language miscellanea

Branding the Axolotl

Drawing of an Axolotl by William Steig from “Alpha Beta Chowder” Eliot claimed that feline onomasty was a vexed endeavor, but most people seem to have neither creativity nor compunction. Too many cat names range from the banal (“Mindy”) to the heinous (“Smoke Dancer”). When such unfortunates become part of one’s family, renaming is a strict requirement.

A new cat recently entered our household from the local rescue and, somewhat surprisingly, he arrived with an acceptable name. While not exotic, ‘Alexander’ has impeccable Macedonian roots, and also evokes the first poem from Jeanne and William Steig’s fine abecedarium, Alpha Beta Chowder:

Abhorrent axolotl, scat!
Unless you’d like to feed my cat.

Come at once , dear Alexander,
Have a bit of salamander.
See its tasty little gills?
Don’t they look like lamb-chop frills?

Amphibian, avoid thy fate:
Slither off! Absquatulate!

Photo of an AxolotlThis bit of verse recalled to mind, I began wondering about the the axolotl. One can deduce its Mexican indigenity from the distinctively Nahuatl ‘tl’ at the end of its name (made explicit by its scientific name, Ambystoma mexicanum). The Internet yields up many attractive pictures of these aquatic amphibians. Wikipedia, as ever, provides a reasonable overview, but I found that my attention was captured by this somewhat curious paragraph:

In Japan, axolotls are known by the trademark WuperRuper (ウーパールーパー). Originally the trademark was going to be registered as “SuperRuper”, but since there are many trademarks starting with “super,” the S was changed to a W so the name could be registered more quickly. It is said that the reason why they are not sold as “axolotl” is to avoid them being called “aho no rōtoru”, a similar-sounding Japanese phrase meaning “stupid old man.”

Capitalism once again joins with the Adamic impulse to name the creatures of the land and the sea! This unavoidably calls to mind the mighty Sea-Monkey. (Disclaimer: proceeds from your brine shrimp purchase may be used to support neo-Nazi causes.)

I’m curious: how many creatures have been “rebranded” to make them more marketable? Offhand, I recall that “Chilean sea bass” is a marketing name for the Patagonian toothfish (and the Chileans, in fact, call it “bacalao de profundidad“). More basically, I suppose, we use the language of our Norman overlords for our beef, mutton, and pork, rather than that of those rude peasants who raise the dirty oxen, sheep, and pigs. In truth, though, I’m thinking more of specific acts of commercially-minded naming rather than general linguistic trends.

Anything else come to mind?

[Photo of axolotl courtesy of amphioxus at flickr.]


Bloody-mindedness and the alveolar trill

Since my first junior-high Spanish classes I have been rankled by my inability to produce a proper rolled ‘R’. Since I began studying Latin at the beginning of the year, my need to triumph over this handicap has become pressing. I’m sure I sound like some sort of Germani barbarian.

Too many interesting languages require the ability to produce a trilled ‘R’: Latin, Russian, Italian, Arabic, Spanish. I am unwilling to accept this as a permanent handicap. Anyone riding in the car with me on my daily commute would be treated to a wide variety of peculiar noises, a few of which are beginning to approach the proper sound.

My goal is nothing less than mastery of the dreaded voiced apical-alveolar trill. I’ve always been able to produce an uvular trill (which was good enough for Vladimir Ilyich), and I can produce the Japanese lateralized rhotic without problems. After many years, I knew that simply hearing more properly-trilled ‘R’s was not going to solve my problem, but I hadn’t been able to find any detailed descriptions of the anatomical details of its production or useful suggestions for achieving it. “Make a noise like a car engine” and “Purr like are cat” are distinctly useless as they send me straight to my uvula.

When I found out that M—— can produce a trilled ‘R’, I drilled her closely about what exactly happens when she produces it, where exactly her tongue contacts her palate. This was a start, but not enough.

Tongue position for the alveolar trill (image from the University of Iowa)

The University of Iowa has an anatomical animation of a rolled ‘R’ in action (click on Modo -> Vibrantes -> [r]), and even after watching it over and over and over I still can’t relax enough to let my tongue vibrate passively with the airstream; my trill is conscious, slow, and somewhat clumsy.

