oath

As you may know, Justice Roberts inserted "faithfully" into the wrong place in the oath therby causing President Obama to slightly mis-state the oath on Jan 20. As a result, he had to retake the oath with the exact wording to ensure that there would be no Constitutional crisis down the road. Truthfully the differences between the two differences were so small that only a trained semanticist (or lawyer) could probably tell you.

What's interesting was that the focus was on using the exact words as prescribed in the Constitution. While the meaning is important, the form is paramount as it is in many performatives. It reminds me of perhaps the strongest performative of all - a magic spell. Interestingly, a magic spells are often depicted with very restricted linguistic requirements (they rhyme or are in Latin or Sumerian). Performatives definitely require that we all agree to one and only one linguistic form - perhaps to curtail how widely they can be used. You do want to be careful that the right person becomes President and even more careful that you don't turn a chicken into a cat.

An Ambiguous Church Kneeler


When I was contemplating the sentence predictor problem from the previous entry, I remembered cases where phrase fragments led to some interesting interpretation problems. Who could forget Orlando Jones as the marketing genius who changed "Make 7-Up Yours" to "Make Seven...Up Yours"?

A better example may be an incomplete prepositional phrase on an embroidered church kneeler. The needlepointers in one congregation were asked to complete a set of kneelers each of which contained a phrase from a particular Psalm. Once they were all stitched, the group would spell out the entire Psalm.

My friend picked out the phrase I would have chosen myself - Go to The. It amused me because if you couldn't remember the Psalm, the next word could literally have been any location, and I do have a very active imagination.

A Sentence Predictor?


The Onion News Network has a great parody on a new Mac laptop with the keyboard replaced with just the iPhod wheel (jut what we've all been waiting for. But the best feature, was the "sentence predictor". Like the word predictor, the sentence predictor would give you options for completing a sentence once a few words had been typed in.

But is this possible in real life? (continues below video)

Apple Introduces Revolutionary New Laptop With No Keyboard

I hope you enjoyed the video as much as I did, but it get me wondering if a sentence predictor is possible, and if so what it would be like. It is a real problem that researchers are exploring as can be seen in this presentation from Nicola Carmignani.

Actually I could see something like a phrase predictor based on syntax and morphology (and these have been built). For instance, if had a phrase "give the book", English syntax dictates that we usually have to specify a destination, hence you can predict that the next word will be "to". After that though, syntax dictates that you can give a book to anyone (literally an infinite number of choices).

So for a more robust sentence predictor, you would probably need be able to access the context or discourse of the entire passage. For instance if you had been discussing your friends Rachel and Phoebe, then a sentence predictor could guess "to Phoebe" or "to Rachel" as plausible guess for "give the book". Carmignani's presentation in fact, gives a song lyric as an example - "Penny Lane", which most people could predict would end with "is in my ears and in my eyes" (following the Beatles song).

When I thought about it I realize that I do have a built in sentence predictor (or maybe cliche predictor). After all I use to complete sentences for my friends all the time. Interestingly, they don't always thank me for it...