“The results suggest that the common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans may have had the capability to perceive speech-like sounds before the evolution of speech, and that early humans were taking advantage of this latent ability when speech did eventually emerge”

Well-educated Panzee understands more than 130 English language words and even recognizes words in sine-wave form, a type of synthetic speech that reduces language to three whistle-like tones. This shows that she isn’t just responding to a particular person’s voice or emotions, but instead she is processing and perceiving speech as humans do.

A chimp that understands language! Next you’ll be telling me we “descended” from apes.

Telephones — The Ur-Supercut

Christian Marclay’s Telephones (1995) showed famous actors answering ringing telephones in a string of surreal, disjointed conversations throughout Hollywood history. Edited together, the cadence and rhythm of nonstop clips feels very reminiscent of modern supercuts. Apple tried to license Marclay’s film for the launch of the iPhone in 2007, but he refused. Instead, they made their own, borrowing the idea wholesale. (Marclay decided not to sue.)

Andy Baio, in his new column for Wired’s Epicenter blog, discusses supercuts, those videos that mash-up dozens or hundres of short clips of a type. His article traces the evolution of the form from proto examples like Telephones to their use as tools of political critique. More examples at his supercuts site and more analysis at his Wired article.

How It Came to Pass

“Why,” I asked, “is there an Essex, a Wessex, and a Sussex, but no Nessex or Nussex?”

“Well,” he replied, “there’s an interesting story behind that. Edward I was king at the time the regions were all laid out, and he gave them their names. But he suffered from a terrible neurological condition that prevented him from turning to the north. And because he was the king, nobody wanted to say, ‘King, you’re forgetting one of the cardinal directions’.”

offre tree free for the taking

Posted to the Dubuque Freecycle group:

a tree fell in my yard could use for fire wood

the stars in starlings

(yep, they’re here)

Shit That Siri Says

In case you’ve not seen these everywhere you look. The Shit That Siri Says tumblr.

tweet of the day

dear clusterflock

Words that sound like they have meaning but don’t.

Elmore Leonard

has a sharp ear for dialogue and no mistake, but one of my favorite Leonard characters never utters a word.

The alligator, a ten-foot female weighing about five hundred pounds, opened her eyes and, after several minutes, moved her head from side to side, drowsy, disoriented, not knowing where she was, not catching the scent of anything familiar other than grass and dry soil. No water close by. She raised her head and hissed in the night, in the sound of insects. The wind rose and with it came a scent she recognized as something she liked that she had smelled before sometime in her life and had eaten. After several more minutes she began to move in a sluggish sort of way as though half asleep, not entirely upright on her legs, brushing the grass with her tail. The scent she liked became stronger as she moved and kept moving until her snout touched something she had never smelled before. She sniffed and air came through it into her nostrils, bringing a strong scent of the thing she liked. Now she pushed and whatever it was in front of her bent against her weight until it gave way and the alligator walked through it and felt the ground cold now, smooth and hard. The scent she liked was here, though not enough in one place that it would become the thing itself she could fasten her jaws on and tear or take into her mouth whole. She settled on the cool ground, feeling it become warm beneath her as she went to sleep.

Elmore Leonard. Maximum Bob. 1991.

Sign Language

From a photo-graphic of various hand signals the maitre d’ at New York’s Eleven Madison Park uses to signal the waiters.

last night, tumbling sleepward

Let the little lost lamb lead the way.

The ancient burden of language.

I can still see the three perfect self-contained sentences if I look into the blue depths of the sky, into oceanic currents of air. Once, they rode dromedaries or Bactrian camels of syntax, bearing dangling modifiers in boxes, vases, jars. At all the stoplights and Shell stations in Los Altos and Encino, the inhabitants of night would talk about the Crab Nebula and how they saw it erupt in the frigid velvet darkness like the first strobe light in a Whitesnake concert, the first flash of the first camera in picture day at school, and what this meant. The three perfect self-contained sentences lived on the top of a mountain overlooking Menlo Park, and they had fiberglass radio dishes and astrographs and big Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes on tripods, and they had had studied the theory of peace on earth.

So peace would be established in parking lots and the office blocks on Wiltshire, and bags of Reese’s Pieces would be handed out for free. A waitress with frosted hair had seen the Macho Man Randy Savage asking for directions to the banquet of the resurrected at the Getty. Two aspiring hip-hop producers produced an iphone with photographs showing Frank Zappa eating an oven-roasted chicken sandwich on Ventura Boulevard, and they needed a tank of silver-grade unleaded and two bags of Doritos, because this meant that 2Pac was out there somewhere, clothed in white and riding a Ducati through the night. Everybody embraced, and two young Java developers burst into tears at the sudden beauty of the world.

Everyone knew that the three perfect sentences were on the move, through the deserts, because we could hear the sounds of tiny bells. But there were some that doubted that they were self-contained. “..es un Tigre que me destroza, pero yo soy el tigre; es un fuego que me consume, pero yo soy el fuego” said a line cook from El Cerrito, and we all knew that he was right. Serpents made of language that have a period preceding the initial capital letter, they were the recursive CatDog of perfection: if somebody tried to use a chalkboard to make a sentence tree from them, the tree would flower, and burst into leaves. Birds would gather on the branches made of chalk. They were like something out of that dream that Samuel Johnson had, which he was incapable of telling Boswell, because the weight of the words on paper, the shape of the words in his mouth, destroyed the purity of the absolute sentence, the single sustained example of perfect prose.

