View 742 Friday, September 21, 2012
Close Explorer and manually update Windows and restart. It will take about ten minutes. Do it now. More below.
The Middle East continues to burn, and America continues to apologize for supporting free speech. One suspects the next move will be to redefine hate crimes to include any graphic depiction of Mohammed, and any publication about him that is less than fulsome praise. Next will come a purge of many history books. So it goes.
On the limits of Chinese languages:
In a previous entry http://www.jerrypournelle.com/chaosmanor/?p=9642) I mentioned Sprague de Camp’s observation that the structure of the classical Chinese language limited it to fewer than 14,000 words, which would have severe limits on scientific development; idly speculated that the Whorfian Hypothesis, once important in American anthropology of the Boaz-Mead school, would have generated some conclusions from this but I hadn’t heard it applied to Chinese, and even more idly wondered if this had any influence over Mao’s decision to implement the Great Cultural Revolution.
Last night’s mail http://www.jerrypournelle.com/chaosmanor/?p=9713) had a number of reader comments on how modern China is dealing with the linguistic limitations of the language (one symbol per word, not phonetic; only 412 possible syllables meaning that with tones a total of under 1300 vocables; and an ideographic language in which the written symbols did not correspond to the sounded words. As De Camp said, this places heavy limits on science development. Today I have
Spoke to [my daughters’] Chinese teacher last night. When new concepts arise, they tend to use phonetic equivalents of the actual word or Chinese phonetic equivalents if Chinese root words exist. So when you do end up with a new set of symbols, for example the symbols for Google, they phonetically sound like google, but the symbols have nothing to do with the meaning. She also agreed Chinese are very rooted in tradition and change slowly if at all.
which is no surprise.
This implies the widespread use of phonetic writing, which is a fundamental change in the very character of the Chinese language. Phonetic languages can be learned by nearly anyone by the end of the equivalent of first grade, after which the reading vocabulary and the speaking vocabulary are essentially the same, while words never heard before can still be read. Ideographic languages can be learned only after years of intensive study. I can recall that in 1950 almost all of the children of the black tenant farmers I knew when growing up could read, but when I got to Japan many of the adult male workers on the US base where I went to school were illiterate in Japanese. I could read from the phrase book and be understood (doubtless I had a terrible accent, but they were too polite to visibly notice), but showing them the phrase printed in Japanese was futile.
Japan at that time had both ideographic and phonetic (syllabic) character sets, and also used “romanji”, which in 1950 used what amounted to standard American English characters to spell out Japanese words (our phrase book showed both, kana characters which of course I couldn’t read as well as the same phrase in romanji which I could). I was young enough and so preoccupied with my Army training that I didn’t keep a proper journal of my experiences at the time. That’s a pity because it was a unique opportunity to observe the complete transition of a culture from a technically proficient ‘modernized’ Imperialism to something else – and at the same time there was a transition in linguistics and literacy. Alas, all I have is some memories from Japan, and of course my experience with China is confined essentially to what I have read.
It did seem to me that up into the 60’s, when I did have some responsibilities in assessing Chinese and Japanese political developments, that there were some fundamental cultural differences, and I wondered at the time if the ideographic Chinese language (which severely limited literacy) had much effect on that; but the Cultural Revolution happened about the time I got into another line of work, and it is pretty clear that whatever Mao did, it had a profound effect on China.
We’re still seeing some of the results of that. Much of what my generation studied about Chinese culture and history was greatly changed by that, and I confess I haven’t kept up; Some years ago, after the Cultural Revolution was done, I was approached by a Peking University professor about two years older than me – we had both been in Korea, obviously on different sides – about spending a year teaching as a visiting professor. I’d been warned by colleagues that this wouldn’t be easy; they expected hard work. It seemed like a great opportunity, and I was seriously considering it, but the discussions were interrupted by the Tiananmen Square events and were never renewed (and I didn’t pursue any renewal). At the time I thought I had some understanding of Chinese history and culture, but it was clear then that things were changing rapidly.
Sprague’s linguistic observation triggered an old curiosity, which resulted in this discussion. I’m not sure there are any conclusions, but it has generated a few interesting questions. I would gather that literacy in Chine is rising rapidly, which would indicate that the conversion from an ideographic to a phonetic language has been effective. Interestingly, the United States, and particularly California, attempted the opposite: the conversion of English from a phonetic language to “look-say” or “whole word” which is to say ideographic, sparking a wave of illiteracy. (In 1950, the number of illiterate conscripts was below 10%, and of those the vast majority had never been to school through 4th grade; the notion of an adult with an 8th grade education was absurd).
The US education establishment’s war against phonics was vigorous and has had long term effects. One of those effects has been a complacency about low literacy rates. Actual literacy rates have been hard to establish because of the concept of “reading at grade level”, which is nonsense: with a phonetic language you can either read or you can’t. My wife’s literacy program The Literacy Connection http://www.readingtlc.com/ (note that she didn’t trademark the name, alas, and others are using it now) works: in about 70 lessons of less than an hour each, students learn to read, and by read I mean read essentially any English word including “big words” like Constantinople and Timbuktu as well as polyethylene and dimorphictrinitrotoluene. They won’t necessarily know what the words mean – indeed some ‘words’ won’t have a meaning and thus aren’t ‘real’ words – but they can read them. The effect is that the speaking vocabulary is the reading vocabulary, and the notion of ‘reading at grade level’ is abolished. (Some Google links lead to an older home page touting a Mac version: her program works with all versions of Windows. She still sells it and it still works. Her web site isn’t well maintained.)
