Tuesday, March 29, 2011

On "History for a Wedge" by Paul Martone (3259 words) ***

You can only ignore the future for so long. That, I take it, is one of the themes of this story. This story's greatest strength to me, however, is the way it pulls us through a rather mundane afternoon before pounding us with a highly disruptive conclusion. Sure, the end is set up, but we don't think too much about it until it arrives. Instead, we're focused on, um, trivia, which is precisely the point--precisely what our narrator is trying to focus on. Read all about it, and learn a few Trivial Pursuit answers, here at Stickman Review.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

On "All-American" by Jenn Stroud Rossmann (1865 words) ****

This is the first story about a rape that I've read from the point of view of someone other than the victim or the perpetrator (though one film I've seen presented points of view from both the victim and the victim's boyfriend). That distance helps make this story the strong piece that it is, the way that it takes the stereotypical "strong American man" and puts him in a situation that is demands vulnerability and helplessness. The story is further aided by its second-person narration. Try putting it in first person, and it would sound silly. Put it in third person, and the distance seems even greater. "You" catches just the right amount of identification in the reader. You can read the story here at Failbetter.

On "Educating Eve" by Geoffrey Sampson ***

Sampson's book is essentially a refutation of the concept that humans have a "language instinct," as proffered by Steven Pinker (and his predecessor Noam Chomsky). Such "nativist" theories, as opposed to rationalist theories, are particularly dangerous, Sampson believes, on a philosophical level. And in the end that is Sampson's main focus--whether humans are biologically limited machines (drawing on a set of fixed possibilities, even if large) or creative beings able to make an unpredictable something out of nothing, and whether there is a mind as opposed to just a set of chemical reactions in the nerve center we call the brain. Sampson calls into question materialism, which I have no problem with, but I'm not sure how or why a nonmaterialist centers so much discussion on evolution as such, since a belief in dualism would tend to work against a materialist theory such as evolution (after all, did the nonmaterial "mind" evolve, and if so, how?).

Sampson puts up a very clear and formidable argument against the language instinct concept, refuting nearly every major point brought up by Chomsky and Pinker. I am probably slightly more persuaded to Sampson's point of view than the other, though even Sampson admits that on some level, this is the old nature versus nurture debate, and we all know that the answer to that lies somewhere in between. Sampson sides heavily on the nurture side; Pinker and Chomsky on the nature side. Academics can argue and argue, but the true answer probably does lie in between.

To the idea that language acquisition in young children learn language too quickly for it to be anything but instinct, Sampson asks, "Too quickly compared to what?" It takes a child two years--that's a fairly long portion of the human lifespan. Sampson doesn't bring this up, but I was thinking about walking. It is something we "learn," but it's something all children eventually do. Would the fact that it takes two years (as compared to other animals, who walk immediately) put it in the learning camp? Or would the fact that virtually all children eventually DO walk put it in the instinct camp? Were a child to grow up in a society that crawled everywhere crawl rather than walk? In a sense, these are the kinds of questions linguists are arguing over when debating over how natural or acquired language is. And in a sense, the question isn't completely answerable, without doing something horrendous, like taking a bunch of kids and putting them in a place where they couldn't learn to walk or learn a language from adults. What would happen then?

Well, we know in part the answer with regard to language. The case is demonstrated by one "Genie," who grew up severely neglected and who could not learn grammar once she was found, as a teen, by proper society. But Sampson questions even this, claiming that one child cannot a theory prove, especially when Genie came out of a case that was also an emotional trauma as well. Perhaps, there are other reasons she did not talk, he points out. (He doesn't discuss the Indian some centuries back who did exactly what I noted--locked up a bunch of babies so that they couldn't learn language--to see what happened. The anecdote is in either the Pinker or the Davis book.)

That children do learn language more quickly and easily in general does seem to be true to me, but it is also true of most basic things, Sampson says, since as we get older our minds become less sharp. He points to adults who do manage to master second languages--something the nativists say doesn't happen (at least not without significant accents). On this point, one could probably point to examples of both, it does indeed seem that children do better than most adults at acquiring new tongues. Of course, Sampson's reply would be that children are motivated where adults often aren't--a child thrust into a new setting with friends and society around that speaks the new language is going to find more reason to learn the language than an adult who can fall back on the old language, especially in an immigrant community. To arguments that adults can learn physics while children can't, Sampson would point to the need for undergirding knowledge.

The fact that children aren't motivated also points to why they won't learn something like math or physics with the same degree of speed or in a manner that is seemingly automatic.

