Today was the last day of the job I have boldly held down for the past six years. This was the longest job I've ever held. Granted I spent close to fifteen years all told at University of Michigan, but I moved around a lot within that mammoth institution. Basically, I'd get bored after a couple of years notice myself making stupid mistakes and then apply to other positions to shake myself up. Not a bad strategy. I gained loads of experience in a lot of different areas. I also left my spoor on most of the U's information architecture. Open up any telco closet and you'll smell eau de Dagoski. You don't wanna know how much diet soda I had to drink to pull that one off. I left the good U in 2002 when Michelle got a chance of a lifetime to study Parasitology at the University of Pennsylvania. After a bad year and a year at the marketing firm Joseph Heller should've founded, I came to work at a place I affectionately dubbed the Linguistic Salt Mines. The place was incredible! Remember back in the 1970s when James T. Kirk was your personal role model? Well, okay, for some of the people here it might have been Spock or Sulu or Uhura. Did anyone ever look up to Chekov? Anyway, we all watched Star Trek in syndication. There was a lot of far fetched stuff on that show: Faster Than Light Travel, Rayguns, women on the bridge of a capital ship, mini-skirt uniforms and aliens. The one thing that was never quite believable to me was the Universal Translator. I could never see how a machine could translate between known languages let alone unknown ones. Hell, I had a hard enough time learning Spanish despaired of ever learning enough Serbo Croatian to impress the parents of a girl I had a crush on. Fast forward more years than I care to mention and I'm actually working in a place that's laying the groundwork for real life Universal Translators. We don't so much work on the technology as we grow the fodder for research efforts in the area. Any such translator will, by necessity, be an adaptive system that learns. Developing the algorithims that do this requires a lot structured language samples. Then getting the the system to utter anything besides "I see London, I see France, I want canned mackerel." in Mandarin Chinese or Urdu requires even more structured samples as training material. Then you have to test it and, eventually, you'll want to improve its performance to the point where you can translate on the fly, say in a meeting with local leaders in crisis situation. You guessed it, that needs still more data. For six years, I was the guy who chucked finished language research products out the back of a speeding van. The van symbolizes the state of the art careening down the road of basic research. It's a bumpy ride let me tell you.
Working at the Linguistic Salt Mines was like living the US Navy's marketing slogan. No, not because, six burly guys from the Village were singing "In the Navy..." the whole time, but rather because it was more of an adventure than a job. A Livejournal friend, ozarque
, is a science fiction author and retired linguist. In one of here story ideas, she imagined a future US empire employing a specially trained Linguistics Corps as part of its foreign policy. This agency collected languages across the stars. A seriously futuristic idea. However, I worked in an agency which did this work in real life. We didn't do a whole lot of field linguistics, though. We mainly ran a sort of signals intercept program that hoovered up vast amounts of foreign language broadcast and newswire. That was the boring part. We'd take all this and transcribe, translate, annotate, spindle, ream, tear and immolate it in effort to turn the raw feeds into usable resources. That magic all happened in this huge open room where we employed an army of immigrants from nations I'd either never heard of or heard about daily on NPR and CNN. Diversity? You're soaking in it, dear. These native speakers of various strategic languages made it all happen. An elite corps of programmers and Linguists would then refine the material. In the end it would come to me in varying states of disrepair and I'd make it ready for prime time. This involved a tremendous amount of technical writing on my part. And I loved it. I had a license of research! One week, I'd be reviewing everything I'd long since forgotten about Information Theory. The next I'd be connecting the dots between Triangular Trade, Fidel Castro and obscure Southern US dialects. The last by the way is exactly what happened when I helped publish a dictionary covering almost the entire Yoruba Dialect Continuum. This product really was an adventure to work on. Part of it was a translation dictionary that went from Lucumi to Cuban Spanish to English. Lucumi is the liturgical language of Santeria. And carries a certain amount of baggage because of that. At the eleventh hour I discovered that the translators hired for the project had refused to translate certain sacred words and phrases all the way into English. This found me and the author desperately scrambling to find someone who could speak enough Caribbean Spanish to complete the entries. I checked out every book on Afro-Caribbean religion, Cuban Spanish, Cuban history and Cuban Sociology that UPenn had. I really wondered what the librarians made of my reading habits that month because it coincided with my frantic efforts to write an intro to an arcane Information Theory product. So I was also checking out books on Cryptography. In the end, my abysmal command of Spanish and phearsome research skills saved the day. Not without calls to UN relief agencies and to Rick's Occult Shop, though.
I also experienced the politics of language first hand by helping to publish a dictionary of modern Tamil. Language is contentious in emerging nations because language articulates identity and identity in many nations is not so settled. Tamil is a case in point. This project had wonderful timing because I had just started reading CJ Cheryh's Foreigner series. This science fiction series is pure awesome. However a lot of people are put off because they find the politics of language that Cheryh depicts no quite compelling or not quite believable. Neither is true. All you have to do is assert evident facts about a language whose speakers are undergoing an identity crisis to see that. That's the current day Tamil diaspora. The confluence of two politically and sociological significant dictionary projects with my master's program ignited new interests in me and have boiled over into what looks to be an enduring interest in Political Economy and Behavioral Economics on my part. I''ll be starting undergraduate studies in the subject this fall hoping to build up enough of a background to pursue in the field.
Anyway, all that came to end today. I'm finding it really hard to move on. And, that's a good thing because I'll be doing part time work for them by spring. Nice way of dealing with the unemployment situation in the Midwest if I don't say so myself. Won't be same, but that's okay. I'll still be in contact with some of the most amazing people you'll come into contact with without press credentials in an international crisis.