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Archive for June 2nd, 2020

Oral typos and autocorrect by the unconscious: Another Duolingo note on learning Esperanto

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One thing has become clear as I get my sea legs in Esperanto: the person listening — the auditor — contributes as much to oral exchanges as the speaker. Far from being a passive recipient of the speaker’s words, the auditor (once s/he is familiar with the language) unconsciously corrects the spoken equivalent of typos just as the reader does with written text — a process so unconscious that it becomes difficult to spot some typos, since the adaptive unconscious autocorrects such errors and thus renders them invisible to the conscious mind — see a famous example at the right. (And that is why copy editors get — or should get — the big bucks: they can still see what’s really there, not just what should be there.)

Just as we unconsciously correct and read right over typos because we know the language well enough to know what should be there, so also once we learn a spoken language we don’t notice so much the inaccurate word choices (“de” when “el” is meant) or mispronunciations (“kay” instead of “kai” (rhymes with “sigh”)). Our ears carry the sound, our brain corrects the meaning. We may wince at a mispronunciation (“toomeric” instead of “turmeric”), but we know immediately what is meant.

A person who is just starting to learn English, on reading the word “resaerch,” will try to figure out what it means, searching dictionaries for the word in a vain attempt to find the definition, while a person who knows the language — and the context of the sentence — will read “research,” perhaps not even noticing the error. (Writers, who know exactly what they meant to write, are notoriously poor at proofreading their own written work.)

I’ve observed as I listen to Esperanto dictation on Duolingo the same sort of thing. Initially I was hypersensitive to the slightest mispronunciation, which stymied my effort to understand the meaning. As the neural net of my brain has become more trained (through repetition and correction), those mispronunciations gradually fade from my attention, since I now “hear” (in my mind) the sounds that make sense. In effect, I adjust what I hear to match the most likely meaning even when it means ignoring some of the actual sounds that were made.

This same phenomenon distinguishes phonemes that are very close in sound (think of the English “thy” and “thigh” — we have no trouble distinguishing them because our unconscious uses the context to help what we perceive ourselves to hear..

It’s similar to training an AI neural net to recognize cat pictures. At first the AI cannot tell the difference between a cat picture and a dog picture (or a cow picture, for that matter): a fur-covered four-legged animal with eyes, ears, a nose, and a tail: all much of a muchness. But with training — “No, not that one. Yes, that’s one. No. Yes. Yes. No. No. No. Yes. ….” — the AI soon is able to pick out cat pictures quite well.

Or an example from my own childhood: I still recall my mother in the grocery store asking me to get a head of lettuce (iceberg lettuce, all that we knew), and I came back with a head of cabbage. She laughed and showed me the difference, but I just couldn’t see it: they were both globes of green leaves, so how on earth could you tell them apart?

But experience — and neural net training — works and now I can pretty much distinguish cabbage from lettuce 9 out of 10 times, or even better.

What’s interesting is that my adaptive unconscious is learning Esperanto fast enough (daily practice of 2-3 hours now) that I can remember how some spoken sentences were unintelligible — and even had outright oral typos — now seem perfectly clear: because I now impose my own knowledge and understanding on what I hear and adjust to sounds to match what they should be.

Update: I overlooked the elephant in the room: the big contribution from the listener (as s/he learns the language) is the contribution of meaning, which is bigger and more important than the autocorrection of oral typos. There is no meaning in what hits the ear: that is just a bunch chopped up oral noises. For example, listen carefully to someone speaking, say, Basque and see what meaning you get from it. If you don’t know Basque, then you get from it no meaning at all. If you do know Basque, you get a lot of meaning, but the sounds alone do not contain the meaning — if the meaning were in the sounds, a Basque-ignorant person would get the meaning on hearing the sounds. A person who knows Basque and a person who does not both hear exactly the same sounds. One gets meaning, one does not. The difference is not in the sounds but in the listeners. The meaning is not in the sounds, but in the minds, that of the speaker and that of the listener.

