November 2020: Proximity chat in Wired, bears in xkcd, vaccines in Jolene

I wrote an article for Wired this month summing up the results of my experiments in having more fluid conversational groupings (popularly known as “parties”) online.

The Zoom-birthday-party-slash-quiz-show is not terrible, and it is better than nothing—not to mention far better than hosting a Fun Party for Viral Particles in your friends’ respiratory tracts. But this birthday-board-meeting simply doesn’t feel like a party. (I’d hereby like to apologize to my friends who’ve hosted said Zoom gatherings. No really, please invite me back next year, it’s the medium that’s at fault!) One possible solution is to embrace the necessary structure of large Zoom events, and organize a more formal type of fun, like book clubs and game nights and powerpoint karaoke and show-and-tell events.

But, internet help me, I was still determined to have an actual virtual party. Which raises the question: If getting a bunch of people together on a video call doesn’t feel like a party, then what does?

A Mission to Make Virtual Parties *Actually* Fun

I also made a cameo in an xkcd comic. (Possibly twice, if you interpret this one as a subtweet.) I would like to thank everyone for their concern, but it is actually very comfortable here in the stomach of the Eldritch Spirit of the Brown One and I am getting some very interesting fieldwork done with this ursine speaker of Proto-Germanic so please do not be alarmed.

I late-night-wrote a parody version of “Jolene” but about vaccines (“Vaccine, Vaccine, Vaccine, Vaciiiiine / I’m begging you please go in my arm”) which someone made an excellent video recording of and then it got picked up by quite a lot of media outlets, including the BBC, New York Times (print), Associated Press, Boston Globe, and Fortune. (Youtube version, for posterity.) Still no word on whether Dolly Parton herself has seen it yet, which would be thoroughly incredible.

I did a virtual discussion event with Maria Dahvana Headley (translator of the new “bro” Beowulf edition) and Alena Smith (creator of the show Dickinson) about translation and the juxtaposition of historical texts with modern language styles. It was part of Predictive Text, a new series I’m doing with Slate’s Future Tense, and the archive video is online.

I also did a talk at the Australian Educational Podcasting Conference: From mythbusting to metaphors – Learning from cross-disciplinary research to communicate complex topics better. (Not recorded, but my slides are at the link.)

A few more Crash Course Linguistics episodes went up this month (we’re taking a few weeks off this month and next for assorted holidays this time of year).

The main episode of Lingthusiasm was about how sonority shapes our sense of what a possible word is in various languages and the bonus episode was a behind-the-scenes episode about the making of Crash Course Linguistics with Jessi Grieser. It was also our anniversary month — we’ve now been making Lingthusiasm for four years! Thank you to everyone who’s helped spread the word about the show, both for our anniversary and in general. We know that parasocial relationships are especially important in isolation and it’s been an honour to be that for so many people this year.

I got sent a review copy of The Language Lover’s Puzzle Book, which is exactly the sort of book that I wish had been available to me as a 15 year old budding linguist and which I hope you get for language or puzzle fans in your life, of any age. Thread with some pictures and impressions.

I also read and greatly enjoyed the linguistic aspects of A Memory Called Empire, which includes poetic descriptions of fifteen syllable verbs and a very neat naming system loosely inspired by the Aztecs. More tweets to come when I eventually get my hands on a paper copy, read it now so you can follow along even better!

Media:

Selected tweets:

Selected blog posts:

This month’s image is, obviously, xkcd!Gretchen. Seriously, look at that hair, I’m so impressed!

January 2020: a robo-generated episode of Lingthusiasm, Lingthusiasm Discord server, LingComm Grant, and xkcd hovertext

I got namechecked in the hovertext of an xkcd comic this month, which may have resulted in more congratulatory messages from friends than when my book was reviewed in the New York Times, so, you know, it’s good to see that everyone has their priorities on track.

My Wired article about code being based on English got translated into Japanese for Wired Japan. I can’t actually read it, but I suppose that’s the point. Here’s the English version again if you missed it.

Several exciting Lingthusiasm-related announcements! 

Our main episode on Lingthusiasm was an interview with Janelle Shane, who the Very Online might recognize as that person who gets neural nets to come up with weird names for ice cream flavours, colour terms, and other delightfully strange experiments. We talked about how machines understand language (and don’t) and her excellent new book You Look Like A Thing And I Love You.

We also challenged Janelle to train a neural net on Lingthusiasm episode transcripts, which Lauren and I performed to great hilarity in a special bonus episode (technically February’s bonus, but released at the same time because we didn’t want to make you wait). Here’s a short excerpt:

Gretchen: “We’re gonna start with the question of, ‘How do we spell “soup”?’ How do we spell soup?”
Lauren: “Yes. I had to say ‘soup’ in the first 10 minutes or so of this episode because I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh! I just can’t spell “soup.”’”
Gretchen: “Oh, my gosh! I just can’t spell ‘soup.’”
Lauren: “Oh, my gosh! I just cannot spell ‘soup.’”
Gretchen: “Oh, my gosh! I just cannot spell ‘soup.’”
Lauren: “Oh, my gosh! I do not know how to spell ‘soup.’”
Gretchen: “I know how to spell ‘soup.’”
Lauren: “Oh, my gosh! I have never been able to sell ‘soup.’”
Gretchen: “I’m sorry, Lauren, but I can’t spell ‘soup.’”
Lauren: “Oh, my gosh! I’m so sorry.”
Gretchen: “Thank you, Lauren.”
Lauren: “We are very sorry. This is a problem.”
Gretchen: “Sorry, Lauren.”
Lauren: “Can I borrow you some soup?”
Gretchen: “Yeah.”
Lauren: “And soup.”
Gretchen: “And, you know, I think it’s a good question.”
Lauren: The thing thinks we’re very into soup.
Gretchen: We’re in a soup loop.
Janelle: I love it.

As you may have noticed, GPT-2 did okay at figuring out the tone of a Lingthusiasm episode and the back-and-forth turntaking between me and Lauren, but as for the content…let’s just say that we don’t vouch for any of the linguistics in this particular episode. But we do vouch for the hilarity.

Technically, January’s bonus episode was about predicting the future of English, so you effectively get two bonuses this month! Make sure to also read Janelle’s blog post about making the robo-generated Lingthusiasm episode.

We also made a Discord server (easy to use chatroom) for Lingthusiasm patrons, thus solving the problem of “Your podcast got me into linguistics, but now I don’t have people to fan out about language with! Where do I make lingthusiastic friends?” Here’s how to join.

Finally, we announced the LingComm Grant, a $500 (USD) grant that we’re giving out to help another linguistics communication project, thanks to the support of the Lingthusiasm patrons! See the announcement thread or check out our new LingComm.org website for details.

I started the year by attending the Linguistic Society of America annual meeting, this year in New Orleans. As usual, I ran a lingwiki Wikipedia editathon and judged the Five Minute Linguist competition.

This month’s media list, which is finally calming down again to something resembling normalcy:

National Print/Top Online:

Newsletters:

  • Math With Bad Drawings – roundup “Books I loved in 2019”– 1/6
  • Dan Pink’s Pinkcast newsletter – roundup “my 4 favorite books of 2019”– 1/7

Local Print/Online:

Selected tweets:

Selected blog posts:

This month’s photo is the obligatory screenshot of the hovertext in the xkcd comic containing my name.

ok okay xkcd