Language and Linguistics


I think a lot about assertions, things that people assert as true, very often without acknowledging their personal bias. To be fair, most of us are so immersed in our ideologies that we’re not aware of how they are compelling us toward bias.

The title of this post refers to some of the kinds of assertions I hear, by which someone states something as a fact:

  • The way things are — some assertion about fact, whether it has to do with science, economics, politics, or some other sphere. One of my favorite manifestations is when someone begins an utterance with the stark word “Fact,” followed by a colon to emphasize the factiness of what follows, then followed by an unquestioned assertion.
  • The way things were — some statement about history or the past. For example, such and such Egyptian dynasty ruled in such and such time period, or some assertion about why humans came down from the trees to live on the savanna.
  • What is true — This is really akin to the other two kinds of assertions I’m pointing to, but maybe in this case I’m thinking about an assertion that goes beyond a mere statement of some fact. Some examples might be that God exists or that he doesn’t, or that evolution is an incontrovertible fact.

An assertion might be well supported, but what I’m trying to spotlight here is the common practice of making an assertion without acknowledging the background and context surrounding the assertion and the person making it. One result is that people get into fierce arguments even though they aren’t really arguing about the same thing.

Here are some of the kinds of influences that one might make clear to provide context to an assertion:

  • The lines of evidence behind the assertion — Is the assertion based on scientific or scholarly research? Sometimes a speaker will make an assertion, basing his or her statement on the consensus within a profession or academic field. (Academic or scientific consensus doesn’t always mean the same thing as the everyday understanding of what constitutes a consensus.) One of the problems here is that there may actually be a minority that disputes the consensus view. There might be a legitimate critique that isn’t getting acknowledged when the speaker makes the assertion.
  • Assumptions — Many assertions are based in part on ideas or constructs that are taken for granted. As with lines of evidence, there might be a legitimate minority critique of a given assumption. One example would be dating a past event based on the conventional chronologies hypothesized by historians and archaeologists.
  • Definition of terms — Often people get into arguments without establishing and agreeing on the meaning of the point they are discussing. For example, people argue about whether evolution is true without coming to a prior understanding of what they mean by evolution.
  • The ideological leanings of the speaker — For someone who wants to evaluate an assertion, it could be useful to know something about the speaker’s ideological convictions. Is the speaker a theist? An atheist? A free-market fundamentalist? An eco-socialist? One problem here is that many people don’t like to admit that they subscribe to an ideology or aren’t even aware of it.
  • The speaker’s authority for making the assertion — When evaluating an assertion, it can be useful to know the speaker’s credentials.
  • The speaker’s underlying agenda — As with ideology, many speakers don’t like to own up to their agendas, which are often political or ideologically-driven.

As is often the case with this writing project, my purpose here is to set out some basic ideas with the intention of coming back later to revise and add ideas and examples.

ARB — 3 Oct. 2013

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I’ve been looking for a way to use speech recognition to automate the transcription of interviews, meetings, speeches, conference presentations, and so on.

I spend a lot of time on the phone interviewing experts for the articles and reports I write. Normally I conduct the interview with a headset and do my best to type a transcript of what is said. I’m slow and a terrible typist, so my transcript misses a lot and comes out with many misspellings that are impossible to correct. Usually for an hour-long interview it takes me another hour to go through and fix mistakes, filling in gaps, and making guesses at uninterpretable words.

I would greatly benefit from a speech recognition solution that could create a fairly accurate transcript from audio, for example, live over the phone or from an mp3 file.

This need was emphasized to me even more this week, when I attended a conference and spent two days trying to take notes and capture useful quotes from speakers. I have a digital voice recorder and have all of the presentations in mp3 format, but it’s going to be quite a challenge to comb through all of that audio to find relevant quotes for the articles I will be writing about the conference. How much easier it would be it I had a software application that could convert all of those mp3s into fairly accurate text transcripts!

Unfortunately, it appears that voice recognition software is not ready to handle meetings and so on where multiple voices are involved. These systems have to be trained to recognized the voice of a single user.

I’m using this blog post to mark and share some possible solutions I have encountered. I will plan to add to this list as time goes — if and when the technology continues to improve.

+ Dragon Naturally Speaking by Nuance is supposed to be the best reasonably-priced speech recognition software for professional use. Nuance says Dragon is not able to transcribe multiple voices, but I’m tempted to shell out the $200 just to see what kind of results I might get with it. Suppose it were 50 percent accurate transcribing unfamiliar voices? That might be good enough for me.

+ Windows has its own built-in speech recognition capability. I plan to test this out to see whether I can make it work somehow. However, it’s hard to believe that Microsoft could come up with a better solution than a specialist company like Nuance.

+ One suggestion I’ve run into a lot is to transcribe a meeting or lecture by “parroting” or “re-speaking.” In other words, using speech rec software like Dragon, you listen to the recording of the meeting on headphones and repeat what you hear into your computer mic. Because Dragon is trained to your voice, it can create an automatic transcript. Sounds laborious, but it would probably be better that having to type it all out myself.

