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September 19, 2015

Transliterating Heidegger

As a result of lurking in a mailing list’s conversation about whether and how to translate Heidegger’s use of the ancient Greek term φυσις, I did some poking around at Google.

φυσις does not translate easily, which is why Heidegger scholars like to use the original Greek. (Meanwhile, I can’t even find an html character for the upsilon with a diacritical, and the raw Greek character failed in the preview of this post in Chrome.) It’s usually translated as “nature,” but that’s the result of a 2,500-year-old-game of “Telephone.” For Heidegger, it has something to do with what shows itself as having its own way of becoming or emerging. Richard Polt aand Gregory Fried in A Companion to Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics take a stab at it by referring to it as the “emerging-abiding sway.” Anyway, that’s not the point of this post.

Here are the results. Have fun making sense of them. They are wonky in ways that indicate that I don’t know how to do Google queries.

Search logic

Actual search terms







φυσις AND heidegger

“φυσις” “heidegger”



phusis AND heidegger

“phusis” “heidegger”



physis AND heidegger

“heidegger” “physis”



φυσις AND heidegger AND phusis

“φυσις” “heidegger” “phusis”



φυσις AND heidegger AND physis

“φυσις” “heidegger” “physis”



φυσις AND heidegger BUT NOT phusis

“φυσις” “heidegger” -“phusis”



φυσις AND heidegger BUT NOT physis

“φυσις” “heidegger” -“physis”



heidegger AND phusis BUT NOT φυσις

“heidegger” “phusis” -“φυσις”



heidegger AND physis BUT NOT φυσις

-“φυσις” “heidegger” “physis”



φυσις AND heidegger AND phusis AND physis

“φυσις” “heidegger” “physis” “phusis”


Semi-interesting factoids based upon faulty research and poor quantitative reasoning skils:

  • Hardly anyone who uses the Greek bothers to point out that there are two ways to transliterate it.

  • A fifth of all mentions of the Greek term also mention Heidegger.

  • If a work mentions Heidegger and the Greek term, it’s three times more likely to transliterate it as physis.

Fun minigame: How many of those did I mess up?

Google’s search syntax documentation is not great, and the results sometimes seem wonky. Here’s some documentation:


August 20, 2015

Remember when a drop didn’t matter?

I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop…
Comedy of Errors1, II:1:199-200

Shakespeare is bringing before us both the vastness of the ocean and the indistinguishability of one drop from another, and maybe even the way in which drops in an ocean are artificial constructs. But for us, “a drop in the ocean” is the standard signifier of an amount so small that it makes no difference at all. A drop in the bucket could still add up to something. A drop in the ocean could not.

You can see the power of this image in the startling effect its inversion had in Kurt Vonnegut‘s Ice Nine. A single drop of this fictitious chemical would crystalize the entire ocean. Imagine, a mere drop in the ocean having such an effect!

Of course, when it comes to racism, for a long time in this country (and only this country), having one drop of “Negro” blood in your veins — a black ancestor in any generation back to the presumed-white Adam and Eve — was enough to make you subject to all of the racial and social restrictions white America had devised. [More] Unlike an ocean drop or bucket drop, a blood drop could make all the difference. But, racism is all about being inconsistent, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised.

When it came to tiny bits that didn’t matter at all, a drop in the ocean was the measure.

Not any more. All those drops have added up. Depending on where you’re floating, if you were to withdraw a drop from the ocean, there’s a measurable probability that you’ll come down with hepatitis. In some parts of the ocean, your dropper will get clogged with plastic. No drops for you.

We used to say that the ocean is forgiving. It turns out it was just nursing a grudge.

We have suffered from the Fallacy of Scale. We are now learning the power of drops. Perhaps too late.

1Speaking of Comedy of Errors, don’t miss the hilarious version at Shakespeare & Co. in Lenox, Mass. It’s set in NJ, and they play it entirely for laughs because, well, it’s a comedy.


September 6, 2009

Data and metadata: Together again

Terry Jones has an excellent post that lists the problems introduced by maintaining a hard distinction between metadata and data.

Terry cites Everything Is Miscellaneous (thanks, Terry), which argues that the distinction, which is hard-coded in the Age of Databases, becomes a merely functional difference in the Age of Messy Links: Metadata is what you know and data is what you’re looking for. For example, the year of a CD is metadata about the CD if you know the year a Bob Dylan CD came out but you don’t remember the title, and the title can be metadata if you know the title but want to find the year. And in both cases, it could all be metadata in your search for lyrics.

This is all very squishy and messy because the distinction is, as Terry says, artificial. It comes from thinking about experience as content that gets processed, as if we worked the way computers do. More exactly, it comes from thinking about experience as a set of Experience Atoms that then have to be assembled; metadata are the labels that tell you that Atom A goes into Atom Z. But experience is far more like language than like particle physics or Ikea assembly instructions. And that’s for a very good reason: linguistic creatures’ experience cannot be understood apart from language. Language doesn’t neatly separate into content and meta-content. It all comes together and it’s all intertwingled. Language is so very non-atomic that it makes atoms realize how lonely they’ve been.

That doesn’t mean that computer software that separates metadata from data is useless. Lord knows I love a good database. But it also means that computer software that can treat anything as metadata depending on what we’re trying to do opens up some interesting possibilities…

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August 8, 2009

Shakespeare for girls, and young language

Two more points from Kenneth Coleman’s lecture on teaching Shakespeare, at Shakespeare & Co.

