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I'm Drew Breunig and I obsess about technology, media, language, and culture. I live in New York, studied anthropology, and lead strategy at PlaceIQ.

These are reactions to things I feel are important.

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Posts tagged linguistics

Eric Fischer is mapping language communities on Twitter using Chrome’s language detector. (Via Eric Fischer)

Note how easily the UK Mail mocks a man who can’t discern “street art” from “vandalism”:

Banksy’s artworks fetch hundreds of thousands of pounds and his graffiti is strewn across cities around the world.

But one man mistook the street art splashed on the side of his Muslim centre as vandalism and set about disguising it with white paint.

Funny how the nomenclature changes with the addition of a price tag. There’s a lot to unpack in this piece; the shot of the painting conservator restoring a brick wall is remarkable. 

Programming Linguistics

I’m learning Ruby, and it’s very passive aggressive. “Conventions” in Ruby really should be called “rules.”

Certain coding styles are strongly suggested, like styles for naming variables, but then figure strongly into existing toolkits that are built into the language. I wouldn’t have such a gripe with this if they just came out and told me it’s a rule.

When studying linguistics in my anthropology days, it was a given that language defined and delineated the structures of cultures. I’m surprised it took me this long to learn that the same rules apply to programming languages.

For instance, Objective-C is easy to read. It’s the perfect language for Steve Jobs: neat and clean, direct and balanced. APIs are meted out just enough for a powerful language, but not so much that they restrict understanding to anyone with the barest understanding of the code.

Apple’s drive for design extends to their code, and no one should have been surprised.

Ruby on the other hand, perfectly expresses many of the quirks of hacker culture. There’s a laundry list of built in functions, more than most will even encounter. It dedicates itself to openness, so the only strong decisions it makes are passive. For example, if you fail to heed naming “conventions” within instances, short-cuts won’t work. (But at the same time, you might never have found the short-cut among the sea of any Ruby glossary)

There’s six ways to do everything when there only needs to be one. It’s the perfect language for Valley hackers.

What’s funny is how these quirks in code manifest themselves in the workings of companies, products, and ultimately us (the users). If I were back in school I’d be applying Sapir Whorf to python, Ruby, and C++. There’s meaning to be found in these languages that quietly structure most of our lives.

But what are we to do about friend? Surely a retronym is called for. A retronym is a term that comes into use when technology makes the old term confusing. Acoustic guitar, for example. When electric guitars came along, we needed a special term for the instrument which for hundreds of years had just been a guitar. Manual typewriter, prop plane, desktop computer, land line, manual or standard transmission, broadcast television. What term will we use to distinguish friends in the old sense of the word from Facebook friends?

Racing on Carbon Fiber Legs: How Abled Should We Be? 

One Olympic swimmer has a D-cup breast size. From a physiological standpoint, she’s at a disadvantage to a swimmer who’s an A-cup. If she amputated her breasts to become more streamlined, would we consider her crazy, or worse, a cheater?
The Amazons, after all, amputated their left breast so it wouldn’t impede their skill in archery. Though athletes have taken some truly crazy stuff to have an advantage, nobody’s gone so far as elective amputation.
I’ve spent the better part of my lifetime trying to get out from under an idea of being “disabled,” and the baggage that comes with that label. (Look it up in a thesaurus if you want a taste of what I mean.) As of yet, the best prosthetic available is not as efficient and not as capable as what Mother Nature gives us—or, what she was supposed to give me, and South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius. The revolutionary design of the woven carbon-fiber Cheetah Leg, nicknamed for its design inspiration, has been in existence for nearly 15 years—and after my initial triumphs with them in the mid 1990s, it has been the leg of choice for nearly all elite amputee sprinters. But in one instant, after Pistorius entered a summer 2007 track meet in Rome and placed second in a field of runners possessing flesh and bone legs, he and I were deemed tooabled.
Commence the comical nightmare of being told that we now possess an “unfair advantage” in wearing prosthetic limbs to run. The scores of amputee sprinters who had competed with the limbs for the previous 13 years—and were still comfortably categorized as “disabled”—were virtually ignored. What is fascinating is the immediate shift in society’s regard of a disabled athlete as an “inspiration” (cue the patronizing “awwwww”) to a legitimate threat to other athletes (“Uh, what the hell do we do now?”).

Wow. Aimee Mullins is guest editing at Gizmodo this week and she just knocked it out of the park. This is essential reading for any anthropologist or linguistic. Donna Haraway would be proud.

Aimee runs through the tricky issue of human modification in sports, chronicling the blurred border that defines the space. Just go read this now. (Via Gizmodo)

Sapir-Whorf and Hackers

From Wikipedia:

In linguistics, the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis (SWH) (also known as the “linguistic relativity hypothesis”) postulates a systematic relationship between the grammatical categories of the language a person speaks and how that person both understands the world and behaves in it. Although known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, it was an underlying axiom of linguist and anthropologist Edward Sapir and his colleague and student Benjamin Whorf.
The hypothesis postulates that a particular language’s nature influences the habitual thought of its speakers: that different language patterns yield different patterns of thought. This idea challenges the possibility of perfectly representing the world with language, because it implies that the mechanisms of any language condition the thoughts of its speaker community. The hypothesis emerges in strong and weak formulations. 
Are their any linguists out there who have applied to this to hackers? Can we get some formal thinking on the predilections of a RoRs guy vs. a PHP dev? I’d like to put out a call for papers…