Friday, December 26, 2008

Last weekend in Jerusalem

No real work stuff to report today. Amy and I went into the lab yesterday and had a mellow half-day working on prepping Maltese experiment design, in order to be ahead of any potential problems once we get to Malta next week. And last night was an extravagant and fun dinner at Ram's house - we made sushi all from scratch, and it turned out amazingly well. I am particularly proud that I managed to cook the sushi rice perfectly (in a regular pot, no rice cooker!). And Amy cooked up several stunningly good Chinese dishes.

I just came across an interesting article/commentary on Modern Hebrew (known to some as "Israeli"):

It's not by a linguist, but it's about a book by a linguist, and definitely is worth reading, even if the non-linguists express some scarily naive and prescriptivist views.

Since today is Friday, it's the weekend (in Israel, the weekend is Friday-Saturday, rather than Saturday-Sunday). I'm spending the morning drinking coffee and bumming around the internet with my laptop in a lively cafe, which is a really nice break from things like item selection and rogue sound files. Tonight, we're getting together with some good friends of my family for dinner, and tomorrow, if the weather cooperates, we'll spend the day at the dead sea. It's been decidedly wintry here - after two or so weeks of uncomfortably dry, sunny, warm weather, this week brought much colder temperatures and a fair amount of rain to Jerusalem. It's apparently rained significantly more in the rest of the country, causing flooding in places like Tel-Aviv. I had hoped for some snow in Jerusalem, but it just hasn't been cold enough. I think we'll get our fair share of real winter, though, when we head to Paris next week for the new year.

Wishing everyone a happy holiday!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Jerusalem update number 3

Wow, when it rains, it pours: three blog posts in as many days - highly unusual for this blog! I suppose frustration, failure, and stress all need an outlet.

Well, our worst fears are confirmed: a bunch of Hebrew sound files are mysteriously missing. In our hectic attempt to be fully prepared for this trip, we failed to be as thorough as needed. I'm actually astonished by this, because not only am I a pretty organized person, but so is Amy, my incredible RA. If the two of us are having such a hard time, I suppose I should take some comfort in the situation, because perhaps it was simply inevitable that something like this would arise.

Luckily, the lab here in Jerusalem is happy to wait till we send them the complete list of items and sound files, which hopefully will happen in February after our return to Tucson (and after we beg our poor native Hebrew speaker to return to the recording booth). It's really a lucky thing that we are working with such amazing people in Jerusalem who are willing to do this for us.

In the meantime, I've moved on somewhat to Maltese, given that we'll be arriving there next week. I've created spreadsheets with lists of all the Maltese words we recorded, and soon we'll be able to rip those individual sound files out of the recordings and start item selection for Maltese. No matter how little progress we end up making, it'll all have been worth it, and we'll certainly be (better) prepared for the trip that we'll be making a year from now.

It's both hanukah and christmas - so being in Israel right now feels kind of neat, even though I'm not at all a religious person. Tonight we'll be having a christmas eve dinner with our very sweet neighbors (who happen to live in the house of a dear family friend who recently passed away), and then we'll walk to the Dormition Abbey for a midnight mass. I attended a concert at the same church five days ago, and it was unbelievably beautiful - a Lithuanian choir sang pieces ranging from Bach to modern and really filled the cathedral with beautiful music.

I suppose to be fair, I should say a few words about downtown Tucson, since so much of my recent blogging has been so linguistics-centric. I hear that the south end of the 4th Ave underpass has now been demolished (yay!) and that construction of the new underpass is proceeding well. The Scott Avenue improvement project is also apparently in full swing, and a new and welcome addition has arrived on the eastern end of downtown: Maynards Market. Although I haven't had the pleasure of seeing it in person, my sources tell me that Maynards is pretty swank, and does an impressive job of being site-specific (it's located in the historic train depot) and urban. I can't wait to get back home in February and see it for myself.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Fieldwork update number 2

Greetings from Jerusalem, once again.

I think I mentioned a second pitfall in my previous post, but at the moment I've probably forgotten all the details because now we're trying to cope with pitfall number 4 - the most serious one yet.

Essentially, we're designing two priming experiments; one with consonantal root priming and another with verbal class (binyan) priming. Coming up with items (words and nonwords) is hard enough; having to counterbalance makes things even tougher. Essentially, to keep the experimental results valid, it's important to avoid giving the same subject a word or root more than once across the entire experiment. This holds not just for target/test items, but also for filler items, and we've spent about a week scrounging for items. Because each experiment has three priming conditions (identity priming, form priming, and unrelated/control priming), that means three different lists of items per experiment.