Much digging on the Internet has resulting in a wealth of advice, some of which is actually useful. Here are some brief excerpts capturing the more helpful tidbits; refer to the links for the full articles:


  • A trick I use with my students (mostly native English speaking undergrads.) for teaching them how to feel the position of the tongue is to say “I edited it” really fast.
  • you have to train the muscles in the mouth which would be developed as a matter of course in speakers of languages where the [r] occurs “naturally”. You do this by repeating the phonemes [t] and [d] (with some kind of neutral schwa sound in between) as fast as you can, for say five minutes a day.
  • Don’t know if this works but try to put your tongue where you would for English /l/ and think /tr/, then get rid of it later on.

From Tenser, said the Tensor (quoting Jones and Ward, The Phonetics of Russian):

  • Some English people are able to acquire a rolled r by the following method. Pronounce slowly the exercise tədɑːtədɑːtədɑː… preferably with dental t’s and alveolar d’s; then gradually increase the speed. When said very fast indeed, the alveolar d has a tendency to turn into a ‘flapped’ or ‘semi-rolled’ r-sound, i.e. a sound formed after the manner of rolled r but consisting of only one single tap of the tongue (see § 22.4 above). With r representing here the flapped r, the resulting sequence sould be written tərɑːtərɑːtərɑː… or trɑːtrɑːtrɑː… (according to the rate of saying it). It then remains to isolate this r and extend it into the fully rolled sound.
  • [From a comment to the article] First try to produce dental plosives ‘t’ and ‘d’ (Remember that ‘t’ and ‘d’ in English are alveolar plosives). Then with the dental plosives try to make syllables like ‘tra’, ‘dra’, ‘tri’, ‘dri’, ‘tru’, ‘dru’ etc. Try to hit the alveolar ridge immediately after articulating the ‘t’ or ‘d’ sound. (Remember that if you use the alveolar ‘t’ or ‘d’ sounds in these syllables, you can’t articulate the following ‘r’ as a tap.) When you can articulate a tap in these syllables, try to articulate a tapped ‘r’ in syllables like ‘ra’, ‘ri’ etc. When you are comfortable with that, you can go and try for a ‘trill’. For the trill, first try it in isolation, and then use them in syllables.

From Babel Babble:

  • You put your tongue in a [d], [n], [l] or [t] position. Make the uppermost one or two centimeters of your tongue (but not the actual tip) touch the gum (well, that part up in your mouth where you pronounce most of [d], [n], [l] and [t]). Now you’re ready for the difficult bit. Push some air out strongly so that it flows over your tongue. But don’t leave your tongue static. Use the air to make the tongue vibrate quickly, like an annoying alarm clock: rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrin.
  • […] mothers put a spoon on their childrens’ tongues and get them to pronounce a “d” in order to train them to pronounce “r.”
  • I think the tricky bit is to feel how strongly you have to push the tongue against the alveolar region, if you press too strong or not strong enough, your tongue won’t make the right sound.

From WikiHow:

  • Curl your tongue up very slightly just behind your top gums. Specifically the tip of your tongue should be loose and just below the roof of the mouth between the upper teeth and the hard palate: the alveolar ridge. The part of your mouth that contains the tooth sockets is the right place to be.
    • Depending on the specific language your tongue may be slightly touching your alveolar ridge, or not touching.
  • Tense your tongue, but leave the tip loose to vibrate. This sound is known as a trill because it is created with multiple vibrations.
    • Breathe out, allowing your tongue to vibrate with the passing air.
  • The sound is made because of the Bernoulli’s principle, an aspect of physics which defines the movement of fluids and gas over different shapes, and one of the principles of flight. In other words, the shape of your tongue will partially resemble an airplane wing, with the exhaled air passing over the top of the stiff, shaped lower tongue and vibrating the tip against the ridge like the flaps on an airplane wing.

Has anyone out there managed to learn how to produce an alveolar trill as an adult? I’d be very interested to hear tips or stories.

books games science fiction

Inconspicuous Consumption

Slowly, slowly, I am emerging from the sessile phase that I entered after surviving (and passing, praise Eris!) my doctoral qualifying exams.  I am anticipating a full return to something approaching full motility and sentience.