Update again: And of the course the same is true of writing. The reader’s knowledge is a key factor in the writing being meaningful and not simply black marks.

이 구절은 명확한 의미를 지니지 만 독자가 표시의 중요성에 대한 지식을 제공하는 경우에만 가능합니다.

That has meaning, but not simply in itself. The reader must provide some of the meaning.

(I have a number of posts on what I’ve learned about using Duolingo effectively.)

Written by LeisureGuy

2 June 2020 at 10:14 pm

Grim times

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James Fallows has one of his time-capsule columns worth reading in its entirety. One passage:

On May 14, The Financial Times published a long, reported piece by its correspondent Edward Luce, about the character of the man leading the federal effort. Its closing words, quoting the lawyer (and Trump critic) George Conway, were:

Without exception, everyone I interviewed, including the most ardent Trump loyalists, made a similar point to Conway. Trump is deaf to advice, said one. He is his own worst enemy, said another. He only listens to family, said a third. He is mentally imbalanced, said a fourth. America, in other words, should brace itself for a turbulent six months ahead—with no assurance of a safe landing.

On May 17, Lachlan Cartwright, Asawin Suebaeng, and Lachlan Markay of the Daily Beast published another long, reported piece saying that Peter Thiel—Facebook board member, and co-founder of PayPal, who had given a nominating speech for Trump at the 2016 Republican convention in Cleveland—was souring on Trump. It included this quote, parallel to what Luce had reporterd:

“Everybody goes into the Trump relationship woodchipper,” said Trump’s former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, who worked on the Trump presidential transition team with Thiel and who had his own falling-out with the president. “You either come out on the other side with your dignity and your personal story intact or you’re reformed as Trump compost and you’re fertilizer under his shoe. You have to make a decision and it happens to everyone.”

These were the realities of two weeks in May, five-and-a-half months before the election.

And for the future of the republic, the most important reality may be the continued silence of the congressional Republicans. A few of them spoke up after the Friday-night firing of the State Department inspector general. Mitt Romney, notably, wrote that it was “ a threat to accountable democracy.” Susan Collins, as if immune to self-parody, tweeted out her concern. But as a group, they are silent. They know, and they choose not to speak.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 June 2020 at 9:13 pm

The passing of an era: Airline travel

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I was lucky enough to do a fair amount of airline travel in what has turned out to be the golden age. Then we quickly devolved to an age in which the travel experience was worse. And now? Many don’t travel at all. James Fallows writes in the Atlantic:

I last took a “normal” commercial-airline flight back in February. It was normal in that most people did not seem to be having a good time. Before the flight, passengers lumbered out of their Ubers and taxis, or stepped off the shuttles from the rental-car offices and remote parking, and trudged through the familiar series of lines.

Lines to check in. Lines for the TSA checkpoints. Lines at the departure gate. Lines at restaurants and coffee shops to get the food and drink that the airlines no longer provide. The eye-rolling status-jockeying in the pile-up at the departure gate—“Excuse me, but are you really in Group 1?”—followed by eye-rolling in the aisle about someone hogging precious overhead-bin space.

I could go on—the baggage fees, the decreased “seat pitch” that jams your knees into the person in front of you, the cancellations and ripple-effect schedule delays—but less is more when it comes to an experience so many people have shared. Before the airline-deregulation revolution of the 1970s, wrought by Jimmy Carter, fares were much higher than they are now, as were the annual crash and fatality rates; the share of Americans who had ever taken a flight was much lower. Now, in any given year, nearly half of the American public takes at least one commercial flight, and the average fare per mile has been in long-term decline.