So where are the three perfect self-contained sentences now, Mr. Neece? What happened to their journey? And what will they find at the center of the world?


Reading this paragraph from an article on how retail stores prime shoppers to make particular choices, I couldn’t help feel I was being primed for a subconscious lesson in grammar.

Let’s take for example Whole Foods, a market chain priding itself on selling the highest quality, freshest, and most environmentally sound produce. No one could argue that their selection of organic food and take-away meals are whole, hearty, and totally delicious. But how much thought have you given to how they’re actually presenting their wares? Have you considered the carefully planning that’s goes into every detail that meets the eye?

What has happened to online writing? Matt Yglesias and Josh Marshall, both political writers I admire, often post with grammatical errors. Have we decided this medium doesn’t require the rigor of print? Are the errors part of the message? What bananas should I buy?

exotic hand gestures from around the globe

Meaning: “You are a dickhead”
Used in: United Kingdom

Bring the fingers and thumb together as if holding a phallus near the forehead.

From Romana Lefevre’s Rude Hand Gestures of the World, with photographs by Daniel Castro, The Atlantic put together a handy clutch of rude gestures to carry with you wherever you go.

(thanks, Casey)

the serial comma, a visual explanation

The utility of the serial comma has always made sense to me, the comments against it don’t.

(thanks, Kelsey)

tweet of the day

from the comments


Well, it seems an appropriate response to a new condition in writing: With an unprecedented amount of available text, our problem is not needing to write more of it; instead, we must learn to negotiate the vast quantity that exists. How I make my way through this thicket of information — how I manage it, parse it, organize and distribute it — is what distinguishes my writing from yours.

Kevin Sampsell in Conversation with Gary Lutz

The Rumpus did a short interview with Gary Lutz about his new collection Divorcer:

Kevin: Do you drive? What kinds of cars do you like?

Gary: I hate all cars, but I drive a black Chevrolet Cavalier filled with trash. The driver’s side of the body has been keyed so intricately, so all-over-ishly (though perhaps keying isn’t quite the word; there might have been ice picks and chisels involved as well), that the vandal (should she ever get caught) might benefit as much from a gallerist as from a social worker.

(thanks, Derek)

comment out of context

Usage determines meaning. In the same way, a “glaivester” is a large dildo used by white supremacist men who think about anal sex all the time.

Not a spam name, but a genuine listserv name

that set me pondering the wonders of inversion. Is he “Dickson Chigariro” or “Chigariro Dickson”?

quote out of context

Some people say that I Google like a motherfucker, but I prefer not to use language like that.


at a gas station convenience store. Near Madison, Wisconsin.

“What is the difference between the Dutch and the Germans?”

[Gesturing.] “A boundary — which the Germans have breached on many an occasion.”

“Do they speak the same language?”

“Dutch and German are very close.”

“Because, you see, between Kenya and Tanzania, there is a boundary, but we speak the same language.”

“That — is colonialism, my friend!”

Eric Trabuchi’s Truck Alphabet

From a compendium of graphical alphabets. (Probably the most creative is one about halfway down comprised of a single neon light fabricated in such a way as to form a letter of the alphabet depending how you hold it.)

(via @khoi)

It was almost as if there was a secret world of pronouns that existed outside our awareness

COOK: What are some of the more unusual “texts” you have applied this technique to?

PENNEBAKER: Some of the more unusual texts have been my own. There is something almost creepy about analyzing your own emails, letters of recommendation, web pages, and natural conversations.

COOK: And what have you found?

PENNEBAKER: One of the most interesting results was part of a study my students and I conducted dealing with status in email correspondence. Basically, we discovered that in any interaction, the person with the higher status uses I-words less (yes, less) than people who are low in status. The effects were quite robust and, naturally, I wanted to test this on myself. I always assumed that I was a warm, egalitarian kind of guy who treated people pretty much the same.

I was the same as everyone else. When undergraduates wrote me, their emails were littered with I, me, and my. My response, although quite friendly, was remarkably detached — hardly an I-word graced the page. And then I analyzed my emails to the dean of my college. My emails looked like an I-word salad; his emails back to me were practically I-word free.

One of half a dozen subjects discussed in an interview with James Pennebaker, chair of the department of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, on his work with the hidden world of pronouns.

(thanks, Andrew)

The Somerton Beach Mystery (or the enigma of the “Unknown Man”)

Let’s start by sketching out the little that is known for certain. At 7 o’clock on the warm evening of Tuesday, November 30, 1948, jeweler John Bain Lyons and his wife went for a stroll on Somerton Beach, a seaside resort a few miles south of Adelaide. As they walked toward Glenelg, they noticed a smartly dressed man lying on the sand, his head propped against a sea wall. He was lolling about 20 yards from them, legs outstretched, feet crossed. As the couple watched, the man extended his right arm upward, then let it fall back to the ground. Lyons thought he might be making a drunken attempt to smoke a cigarette.

Half an hour later, another couple noticed the same man lying in the same position. Looking on him from above, the woman could see that he was immaculately dressed in a suit, with smart new shoes polished to a mirror shine—odd clothing for the beach. He was motionless, his left arm splayed out on the sand. The couple decided that he was simply asleep, his face surrounded by mosquitoes. “He must be dead to the world not to notice them,” the boyfriend joked.

The journalistic equivalent of The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World.

(via the browser)

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