Archive for June 16, 2009

Illegal Refuse Presentation

June 16, 2009 Leave a comment


Fans of Edinburgh will enjoy Geoffrey Pullum’s post two days ago at Language Log. Pullum is a British linguist who spent many years at UC Santa Cruz, but returned to the UK two years ago to become a professor at the University of Edinburgh. He is also one of the founders of Language Log, along with Mark Liberman at the University of Pennsylvania.

In the recent post, Pullum returns to one of his recurring topics, which he has come to call nerdview, and which occurs when a document is written “in technical terms from the perspective of the technician or engineer rather than from a standpoint that would seem useful to the customer or reader.” (This quote is taken from an earlier Pullum post on nerdview.) I will leave it to Pullum to tell the story of his latest example of nerdview, the sentence, “This refuse has been checked for illegal presentation,” courtesy of the city of Edinburgh. The light he sheds on life in Edinburgh makes the post worth reading independent of the linguistic issues. Here’s a sample, without the context Pullum has provided regarding the challenges of setting out garbage for pickup in the New Town area:

You see, Edinburgh is basically on a seacoast. We have seagulls.

These large, wily, and sharp-beaked birds don’t spend all their time on the arduous traditional pursuit of catching live fish. Several days a week they head inland for an easier life, and flock to the New Town (they know exactly which streets to head for on which days). They come with the breaking dawn, looking for bags that were illicitly put out at midnight. In the spring and summer there is enough light to spot them as early as 4 a.m.; plenty of time to have breakfast before the streets start getting crowded with people walking to work.

Great gangs of gulls rip open the sacks, pull out packaging and envelopes and other dry trash and toss it all over the place, and dig around for discarded food, which they drag out and eat on the sidewalks (which are called “pavements” here; I hope you are appreciating the vocabulary lessons I have built into this piece). By 7 a.m., the street in front of many houses looks like a municipal dump. …

These birds are big, omnivorous, and fearless: you cannot frighten them away more than about ten feet. They come straight back the moment you move on. And they have no sense of civic pride whatsoever. Edinburgh is heart-stoppingly beautiful, but the gulls do not appreciate that. On some pickup days I have had to come home and use a shovel and broom to clear up outside our home.

Categories: Culture, Language

Roosevelt Island Improv

June 16, 2009 Leave a comment

I posted last week about Improv Everywhere‘s latest mission, the Surprise Wedding Reception, embedding their video report on it as well as a video of their JFK welcome back mission. If you haven’t seen the videos, take a look now. Yesterday they posted their report on the their sixth annual MP3 experiment, which took place on Roosevelt Island in New York City last month. The video is above, but the report has far more background information plus additional photos.

Here is the first paragraph of Improv Everywhere’s overview of their series of MP3 experiments:

The Mp3 Experiment has become an annual event for Improv Everywhere; Agent Tyler Walker and I put an mp3 online (usually around 45 minutes long) and agents download and transfer it to their iPods. Everyone then synchronizes their watches to an atomic clock on the website, and then heads out to the same public location. At the predetermined time, everyone presses play. Hilarity ensues as participants carry out ridiculous instructions delivered to their headphones via narrator Steve (aka The Omnipotent Voice From Above) and folks passing by try to figure out why a mass of people are all silently jumping around.

As for last month’s experiment, they explain that

This year’s location was Roosevelt Island. It’s a really beautiful place, situated in between Manhattan and Queens on the East River. There are about 12,000 residents on the island. To participate in this year’s experiment, agents were given these instructions. Everyone synchronized their watch to the clock on the instruction page, downloaded the mp3, wore a red, blue, yellow, or green shirt, and then traveled to the island. At exactly 4:00 PM, everyone would press play from wherever they happened to be on the island.

With this as background, watch the video above (or go to the link at youtube, and then be sure to click on HD), and if you enjoy it, read the report for more details.

As it turns out, NYT technology writer David Pogue participated in the experiment. His blog report is worth a look. And finally, Pogue mentions one of Improv Everywhere’s older missions, which I hadn’t seen yet, Food Court Musical. It’s worth a look too. Just click below.

Categories: Culture