I said “now,” but of course I mean then: then, as of my latest visit to an airport, in February. Then, before the lockdowns. Then, before America’s main carriers mothballed about half their fleets. Then, before the number of passengers arriving at airports collapsed from about 2.3 million each day to about 95,000. The trade group Airlines for America declined to let me speak to its head economist. I like to think that it was trying to shield him from having too many depressing discussions in a row. But they sent a fact sheet showing that in April 2020 travel bookings were down by 98 percent from last year’s levels and that the average domestic flight had 12.5 passengers on board. (Later they reported that the average passenger count had fallen to 10—and this is despite some reports of planes operating with full passenger loads.) In early May, Warren Buffett, renowned for his messages of long-term optimism about U.S. stocks during previous financial downturns, announced that Berkshire Hathaway was selling all of its substantial holdings in the four major U.S. airlines: American, Delta, United, and Southwest. A few days earlier, British Airways announced that it was laying off some 12,000 employees, nearly one-third of its entire staff.

Of all the industries devastated by the coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown—restaurants and bars, hotels and convention centers, movie theaters and shopping malls—the airlines’ situation is in a sense the worst. Most of the other businesses are suffering because they have been told to close. The airlines are suffering in part because they have been told to stay open. As a condition of the recent bailout packages, and in order to retain long-term rights to their routes, airlines need to keep flying ghost routes: planes with almost no passengers but a full flight crew and cabin staff.

Then, the airline hell was one of too many competing for too little. Too many passengers for the facilities at the airport and the space aboard the plane. Too many planes for the available takeoff and landing slots. Too many cars for the available curb space. Too many loads of baggage for rush-hour handling capacity. Everywhere you looked, too many or too much.

Now, too few. And that is the prospect for the foreseeable future. The airline business has more than one metabolism. Minute by minute, airlines are adjusting schedules and fares. But in placing bets on new aircraft, they must try to imagine circumstances that lie decades—and many business and technology cycles—in the future. Boeing began laying plans for its 737 series in the mid-1960s. The planning that led to the ill-starred 737 Max began a dozen years before its first crash.

How the airline and aviation world will look a generation from now, no one can say. Sustainable biofuels or more practical electric-powered aircraft? Or a climate-driven backlash against air travel as a whole? Chinese progress in their long-standing challenge to the Boeing-Airbus duopoly (a project whose origin I described in a book eight years ago)? The even longer-standing dream of flying cars? A virtual-reality breakthrough that makes Zoom tolerable and thus reduces the incentive to travel in the first place? Anything could happen.

We can’t know about that future. But people I spoke with during the past several weeks—economists, engineers, aviation analysts, professional pilots—were more certain about what the next few years will bring: namely, sustained bad times for the world’s airlines. What I saw just two months ago in a bustling airport, no one will see, anywhere, for a very long time. That is because, as Jon Ostrower, the editor of The Air Currentput it to me, “there are only two things that airlines can do to make people come back.” He explained what they would be: “One is a vaccine, so people feel safe going to the airport or sitting with 150 strangers in a plane. The other is people having the wherewithal to travel. Do you have a job? Do you have enough money that you can think of taking your family on a vacation? These are things that control the airlines’ future, and that they cannot do anything about.”

“For all intents and purposes, the airlines are shut down now,” Patrick Smith, an airline pilot and author of the Ask the Pilot website, told me. “They’re still flying, but at vastly reduced levels. The majors are running maybe 5 or 10 percent of their normal number of departures. Clearly this isn’t sustainable. Survivability depends on how quickly passengers come back.” In early April, Smith wrote on his web site:

Last Monday night I flew a 767 into New York. Was that the last commercial flight I will ever pilot? It is not inconceivable. Enough of me was convinced of it that I asked the captain if I could fly the leg and make the landing.

Smith told me later in the month that he had made one more flight and one more landing since then. “I expect to fly sporadically in the weeks ahead, and employees are furlough-protected at least through the summer. What happens beyond that point is unknown, however. If passengers don’t return in significant enough numbers, the situation could be very, very dire.”

When will the airlines return to “normal” as we knew it a few months ago? That was the question I asked everyone I spoke with. “Maybe five years,” one person said. “I think four years,” said an optimist. Another person guessed seven. “I think never,” said an airline pilot, now on indefinite furlough.

