Monday, December 11, 2017

Tongues of Conquest: A Powerful Address

This Blog Was Written By 
John Ribauldo

In his first address to the United Nations general assembly, U.S. President Donald Trump employed a variety of rhetorical approaches to advance the interests of American foreign policy. Although Trump campaigned on the idea that he speaks plainly and not to obscure truth― a quality he felt differentiates himself from other politicians― his language was equally as frustrating and steeped in assumptions. Using a rhetoric mastered by his political opponents and predecessors, President Trump is able to mask his administration’s agenda with the appearance of normalcy.

Most notably, the President uses specific terms of address to refer to other nations― particularly those under the immediate crosshairs of his foreign policy. Without mentioning either Iran or North Korea (DPRK) by name, in the third minute of the address, Trump references “rogue regimes” that “support terrorists and threaten their own people with the most destructive weapons known to man”. Being steeped in the rhetoric of today, we can infer that Iran and North Korea are the targets of this statement. 

Many nations, including some key partners to the United States, have murky connections to terrorist groups, yet when we hear President Trump speak about state-sponsored terrorism, we immediately think only of Iran. Likewise, despite the fact that several nations possess nuclear weapons (and that the US is the only country to have ever used nuclear weapons in combat), the association with “the most destructive weapons known to man” is firmly cemented onto both Iran and North Korea. Why is this? It’s all about those pesky terms of address!

Trump is able to make such strong references to the targets of his regime because the American mass media has associated the “boogie man”-like phrases with countries like Iran or North Korea. Trump is simply tapping into a reservoir of linguistic trickery that was assembled by such previous leaders as George Bush and Barack Obama. Trump continues to use these empty scare-words against other targets of US foreign policy: Syria is a tyrant’s dictatorship, Venezuela is a failed state, and Cuba is a rogue socialist nightmare.

Mass media has created easily accessible and shared terms for the international community to use when referencing other nations. This is a very useful tool for whoever gets to set these terms, because these terms’ implications can be immensely powerful and indicative of how international relations are conducted.

Not only do these terms of address set the narrative for how we discuss and think about countries unaligned with U.S. interests, but it also facilitates the exertion of power; i.e. when President Trump refers to North Korea as a rogue regime, he isn’t just referencing a country, he’s making a call to action. Speech acts are utterances that do something or accomplish a goal. By strongly condemning North Korea, President Trump is commanding his international constituents and junior partners to join him in the condemnation and ostracization of North Korea.

By subtly tapping into the wealth of established communicative practices that he inherited from presidents past, Mr. Trump is given a variety of ways through which his mere words could command attention, mobilize nations, and conquer the narrative.

In Defense of Mumble Rap: Dismissing Haters in the New Age of Poesy

This Blog Post Was Written By 
John Ribaudo 

2016 and 17 were― as most years are― exciting for hip-hop music, introducing us to countless new entries to the hip-hop canon and a host of new sounds. Of these new additions is the contentious category of “mumble rap”. The term was well characterized by Wiz Khalifa in reference to fellow artist, Desiigner, as an appraisal of Desiigner’s innovative lyricism and sound:
"We call it mumble rap. It ain't no disrespect to the lil homies, they don't want to rap. It's cool for now, it's going to evolve. Those artists, if they want to stay around, they'll figure out the next thing to do. But right now, that's what's poppin”.

Although mumble rap has been well received by millions of fans, it also has an (un)fair share of detractors. Many opponents to the sub-genre insinuate that mumble rap is childish, unskilled, and even disrespectful. Some of the new performers who belong to this new sub-genre have playful antics, and some may even fail to honor their legendary predecessors, but one critique of mumble rap which is just wrong is the insinuation that mumble rap is in any way a lack of musical or poetic talent.
For those unfamiliar with mumble rap, the name tells all: many mumble rap records feature lyrical delivery that is difficult to decipher at first, second, or third listen. The lyrics of Desiigner’s breakthrough hit “Panda” are most likely little-known by his fans or casual listeners alike. Even so, the song doesn’t fail at its goal to get people going. Some may attribute this hype to the song’s beat, and this is not to say that the production deserves no share of credit for the song’s intense energy, but the lyrical delivery is moreso key to the song’s success. Here, try it for yourself:
It’s easier to bounce with the beat than decipher the delivery, so, how does Desiigner command us so well with his verbals? The answer lies in defamiliarization, the practice of twisting language such that we can have a visceral understanding of it’s content, yet not be fully able to abstract and concretize its form or meaning (this is closely based off of Roman Jakobson’s definition of defamiliarization). Through his use of hard-to-comprehend delivery, Desiigner demands active listening. This is similar to the rhetorical practice of speaking lowly, a power-play sort of move that forces listeners to devote careful attention to the speaker. This delivery can also be heard on popular tracks like Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO Tour Llif3” and Playboi Carti’s “Magnolia”. This use of language engages listeners deeply. The charm to Desiigner’s delivery is not only in it’s meaningful decoherence; it is so closely fused to the song’s beat that it feels like an instrument of its own.
Another example of defamiliarization: a group also commonly described as “mumble rap”, Migos, uses a textbook definition example of defamiliarization in their popular track “Pipe It Up”. Without ever explicitly defining what it means to “pipe” something “up”, the Migos create a grandeur feeling of triumph, vitality, and lavishness; they use the language we do know to illustrate things we do not and take the words into directions not obvious for them to go in. And, just as with the three aforementioned tracks, “Pipe It Up” creates chaotic excitement, not despite but because of its incoherence.
It would be amiss to not recognize the many complex linguistic tools used by its artists to create complex and layered musical experiences. And while it may be true that some of these artists don’t pay full respects for their musical predecessors, I’d rather call mumble rap irreverent than irrelevant.