After such extended periods of ascetically-focused mental exertion, I find myself enveloped in a sort of lassitudinous passivity.  All of the needs that have been denied demand to be satisfied, and I descend into a gluttonous pit of media consumption.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve read a dozen books or so (not, I am sorry to say, of a particularly elevating nature), watched way too many back episodes of science fiction television shows, and finally got around to finishing several video games that had been sitting, unplayed on the shelf.  Work, school, and Latin studies continue apace, but my free time has been heavily unstructured.  Here are a few comments on what’s been occupying my mind.  I warn you, though: if you’re looking for high-brow in this post, you’d best move along.


From the books, I can definitely recommend Charles Stross’s The Atrocity Archives . . . it’s not often that one finds a novel where the central conceit is the existence of a proof that P=NP, and his melding of the myth of Medusa with quantum mechanical theory is a thing of genius.  The Family Trade, also by Stross, is a bit disappointing by comparison, as the characters and writing are a bit flat and the fancies do not fly as high.

Neal Asher had previously caught my attention with The Skinner, which was a great science fiction romp.  (One of its best small bits is a unique take on technologically-sustained undeath.)  I was pleased to get my hands on a copy of Prador Moon, but it left me unimpressed.  The plot was on the mechanical side, and the tension wasn’t particularly tense.  I also have a copy of Brass Man which I may or may not finish before returning it to the library; thus far, it hasn’t drawn me in.

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Beguilement: The Sharing Knife is her second run at a romance-oriented fantasy, and it strongly echoes The Hallowed Hunt.  The plot structure is somewhat curious, with the ostensible dramatic climax coming in the first third of the book.  The remainder focuses on the relationship between the characters.  I have to say that it didn’t really work for me, though her writing is competent, and I enjoyed the story well enough.  I’ll be curious to see what she does with the next two novels in the trilogy.  The Hallowed Hunt is, in my opinion, a much stronger novel, if not quite up to her previous Chalion efforts.

I’ve been meaning to bone up on the history of sword-and-sorcery fantasy, and nabbed a few volumes from the library to that end.  Robert E. Howard’s early Kull of Atlantis stories are purple and overwrought, with some curious parallels to Lovecraft (who, it should noted, admired Howard’s writing).  I’ve never read any of his Conan stories, and it will be interesting to compare.

Also in this vein, I read the first three collections of Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories: Swords and Deviltry, Swords Against Death, and Swords in the Mist.  It is interesting to see how Leiber’s tropes have worked their way throughout the genre, but I really can’t recommend them as particularly good.  The origin stories in Swords and Deviltry were particularly weak, barely rising above the level of Gygaxian fiction.

To recover from too much low-grade fiction, I reread Michael Swanwick’s Stations of the Tide.  What a difference!  Swanwick remains one of my favorite SF authors, and I hope that he’ll get around to releasing that new novel one of these days (his last was the 2002 Bones of the Earth).

I’ve followed Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels since I first found The Colour of Magic in 1989.  Over the years, his books have become something more than simple humorous parody.  His combination of mood, character, and humor is quite effective, and his Vimes stories are among my favorite modern fantasies.  Recently, he has written a few Discworld novels targeting the “young adult” market.  The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, and Wintersmith tell the story of a young witch, Tiffany Aching and her interactions with the Nac Mac Feegle (a race of small, blue-tattooed faerie-kin called, well, Pictsies).  There are few characters from other Discworld stories: I only noticed Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg.  These books are by no means inferior efforts, and should be read by everyone who likes Pratchett’s work.


It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen Star Trek (Enterprise didn’t hold my attention at all).  I’ve just watched my way through the sixth season of Next Generation, which was quite a reasonable show.  The late seasons were much better than the painfully wooden early episodes, but they’re still rather mechanical, particularly when watched in close succession.  I did have have to skip two episodes for excessive obnoxiousness.

I’ve just started watching Firefly, which thus far has been quite engaging.  I’ll reserve further comments until I’m all the way through.

Video Games

First, Archangel.  This is a modern magic-themed first-person combat game with some sort of a story, but I couldn’t bear to keep playing past the training sequence.  The vocal acting is mind-shatteringly awful.

I hadn’t played a lot of racing games before this, but I have three that were picked up on deep discount: Midnight Club 2, Need for Speed: Underground, and Need for Speed Underground 2.  All are reasonably satisfying arcade-style racers, but I think that NFSU2 gets the nod.

