Thursday, May 27, 2010

Wrapping up in Malta

It's the eve of our departure from Malta, and we've run 253 subjects so far. We are 17 short of completing the last experiment, and may get to run a few more tonight. I am pretty darn satisfied with our productivity here, and can't quite grasp that I have been here for four weeks - the time has flown by! And in a good way; I've been busy and engaged the entire time. Part of that is due to having various visitors come and stay with us for periods of our time here, and part of it is due to simply being so busy with work.

Andy and his parents got here Monday, and so the last few days have involved finding a nice balance between running subjects and sight-seeing. Luckily Kevin's been able to run subjects without me on the days when I've played hooky and been a tourist. On Tuesday afternoon, we went on a beautiful guided hike, led by a professional botanist, on the northwest edge of Malta, just north of Golden Bay. We got to learn all about the garrigue ecosystem and see some of the rare, undeveloped parts of the island - it was spectacular, especially at that time of day in the rays of the setting sun.

Yesterday, I finally got to visit two of the prehistoric temple period sights: Hagar Qim and Mnajdra, which are in pretty excellent condition considering their advanced age and exposure to the elements. Last night, Anna cooked us another wonderful fenkata - traditional Maltese rabbit - so memorable!

Another fun aspect of this trip is that I feel as though I've discovered about ten million potential future research projects that could be done here, time- and money-permitting. It's nice to know there's work to bring me back, although my friends here already provide a great reason to return. If I am lucky, I'll be back in November for the annual Maltese book fair in order to unveil some of the progress on our electronic dictionary project. And then again next April for the third annual International Maltese Linguistics Conference - hopefully with some interesting results from the experiments we're wrapping up right now. I am looking forward to cracking open these data files as soon as I can to start analyzing the data. But before then, I'll be enjoying a few days off in eastern Sicily, and heading to Israel next week for more Semitic psycholinguistics.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Maltese adventure continues

It's the middle of my third week here - by this time next week, I'll be getting ready to start packing and head out. Things have been going fine, aside from a nasty stomach bug I picked up recently. Interestingly, three out of four times that I have come to Malta I've gotten something similar. Luckily my Maltese friends, not to mention two Arizona students staying with me, are extremely helpful and friendly and offer a lot in the way of care and sympathy. I'm mostly better now, which is a relief - I essentially couldn't leave the apartment for 48 hours. Ah, the apartment - we're in a "new" apartment for this one week (the usual one happened to be booked, so we had to move out and will move back in this coming weekend). This new place is very conveniently located, just around the corner from the other place and sort of has a sea view. It's one of the older, original Sliema two-story town houses, which has some benefits and some drawbacks. It's quite charming, but...there's almost no water pressure in my shower, and the owners recently removed all the plaster and paint from the beautiful limestone block walls inside, so there is dust everywhere. And there's some weird mold growing on the grout between the blocks downstairs - that's a bit icky. It's cheaply furnished in such a way that everything feels flimsy. As a fellow vacation-rental owner, I almost feel obliged to draw up a list of things to improve for the owner. Almost.

Workwise, we've run 168 subjects now - that means we're about halfway done with the third of our four experiments. It's unbelievably cool. We have a lot of slots to fill up for next week, so we may not finish before our departure, but if we don't there's a colleague here who can likely run subjects after we go, which would be great. We're also getting ready for arriving in Jerusalem in a couple of weeks, where we plan to finish designing our Hebrew experiments and preparing the items, though those experiments will likely be run once we're gone. Kevin and I are also preparing two word familiarity studies in addition to the priming experiments; one on Hebrew and another on Palestinian Arabic.

Another work-related thing is that I gave a talk today at LREC - the Language Resources Evaluation Conference. This conference is enormous - something like 1000 attendees - and I ran into several people I know when I came to give my talk, though given my illness I had to flee right home after my talk. It was fun to come to a computational linguistics conference in Malta, and give a talk about Maltese (there may be one or two others among all the papers, but that's all).

The most exciting/unexpected thing by far: On Monday, despite being sick, I got to be on Maltese television! My colleague here, Manwel Mifsud, is a professor in the Department of Maltese at the University of Malta, and is also the president of the National Council of the Maltese language. Every Monday afternoon, he appears on television to discuss all aspects of the Maltese language, and he had asked me to be interviewed on the program this week. Even though I wasn't feeling 100% well, I went on anyway and had a great time! There were even live telephone callers phoning in during the show to ask questions - it was a really great experience and has shown me once again how much the people in Malta care about their language. It was really exciting to get to talk about why I care about it, given that to them I am some stranger from Arizona, of all places.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Continuing in Malta

It's a nice weekend here in Malta, with some odd weather: rainy day yesterday, somewhat sunny and violently windy day today. It's actually quite beautiful.

This is just a brief progress report to note that our work in Malta is still going well. My student Kevin arrived a week ago and has been running subjects with me. We have finished one of four experiments and are almost done with the second. We've run 120 subjects so far and have many more slots to fill. Even if we don't quite finish, it's still some incredible progress. And our subjects are doing great - from little checks of the data, it appears that their accuracy rates tend to be between 85-96%, which is fantastic (and shows that the task is pretty doable).

In other news, it turns out that I may be interviewed on television here next week by a colleague and friend who's the president of the National Council of the Maltese language. I've been assured that the interview can be done in English, which is a relief given how little Maltese I actually know. Additionally, another project involving a Maltese dictionary is in progress and going great.

So overall I feel quite fortunate. I'm also lucky to have met a number of really fun Maltese friends - life here has been very engaging, from working intensely every day to having a really wonderful social life in the evenings. Two good friends from Tucson visited last week, and we had a great time together, and another student arrives this evening t spend a week here for the LREC conference taking place in Valletta next week (which reminds me, I have a talk to work on!). Andy and his parents should arrive at the end of next weekend for my final few days here, and I'm of course excited about that.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Back in Malta!