But between now and five to seven years from now, some people will have to, or will choose to, travel. Maybe there is a medical emergency. Maybe there is a must-do business deal. Maybe something else occurs. The TSA has a fascinating site that gives live daily updates on the numbers coming through its security stations. In the middle of April, only 4 percent of the prior year’s number of passengers was being checked by the TSA. Two weekends ago, the figure hit a recent high of nearly 7 percent—about 170,000 passengers, versus more than 2.5 million last year. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 June 2020 at 8:52 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life

Mark Zuckerberg spoke with civil rights leaders about Trump’s posts. It didn’t go well.

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Mark Zuckerberg is a problem, and apparently a problem that will not go away and is not open to change. Cat Zakrzewski writes in the Washington Post:

Top Facebook executives, including Mark Zuckerberg, spoke with civil rights leaders last night as the company confronts a wave of backlash over its decision not to moderate President Trump’s controversial posts.

But the roughly hour-long call, intended to show the company takes concerns from the black community seriously, only further inflamed tensions.

Color of Change President Rashad Robinson, NAACP Legal Defense Fund president Sherrilyn Ifil and The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights chief executive Vanita Gupta immediately blasted Zuckerberg in a statement following the call.

Robinson told me the meeting was “disappointing.”

What was clear coming out of that meeting is Mark has no real understanding of the history or current impact of voter suppression, racism or discrimination. He lives in a bubble, and he defended every decision that he’s made,” Robinson said in a phone interview.

The attendees discussed Facebook’s decision not to label or remove several of Trump’s posts last week, including one that appeared to incite violence against demonstrators that said “when the looting starts the shooting starts.” By contrast, the posts drew a warning from Twitter for violating its platform’s rules about “glorifying violence.”

“Mark is setting a very dangerous precedent for other voices who would say similar harmful things on Facebook,” the civil rights leaders said in the joint statement. The meeting also covered Trump’s post that made misleading claims about mail-in voting, which Twitter labeled but Facebook did not.

Facebook’s poor track record on civil rights issues could come under greater scrutiny as controversy mounts.

The Trump posts are the latest flashpoint in years-long tensions between Facebook and civil rights activists, especially since Russian actors leveraged Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram to broadcast posts aimed at suppressing the black vote in the 2016 election.

The activists say Facebook’s hands-off approach to Trump’s rhetoric underscores that it’s promises to support and work with the black community are empty.

“This is just another reminder that companies will say black lives matter, and then do a whole bunch of things to make it clear that they could care less about black lives,” Robinson said. “Those are two very powerful statements that Facebook is making – making it harder for us to vote and making us more unsafe from a hostile, violence-inciting president.”

Robinson said that Zuckerberg was trying to make the case that it wasn’t inciting necessarily violence, as much as it was promoting the law.

Zuckerberg, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and Facebook vice president of global affairs Nick Clegg spoke on the call, Robinson told me. Joel Kaplan, an executive who has become a lightning rod of criticism both internally and externally for promoting conservative positions in Facebook’s leadership, was also on the call but did not speak, Robinson said.

Just days before, Zuckerberg had a phone call with Trump about the decision not to moderate his posts.

The president had been mounting an aggressive campaign to pressure social media companies not to label or otherwise moderate his posts in the wake of Twitter’s unprecedented decision to label a pair of his tweets that made false claims about mail-in voting. The president signed an executive order last week that would prompt federal regulators to review the scope of Section 230, a legal provision that shields tech companies from lawsuits for the posts and photos on their services.

“It’s clear that the president and potential regulation from the president is in Facebook’s head,” Robinson said.

Twitter, meanwhile, is doubling down on its stand. The company restricted a tweet from Rep. Matt Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), which the company said violated its policies on glorification of violence, according to The Verge. “Now that we clearly see Antifa as terrorists, can we hunt them down like we do those in the Middle East?” the tweet read, before it was hidden from Gaetz’s profile and likes, retweets, and replies were disabled.

Facebook responded by thanking the civil rights leaders for their time.

“We’re grateful that leaders in the civil rights community took the time to share candid, honest feedback with Mark and Sheryl. It is an important moment to listen, and we look forward to continuing these conversations,” Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said in a statement.

