Saturday, October 18, 2014

conversations with Siri

My 9-year-old son started a conversation with Siri this morning, so I listened in. First he argued with her and told her that he was not Jennifer, his mother, but Corey. Siri didn't believe him. But it didn't matter. Eventually he asked her if she was his friend, and she said, I'm not only your friend, I'm your bff. At this point I decided to listen more carefully. He asked her over for dinner, and she said, I already know where you live, but I don't eat much. He said, no problem, since I can't cook anyway.

Really, he was looking for someone to tell him it was ok to cheat. He asked her if it was ok to cheat. She said that one time she had cheated on a metaphysics exam by looking into the soul of the kid next to her. This I believe went over his head; he's only nine. So he asked her again if it was ok for him to cheat. She clearly has no moral compass, but it didn't matter; she said she couldn't answer that.

When I told my older son, he reported that some kid had asked her where the best place to hide a body was, and she'd said, "in the Terms and Conditions." This could actually be a story off the internet, but nevertheless it shows that people have become creative in the questions they ask Siri, and sometimes Siri is quite well-prepared.  It's made me curious about the kinds of questions anyone could ask her and what kind of responses might occur as a result. Clearly she's not prepared to notice that the voice talking at her is that of a nine-year-old, or a boy, unlike the voice she had heard earlier. She may not yet be programmed to set up different accounts for different speakers, thus using stored information from each to tailor her responses based on what she already knows.

I think it's conceivable that someone could get quite used to asking Siri a whole range of questions; whereas I don't mind asking her how to get to the Starbucks, I'm not used to asking her a whole range of other things. My son of course is clearly prepared to ask her all kinds of things. My point is that depending on how much time one has, and what one needs, Siri could be queried in all kinds of matters; the possibilities are infinite. I'm sure the people at Apple could tell us some of this. A little research might do wonders here!

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Friday, October 17, 2014

documenting the war on passives

To make a long story short, I am teaching a class in dissertation writing for international students. They bring me projects representing years of work, and they need help with the language required by their disciplines to get a dissertation accepted and passed. Sometimes their advisor tells them, "Using words like I, me, we, our, etc. is the mark of an inexperienced writer." One would think this is an injunction to use the passive, but there are actually several ways to deal with this command.

Other departments scorn the passive, or at least tolerate active constructions like "I will show that..." or "We found that..." In fact it could be said that there is a wide variety of dissertations being accepted at this university today, and essentially a wide variety of commands being given to internationals and others writing dissertations, so that you have to tease out of the dissertation writer what is expected, before you can reasonably assume that you are giving him/her good advice. As a dissertation proofreader I find myself knowing several grammatical ways of talking about what happened in a project, but not necessarily knowing which will fly within the department or, at a wider level, which will sound good in the field. The social sciences are the home of the war on passives, which basically overhauled the traditional paradigm and replaced what could be termed as expectation to use the passive with scorn for the passive; international students are in essence caught between. They don't know what Microsoft Word means when it encourages them to avoid passive in favor of active; they also don't know what an advisor means when he/she says to "never use I"...

We asked our students to provide model dissertations, and then we read them carefully. Most were accepted by Texas Tech in the last ten years. Not all had perfect grammar; in fact, a wide variety of grammatical mistakes were tolerated and in some cases, it was clear that grammar wasn't important at all, in comparison to the ideas or the study itself. The dissertation, though, is important; it represents a scholar's arrival in the field, the cornerstone of his/her expertise, authority, and reputation in the field, and it lasts forever as an ongoing record of scholarship and work.

My wife is a full professor in sociology, and maintains that the war on passives dates back to the 90's and has its roots in feminist theory. How can you remove the agent or the one who saw or did the action, when that agent will so clearly color the results? To her it was incredible that a professor who called herself feminist could still tell students to remove I from all writing, since it contradicted an ideology that insisted on taking responsibility and noticing the actor who found, collected, studied the data. Remember that it was tradition, the advice of the elders, to remove I, we, etc., from this kind of writing. Throughout various departments, tradition was maintained even as the content of studies became rigorously more modern, up-to-date, and radical. The professor in question had simply passed on traditional academic advice to writers, not questioning whether this advice might also change along with the adoption of modern ideologies and their integration into academia.

One can avoid I, we, our, my, etc. and still avoid the passive, which one's computer is now reminding us is archaic, undesirable. One does that by animating ideas, studies, and projects. This research concludes...This study found...This data show...etc. It's hard to tell whether modern language has made this kind of construction necessary, right, or even more common. Does anyone else cringe when studies become able to do such things? This kind of construction results, often, when the writer has acquired both the distaste for the passive (encouraged by Word grammar-check) and the traditional injunction against using the personal pronouns. Does this mean the formal academic writing now requires a certain detachment from reality, in the sense that you have to let inanimate actors do the work that they shouldn't do, or take on life that they don't have? I intend to find out.