Greetings all! The very fact that I am writing from Malta means that things are either going really well, or really badly. Luckily for me, this time, things are going great! If you happen to page back through my blog posts from January, 2009, you'll read about great despair, stress, and failure. Well, we have learned from our mistakes and at least, five days into Malta our experiments are going wonderfully. The key: prepare *everything* before even thinking about boarding the plane. Stimulus creation is hard. Item list creation is hard. Scripting is hard. Programming software is hard. It all takes enormous amounts of time from numerous experts, so coordination is also key. About a month ago, when I realized how close this trip was getting, I abandoned my sabbatical relaxation and moved into high gear for experiment preparation. Our Maltese speaker had been in Tucson in August and recorded all of our items for us, so those were ready. Or so we thought; it turned out we still needed a number of nonwords in order to have the correct set of counterbalanced items. In a fit of efficiency, I built a head-mounted microphone and overnighted it, along with a high-quality digital recorder, to Malta, where our speaker was able to record those few remaining items and then send back the .wav files. And voila - we were ready for the next step: creating item lists. Keep in mind that we are using two different methodologies (each one a different type of priming) and testing two separate related-priming types in addition to identity and unrelated priming. The result: four separate experiments, each with three counterbalanced lists, for a total of twelve individual experiments to run. Yikes! Luckily, I am married to the best programmer on the planet, and he devoted untold hours to writing a perl script that takes as an input file a set of words and nonwords and creates prime-target pairs. These get output into a text file read by Praat, which takes the individually spliced items and sews each prime-target pair into a single sound file for our regular priming experiment. For the other priming methodology, we use a Praat script written by another one of the best programmers on the planet to create some pretty cool-sounding items; you should come participate in the experiment so you can hear 'em :)

Once all of the stimuli were created by Praat, it was time to work with e-prime, the software that runs each experiment. E-prime is interesting, and consistent in at least one way: you can always count on needing a day or two to get it working properly. In our case, the stumbling blocks turned out to be fairly simple, and I was able to trouble-shoot everything myself (which did make me feel pretty competent, I have to admit, especially since e-prime tech support isn't great about responding within 24 hours). For instance, the button box used by subjects to respond to each stimulus has to be connected to the computer and this requires an annoyingly large set of steps, such as installing the proper driver for the serial-to-USB adaptor (who has a serial port anyway these days, come on!) and setting the port setting correctly in each experiment (i.e., 12 times).

Then it came time to program each experiment - they all have the same basic structure, it's just that with the Latin square design each counterbalanced list has different stimuli (aside from the foils or throw-away/distractor items). Because the version of e-prime we're using doesn't recognize UTF-8 character encoding, and because the Maltese alphabet involves a few non-ascii characters (ġ, ċ, ż, and ħ) we use a special system where we substitute numbers for those characters in the names of our stimuli sound files. However, each experiment also involves a set of instructions that subjects read prior to beginning the experiment, and since we can't use plain text to write Maltese we have to first create a powerpoint slide, turn it into a .bmp file, and use that .bmp file in the experiment. Not a hugely demanding step, but an extra step nonetheless.

In any case, by the time I left Tucson at 6 am on April 21, I had twelve working experiments. I think there are cracks in the ceiling at home from where I hit my head jumping for joy. I felt pretty good spending four days burning down the prairie in Wisconsin (controlled burns are part of our prairie restoration project of 400 acres in southwest Wisconsin, and also a great way to let go of stress), and then spent two wonderful days in Chicago, where Andy and I met with two colleagues working on another joint project. When I got on the flight to Frankfurt on April 26, I was feeling tentatively good about everything.

Four days getting over jet lag were spent in Italy, and then on May 1 (may day, may day!) I took the train to Rome and boarded my Air Malta flight. On Monday, I arrived at the university, ready to tackle installing e-prime on two computers in two different labs. The tech support people here are amazing. They worked for two hours on Monday, and though we ran into some problem with the installation, they were pretty sure how to fix them, and eventually did. It's amazing how complicated installing drivers for things like a USB key can be, not to mention for the button box. We also discovered a very bizarre bug in one of our twelve experiments (thank goodness not more than that!) in which a dynamic link (to our image .bmp files) turned into static links with a pathname from my laptop that wouldn't go away. Unexplainable, but nonetheless the tech guys manually edited my experiment script directly and fixed the problem. They returned bright and early on Tuesday morning and finished the installation, and I copied over my experiment files. And held my breath while I started testing them far, they all seem to be working! In addition, hordes of students showed up to sign up as subjects, so the next two weeks are completely full, which is incredible; this isn't a place with a tradition of running experiments, but my colleagues here have done such a good job helping me recruit subjects.

Yesterday, I ran my first five subjects - I hadn't even planned to run anyone yet yesterday! But since I was ready, why not? Today, twelve more. Tomorrow is quite full too, etc. It's such a new and wonderful feeling for this to be working - it's almost as if I don't care what the results will be (but not quite). The only little snag as I've discovered is that getting 5-euro bills is challenging - they are quite scarce! I pay each subject 5 euros, and few of them can change a 10- or 20-euro bill.

In non-work news, I'm having a really lovely time so far. I'm getting to visit with good friends, and have also been able to attend an opera in Valletta one night and then a chamber recital in a church the next morning. I'm having dinner with friends in Valletta tonight, and attending another concert Saturday night. The weather is perfect, too - this is a great time of year to be here.

Who knows what the next four weeks will hold; hopefully more of the same. Perhaps I'll write about it...