Ah - this brings me to pitfall number 2: we discovered an entire set of items that were missing. We know they were recorded back in Tucson in November, but given how little time we had, we kept poor track of our files, and somehow misplaced these. When we realized this, we decided to see if our team in Tucson could spring into action for us; luckily, we received superb support and help from a number of people, including two colleagues, a student, and of course, our native speaker of Hebrew in Tucson. Within a day, arrangements were made for him to come to the sound booth and record about 50 words for us - and they were waiting on our server when we woke up the next morning. Miraculous, truly miraculous.

Then, yesterday's pitfall was another minor one but one that requires lengthy, tedious work to fix. Our sound files were not uniformly named, meaning that creating the list of files that the software running the experiment (DMDX) reads ends up being much longer than anticipated. Note to self: implement uniform file naming protocol in the future! Having to put these non-uniform file names into our DMDX file is costing us serious time.

Today, though, we ran into some really aggravating problems. It appears that for some reason, we're missing a number of sound files. This is serious, utterly serious, and may prevent us from readying the experiment file before our departure from Israel (next Tuesday, Dec 30). Although my initial reaction is panic, dread, and total self-hating for letting this happen, I'm now trying to remain calm because even if we have to wait till we're back in Tucson to beg our poor native speaker to come back to the sound booth, we can always record the missing items and send them to the lab in Jerusalem.

However, we have two clocks ticking: the Hebrew clock, and the Maltese clock. On Jan 2, we arrive in Malta to spend four weeks, and in Malta we must be present to run the experiment, unlike in Jerusalem where there's a lab and grad students. It's unclear at this point whether we're going to run into the very same problems with our Maltese sound files and experiment design. So I am doing a lot of emotional work to stay convinced that even if we don't get anything run, we'll still have a productive and worthwhile time, and then we can run these experiments the next time; luckily, I did plan ahead enough to organize a second data collection trip a year from now.

But it's hard, and stressful; at the moment, I feel like quite a failure. I have to keep reminding myself that this is all a learning experience, and that no matter what, our time here has been productive. It's a good lesson in letting go of control, that's for sure!

More later, perhaps...

Monday, December 22, 2008

Fieldwork update number 1

So, it's been ages since my last blogging, admittedly. The explanation is that I've been working hard for the past year on preparing for a data collection trip - December in Jerusalem, January in Malta.

The summer and fall semesters were spent on experimental design, item design, etc. Our incredibly patient and fun to work with native speaker of Maltese arrived in August to spend two weeks with us recording Maltese items - poor guy had to pronounce every Semitic verb in Maltese, plus about 10,000 nonwords in Maltese. We had planned to begin the same with a Hebrew speaker in September, but the original speaker bailed on us at the last minute, sending us into quite the panic as we searched for a suitable replacement. We finally found him, and he was also incredibly patient with us (he probably thinks we're crazy).

Amy and I arrived in Jerusalem on December 1, planning to run two experiments in the Verbal Processing Lab that Prof. Ram Frost directs at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Upon arriving, we encountered our first of several unexpected pitfalls (OK, we expect that there will be pitfalls, but we're never quite precise in advance about what exactly they will involve...)

The first pitfall involved our sound files. When we record our items in the recording booth in Arizona, we burn about 50-60 minutes of recording at a time to a CD, then upload the file to a computer, and our team of hard-working undergraduates goes to work in Praat adding a textgrid to the sound file, marking the best of the three tokens for each item with a transcription in IPA. We then run a super-cool Praat script on the textgrid that rips each transcription-item pairing out of the sound file into its own individual wave file. Unfortunately, for some reason our textgrid transcriptions involved a lot of unexpected carriage returns, which flabbergasted our script that otherwise works so well. Thanks to the astuteness of the script's author, Adam Baker, as well as valuable expertise from Paul Boersma and Jeff Berry, we were able to figure out what the problem was. And thanks to Jeff Berry's super powers, he was able to fix these textgrids so as to eliminate the unwanted carriage returns, and while he was at it, he avoided another potential pitfall by eliminating funny Unicode characters that our experiment software doesn't like.

This all set us back about a week. Next time, you'll get to hear about pitfall number 2...