+ I also heard about a company called Koemei that has a cloud-based solution for converting video and audio assets into text. Looks as if this might work pretty well, however, their entry-level service is $149 per month. That sounds like a lot, but maybe someday…. For $20 per month I would definitely try it.

+ Another idea I have thought of is to call my Google Voice number and play the audio recording into my voicemail. Google Voice automatically transcribes my voicemails into text and often does an acceptable job — good enough so I could paste the results into a word processor and make quick corrections. I’m not sure yet if Google Voice can handle long audio streams, though. I’m thinking about testing this solution to see if I can make it work somehow.

+ Here’s an interesting video by Chaelaz showing how to use YouTube’s closed-captioning transcription service to convert audio to text. Looks as if you would have to create a video first and upload it to YouTube, but that’s an interesting possible work-around for what I’m trying to do.

ARB — 21 June 2013

The aspect of the climate change controversy (and other issues in public discourse) that intrigues me most of all is the ability of people on opposite sides to talk past each other. I say it intrigues me, but it also saddens me in a sense, as I value dialogue, engagement, and listening.

Partisan rhetoric seems designed to paint the other side as extremist and wicked. The rhetor seems willing to present an argument in a one-sided, deceptive manner so as to influence public sentiment and achieve a political agenda.

In the wrangling over climate change, the parties throw around terms like “anti-science,” “hoax,” “deniers,” “pseudo-science,” junk science,” and “anti-business,” trigger words that demonize the other side.

So I enjoyed reading Will J. Grant and Rod Lamberts’ post today over at The Conversation, “Who’s afraid of big, bad coal? Al Gore’s ‘climate reality’ is a pointless fairytale.” Grant and Lamberts’ post is a commentary on Gore’s new Climate Reality Project. They acknowledge that Gore’s project is “the kind of campaign that will do a lot for those who want to do something about climate change,” but feel that it will do “little for anyone else.” Their question is, “Where is the mechanism here that will finally get the unconverted or the hostile to agree with the need to take action on climate change?”

What most interested me was their criticism of Gore’s promotional video, in which he accuses “Big Oil” and “Big Coal” of evil manipulations. This is ridiculous, Grant and Lamberts write:

Those who got into the coal and oil industries did so for the simple goal of making a profit by providing us with the energy we need for the modern economy. They didn’t do it to be evil. They don’t want to destroy the world. They are not the nefarious oligarchs that so many would have you believe.

Yes, we now know that the carbon pollution produced by the coal and oil industries is a big problem for society. We all need to wean ourselves off such carbon intensive energy.

But we’re not going to do it by misrepresenting people’s intentions and calling them names. We’re not going to do it by punishing people who acted in good faith.

We’re only going to convince people to change by lining up their profit motive with everyone’s need for a low-carbon economy.

Seems like the kind of open, refreshing approach that can lead to actual dialogue over critical issues.

AB — 19 July 2011

A BBC article today (3 August 2010) highlights the discovery of a small box of bones reputed to be the remains of John the Baptizer, who announced Jesus’ appearance as Messiah and baptized him, and who was later executed by Herod Antipas — see “Remains of St John the Baptist ‘found’.”

I’m always intrigued by archaeological discoveries that relate to Biblical accounts. The article includes a video showing the find, and it’s interesting to watch (aside from some silly clerical comments about the find’s significance).

But more than anything, what this article brought to mind was the frequent and peculiar use of quotation marks (or single quotation marks, more accurately) by BBC’s headline writers. Look at the headline again:

Remains of St John the Baptist ‘found’

Now in standard written American English, a writer would most often use quotation marks in this way to express irony or skepticism. (For example, “My neighbor plays that ‘music’ too loud,” perhaps referring to rap or heavy metal.)

But in the case of the story about John’s bones, what is the headline writer skeptical about? Maybe the writer is doubtful that these bones were really ‘found’? Perhaps the writer suspects that some Orthodox priest fabricated them?

I’ve noticed other puzzling uses of quotation marks in BBC headlines. Here are some examples:

  • BP ready to plug ‘biggest leak’
  • ‘Ground Zero mosque’ moves closer
  • State ‘can challenge health law’
  • Paraguay star Cabanas ‘recalls little’ of shooting
  • Schumacher ‘almost disqualified’

My best guess would be that this practice has something to do with attribution —  the headline writer is limited by a certain number of characters, but doesn’t want to stick his neck out by actually calling the Cordoba House cultural center “the Ground Zero mosque.” So he has decided to put quotation marks around the phrase to indicate that other people are calling it the Ground Zero mosque but that he doesn’t feel comfortable calling it that.

I’ll bet this practice has been thrashed out after many days of argument at the BBC offices.

