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As part of the 7 Things Meme, sandmantv asked me to write about Prescriptivism vs Descriptivism. But I really can't do any better than link to today's Slate article by Steven Pinker, which is an excellent debunking of common misunderstandings of these two viewpoints. It's long, but I highly recommend reading the whole first section (approximately the first two pages).

I will add one addendum/clarification to the article, specifically following on this paragraph:
But the valid observation that there is nothing inherently wrong with ain’t should not be confused with the invalid inference that ain’t is one of the conventions of standard English. Dichotomizers have difficulty grasping this point, so I’ll repeat it with an analogy. In the United Kingdom, everyone drives on the left, and there is nothing sinister, gauche, or socialist about their choice. Nonetheless there is an excellent reason to encourage a person in the United States to drive on the right: That’s the way it’s done around here.
For the most part I like this analogy, but I am worried that the use of country-wide conventions as an example will give the mistaken impression that language variation must also occur at the national level. In fact, language conventions vary on a much smaller scale, such that many people switch between linguistic communities on a daily basis. The relevant scale here is "linguistic communities", which could be your family, your neighborhood, your state, etc.

We (and here I speak for myself, Pinker, and the general community of reasonable non-iptivists) are not arguing that communities of non-standard dialect speakers should switch to Standard American English. If a community speaks African American Vernacular English, for example, that's fine, and we are not arguing that they should all switch to SAE because "that's the way it's done around here [in the US, broadly speaking]". Rather, when a speaker is within that community, I fully expect them to speak in AAVE, because that's the way it's done around here [in the AAVE-speaking community].

However, for someone who grows up in the US primarily speaking a dialect other than SAE, it is also beneficial for them to learn SAE, because it's the standard in education, business, politics, etc. That doesn't mean they need to speak it at home or with their friends, but having the ability to use it (both in speaking and writing) is a crucial skill in our society.

There is huge untapped potential for teaching about language variation in early education. Discovering differences between people's language usage is fascinating, and it's a topic that's ripe for lots of in-classroom discussion and exploration. (Obviously I would think so, but I swear that my non-linguistic friends find it interesting as well.) The key is to treat all language variants on an equal footing, making it clear that no variant is inherently better or worse than any other. With this background, you can also teach the conventions of SAE, with the understanding that there is nothing inherently special about these particular conventions except that "that's the way it's done around here [in certain parts of society where you may want to get a job someday]".

MH2012 gchat statuses

As those who talk to me on gchat will know, my status messages for the last year have listed fake themes for this year's Mystery Hunt. Since I haven't gotten around to writing a proper review of the Hunt (and may not ever), I'll instead attempt to amuse you with my list of fake themes. (All gchat statuses were preceded by "MH2012:", except the ones that began with something else.) This also gives me a chance to credit people who suggested some of them, which I didn't do at the time.

The Carebear Hunt
All bagpipes, all the time
One Giant Sudoku
Cowboys vs. Aliens
a puzzling journey through the intriguing world of nonprofit administration (Credit: AJD)
A Historical Reenactment of the Stanford Prison Experiment
We Hid The Coin Somewhere On Campus Just Look Around Until You Find It (Credit: ES)
My Little Llamas
The coin is inside this live duck.
Protecting the health of consumers and ensuring fair practice in the international food trade. Brought to you by FAO/WHO.
Doing your taxes. (The winning team gets $0.01 back.)
MH 2012 has relocated: Welcome to the Harvard Mystery Hunt!
*More* videogames!
Instead of puzzles Hunt contained bobcat. Would not play again.
For Science!
Elvis is Alive!
Highlights Of The Millard Fillmore Administration
Writing the Mega Man meta
MH2012 the LARP
Download the MH2012 App for iPhone
Cure Cancer
Free Hugs
Sailor Moon
P =? NP
Atlas Shrugged
Where's Waldo
Has anyone seen my keys?
Clowns vs. Mimes
Dance of Dragons
Harry Potter 7 Part 2
Harry Potter 7 Part 3
Look, you know what, just take the coin.
Good Day MH2012 is having a profit in amount of US$145.8 million, which we seek your cooperation and partnership in investing for us, you will be rewarded with 20% of total sum. we hope to hear from you soon
Where have all the puzzles gone?
Mystery Hunt Science Theater 2012
The Social Network Hunt
Time's Mystery Hunt of the Year (Credit: TV)
Rites of Passage
Shock Treatment
Be vewy vewy quiet, I'm hunting mystwies.
Cloudy with a chance of puzzles
Justin Bieber
Where's Wall-E? http://www.hopewellstudios.com/images/stories/geekings/whereswalle1450.jpg (Credit: MVK)
Don't be evil.
The Last Huntbender
Rock Paper Scissors Tournament
Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock Tournament
Steve Jobs Memorial
Mission Impossible
Fun with Puns
The Rapture
The Raptor
Christmas in July in January
Weather Forecasting
The testsolving will continue until morale improves.
Entirely in Braille.
Every team gets a bale of hay. Somewhere in it is a needle inscribed with the location of the coin. (Credit: TV)
Happy Thanksgiving!
The Life and Times of Bon Jovi
40 puzzles is enough, right?
(40 metas, I mean.)
Music you listened to in high school
lolHunt 2012: i can haz puzzles?
5000 words on the use of water imagery in T.S. Eliot's _The Waste Land_, due Monday
The Republican primary race
Strange Loops
Vogon Poetry
Chaos In Shoes
The Wire
It's the end of the world as we know it.