Before I wrote this, I read these:

Side notes: 1) The music videos for “Magnolia” and “XO Tour Llif3” resemble a visual form of defamiliarization. 2) If you like the video for “Magnolia”, I highly recommend the video of A$AP Ferg’s “Plain Jane”. Not relevant to this blog post, but still great. 3) Some of the lyrics in these songs are actually very clear and easy to hear. Maybe that makes us more curious to decipher the rest of them?

Consciousness and language: why AI will never succeed

This Blog Was Written By
Gabriela Armas

It took me 3 weeks to pen this down into something concrete, as I've written it and rewritten it over a dozen times while dozing off, it felt like I only ever really wanted to write this post in my sleep.

The discussion of consciousness and language is something toyed over pretty frequently by linguists. Most often, it's reduced to the question of  “do we think in language?” and related discussions that then twist into notions that one need not language to think at all. 

One thing particularly excruciating to endure is listening to such discourse being presented in binary postulations, often found in academic settings. People, all too often, are so desperate to ‘come up with something’ that they try to neatly tie up all the answers into one that they overlook the nuances of a complex philosophy and debate. 
It is true, you don't need language to think; Pinker makes several good points in (1), he states that there is a never-ending feedback loop between which mode of thought we access our ideas in, and the significance of context we produce and how that plugs right back in and shapes how we think, which shapes how we speak, which shapes how others process our thoughts and how/what they think and what they say and so on but hesitates to tie this to concepts like self awareness (in all fairness, this is a 4 part video, and only 1 is available).

But ultimately, what does it all mean when we're discussing consciousness and self awareness? Just because an individual knows they exist, are they aware that others exist outside of one’s self? That they have lives of their own and feelings of their own, experiences and perceptions of their own? 
Does language, its utilization, its very concept, and its proper understanding and conveying context make one more readily aware of other’s consciousness as well? And if that is the case, can you teach that? 
This image, or meme really, is what spurred this question in my mind. It was funny, horrifying, and completely fascinating all at the same time....

(The following is a Reddit post )

 After reading it I kind of just sat with my mouth open trying to interpret the fact that there are actually people like this. And even further, there are fully neurotypical people who may in fact live their entire lives never even reaching this standard point of self awareness. I’ll link the reddit thread at the bottom as well (2), that specific user has a bunch of other postings that are just as peculiar and deal with depersonalization, which is pretty atypical. But the comments and experiences in the thread are pretty interesting (and also exactly what you’d expect to see on reddit).

I’m sure by now many of you have heard people say that if you talk to yourself, you’re crazy, or alternatively that if you talk to yourself, you’re a genius. Many researchers have tried distinguishing between the two, but overall, talking to yourself is pretty universal. There are even different layers and names attributed to it: soliloquy, private speech, silent speech, subvocalization, inner monologues, etc. But the reason many people associate this with intelligence is due to the fact that this practice helps you retain and understand concepts more clearly, as well as help to remember and find things more easily. 

By this logic, I’m inclined to believe the original poster on Reddit  and their experiences, and would even be inclined to say that thinking in these more concrete ways rather than weird, floaty, abstract thoughts without words, would help to train you to be more aware of others and possibly even more empathetic. 

Moreover, could you train AI this way?

If any of you are into Sci-Fi or tech in anyway then you probably have some idea of what the Turing test is (as well as its namesake). Basically it’s a test meant to measure the intellectual capabilities of an artificially intelligent program (being?) - if it can speak with another person and go undetected in such away that the human thinks they’re speaking with another human then you’ve successfully produced a strong AI -it has a consciousness, sentience, and mind. 
If consciousness was not tied to language so strongly then why is this linguistic interaction our basis for consciousness? Trying to teach or convey context to another human alone is nearly impossible, there are even slimmer chances that you can teach such an imperatively nuanced idea/skill to a computer. That may sound dramatic to some of you, but when I mean context in this sense, I mean your entire life as context. This is why a lot of the time you can see  somebody ‘understand’ what you’re saying, they may even identify with whatever idea you’re expressing but they don’t and probably won’t ever fully get it, because they haven’t gone through the rhythm and sensations, feelings and responses, thoughts and desires of your own sublime consciousness. 
...This thought is getting a little *too* abstract, so I guess I'll end here. 