‘Reading at grade level’ actually means that a child is learning to read ideographs and has made some progress at it; but that’s disastrous, and is why there are so many illiterates in countries with ideographic languages. In the United States a number of those who ‘read at grade level’ are in fact illiterate. The tenure system in both the schools and the Colleges of Education have tended to conceal this, and thus some Education Departments continue to turn out teachers who simply don’t have any notion of how to teach reading. Worse, some are ‘expert’ who are fundamentally opposed to teaching phonics and to this day insist on ‘whole word’ nonsense. All this is based on the obvious fact that most people who read do not ‘sound out’ words: they see the word and they read it. You and I do it that way. But we didn’t always do it, and if we encounter binitrotoluene and polytrinitrotoluene we can at least pronounce the words and wonder if they are nonsense.
Enough. But illiteracy has been a big problem for China and it is one that they appear to be solving. It has become a large problem for the US, and the trends are ambiguous, with many public schools continuing to have illiterate children reach middle and high school. Most of those drop out, of course. I suspect that Chinese illiteracy will vanish. It is not so clear that American illiteracy will follow the same course.
Any reader who wonders if his child can read should abandon the notion of ‘grade level’ and ask the child to read a normal book aloud. English is about 90% phonetic and the most common exceptions are quickly learned. Though the rough cough plough me through is a good example of a lot of the exceptions.
And I am out of time. Roberta’s program is old, hokey, is essentially a DOS program with DOS level illustrations, but it runs on any machine that runs Windows Explorer, and it has enough self rewards in it that it works. You can find more about it at http://www.readingtlc.com/ . One of the major problems with US schools is that some of them – perhaps many of them – don’t really know how to teach children to read, and many will accept ‘reading at grade level’ for first and second graders. In fact by the end of second grade (and for most by the end of first grade) children should be able to read Transylvania, Salafist, Wahabbi, Wittenberg, resurgence, fundamentalism, and other such words encountered in a typical Wall Street Journal editorial. They probably will not understand what they are reading, but that can produce surprises. One thing is certain, although they can read a word they don’t understand, they won’t understand a word they can’t read.
Many children do learn to read phonetic languages no matter what method is used to teach them, or without any instruction at all. The classic story of that was Macaulay whose father read from the Book of Common Prayer to the assembled family and servants each evening. He laid the book on a table and followed the text with his finger as he read. Five year old Thomas stood on the other side of the table, and soon was able to read, but at first could do so only upside down.
It is better to have systematic instruction with some attention paid to the exceptions. Mrs. Pournelle’s The Literacy Connection does that. Doubtless there are more modern looking programs that do so as well, but we know hers works. http://www.readingtlc.com/
I heard the Endeavor go through the Valley but I was not able to see it from here. It’s now down at LAX. In the old days I’d have been out at Edwards to see it take off. An era has ended. We can hope that it is being renewed.
Windows Update: there is a zero day Internet Explorer attack that has gone wild. Open Windows Explorer, go to Windows Update, tell Windows Update to search for updates, and install the urgent update you will then get.
Do this NOW. The IE vulnerability is apparently loose, and the update released by Microsoft is needed for all computers. Don’t join the Zombie Army. Go do this now.
From our security expert:
Dr. Pournelle: for consideration for the next mail/view:
Important computer security updates should be applied to all computers. There are Internet Explorer updates (all versions), Operating System updates, and application updates (Adobe, Java, and more.
Many of these updates are critical to protecting your computer and data (pictures, files, personal data), so should not be ignored.
My best advice:
1) Set up Windows Update to update automatically. Then check your Windows Update status at least monthly to apply any optional updates. Recommended.
2) Make sure your application programs are kept current. The best (and free) tool for this is Secunia’s Personal Software Inspector. It will check all of your programs and install updates. Available at http://secunia.com/vulnerability_scanning/personal/ . I have used this for over a year, and install it on all of my family computers. Recommended.
3) Make sure your anti-virus program is current. Do a full scan monthly. If your anti-virus program has expired, a good alternative is Microsoft Security Essentials (free). Go to http://microsoft.com/protect (there’s also some good info about computer and family security, including videos). Recommended.
4) Be careful about what you open (email, email attachments, etc). If it is not from somebody you know, or is not expected, then be wary. Even email that purports to be from major companies can be dangerous, like an email from "Amazon" telling you that your order is ready, and click on a link to see the details. If you didn’t order something, be wary. Recommended.
5) Be careful about the sites you visit, and any breathless ‘pop-up’ warnings ("You have a virus!"). Double-check before clicking on links in popups. Recommended.
Regards, Rick Hellewell (Security Dweeb and Web Guy)
© 2012, jerrypournelle. All rights reserved.