NFSU is fun up until around 80% completion.   At that point the races become joyless exercises in perfectionism, even at the lowest difficulty setting.  I abandoned play at that point.

MC2 becomes quite difficult by the end, but is quite beatable.  Its key advantages over the NFS titles are: lots of shortcuts to discover, no mind-numbing closed-course races, and a semblance of damage model for the vehicles.  Watching the NFS vehicles bouncing hood-over-trunk then blithely driving on is just silly (though none of these titles get many points in the realism department).

NFSU2 loses some features that were well-polished NFSU, but makes up for them by adding an explorable world.  The visuals are superb, and the gameplay is rather easier than that of its predecessor.  I would have like to see a few more free-form races, but modifying and tuning the cars is surprisingly enjoyable.  The game would be improved by abandoning the silly graphic novel sequences that spring up occasionally.  I’m perhaps halfway though this game, but it will be going back on the shelf for a while.

I now return to my regularly-scheduled life.

books computer science miscellanea

Calliope and the Spambot

Calliope, Muse of Epic Poetry Randomly-generated spam email can have a certain “found art” quality to it. I’ve seen plenty of articles over the past few years gleefully musing over some chance juxtaposition in the inbox. See, for example, this article from The Register. A sample:

If you get it overnight, you can lose it just as quick
When Mumma dead family done.
Take heed of reconciled enemies and of meat twice boiled

The algorithms that generate these messages are quite simple, for the most part. The most common is the Markov chain.  A program of this type first takes a corpus of text and analyzes it to generate a table of probabilities that a given word follows another. To create a first-order Markov chain based on words in the corpus, the program repeatedly asks and answers the following question: given a certain word, what are the most likely words to follow it in the source text? It then randomly picks one of those following words, weighting its choice by the calculated probabilities.  After that, it picks the next word using the word it just generated as the base. A second-order chain bases its probabilities on the previous two words, and so on. Increasing the order of the chain can produce more authentic-seeming phrases.

One of the most common methods of content-filtering spam is Bayesian analysis, which uses a related algorithm to analyze the probability that a particular message is spam, based on the frequency of words in other messages already received and identified. If you are a spammer, the care and feeding of your spambot, your bulk mailer, is matter of great concern. You need to produce messages that have enough randomness to slip through recipients’ spam filters, but that look like they could be a valid messages. Project Gutenberg was an early source of texts for these Markov text generators, resulting in bathetic, surprisingly pseudo-literary nonsense.

I received the following message this morning, the text of which I reproduce in its entirety:

Summer bees were saying
That desire has ever built, have approached
How can they get the point of how a world
Pallid waste where no radiant fathomers,
From there. Toward . . .
demonstrating their talent for comedy?stroke
Glimmering of light:
Rise, to the muffled chime of churchbell choir.
Reshaping magnified, each risen flake
XVII. Greenland
Silent patch of ultimate paint. You are
marked with a dark stroke from the left, encroached
A matter of getting all that right . . .
What I have in my hands, these flowers, these shadows,
Come, swallows, it’s good-bye.
Place of absorbing snow, itself to be
With a hand freed from weight,
Is the moon to grow
Suddenly, in a savage, dreadful bend,

With minor editing (particularly the punctuation), this could almost be passed of as something from a modern poetry review . . . and here’s why: rather than generate its text word-by-word, the bulk mailer worked line-by-line from actual poems. (The line “XVII. Greenland” is a good clue.) A bit of Googling revealed that most of these lines can be found on a particular page of poems about winter on the website of the University of Chicago Press. The unfortunate question-mark in line 6 is an em-dash on the source page.

PIPO: Poetry In; Poetry Out.

This recalls to mind one of my favorite pieces of randomly-generated text.  In 2004, a group of SFWA members set out to show that a company called “PublishAmerica” is not a “traditional” publisher (that is, that they do not engage in any sort of editorial quality-control over their books).  To this end, this group produced a very good candidate for the worst novel ever written: Atlanta Nights.  Each chapter was written by a different person to be as terrible as possible.  Chapter 34 was actually machine-generated using the rest of the book as the source material.  The pseudonymous author-of-record, “Travis Tea”, now has his own web site.

[Image of Calliope, Muse of epic poetry, courtesy of Wikipedia.]