random Archives

May 11, 2007

we need a Department of Taste.

I got my new passport today.

I had a pretty good idea that it would be one of the new RFID passports, but what I didn't realize is that it's also been re-designed. It's not enough that passports from the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave be safe, secure, and fraud proof, you see.

Looking at the passport, I would guess that the Department of State had a lengthy consultation with fourth-grade civics classes across the country, maybe culminating in a design competition. The object of this exercise was to produce a passport that would, upon viewing, compel the bearer to arise, place hand on heart, and burst out with a rendition of "America the Beautiful."

The onslaught of patriotism begins on the inside front cover, with the last few lines of the national anthem in a manuscript font (think of all those reproductions of the Declaration of Independence) hovering over an artist's impression of, presumably, Francis Scott Key looking toward Fort McHenry. The page that bears the Secretary of State's message to the reader (now in Spanish, as well as English and French) also bears a quote from Abraham Lincoln. The photo page is accompanied by an extract from the Constitution, grand "We the People" and everything, observed by a large bald eagle. Flipping through the passport, the viewer is treated to an inspiring image of some aspect of America the Beautiful and a patriotic quote on every page; finally, the inside back cover carries an inspiring vista of Space The Final Frontier, accompanied by a quote from Ellison S. Onizuka.

I'm not sure I'll be able to cross borders with a straight face anymore.

March 4, 2008

the roots of all nerdiness

The game board
Originally uploaded by tla.

I have been branching out of my own field for the past couple of weeks, and attending a comparative philology seminar -- although I have a thing for languages, I have never looked very much at linguistics. It happens that the seminar is focusing this term upon Armenian, a language I know to some extent, which means that it's easier for me to follow the talks than it might otherwise be.

The speaker for today was forced to cancel his appearance on short notice, but the ever-resourceful convenors of the seminar came up with a brilliant substitution. Who knew that Indo-European phonology could be turned into a board game?

Each player (or team) draws a card from a shuffled deck. The card has an Indo-European root word and a modern-language word (in this case, all of the modern words were Armenian) into which the root word has evolved. On the back of the card there is a sequence of stages that the evolution may have taken. This sequence is handy if a player (e.g. me) knows pretty much nothing about linguistics or phonology. On the other hand, if a player is good at phonology, he is free to arrive at a different (possibly shorter) route of evolution, as long as it is valid. For example, the card that my team drew was:

*kwóteros > ór (the nominative / accusative relative pronoun)

The steps on the back of the card were:
1. *kwóteros > óteros
2. *óteros > óyeros
3. *óyeros > óeros
4. *óeros > óros
5. *óros > órokʿ
6. *órokʿ > órkʿ
7. *órkʿ > ór

Now certain of these changes must happen before others; for example, the 'y' in step #3 can't drop out until the 't' has become a 'y' in step #2. Others can happen independently; for example, it doesn't matter whether the first step I play for is the loss of initial kʿ in step #1, the changing of the last consonant from s to kʿ in step #5, or the change from t to y in step #2.

So everyone has his card, and his token; these tokens all get placed on the "Start" square of the board. Each player rolls between 1 and 10 dice; each die has a 50% chance of rolling a 1, a 33% chance of rolling a 2, and a 17% chance of rolling a 0. Add up the numbers, move the prescribed number of spaces in any direction you like. Each square represents a known phoneme shift in Indo-European, e.g. "*t > y between vowels" or " *t > tʿ ". In our example above, I very much don't want to land on the latter square -- if the t in my initial word changes to an aspirated t, it cannot then change into a y, and my word evolution will be torpedoed. The winner is the first player who has travelled around the board landing on all the squares necessary to evolve his word in a workable order, without making a wrong move. Squares that represent changes that are not applicable to your word (e.g. "*d > t") are safe, but don't help you make progress.

An advanced version of the game gives players three or four words to work on at the same time. The same principle applies, but here the player must be careful to avoid squares that will derail the evolution of any of his words. On the other hand, of course, a single square might progress the evolution of all three!

One of the attendees proposed a variant in which one player's move affects the other players; this would open the possibility of player attacks on each other. I think this would be brilliant, although there would have to be a mechanism whereby a player can recover from a bad shift. Any game designers out there want to have a crack at it?

February 17, 2009

making my gratitude public

I'll be handing in my D.Phil. thesis this week, after two and a half years of work and vastly more writing than I once thought myself capable of.

Since it's the sort of thing that deserves to be posted publicly, and usually ends up going inside the cover of a work that collects dust and never gets consulted again, I thought I should reproduce my acknowledgments here. It really would have been impossible without you.

Any large undertaking incurs many debts of gratitude, and this thesis has been no exception. My profound thanks must go to my husband, Mike Knell, who initially encouraged me to return for the D.Phil. program, and who has ensured constant moral support, occasional typing assistance, and uninterrupted supplies of tea. The thesis would have been equally impossible without the support of my supervisor, Prof. Theo M. van Lint, who has seen me through with patience, humour, and frequent reminders that literature is as important as history.

I would also like to thank the following people and institutions:
     The Mekhitarist Fathers of Venice and Vienna, the Maštocʿ Institute of Ancient Manuscripts (Matenadaran) in Yerevan, the British Library, the Bibliothèque Nationale, and the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library, for graciously providing physical access to, and digital copies of, the manuscripts of the Chronicle.
     The Colin Matthew fund of St. Hugh's College, the faculty fund of the Oriental Institute, and Dr. Jean Knell, who each provided financial assistance necessary to visit these libraries; as well as the Nubar Pasha fund, who provided the financial means to obtain the necessary manuscript reproductions.
     Linacre College, for their award of a Mary Blaschko Graduate Scholarship for 2006–2008 which enabled me to begin the D.Phil. degree, their assistance with conference travel via the Old Members' Trust, and their indispensable assistance in various administrative matters.
     Dr. James Cotton of Queen Mary, University of London, who provided invaluable advice and assistance in the application of phylogenetics to my manuscript data.
     Lou Burnard and Dr. James Cummings of the Oxford Text Archive, who advised on the possibilities of TEI as a format for collation output and critical edition.
     My legion of proofreaders, including Dr. Alan Knell, Dr. Jasmin Raufer, Dr. Tim Stadelmann, Michael Kröll, and Andromeda Yelton.
     The members of the Verein, for unfailing hospitality on my multiple visits to the city and the library there, and for the opportunity to speak about my work on Encritic to the Twin Cities Perl Workshop; and the members of the London Perl Mongers, who were ever on hand to assist with technical matters.

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