First, he says that the four most-taught Shakespearean plays are all tragedies. The tragedies are — he says — about how men screw up the world. And in the four most-taught ones, the women generally kill themselves or are otherwise disempowered. We should be teaching the comedies, he says, because they’re about how women make the world livable.

Second, he objects to calling Shakespeare’s language “old English.” Actually, it’s young English, full of play, lacking rules, inventing itself.

Two excellent points.

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May 2, 2009

And now, medieval music for cockatoos

I love the dancing cockatoos.

And I love the research that’s found a connection between animals with language skills and animals that can dance.

But I wonder what it means that cockatoos probably can’t dance to most of the music our culture has created throughout its history.

Canconier by Canconier

Did it take until the 20th century for us to de-evolve music to the point that cockatoos could dance to it?

(Note: I also love Magnatune, and the occasional Monty Python reference.)

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December 27, 2008

Informationalized conversation

In his important 1996 book, Using Language, Herbert H. Clark opens Chapter 7 by analyzing two lines of conversation between ” a British academic” and “a prospective student”:

When Arthur says “u:h what modern poets have you been reading -” he doesn’t want Beth merely to understand what he means — that he wants to know what modern poets she has been reading. He wants her to take up his question, to answer it, to tell him what modern poets she has been reading. She could refuse even though she has understood. To mean something, you don’t have to achieve uptake, and to understand something, you don’t have to take it up. Still, Beth’s uptake is needed if she and Arthur are to achieve what Arthur has publicly set out for them to do at this point in their interview. p. 191

My first response, and probably yours, is: Well, duh But that’s the point. The fact that Clark has to explicitly state that we ask questions usually in order to get a response is evidence of just how deeply we’ve adopted the information-based paradigm that says that communication consists of the transfer of messages from one head to another. Language is a social tool used by embodied creatures to accomplish complex and emergent projects in a shared world. The transfer of messages is the least of it.

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December 14, 2008

Competition vs. Cupertino

From Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words:

An automated spelling checker attached to a word-processing program is one of the curses of our age. In the hands of an inexperienced, over-hasty or ignorant user it readily perpetrates dreadful errors in the name of correctness. One example appeared in a piece in the New York Times in October 2005 about Stephen Colbert’s neologism “truthiness”: throughout it instead referred to “trustiness”, the first suggestion from the paper’s automated checking software. In September 2006 an issue of the Arlington Advocate included the sentence, “Police denitrified the youths and seized the paintball guns.” The writer left the first letter off “identified” and the spelling checker corrected what remained.

In 2000 the second issue of Language Matters, a magazine by the European Commission’s English-language translators, included an article by Elizabeth Muller on the problem with the title Cupertino and After.

Cupertino, the city in California, is best known for hosting the headquarters of Apple Computers. But the term doesn’t come from the firm. The real source is spelling checkers that helpfully include the names of places as well as lists of words. In a notorious case documented by Ms Muller, European writers who omitted the hyphen from “co-operation” (the standard form in British English) found that their automated checkers were turning it into “Cupertino”. Being way behind the computing curve, I’m writing this text using Microsoft Word 97, which seems to be the offending software (more recent editions have corrected the error); in that, if you set the language to British English, “cooperation” does get automatically changed to “Cupertino”, the first spelling suggestion in the list. For reasons known only to God and Word’s programmers, the obvious “co-operation” comes second.

Hence “Cupertino effect” for the phenomenon and “Cupertino” for a word or phrase that has been involuntarily transmogrified through ill-programmed computer software unmediated by common sense or timely proofreading.

A search through the Web pages of international organisations such as the UN and NATO (and, of course, the EU) finds lots of examples of the canonical form of the error. A 1999 NATO report mentions the “Organization for Security and Cupertino in Europe”; an EU paper of 2003 talks of “the scope for Cupertino and joint development of programmes”; a UN report dated January 2005 argues for “improving the efficiency of international Cupertino”. And so on.

Other notorious examples of the Cupertino effect include an article in the Denver Post that turned the Harry Potter villain Voldemort into Voltmeter, one in The New York Times that gave the first name of American footballer DeMeco Ryans as Demerol, and a Reuters story which changed the name of the Muttahida Quami movement of Pakistan into the Muttonhead Quail movement.

It could be worse. Leave out one of the “o”s from the beginning of “co-operation” as well as the hyphen and you might be offered not “Cupertino” but “copulation”. Now that would be an error to write home about. Or perhaps not.

Everyone loves these spellchecker prejudices, but I didn’t know they had a name. (Thanks to my brother Andy for the link.) [Tags: ]


November 12, 2008

Everyone’s position on linguistic correctness

AKMA points to two snippets from Stephen Fry on grammatical purity. The second snippet is classic Laurie and Fry.

AKMA expresses his usual admirable inclusiveness: He thinks grammatical correctness is worth striving for, but also acknowledges that language can usefully overflow its bounds. I’m with him. I was disappointed to hear Obama use the phrase “between her and meI,” and at his recent press conference to use “between” instead of “among” when referring to relationships of three or more. But I’m not a stickler. Why, I’ve recently become willing to blatantly split an infinitive or two.

When it comes to the sanctity of the rules of language, doesn’t everyone have the same position? While we think people ought to follow the grammatical rules that matter, we graciously condescend to permit others to make fools of themselves in public, unless they break rules the violation of which force a “Tut tut” from our lips. The difference is only over which particular rules we think are worth following, ignoring, or tut-tutting.

Or, to complete Henry Higgins’ thought: “Oh, why cahn’t the English … learn … to … speak … like me.” Pardon me: “…as I do.”

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