Some of Sampson's arguments aren't particularly convincing to me. The least convincing of the counterarguments he actually bothers making is one that involves headless nouns. Here, he pulls out Pinker's claim that a headless compound noun will add the plural -s but a nonheadless one will take on the irregular form. We're talking about words like "mailman" here. "Men" is the plural of "man," and when combined with "mailman" becomes "mailmen" in the plural. But a headless noun doesn't follow that rule. Take a word like "tenderfoot," and make it plural. A tenderfoot is not a type of foot--foot is not the head of the compound. "Tenderfoot" is a whole other word, and thus becomes "tenderfoots" in the plural. Sampson argues that he might well say "tenderfeet" (and so on for the various examples); I find this doubtful. Each example Pinker noted seemed like the more common use to me. So Sampson does some research and finds a case where the irregular does sometimes apply to the plural of a headless noun, and to his American example, I can say that he's entirely correct, since I've used it (though I would likely now just use the singular as the plural in conjunction with other words like it). The word is "Blackfoot," as in the Indian tribe. No one says "Blackfoots" for the plural, but some writers do say "Blackfeet." That said, one also refers to several English, several French, several Cherokee or several Cherokees, so the more common usage would seem to me to be "several Blackfoot."

Another argument that proves to be less effective to me is one that Sampson makes in a couple of cases, where he essentially doesn't argue the point at all. He states that since the nativists bother to argue a given point, it proves that the point isn't self-evident, which means that empiricism must be the cause of the particular phenomenon. In other words, if you argue the point, you must be incorrect, because if you were correct, you wouldn't bother to argue it. This seems to me the old witch trial (float and you're a witch and deserve to die; drown and you probably aren't a witch).

I am actually finding myself more persuaded in some ways by Pinker as I review these points. But there is much to find disingenuous in the nativists cause as well. Sampson notes some disturbing things with regard to the research done on the family who couldn't learn grammar that Pinker talks about. The family lacks a grammar gene supposedly--or does it? Sampson points out that the family, if you actually look closely, by and large tests lower than average on IQ tests; grammar isn't the only problem--it's not isolated. (The family members with grammar problems average 85 in IQ; average population is around 100; then again, Sampson doesn't address the anomaly of at least one that supposedly scored 110 among the problem grammar group.)

Pinker does a lot of pulling sentences around to trace elements as we move from a statement to a question, and uses this part of grammar to prove his instinct point. He also talks of sentences not being about to house phrases inside of a phrases. It was a discussion that interested me little, and Sampson's pointing out that these points seem highly artificial--and not even necessarily true--made sense to me.

But Sampson's main concern is that Pinker and Chomsky are, in his mind, arguing from a Platonic point of view wherein there is limited knowledge, all of which is already known, and that all we are doing is "remembering" it. Taken to this extreme, I wouldn't be able to side with the nativists either. But taken to the other extreme, that we can create something from nothing, I don't think I can side with Sampson either.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

On "Matt: How It Will Happen" by Amanda Nazario (562 words) ***

This is dream gone absurd. What makes it absurd but also amusing and interesting is its specificity--and its oddness. I'm reminded a bit of Miranda July's work. Here, a woman obsesses over her ex-boyfriend, but we're not going to see a retread of the romance here. And we're not going to see revenge. We're just going to see more obsession. More really weird obsession. Read it here at Smokelong.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

On "Work in Progress" by Kristin Kearns (1783 words) ****

Kearns attempts to bring short story form to real life in this piece--or to bring real life to short story form. The effect is rather mesmerizing.

I remember once asking a friend why movies always seemed so much better than life, and what he told me has always stuck with me: movies only last two hours.

A story has a conflict. A story has a resolution. We get an arc, a rise and a fall in action. Often, we have a happy ending. But life--life goes on. The happiness isn't the end. The rise and fall is only one of a series of waves. How does one transfer story making into such life? Read how Kearns tries to do it here at Big Ugly Review.

On "Mother Tongue" by Joel Davis ****

Joel Davis's Mother Tongue covers much the same ground as Pinker's Language Instinct, at least to start, but without as much of a clearly defined or argued thesis. In that sense, I found myself wanting back into Pinker's book; I liked that he had an agenda, that he was about to make a point and prove it. And yet, despite that, Davis, for me, seemed the better, more entertaining writer. Mother Tongue seemed aimed toward a popular audience; The Language Instinct seemed aimed toward a scholarly audience and then somewhat weakly (or superficially) adapted to appeal to a wider range.