MH2013: Someone Else's Problem (Congratulations, Manic Sages!)

End of the year lists

Rather than posting a LARP list, I'll give you two others.

Dance workshops I've attended:
Jan 8-9: Dax and Sarah (Irvine)
Feb 12-13: SD Stomp
Mar 31-Apr 3: Balboa Rendezvous (SD)
May 27-30: Camp Jitterbug (Seattle)
June 24-26: San Diego Lindy Exchange
July 21-24: Camp Hollywood (LA)
Aug 5-7: Lindy on the Rocks (Denver)
Aug 20: Balboa with Nick Williams (Irvine)
Sept 2-5: Camp Balboa Seattle
Sept 30-Oct 2: AZ Swing Jam (Phoenix)
Nov 18-20: Catalina Swing Dance Festival

Musicals I've seen:
Feb 20: Emma (The Old Globe)
Feb 26: Little Miss Sunshine (La Jolla Playhouse)
Oct 21: Hair (Civic Center Theatre)
Nov 23: Jesus Christ Superstar (La Jolla Playhouse)
and upcoming:
Dec 3: The Drowsy Chaperone (Coronado Playhouse)
and maybe also Some Lovers (The Old Globe)?

Going Private

I've just made all my previous journal entries friends-only (with a couple exceptions), and intend to post primarily friends-only entries in the future. So if you want to read my journal, make sure you're on my friends list! This change comes about because I'm approaching that time where I have to think about having a career, and what it's okay for future employers/students to see. I do still like the idea of having a public journal and will not be picky about who I add to my friends list, so don't be shy about asking to be included.

I wordled my thesis

Why you (yes, you) should use RSS feeds

If you read things on the internet, you should be using RSS feeds. Given that you're currently reading my livejournal, I think it's safe to say that you read things on the internet. Therefore you (yes, you) should be using RSS feeds.

Let be elaborate:

1. What's my motivation?

So here's the issue: I have a lot of friends on livejournal. The majority post an entry once a week, at most. For many it's more like once a month, or even once a year. So first off, I have a huge number of people to keep track of, and second, it's really hard to keep track of those people who don't post very often. (If they only post once a month, it's clearly not worth my checking their journal every day. But if I only check once a month, I risk only seeing their posts weeks too late. More realistically, if I only intend to check on something once a month, I'll probably just forget about it and never check it at all.)

"But Emily!" you are undoubtedly screaming by now, "That's what your friends page is for!" And indeed, by reading all my friends' journals together on one page, I avoid both of the above issues. I only have one page to keep track of, not one hundred. And although any individual friend may only post sporadically, they average out to guarantee me multiple posts a day.

2. The world outside livejournal

Okay, so I've solved the livejournal problem. But I encounter more or less the same situation all over the web, with non-livejournal blogs, webcomics, social bookmarking, newspapers, and any other website whose updates I want to keep track of. What I need is something like a friends page to collect all of these updates, not just the ones from livejournal. Hello, RSS feeds.

3. What are RSS feeds anyway?
RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication. "Syndication", as in, that stuff that you want to read. "Really Simple", as in, if you're computer literate enough to have a livejournal account, you can definitely handle RSS.

An RSS feed is basically a list that a website publishes of its recent updates. Most of the websites that you might want to keep up with (like all those types of sites that I listed above) will have an RSS feed that you can follow. The handy thing about RSS feeds is that they all work the same way, no matter what website they're from. That means that you can keep track of not just all your livejournal friends but all your websites together in one place.

4. The WH-word that doesn't begin with "wh" (ie. How)
To read RSS feeds, you need a feed reader. There are lots of these in existence. Personally, I use Sage, which is a Firefox add-on. It describes itself as providing "a lot of what you need and not much of what you don't", which I find accurate. It's very easy to install and use, and it doesn't do anything unexpected or annoying. One of the things I most like about it is that rather than collecting everything onto one website, it links to each post/article/thing individually, so that things retain their home websites' appearances (unlike your livejournal friends page, which gives all your friends' entries your own journal's appearance).

If you don't want to install anything new or don't use Firefox, another option is Google Reader. I don't use Google Reader, so I can't tell you much about it, but I hear good things. (And come on, it's Google. Of course it's good.) If you like having everything actually collected onto one page with the same formatting (as I don't), Google Reader does that. It also has social bookmarking built-in, so if you use gmail, for example, it will automatically collect recommendations from your gmail contacts who are also using it.

