Friday, April 20, 2007

'Did he expose himself to you?'

As I was walked to the bus-stop yesterday a man sitting on a bench seat lifted his jacket for a second and I was shocked to see that he was masturbating. Two young women were sitting on either side of him, waiting for the bus, completely unaware. I don't think that he meant for anyone to see. I sat down at the neighbouring bench, it was a beautiful sunny day, plenty of people around walking to and from buses. The man was in his late thirties and looked like he might possibly be homeless, or in some kind of state of despair. He didn't look scary, he was balding, overweight with large round glasses.

After a few moments debating in my mind what I should do (I could hear my mum saying 'sometimes not to act is to condone'), I walked over to his bench and said in front of him to the two young women 'I think you should move seats, I just saw that this man masturbating'. One of them got up, and the other ignored me and stayed there sitting with him. The young woman who had gotten up said she was going to get the police, and I sat back down, the man started talking to me, and I realised he was mentally ill. He mumbled repeatedly 'is that what you think is it? are you offended? I don't have any hair..... etc etc etc' more to himself than me.

A security guard came back with the other girl and he asked me if we wanted to press charges of 'indecent exposure', in which case he would get the police. I said that I didn't want to, I just didn't want him to make people uncomfortable in this way and think it was ok. I had wanted someone embarrass him, a man preferably to say to him 'look mate, that just isn't appropriate, put it away'. As we spoke to the security guard ( who seemed reluctant to approach the man) 'he just didn't take his medication today' he suggested, the man got up muttering to himself and walked away.

As soon as I realised that the man was mentally ill, and I realised he was likely not intending to be malicious or inappropriate, I felt sorry for him. I felt sorry that there is nowhere for him to go, no one to look out for him and guide him as to what is appropriate, how to be socially ept. And that the only place we could direct him to would have been a police jail cell.

Santa Barbara is very beautiful and very wealthy, but there are homeless people on every corner of the main street. I suppose they have a bit more of a chance because they may not be battling mental illness and know how to 'beg appropriately' (that sounds awful). Unlike this poor dude. I hope there are people in the community that look out for him. And I hope he never hurts anyone or commits a serious crime. He seemed pretty out of his depth already at the bus stop.

I coulnd't shake the slightly gross, slightly worried feeling that stuck with me all day.

I am interested to know, what would you have done?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Spring Quarter

I am going to a few different courses this quarter. One with Sandra Thompson on Syntax- the thing about her lectures is that she takes all the jargon, theories and rhetoric of linguistics and elegantly explains it, in clear simple ways.

For example, she very concisely clarified in our last class two things that I had previously not quite got a grip on. One was 'head vs. dependant marking'; Sandy says: either the verb or the nouns (predicate or arguments) will carry the necessary information you need to understand the relationship between the nouns and verb in the sentence. If it is the verb (like most polysynthetic languages) then it is 'head marking'; if it is the noun (e.g case marking) then it is 'dependant marking'. A language can have both, such as Latin; or use alternate means, such as word order. So simple eh?

The second thing was trickier ; 'unergative ' and 'unaccusative'. The first thing that made it difficult to understand was that I didn't know it had to be in a 'split S' system, so it means that where you have the three core arguments, A(agent of a transitive), S(subject of an intransitive) and O (object of a transitive), the S sometimes is marked in the same way as A, and sometimes in the same way as O, in the same language. When it is like A it is called 'unergative' (what awful terminology!!) and when it is like O it is 'unaccusative'.

I am also auditing a course on Corpus Linguistics, using a programming language called R to analyse/manipulate corpora. It is difficult, occasionally I get a glimpse of all the things I could do if I really knew how to use it well, and I feel a bit heady with excitement. But I don't know if that day will ever come.

Finally I am sitting in on a course on Professionalism, how to write a good abstract, apply for grants, publish in journals (all the joys of academia explicated in one short course!!!). The teacher suggested (and I think it is good advice)- to write your grant proposal as if 'for a very smart professor of music'. This in itself is a good reason to know what 'unergative' means, because if any professor of music ever comes asking (having received grant proposals to review), I will be ready.

Two things the lecturer pointed out about submitting an abstract: there DO exist reviewers who, on a bad (or maybe even good) day will reject an abstract based on the authors using data as a singular noun, i.e. it should be the data show, and not the data shows. I wonder how they would feel about the datum shows.... or the datums show (but then that does sound a lot like day-time shows..). I had no idea about this. She also told us that to split an infinitive could have the same result, so never write: to clearly show how the data patterns...

I also came across something from the same lecturer (Marianne Mithun) that I admire very much. When writing an article she always cites who specifically provided her with the data she is using. This means at the beginning of every example she said who had spoken the language, full name and place where that person identifies as being from. She then uses their initials in brackets for further uses of the data they provided. It reads very nicely and gives the kind of credit to speakers of these indigenous languages that needs to be acknowledged. This is a practise I have never seen in Australia and would like to start doing myself. All of the speakers I have worked with freely give their permission to use their name when citing the data ( it is not like usual discourse recording practises).

