kitchen table math, the sequel: 6/7/15 - 6/14/15

Thursday, June 11, 2015

AoPS is hiring

I know people on KTM have mentioned Art of Problem Solving before. Just a quick note to let y'all know that they are actively recruiting people to work in their office in San Diego and are trying to add several full-time people to the AoPS school. You can see the job descriptions here.

Monday, June 8, 2015

"There was no committee"

Here in my district (woe is me), we seem to have dodged the Chinese language instruction bullet.

I don't know why.

Maybe our central administrators, neither of whom is particularly interested in academics (the super cares about fields; the curriculum director is "passionate" about technology) decided the ruckus that would ensue when they swapped out French for Rosetta-Stone Chinese wasn't worth the trouble.

Or maybe they just haven't gotten around to it yet.

In any event, I've just come across a terrific article on English v. Chinese as lingua franca:
English is becoming a global lingua franca not just for trade, industry, aviation, research, and entertainment, but also for higher education. We scarcely needed the conclusions of a new research report by the department of education at the University of Oxford in collaboration with the British Council, released Wednesday, to tell us that.

Ph.D. students in countries like Finland or the Netherlands have (at least in my field) long been writing their dissertations in English rather than in Finnish or Dutch. But at undergraduate as well as graduate and professional levels, more and more non-English-speaking countries are making the decision to use what they are calling English as a Medium of Instruction (EMI).

Nothing about the dialect of the southern region of the island of Great Britain makes it especially suited to a global role. In fact, choosing English, with its maddeningly stupid spelling quirks (Finnish has none), and its nearly 200 irregular verbs (Swahili has none), and its phonology replete with brutally complex consonant clusters (Hawaiian has none), looks like a choice made by a committee of idiots.

But it was not. Accidents of history conspired to determine the present status of English.

Which language was spoken by the people who managed to gain lasting political control in North America and Australasia, and had temporary political dominance in all of southern Asia and most of eastern, western, and southern Africa?

Which language is spoken in the one place on earth where blockbuster movies for worldwide release are made on budgets running into the hundreds of millions of dollars?

Which is the main language used by the closest to approach Radio Earth, namely the BBC World Service?

Which is the only language used officially for government purposes in more than 60 countries?

Which has been chosen as the norm for all air-traffic control conversations?

A long succession of such accidents has put English so far in the race for dominance in global communication that it can hardly even be called a race now.

Some people talk as if Mandarin Chinese was gaining on English. It is not, and it never will. A Tamil-speaking computer scientist explaining an algorithm to a Hungarian scientist at a Japanese-organized scientific meeting in Thailand calls on English, not Chinese. Nowhere in the world do we find significant numbers of non-Chinese speakers choosing Mandarin as the medium for bridging language gaps. There are no signs of that changing.

The burgeoning of English is pushing ever-larger numbers of small minority languages into extinction, and many linguists lament that. There are two sides to the issue, though. It saddens us linguists that so many grammatically fascinating and diverse languages in so many language families should be dying out, yet who are we to tell an African father, proud of raising his children to speak a multinational lingua franca like Swahili or English, rather than the local dialect of his traditional village, that he is wrong?


Personally, I would never have proposed making English a global language for education or anything else, and I think my life has been rendered poorer by the fact that because I speak English natively I have never been forced by circumstances to develop real fluency in a foreign language. But nobody placed me on the committee to decide on the global language for education. There was no committee.
And here is Victor Mair, writing at Language Log:
As to why Mandarin is very unlikely ever to displace English as the world language, it's the writing system, my friends.

"Chineasy? Not" "Chinese characters are not easy, neither for Chinese nor for non-Chinese. Chinese characters are hard."]

Now, if ever a true digraphia were to develop in China, Mandarin might have a fighting chance.

"Character amnesia and the emergence of digraphia" (see also here and here).

But I doubt that will ever happen. It seems that most Chinese people would sooner learn English than use Romanization to write Mandarin.
Actually, I've heard exactly the opposite.

A year ago, I talked to a high school graduate who had just spent a year in China.

He told me smartphones are causing the Chinese to switch to the Romanization system the phones use. Just because it's there, on the phone, and they use it all the time.

Is that true?