My wife says another thing, however, that I found interesting. She said, it's not the dissertations that matter, since virtually anything can be accepted by a committee, and much of it is not read very widely outside of that committee. It's the journals that matter, and what they require. It's the journals that you should read, because they are setting the standards, and defining academic language as it is. Training to be a PhD student is essentially training to write and express oneself in a discipline, and if this process is not up to a standard, the newly-minted Doctor, who goes off to be a professor somewhere, may never publish again. My internationals are protected from this sad fate, mainly by being so good in what they do that they get a lot of help in the other areas, until they truly understand how to publish and keep publishing. It's interesting, and it's what keeps diversity in our world.

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Thursday, August 07, 2014

report from Lubbock, Aug. 2014

Another International Teaching Assistant Workshop just ended; this is the one 3-week stretch in which I teach absolutely full-time, but it's a whopper of full-time. There is SPEAK grading, Performance test grading, and six hours a day of teaching, all crammed into this three-week gig, and I more or less have to tell the folks at home that they're on their own. Some observations about the state of ITA's and Texas Tech will be found if you scroll down a little.

First, I want to say a little bit about the relative silence of this blog. In fact this blog didn't really move with me and my professional career to Texas Tech; it has stayed behind, really, as a repository of all good stuff that happened over an 18-year span in Illinois. But it's about time it moved, and I'll tell you why: I seem to be stuck in the process of converting all my interesting experiences into professionally-written, book-worthy ideas, and one reason is that I don't really use this blog actively enough anymore. Instead of pulling, bending, changing, etc., I just took a break and went into fiddling for a while. That has been successful; I have a band, I play bluegrass, I'm happy. But I don't intend to let my professional ideas rot on the vine back here. It's time I dredge stuff up and either publish it or drop it.

Now the nature of a blog is, it's fairly casual, and it's published, whether it's polished or not. I'm ok with that. If this is as far as some of these ideas go, that's ok. But I'm taking the red and gray of this blog and remaking it in the Texas Tech red-and-black soon, and that's because I want to keep it current, and keep using it instead of letting it collect dust. That's my first announcement. Look for some changes here soon in the design aspect. A person has to change once in a while.

Lubbock is at the searing peak of its summer; though we took a break for about a week in the mountains of New Mexico, I am now back crossing my beloved 19th street four times a day and in the process of so risking my life, I've decided to make sure that whatever feelings I have about language, acquisition, etc. I'd better get them in print sooner rather than later. So I'm thinking of devoting some energy to that process in the near future. And I hope you'll see evidence of the following: 1) a book about language as a self-organizing system; 2) a collection of essays and other writing about language acquision, and 3) a book or collection of writings about how technology and grammar intersect. I've been talking about these things for years. The heck of it is, I know where this writing is (on my blogs, in my Google docs, etc.), but it just collects dust where nobody sees it; if it were in book form, I could at least get it out there, where it might do some good. Not that anyone buys my books. But, books collect ideas under one cover. Blogs don't. Google docs simply maintain them. Books publish them.

Walked to the ITA workshop on its last day; walked home; walked to the pool, swam, and now I'm about too drained and exhausted to even do the multitude of organizational tasks I've set out for myself, for my afternoon and what little free time I'll have before the semester comes crashing in. But, I got some pictures uploaded, below, at my home weblog, and my lubbock weblog, and those are really my most immediate organizational task. I'm still finishing my ITA workshop blog, which has three entries. This last one has social media, teaching philosophies, and a tour of world cities. Most of all, in my opinion, it still proves that to me at least, the blog format is one of the best places to simply publish interesting stuff. Nobody takes it too seriously, yet by simply remembering a well-chosen URL, you always have access to the best of people's creativity, the things you can get them to say. Teaching philosophies, in particular, help them to crystallize their feelings about what they're about to do, and, since they are graduate students, they take their writing seriously and give you a good picture of various departments and issues of teaching within them. I'm proud of the work my students are still putting on blogs, and in this case I'll say one thing: in three weeks, all we could do was write the stuff and put it up there, really; we didn't worry too much about "revision." But, organization and perfection were less important than simply getting it up there. Students were coming and going the entire three weeks; this blog represents the time they spent in that classroom, discussing writing and the issues of social media, as well as talking about their own cities. I'm proud of that memory and will fix up the blog to reflect that, as soon as I have time.

Unfortunately, however, I lost the password and even the logon of the last one, which also held teaching philosophies, and this brings up an organizational nightmare of the blog world: one loses passwords, especially if one is ADD or trusts the old pen-and-paper method. I'm working on it, folks, I promise.