Employees expressed disappointment with the leadership’s handling of the call on Twitter.

Brandon Dail, an engineer at Facebook, called the meeting “another half-measure”:

Hundreds of employees yesterday staged a “virtual walkout” in protest of the company’s handling of the Trump posts. Employees at Facebook and Instagram refused to work on Monday in solidarity with protests across the country over the death of George Floyd. They openly expressed their anger with Facebook’s decision not to moderate Trump’s post, largely taking to rival social network Twitter.

The civil rights leaders shared solidarity with the employees’ efforts. 

“I want the employees to know that we see them, and we appreciate them, and we appreciate their speaking up and standing up and pushing back,” Robinson told me in an interview. “That is part of how every bit of change has happened in this country, when people on the inside and people on the outside speak up. And I hope that they accept nothing less than real change — not platitudes, not empathy, but actual real change.”

Zuckerberg is expected to field questions from Facebook employees today. The company moved up its all-hands meeting that was originally scheduled for Thursday as internal backlash against Zuckerberg’s decision mounts.

The walkout marked a rare display of employee rebellion at the social network.

Facebook’s highly in-demand engineers, developers and employees are uniquely positioned to drive policy changes at the company. But until now, they rarely exercised that power as frequently as their peers at other tech companies, such as Google.

But Zuckerberg’s decision could be a turning point. Employees largely did not speak out — and certainly not in as coordinated or large numbers — when the company was embroiled in other high-profile controversies, such as the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal or the fallout from Russian interference in the 2016 elections.

Many employees changed their profile pictures and shared messages of dissent on rival social network Twitter with the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #TakeAction. From Katie Zhu, who says on LinkedIn that she is a product manager for Instagram: . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Later in the column:

Zuckerberg may face an uphill battle in addressing employee concerns.

Zuckerberg already had a chance to try to convince them his decision not to moderate Trump’s tweets was justified in an employee during a meeting on Friday.

The chief executive said Facebook would re-examine its policies around politicians discussing the use of state force on the service, Casey Newton reports for The Verge. That process could take weeks.

Zuckerberg also told employees he was unhappy with Trump’s remarks on the platform. “My first reaction … was just disgust,” he said, according to audio that Casey obtained of the meeting. “This is not how I think we want our leaders to show up during this time. This is a moment that calls for unity and calmness and empathy for people who are struggling.”

Facebook attempted to strike a supportive tone in its statement on the employee activism. The company also said it did not require employees who skipped work to use their paid time off to do so.

“We recognize the pain many of our people are feeling right now, especially our Black community,” Stone, the Facebook spokesman, told me. “We encourage employees to speak openly when they disagree with leadership. As we face additional difficult decisions around content ahead, we’ll continue seeking their honest feedback.”

Business partners and advertisers could be the next to challenge Facebook’s policies.

Talkspace, a company that provides therapy online, yesterday said it would pull out of talks for a six-figure deal with Facebook following the company’s decision. The deal was a content partnership, that would also involve Facebook leveraging the mental health app to provide therapy to certain audiences, such as students, CNBC reported.

Though such a deal is a drop in the bucket for a company with the scope and scale of Facebook, it is notable to see a start-up chief executive speak out against a company that many rely on as a key distribution channel. From Talkspace chief executive Oren Frank:

Written by LeisureGuy

2 June 2020 at 9:21 am

Reprising the Declaration Grooming shave, with Fendrihan’s Mk II razor

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This little Simpon Emperor 2 Super is fine brush (though I should note it’s a pre-Vulfix Simpson — I have no experience with post-Vulfix Simpson brushes). The lather was excellent, and I like the Fendrihan Mk II very much. It’s a razor well worth considering if you are thinking of getting a stainless-steel razor. (The one in the photo is a bronze-plated version they offered as a limited edition.)

Three passes, totally smooth result, and thanks to the combination of Declaration Grooming’s shaving soap and Chatillon Lux’s aftershave toner, my skin feels very nice indeed.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 June 2020 at 9:05 am

Posted in Shaving

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