One last thing, in a recent LISO talk a professor suggested there be a round of questions at the end, JUST for graduate students (of which we were many). This is a very good idea. I think all conferences, workshops, seminars, if there is time, should have a call for questions at some point from the students in the audience. Maybe just so we get used to asking things like, BTW I enjoyed your talk, but could you clarify 'unaccusative'?

Friday, April 13, 2007

"Public Safety overrides the issue of Free Speech"

Reading through the news I came across this BBC report "Australia Censors Terrorism Books":

"Present laws restrict the publication or dissemination of materials which promote, incite or instruct people to carry out terrorist acts.

The amended law would mark a significant extension of censorship powers, outlawing books and films deemed to speak out in favour of terrorist violence.

The new law would be targeted at removing the material from publication, rather than punishing its authors, and customs officers would be given much broader powers to confiscate books and films being imported into the country".

It is very scary to have a government that bans books and media from their public. It makes me feel much less secure and much more like I am in some 1984-esque world.

When I went to the ABC to see if this is big news in Australia, I didn't see anything about it, but headlining was:

"Howard Calls for HIV Immigration Ban"

Prime Minister John Howard says people who are HIV positive should not be allowed to migrate to Australia.

I hope that both of these things are a sure sign that John Howard is on his way out. I hope that his views and policies are becoming so ridiculously dated that he is inadvertently un-electing himself. Lets hope so...

"As the Australian Society of Authors put it: "We can't refute what we can't read".

But the government has dismissed these concerns, saying public safety overrides the issue of free speech. "

Scary stuff...

Samia's Blog

I am adding a link to the blog of a friend of mine, Samia: Fulbright Journey to Turtle Island. She is also here in the USA for a year on a Fulbright scholarship. Samia is researching a PhD in 'inter generational trauma' which addresses the enormous discrepancy between the health of indigenous peoples and that of non-indigenous people in developed countries (e.g Aboriginal Australians on average live 17 years less than other Australians). She is doing this through digital story telling, but also doing some incredible healing work as she moves around the US, and she has has been fantastic in introducing me to indigenous peoples where-ever we go (Arizona, California).

As a result of these connections, I have been invited to give a talk at AILDI (American Indian Language Development Institute) in June, which I am really looking forward to. Check out Samia's blog for lots of grass roots American Indian stories, projects and links.

Kurt Vonnegut

I read yesterday that Kurt Vonnegut passed away, age 84. A few weeks a go I read a book of his called 'A man without a Country', which I believe was very much in his style of humour, black humour, slightly vulgar and beautiful human and sensitive. I read that he had said: 'that a tangible purpose of art is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit.'

Reading his book, 'A man without a Country', which is short and easy to read, made me accept somethings about the USA that I had been not really daring to think about. Mainly that it has changed a lot since I was here last five years ago. I spent 3 months as a young backpacker around the West coast. I enjoyed it very much, so many beautiful places, interesting friendly people and cultural diversity and richness (SO many people!). This time I have had a harder time, finding the simple beauty, connecting with the beautiful interesting people (I know there are many!) and cultural diversity seems to be getting a little shameful and out-dated.

Though there are masses of contradictions to anything I can think of commenting about the US, one particularly elegant example is the completely unselfconscious and natural bi-lingualism in the state of California. As I approach the supermarket check-in I notice the 'check out' person moves effortlessly from Spanish greeting ( perfect accent- she must have Mexican heritage I think), back to English (perfect American accent, perfect subtle judgements who is Spanish, who is English- she must have learnt the two simultaneously).... you find the same thing everywhere. On the advertisements, at the police station, the corner store, the telephone to the gas company or Health Insurance, such a smooth unassuming transition from one language to another. But the interesting thing is how it goes quietly unacknowledged.

Spanish is not an 'official language' of California (English is its only official language) except that a good deal of the population identify more closely with Spanish that English. So perhaps it is out of necessity all services are offered in both languages, not by mandate.

I found this on Wikipedia:

"On May 19, 2006, the United States Senate voted to make English the national language of the United States. According to the bill, written by Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), the federal government will no longer provide multilingual communications and services, except for those already guaranteed by law. Shortly after the approval of the Inhofe amendment, the Senate voted for another bill by Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), according to which English is the "common unifying language of the United States", but mandated that nothing in that declaration "shall diminish or expand any existing rights" regarding multilingual services. The impact of these bills is not immediately clear."

Further to this in January 2002 the Bush government (administration?) implemented the 'No Child Left Behind' policy. Among other things this states that all enrolled school children's details: home phone number, address and parents names must be provided (without informing the student or parent) to military recruiters. Parents may 'opt out' of this by filling out a form and submitting it to the school- it means the children's details will also be withheld from Colleges and Job recruiters. The name 'no child left behind' possibly comes from the United States Army Rangers 'no man left behind' (most of this is lifted from Wikipedia and the NCLB website).