In fact, you may be following an RSS feed or two already without knowing it. Livejournal's syndicated feeds are using RSS or something similar. You could just continue to read all your RSS feeds through livejournal, but it has the major disadvantage that only paid members can create new feeds, which means that if you as a non-paid member want to follow a less popular blog, you may not be able to. Plus, following feeds just isn't what livejournal was really designed for. So while it works, there are much better interfaces available.

5. Random Fine Print (If you don't care, skip to Section 6.)

RSS is actually only one example of the more general phenomenon of syndicated feeds. Atom feeds are another popular one. They work exactly the same way, and most feed readers will treat them exactly the same, so you'll never actually need to know which your dealing with. Isn't technology nice sometimes?

6. Conclusion
Try it. Please. If you don't like it, you can stop, and I won't be mad. But for me, having a feed reader set up has totally changed the way I look at the internet. It's very liberating to know that even if something isn't updating consistently enough for you to check it on a regular basis, you can still be informed as soon as something does happen. It allows you to take advantage of new content on a lot of great websites that you'd probably be missing otherwise (because, let's face it, you can't count on great things happening on schedule). It may not sound earth-shattering right now, but give it a couple months and I bet you'll be shocked by how much better it allows you to keep up with things online.

7. An Exercise for the Reader
Go forth and read! And come back in a couple months and tell me how it's going.

Mystery Hunt thoughts

Thoughts on this year's Mystery Hunt from a member of Codex Magliabechiano.

Thought #1: Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!
That's clearly the most important thing to say. I had a fabulous time. Even though I was hunting remotely! Last year was bad: it was my first year solving remotely, and internet went down in my building, so I was solving with very flaky pirated wireless, and the whole thing was just intensely frustrating.

So this year, in constrast, I just don't have internet at home period. (We're getting it soon, but not soon enough.) But I knew that in advance. And I now have 24 hour access to my office at the university. Which is actually a fantastic place to solve because there's a printer, and all the office supplies I could want, and a kitchen to store food and make tea, and so on. So I had a good set-up. And Codex did fabulously with keeping in touch with remote solvers. Of course we're generally good about it, but I'm told this year was exceptionally good in terms of keeping in touch over the chat rooms and such. Certainly, I felt very connected. We had a webcam in one room so I could spy on people, and the coordinator on duty was always in the main chatroom, and people were very friendly about passing along information about the story behind the hunt and all that good stuff.

Thoughts #2 - n: (Spoilers for many puzzles)Collapse )

Thought #n+1: I seriously want to play Escape from Zyzzlvania. I hear that some of my teammates did right after the hunt ended. They say it's a great game for 4am but wouldn't necessarily recommend it for any other time. So, who's up for a 4am game of Escape from Zyzzlvania next time I'm in Boston?

Two lj posts in one day?!?

I have a blog! Well, not just me. But HRSFANS. It links to Awesome Stuff on the internet of the variety that anyone who reads my livejournal will likely find interesting. So go read it!


More Mystery Hunt thoughts: Metas

Background: The meta puzzles in this year's Mystery Hunt all involved some information besides just the puzzle answers from a given round. Other information generally came in the form of videos, which gave pictures of movie stars, lists of states, and such that ended up being relevant to solve each round's meta. Some people have taken to calling this type of meta a "shell meta", in contrast with a "pure meta", which uses only the answer words. (The 2006 Hunt, for example, had pure metas.)

My thoughts: I'm surprised by the number of people who seem to think that pure metas are on the whole better or more elegant than shell metas. It's probably true that pure metas are generally more constrained, since absolutely all the necessary information needs to be packed into the answer words, and I guess satisfying contraints is one measure of elegance. But even if pure metas are more constrained on average, it's going to vary a lot from puzzle to puzzle. And while constraints can contribute to elegance, they also restrict what sort of puzzle you can write. In particular, pure metas generally don't take you through as many steps as another puzzle would: there's maybe one step that's easy to notice (sort by word length, say), and then one "aha" step (all contain animo acid symbols), and then the answer just falls out. Which is fine: they're generally clever and fun to solve.

But for the Harvard Puzzle Hunt, at least, we've been strongly in favor of shell metas for the past two years, on the grounds that they allow us more flexibility to have a really awesome metapuzzle. When it comes down to it, people are racing to solving metapuzzles: you can skip as many other puzzles as you like as long as you can solve the metas. And shouldn't your most important puzzles be your coolest? Shell metas give you the flexibility to create much more elaborate puzzles than you could otherwise hide in your answer words. Despite its other problems, I think this year's round 8 meta was a good example of doing something really nifty with your answers that could never have been clued within the answers themselves.

So in general, I don't think either type is necessarily better or more elegant. For the Mystery Hunt in particular, I'm happy to see a mix of the two types (at least from year to year, if not necessarily within the same Hunt). For the Harvard Puzzle Hunt, I continue to favor shell metas: I think an awesome culminating puzzle is a great way to end a one-round Hunt.