Part of what bored me with the early portions of Davis's book was that I'd read so much of this before. He starts by trying to define language, which, while not covered in the previous book, was not the most exciting discussion to me. I understand that he has to establish his terminology, but language--you know, yes, that's right, we know. We know it when we hear it. Or do we? That comes up later, so these early discussions actually come to be of some importance.

Next, we have a history of languages, some of which was interesting, but again much of which was covered in Pinker. Essentially, Davis goes into theories about proto-languages, the supposed languages that might have broken down in our various language families, how, for example, we can trace French to Latin and Latin is probably from a larger family called Indo-European because it shares many traits with Sanskrit, and on and on back. Then comes a discussion of phonemes, of morphemes, of grammar. And so it goes.

But the book really got interesting to me in its second (of three) parts, when Davis delves into the brain. Some of this was covered in Pinker's book, but much of it was not. Davis gets down to detail here, focusing on how exactly the brain works and how language may interact with it. He talks about the scientists doing research in this field and the techniques they use.

Early on (like 150 years ago), one researcher would cut open the skulls of dogs and tear out parts of the brain to see how they'd react. This was essential research to our early understanding, but obviously it wouldn't today. Early twentieth-century researchers and even some today do experiments, by consent, with some who are having brain surgery. Here's the thing: the brain doesn't have nerves that feel pain, so researchers who are in there anyway can probe around, hitting this or that with a little electric stimulation and seeing what happens. You can be awake for this, simply on local anesthesia, since you can't feel it. That means, you can also be asked questions as the work is done. Pretty cool, eh?

Now, add into that sophisticated machinery--CT scans, MRI scans, PET scans--and researchers can check out what parts of the brain are reacting during different events. And that brings us to language. Two particular areas, discovered early in research on the brain, seemed to have much to do with language. The reason these conclusions were reached were that certain patients--World War I vets hit in the back of the head, for example--couldn't speak or couldn't speak certain groups of words. They might lose the ability to create syntax or the ability to say words related to musical instruments. (Other things also can go wrong in the brain--the ability, for example, to recognize faces. You might still be able to recognize a voice but a face means nothing to you--very trippy, I'd say.)

But further research is showing that it isn't just two regions where language is stored. It's really all over, but most especially in the left hemisphere of the brain (only a few oddballs have language more in the right hemisphere, usually because of an early childhood accident). Theory, now, is that rather than the brain moving language laterally from back to front, the brain has all these little sectors in which information is stored. That information is all sent to a single gateway where it is processed and put into form. Davis does a lot of comparisons to computers, and his example here seems to help. If you've ever run disk defragmenter on Windows, you know that information gets piled on to the hard disk wherever there's space. Your computer gathers all that info up to run its various programs. So too does our brain--but at a much quicker speed and with multiple processors (so that more can go on at once).

(I'm reminded a bit about something Pinker had written that I didn't mention--namely, how complex grammar is that attempts to get computers to listen, analyze, and respond to human languages have proven near impossible. One of the interesting things is that computers might be able to learn to understand one person's voice, but each person's voice is so unique that the computer can't manage to understand many different voices. And yet, we somehow learn to be able to separate that stream of phonemes and morphemes coming from peoples lips into actual words.)

And that in turn brings me to the third section of Davis's book, which focuses on babies and on how they acquire language. Davis seems to be in the Pinker school here, with more of a leaning toward an instinct than just learning--though neither, I think, are saying that environment has nothing to do with language acquisition. The key thing is that language acquisition is wired into the brain as something unique to our species.

So children, up to puberty, can learn languages easier than adults. But what Davis also brings out is that babies actually can pick up on differences between phonemes that even adults can't. Before one year of age, a child is pretty open to any phoneme, but as the kid becomes accustomed to the mother tongue, it loses the ability to distinguish between phonemes that aren't used in the particular language. The classic example is how difficult it is for Japanese to pronounce L and R because those two letters are essentially one "in-between" letter in the native tongue. And really, what is the difference between B and V or some of our other phonemes--it can be pretty subtle. Experiments show, however, that though babies can pick up the phonemes more easily, children can still pick them up, in short time, if placed into another language context, while adults have much more difficulty. Moreover, adults exposed to certain phonemes through second languages as adults, even if they no longer speak the language, have an easier time distinguishing those phonemes than those adults who had not be exposed, though a harder time than those who still use the language.