I’d be EXTREMELY interested in hearing what your emotional reactions or thoughts to the Reddit post are.  


Saturday, December 9, 2017

Weathermen, You Clownin’

This Blog Was Written By 
John Darabos 

Professor Zarcadoolas posed a question asking why television weather reporters go out into the thick of dangerous storms. She had a very reasonable point suggesting there shouldn’t be a problem having mounted cameras to show the activity of the storm. With such technology available to us, why are weather reporters going out into these storms and why are the television networks compelled to put those reporters in hazardous situations when it appears it may be unnecessary?

This is a storm chaser named Juston Drake. The picture is take from his self-recorded footage from Hurricane Irma. Even though he is not a weatherman in the sense of Willard Scott his footage did air on NBC. There is a youtube video from NBC News at Drake is part of a fantastic website at and he can  be followed on twitter at @JustonStrmRider.

I did a bit of light research on the origins of the television weather reporter and came across some interesting information, defiantly not telling the definitive story, but still bringing me to a speculative inference I think is worth putting out there (also linking to language).

According to Tom Moore, TV weatherman for thirty years on The Weather Channel, most early television meteorologists of the 1950s had professional backgrounds from the military or as college professors. This military connection makes sense to me, consider that was post World War II, we do recall a moment of the war as “storming” the beaches at Normandy. Moore says the station directors felt these meteorologists made weather segments too dull. 

Consider the communication style, in general, of the military. I would characterize most military communication to disseminate information in a style designed to be direct, effective, and efficient. Now consider this military style of communication added with the communication style of a scientist. I am suggesting, even though scientific method is extremely useful, the scientific method is boring. 

We have now built a character to tell us about the weather who approaches such a task with the precision and efficiency of a military operation combined with the rote mechanicalness of the scientific method. I would imagine a 1950s college professor would manage the classroom in a similar fashion. How many minutes of that would you like to sit through? Nothing about our generic 1950s ex-military meteorologist screams entertainment. There would be no use of dramatic adjectives or outlandish physical displays to accent the language describing the weather because it just doesn’t fit the style of people in the community of meteorologists of the 1950s.

Toward the end of the 1950s, stations began to add to the weather forecast to make it more entertaining. Those additions included cartoon characters, very famous characters were Wooly Lamb and Gusty. Cartoons are generally silly things meant for humorous entertainment, which makes very interesting the evolution of the weatherman as seen through these first cartoon characters.

Enter Willard Scott. Willard Scott is a famous television personality from the 1950s, he is known for being on the Today Show, being Bozo the Clown, and was the original clown mascot for the fast food chain McDonalds as Ronald McDonald. 

The image is taken from a 1986 forecast given by Scott on NBC
It's a short video at the end he quickly makes note of his "act" as a weatherman which I think provides merit to my topic.

Willard Scott was very successful as a television weatherman by bringing his clown act to the weather broadcast. Willard Scott and his weather broadcasts were a novelty but quickly became parodied by other stations all over the country. People tuned in to a more entertaining personality delivering them the weather.

The television stations, through Willard Scott’s example, built somewhat of an architype for the weatherman. This architype mimicked the clown, a comical joker using exaggerated antics to entertain others. In the name of television ratings the purpose of the weather broadcast was no longer simply to deliver a report about the weather but to perform the weather report. 

To tie this to linguistics, best I can, why didn’t the original format of weather reporting work? Certainly the original meteorologists of the 1950s were qualified to analyze and report the weather, and certainly their ability to communicate was sufficient to the point they could educate in colleges and perform the duties required of our military. However their style of communication wasn’t sufficient to the television audience they were tasked with reaching. Style of communication would have a wide range of implications from particular word choice, to how that choice resonated with the target audience, and the effect those decisions on communication had on the actions taken by those who received it.

If there is a serious weather storm approaching what bigger stage is there to send our clown to? 

The consideration is not, “this place is dangerous and people should be informed to evacuate”, the consideration is, “send the clown!” I am partially suggesting this is about humor, but there is also the observation our professor posed in her own post:

“Has our emersion in reality TV raised the bar so high that we’re no longer engaged enough nor satisfied enough until the weatherman is torn limb from limb as we gaze snacking at our viewing devices -  our own private Roman Collosseums?”

Within danger there is the primal element required for entertainment. Our clown does so with a humorous foolishness that keeps us on the edge of elation while not quite crossing that line into a morbid reality. College professors or military personnel would not typically be considered to perform in this way, and this may be due to the type of communication style required of his/her discipline. However, the clown, can be equally qualified to disseminate this information, but have a style of communication that is bettered tailored for the realm of television. I think this raises an important note on the role language plays in our expectations on the actions and behaviors of others.

Moore, T., Haby, J. A Brief History of Broadcast Meteorology: From the Past to the Future. iWeathernet. March 26, 2017

Laskin, David. Television A Change in the Weather. NY Times, Arts Section. February 18, 2017.