Another scary thing about it, is that included in the law was the 'boy scouts of America equal access act'. The bill states that NO school receiving Department of Education funds:
shall deny equal access or a fair opportunity to meet to, or discriminate against, any group officially affiliated with the Boy Scouts of America ... that wishes to conduct a meeting within that designated open forum or limited public forum, including denying such access or opportunity or discriminating for reasons based on the membership or leadership criteria or oath of allegiance to God and country of the Boy Scouts of America
The Boy Scouts of America have had a bit of trouble getting 'equal access' to public forum's, because they believe and actively educate their young scouts that 'atheists' and 'homosexuals' are morally and in other ways 'unclean', and therefor cannot join the scouts. They also, obviously, exclude girls and women.

The act basically focuses on teaching the children to past tests on reading, writing and math, and the school funding is based on the outcomes, in some places this has produced statistics that look like a positive change. There has been plenty of controversy because it often means cutting back on other subjects (no room for languages other than English, which the tests are conducted in). I am not being all that objective in my overview- but I find it shocking.

These kinds of changes in the USA in the last five years are what provoked Kurt Vonnegut out of retirement to write his last book; and returning after five years, (the war in Iraq started in 2003), I feel like things have shifted fundamentally here.

But Kurt Vonnegut was onto to it when he said: 'that a tangible purpose of art is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit.' He was a brilliant writer, and an amazing American that did this very well.

Friday, April 06, 2007


I am back to the kindergarten of language learning in Israel. Everytime I visit Israel I am surprised to find that there are a couple of words I remember, that the fricatives are getting a little easier, that I can distinguish words. I have an ideal environment to learn. Most of the people I meet speak English fairly well ( so i am not too isolated) but much prefer to speak Hebrew, and almost always slip back to it quickly (so I have a lot of motivation). I also have a new nephew who is two years old and not all that tolerant of someone not speaking Hebrew. He is at the age where he mimics everything everyone says to him, and I feel a bit self conscious about not confusing him, but of still be able to interact.

I have tried to learn languages in two different ways: by studying them at school in a class room (a very little of Japanese, Indonesian and French); and by living in a place with the speakers of the language and trying to assimilate (Spanish, Kriol). One interesting thing is the difference in what you learn. For example in Hebrew I realised that I am learning all of the discourse particles first (aren't they meant to be the hardest....!?), mainly because of their very high frequency and rich, versatile expression. So, for example in Hebrew, I don't know how to say 'where is the bathroom', or 'my name is Sophie', but I do know how to say, shalom, manishma? achla, sababa, tov, tov me'od, yalla, mammash, kilo (sp?) etc. (hello, how are you? good, good, good, very good, mah, really, like etc etc).

I can understand a few restricted things like 'I want', 'where is', 'what is', 'more', 'thankyou' etc. But when I learnt in a classroom, I got onto patterns of grammar much quicker, and patterns of discourse much slower. It still surprises me somehow that people actually speak other languages! Eyal spends a lot of time translating (around the dinner table, on the phone, listening to music), and it is especially difficult not being able to read or accurately get a visual image of what the word looks like in my head ( I still do it in English). But it is exciting to be learning a language again and also remembering what it is like to not be a speaker of the dominant language around.

I am going to go to a colloquium now on a 'multiple grammar hypothesis'. Should be good.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Southern Israel

Last week we took a couple of days and drove down to the most Southern point in Israel, to the Red Sea in Eilat. As we drove south we drove alongside the border with Egypt, which is a small wire fence, about a metre or so high. It is kind of disconcerting to see the reality of imposed ideologies. By this I mean Egypt (and Jordan for that matter, Lebanon and Syria) all look exactly the same as Israel one side of the border to the other. All the plants and trees, ants and snails make no distinction- unaware they might cross from one country to the other everyday. But the way we perceive Egypt, as opposed to Israel, or Jordan or Syria, it is hard to imagine that they look very similar, that it is all just people going about their daily thing. The rivers run through them, the wind blows across them.

I suppose it makes me sad because in reality these borders seem to be uncrossable ( some really are- movement between Israel and Syria, Israel and Lebanon is basically impossible due to political constraints). But technically Jordan, Israel and Egypt are on moderately friendly terms. But we couldn't go to Egypt ( to Sinai were the beaches are better) because the Israeli government issued a warning against travelling to Sinai due to intelligence of terrorist attacks (against Israelis). Sitting on the beach in Eilat ( beautiful snorkelling) you could see Jordan- the city of Aqaba across the water.

Maybe it is because I am Australian, but borders kind of weird me out. And borders, on land that you can' t cross because someone said so, is especially weird. We went all the way ( it isn't far) to the border crossing with Egypt and looked longingly to the other side for a few moments before driving back to Eilat.

Now we are back in Tel Aviv- tomorrow we fly back the USA (together this time!).