There's also a discussion of consciousness, which Davis claims is unique to humans because language is unique to us. It's not that animals don't have consciousness, but they don't have it at the same level. Without language, there isn't as clear of a distinction between the me and the world out there. Both Davis and Pinker think animal language is dubious. They may communicate, but it's not language as we know it. Davis raises an excellent point about various animal studies into language--in almost all cases, the researcher is beside the animal, more or less pushing the animal to use the language. (Want candy? Ask for it. Say, Yes.) It's not as if the language is really conveying anything the researcher doesn't know--it's not true linguistic communication. That is saved for us humans, with our special brains and childhood development.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

On "To Wade Alone" by C. B. Calsing (3436 words) ***

One time, back in grade school, I wanted to join a football game. I was told no. I was told I was too small, that I would get hurt. These kids were about my age, maybe a year older than I was. They were playing football--tackle football, as I recall--on pavement, so of course I'd have gotten hurt, as would they. But they were crazy kids, I know that now. Still, at the time, being told no was a little off-putting. Sure, I was their age, but I was small and skinny. They were watching out for my safety. The little guy. I couldn't make the decision regarding my safety for myself.

Put that in an adult context, and it becomes all the more jarring. It becomes ridiculous. And that's what happens in this story. Betty Carmichael is a little lady, quite literally, a tiny gal in a freak show. Everyone at the show looks out for her, and everyone at the show prevents her from ever growing up. All she wants to do is go to the beach. All she wants to do, in others' eyes, is risk her life. They know better. Betty is, after all, just a little woman. Read the story here at On the Premises.

Monday, March 14, 2011

On "White Charles" by Sarah Monette (8604 words) ***

Monette's story gives new meanings to the term creepy. Ostensibly the story of a creature gotten loose from a pack of old books, the characters slowly realize that this isn't just a rat or a mouse but something not quite definable. I'm reminded a little of the first Alien movie, where what exactly we are to expect is unknown, but things just keep getting more and more gruesome the deeper in we go. Here, the creature has a different goal and a bit more reason, but that doesn't stop this story from engaging like any good adventure suspense would. Read it here at Clarkesworld.

Friday, March 11, 2011

On "Mercy" by Glen Pourciau (943 words) ****

When I was nineteen, I visited Argentina. While I was there, San Francisco had a huge earthquake. I lived in Los Angeles, but some of the people I was traveling with were from San Fran, and despite the distance, any huge disaster back in one's home state is still news and still cause for concern. I thought often about how awful it would be to be vacationing while something bad happened back home and having no ability to do anything in response. Glad I wasn't from San Fran.

And yet, after reading Pourciau's story, I can't help but wonder if the lucky person is the one who doesn't find out about the troubles back home but instead simply gets to discover them upon returning. Is it better to know and to worry or to be blissfully ignorant. Pourciau's story centers around a nosy neighbor who feels the need to inform vacationers about what's happening in their own home. Creepy? Yes, indeed. Read the story here at Freight Stories.

On "The Language Instinct" by Steven Pinker ***

The first of ten or so books I'll be reading about psycholinguistics--the study of language and its relationship to the brain--is a good introduction to the various subissues that arise: where language comes from, how we learn language, why some people have problems with language, to what degree do animals have language, and so on. Pinker, a linguist, approaches the topic mostly with regard to grammar. His point: that the human mind has a language instinct, or to put it in slightly more precise words: that human beings have an underlying impulse toward speaking grammatically. We do this without the help of teachers or of parents. If we exist among other people, then as babies, we are indoctrinated into the world of grammatical language, whether that be nonstandard English or classical French.

I found much of this book immensely interesting. The first two chapters, which are mostly theoretical and lay out Pinker's argument, were the most intriguing. Later chapters also have a lot to offer. Unfortunately, chapters 3 and 4--the chapters where Pinker really lets loose with the sentence diagramming--were a bit much for me. I enjoy diagramming a sentence, but I'm not too inclined to read about it or to see someone else do it, over and over and over. To liven things up, Pinker brings in zany examples from e-mails and tabloid newspaper headlines, which seemed usually, to me, like a gloss. "I know you're bored, so here's some tangential materials that you might find funny to sort of help me make my point." I could have done with shorter chapters.