Does anyone know?


Commas, up and down

Ben Yagoda on commas coming and going:
An interesting Slate piece a few months back by Matthew J.X. Malady noted many Twitter users’ disdain for commas. It’s not just a matter of being frugal with punctuation in order to fit a thought into 140 characters. Punctuational minimalism has emerged as one of the hallmarks of casual online style—social media, texting, commenting, message boards. One inescapable example, which I’ve previously discussed, is the sea change in email greeting from “Hi, Name” to “Hi Name.” This is by no means exclusively the province of kids and illiterates....(Exceptions to the minimalism rule are ellipses, question marks, and exclamation points, which have spread online like Asian carp in a predator-free freshwater ecosystem.)

Skilled Twitter users drop commas, in particular, to punch up the comedy. Malady quoted a tweet by the writer Jen Doll on a day that Gmail went down for almost an hour: “I guess all those losers outside skiing or like at the movies or whatever missed out on this exciting adventure we just had.”


In certain quarters, the trend, if anything, is more commas. Dropping the suspense, the quarters I refer to are the offices of The New Yorker, the soon-to-be-90-year-old magazine that is the veritable St. Peter’s Basilica of the comma. For The New Yorker, using this punctuation mark in all generally accepted and even optional spots, including after the penultimate item in a series, goes without saying. The magazine’s secret sauce in generating commas is its extreme strict constructionist view of nonessential (also known as nondefining) elements in a sentence. Consider: “By the time Blockbuster got around to offering its own online subscription service, in 2004, it was too late.” Virtually everybody else would leave out the commas after “service.” The New Yorker insists on it, the logic being that otherwise, the writer would be implying that Blockbuster offered its own online subscription service in years other than 2004.

Some people count sheep to get to sleep. I lie in bed reading New Yorkers on my Kindle, counting the commas. Normally, six or seven in a sentence is a number that allows me to close my eyes and drift off. Imagine my surprise, a couple of months ago, when I came upon this, in a review of a book about William Burroughs.
The biography, after its eventful start, becomes rather like an odyssey by subway in the confines of Burroughs’s self-absorption, with connecting stops in New York, where he lived, in the late nineteen-seventies, on the Bowery, in the locker room of a former Y.M.C.A., and, returning to the Midwest, in the congenial university town of Lawrence, Kansas, where he spent his last sixteen years, and where he died, of a heart attack, in 1997, at the age of eighty-three.
That’s right. Sixteen commas. I had the feeling that the magazine’s editors were having a laugh among themselves, which I was lucky enough to share in.

I think so much about New Yorker commas that sometimes my head gets all in a spin, especially when pondering what I call the prepositional-phrase conundrum. It comes up in a series of prepositional phrases (as in Burroughs’s New York and Kansas experiences, above) or with verb-prepositional-phrase constructions, in cases where the verb is not preceded by a subordinate conjunction, such as the two “where”s in the Burroughs example. Consider these fairly recent quotes from the magazine:
  1. “It first appeared in 1959, in Paris, as ‘The Naked Lunch’ (with the definite article), in an Olympia Press paperback edition, in company with ‘Lolita,’ ‘The Ginger Man,’ and ‘Sexus.’”
  2. “Brigham’s Allentown and Pittsburgh clinics finally closed, in 2012.”
  3. Robert Frost “was born in 1874 in San Francisco, where his father, William Frost, a newspaperman from primeval New England stock, had taken a job.”
No. 1 (also from the Burroughs review) omits a comma after “appeared.” Presumably that’s because “in 1959″ is considered an essential element, as is “in 1974″ in example No. 3. But why? There was only one year that Naked Lunch first appeared, as there was only one year Robert Frost was born. And sure enough, in example No. 2, recognizing there was only one year that the clinics finally closed, the magazine’s copy desk kept or put in the comma.

But down that road leads madness. Abraham Lincoln died just one time, but even The New Yorker would never print the sentence, “Lincoln died, in 1865.”

Or, would it?

The Commas Suit Ya by Ben Yagoda 4/29/2014
I've been thinking about New Yorker commas ever since reading an excerpt from Mary Norris's Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, a book I'm going to be buying as soon as I finish writing mine.