After a little investigation I have found that quotation marks used to express irony or skepticism are called “scare quotes.” The gestural version is called “air quotes.” Somehow in all my years as a writer and English student, I have never come across these terms. See the Wikipedia article about “Scare quotes.”

The Wikipedia editors write that, besides denoting irony or skepticism, scare quotes can “serve to distance the writer from the quoted content” and to “convey a neutral attitude on the part of the writer, while distancing the writer from the terminology in question.”

This could be the BBC’s reasoning for the odd way it uses single quotation marks in its headlines. (These might be called “inverted commas” in the hallowed halls of the BBC.)

I also found a useful discussion of the BBC headline conundrum at Wordwizard, a surprisingly active discussion forum dedicated to English words and usage — see “The BBC’s use of quotation marks.” In the discussion, which took place in December 2009, Erik Kowal shares these insights:

This habit of the BBC’s web writers is difficult to understand. I presume that sometimes they are quoting someone without direct attribution, but this does not explain why they do it when the facts described within quotation marks are unquestionable and do not need to be signalled as being opinions or unchecked assertions (which the BBC should not be basing its news stories on in any case).

The practice makes it appear as though the BBC has no confidence in its own reporting, or that it is suggesting that its sources are not to be trusted. Regardless, it is highly irritating and even patronizing.

It also reminds me of the equally annoying habit that some people have of giving capitals For No Real Reason to Certain Words they feel are Particularly Important.

AB — 3 August 2010

The announcement of the winner of the National Hollerin’ Contest held over the past weekend in Spivey’s Corner, North Carolina, USA, reminded me of this time-honored southern tradition. I first became aware of it when a rock festival I attended about 40 years ago included a marvelous performance by the winner of the contest, who hollered a fantastic version of “Old Time Religion.”

This year, Tony Peacock of Siler City, NC, won the contest with a rendition of Gershwin’s “Summertime,” hollered in just under four minutes. See the announcement today in the News & Observer: “N.C. hollerer wins with ‘Summertime.'”

There are some things that can happen only in North Carolina, and this is one of them. (Other examples are Benson’s Mule Days, the town of Lizard Lick, and the correct understanding of what constitutes barbecue — but we can discuss those another day.)

It’s a crime that there is no video of Peacock’s performance on YouTube, but this video from a few years ago has some nice examples of hollerin’, ending with a version of “Amazing Grace”:

In this video, the hollerer does a little lecturing about the practice:

AB — 22 June 2010

Sound designer Meara O’Reilly has posted a fascinating entry on BoingBoing about how the various tones generated in the human voice tract generate recognizable speech — see “Whistling Speech.”

O’Reilly highlights the work of Haskins Laboratories, a research institute in New Haven, Conn., that does work on speech, language, reading, and their biological basis. Here’s a direct link to a great demo by Haskins showing how three different tones that don’t make sense individually can combine to make recognizable speech. Below the tone chart is a series of links allowing you to play the different tones separately and in combination.

AB — 17 March 2010

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, the expression “blue moon” usually has nothing to do with the moon’s color.

Tonight’s full moon is a “blue moon,” meaning it’s the second full moon of December 2009 — one of those things that doesn’t happen very often, as the moon is full every 28 days and the longest months are 31 days. We get a blue moon once every two or three years.

History of the Blue Moon

Historically, the phrase “blue moon” has been used mostly as a general term for a very unusual event, according to the Wikipedia entry. It’s only been used to refer to the second full moon in a month since 1946.

Wikipedia gives two alternative explanations for the origin of the term:

1. A 1528 pamphlet critical of the clergy, which ranted that “Yf they say the mone is belewe / We must believe that it is true.” So this indicates that the phrase was used to refer to “absurdities and impossibilities” in general.

2. The other explanation rests on an alternative meaning for “belewe” in Old English: betrayer. In this case, the moon could be called a betrayer if it led to a mistake in calculating when Easter should occur.

The Blue Moon in Song

The “Blue Moon” has been the subject of popular songs — following are some of the greatest (all these links take you to samples of the cuts mentioned):

“Blue Moon” — Maybe the best-known version is the doo-wop version recorded by the Marcels in 1961. The song was actually written in 1934 by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. It’s been recorded by many artists, but my personal favorite is Bob Dylan’s version on his 1989 Self Portrait album.

“Blue Moon of Kentucky” — A bluegrass song written by Bill Monroe, but also recorded in a more rockin’ version by Elvis Presley. I think my favorite version, though, is the one by Patsy Cline.

“Blue Moon Nights” — Appears on John Fogerty’s excellent solo album Blue Moon Swamp.

“Once in a Very Blue Moon” — My favorite “blue moon” song of all is this exquisite number by Nancy Griffith, co-written with Pat Alger.

Interestingly, the Wikipedia entry does say that sometimes the moon actually can look blue because of smoke or dust in the atmosphere.

AB — 31 December 2009

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