But this is a quibble. After chapter 4, things picked up again for me, and there were another seven chapters to go. In those early chapters, Pinker lays out one basic point, which was interesting to see explored. He does not believe, as some theorists do, that we are as humans defined by our language. Readers are reminded of the anecdote about an Eskimo tribe with 120 words for snow; Pinker says this is a myth, and points out that English itself has tens of words for frozen precipitation. Just because a word doesn't exist for an item in our language doesn't mean that we can't conceive of it, he says. And further, he notes, we do not think in language. Thoughts are something else. How do we know? Because we can often have a thought but fail to find the right word to express it. Common sense, indeed. (And yet, I know that I think in words in one way because I have conversations with myself inside my head. So perhaps words begin to fill in for thoughts? These are issues for another brain person to write about.)

Later chapters focus on specific subjects. Can primates learn language? Pinker says no, and he says the question is ludicrous anyway, for primates may be from the same evolutionary ancestor but that does not mean that they too would have language. Language, Pinker believes, came about after the human tree split off.

A grammar gene? Pinker sites studies of families wherein grammatical difficulties reside in a high percentage of the people, such that they have problems knowing when to use "are" with a noun (he are; they are--it doesn't make a difference in the family). Likewise, there are idiot savants that can speak completely grammatically but whose every sentence is nonsense (the cows are doing nicely in the bathtub, don't you think? I rather like shiny plastic. But my mother says colors are for babies). He looks into our brains and discusses exactly where language resides. He talks of how grammar is something we develop before the age of nine or so, and of how, failing that--as has happened with some unfortunate neglected and abused children--the ability to state things grammatically is forever lost, as the brain devotes those parts to other tasks.

There are sections in the book on phonemes and morphemes. Pinker draws out the reasons that some of our irregular words actually make linguistic sense, which was interesting to see. He points out that children generally learn how to format words according to the rules of the language without ever learning actual words (so that, given a nonexistent verb, they can easily conjugate it--he wugs, they wug).

He touches on the grammar books that tell us not to split infinitives and how many of these rules are absolute hogwash. He also touches on the possible origins of language.

In the latter element, I am left a bit startled. Pinker is big on natural selection and on evolution and assumes virtually every "educated" reader will be as well. Count me out. As much as he can explain that over time a person with linguistic abilities would outsurvive those who didn't somehow mutate such traits and pass them on, I fail to see how (1) humans would have simultaneously developed organs that could talk (something primates don't have) and the mind that could forge sentences, and (2) what advantage abstract concepts such as "purpose" or "meaning" would offer to evolutionary evolved beings. In the end, we have to part company there, because his science, as I see it, is as much a faith as mine.

The last chapter discusses some of the implications of his basic thesis, the main one of which is very intriguing indeed. If we have a language instinct, Pinker notes, than all humans have a fundamental biological tie to one another. In essence, we are not determined by our culture but by our biology. Of course, this is qualified, for even Pinker understands that such things work hand in hand.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

On "He Did and He Didn’t" by J. A. Tyler (1063 words) ***

The work of J. A. Tyler, the editor of Mudlucious, that I've read has always been extremely well written and very lyrical. This piece is no exception to that. What stands out here, though, is the way he's able to turn that language to his advantage in telling the story of one man's obsession. Even as he feels himself falling apart in the face of his responsibilities, he also finds himself falling apart in the face of another human being. I've had a few times where women managed to do this to my head--one's feelings about it are, well, complex and contradictory, and that comes through in Tyler's piece. Read the story here at MFA/MFYou (an interesting journal devoted to comparing MFA writing and experiences to non-MFA writing and experiences).

Saturday, March 5, 2011

On "Pigeons in Real Life" by Nancy Conger (1837 words) ****

Swink was on of my favorite literary journals based on its main page, which never updated. And in that was much sorrow. It showed up, stuck around, and then stopped publishing. But that changed in January 2010. It's back, and putting out good stuff again.

One of those good things is this story here. The trouble with nightmares is that when we're in a nightmare, we rarely stop to think that they aren't real. And somehow, nightmares seem all the more heinous when we are children. Conger milks these facts in this piece, presenting us with Andrew, a kid who can't tell reality from dream. And neither, in a sense, can we, since the two worlds don't seem all that different. And that's what makes this piece so horrifying. Read it here at Swink.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

On "Fracture" by Bryan Walpert (3055 words) ***

We build our stories around little things. When we build the stories well, the little things relate to the big things, and everything makes a nice whole. This story here is about the hand--or more precisely the fingers, and even more specifically the thumb. Walpert manages to use finger nicknames to full effect while also telling us much about the human hand--and about this particular couple and an unfortunate incident with their baby. Read the story here at Fiction Weekly.