Which brings me to my last point. The CESL weblogs, also, are collecting dust, turning into a museum of the era in which we used them. Blogs are ok for that. I guess it's ok if people at CESL simply forget that they're there, and they sit there with all their beautiful pictures and show what people did way back in the early 20-aught years. I have them rigged, I think, so that if anyone jumps in with crude comments, I'll know. As they get stale, they move down on Google indices, and people are less likely to stumble upon them. But even now I use them. Students have research papers on them, and I call them up. They reflect the idea that you can take a corner of a public discourse environment, you can make an interesting project, and you can leave it posted indefinitely, for its creators to use, and for anyone to see and comment upon. If anything, it's making the web more civilized, and calmer. And that's no small change in today's world. My last organizational task is to link up these weblogs, so that one can more easily have access to them, or see them in the order that I'd like you to see them. Look for more on that, here.

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Thursday, July 10, 2014

new on Facebook

I am like everyone; I spend a significant amount of time on Facebook. My friends include a lot of former students, so they are all over the world, and thus I get caught up in the World Cup drama even when I'm not actively watching it a lot. But this post is about two other significant developments on Facebook.

The first is Facebook's own experimentation with using its feeds to manipulate your mood. Facebook can make you happy. Facebook can make you sad. Facebook can make you forget the vast majority of your friends, in favor of the ones it puts in front of you, in its relentlessly formulaic ways of deciding what your feed looks like.

Now I'm already a little jaded by the rest of the stuff Facebook has been doing, like using the margin to speak directly to everything it knows about me. The ads basically say, hey you 60-year-old who teaches ESL and likes the World Cup, click here! Facebook by the way is mad at me because I've still, after two years, not told it where I'm from, and that's because it's a rather complicated answer, but lately it started to make stuff up, and just say I'm from Lubbock or from some other town where I had a lot of friends. Wrong, Facebook.

People like me are mad at Facebook because it's using so much of what it learns in such a devious way. It's one thing to make a profile out of thousands of bits of information it's gotten out of me legitimately (what kind of idiot am I?) but it's another to basically take things I'm meant to see, order it in order to change my own feelings, and then go along like it is in charge, it controls my feelings anyway. The reason people are mad is that they suspect that it works...

But here's another trend I've got a bead on, and I'm not sure this one is entirely good either. I'm an avid follower of HONY (Humans of New York), in which some guy interviews people on the streets of New York and puts their responses with their pictures; because he has thousands of followers, people write in with comments immediately and constantly. My understanding is that he censors the comments, and still gets thousands of legitimate, non-hurtful comments for each post. He must spend his life censoring the comments, but in any case, what he has created is living, all-inclusive discussion forums that are alive, and in which comments tumble in just as you check your phone. If your phone gets Facebook, you can essentially participate in a texted discussion with any of thousands of strangers who are piping in on such subjects as what constitutes a crime, or when someone becomes immoral in divorce. Some of these I've found banal, but others have been fascinating, and it's only a matter of time before he or his competitors perfect the art, or use Facebook at another plane of participation. Hand it to HONY though: he did it first; he's in uncharted territory, and, for the moment at least, it's working.

I think Facebook-watching could be a full-time career. But I mean that in more of a sense that if you were critical about the stuff that happens every day, every week, you could use critical social commentary to alter the way our culture is moving; we're like a canoe on very fast rapids. Unfortunately, I'm more in the other camp. I watch Facebook with increasingly more of my time, and it's mostly just to keep a fairly wide collection of friends in my consciousness. For that reason alone, I still defend Facebook - it's made my social circle very wide, very interesting, very international. All that other stuff, well, I'm like everyone, I put up with it, because, basically, I feel powerless to stop it.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

World Cup 2014

A friend of mine said, "Why should I care?" to which I responded, some Texas high school just spent 60 million on a football stadium, and football kills people, it gives them concussions, and injures their legs/knees/ankles/feet for life, so any energy we can put into promoting soccer is in essence saving lives. Kids need stuff to do. It's not enough to say to them, don't do American football. You have to have something to replace it with.

More and more Americans are watching the World Cup and this is a trend that has been steadily increasing. I've been interested in the last three or four of them, but I haven't actually watched this one much, not having streaming video, or even television to speak of. I watch my computer and my phone to see the scores come in. I'm overjoyed of course that the Americans finally beat Ghana. I've said enough, since I have friends from Spain, Brazil, Mexico, all kinds of other places that are still in the race. I tend to like the African teams and the South Americans against the old European powers but that's based on a very old prejudice and not based on any real knowledge of real teams.

My friends who are abroad refer to the teams in plural, i.e. England are, Spain are, etc. I guess this reflects the fact that British English has won at least the soccer audience, whereas we purely American soccer fans (who call it soccer) are still a distinct minority, even an extreme minority. I don't care. The USA is good. It has a chance. It is still in the hunt. Go USA!

My friends also are quite critical of the officiating. I am fortunate in that regard, because I still don't know a foul from a wrongly-called foul. But I haven't been watching it either, so I lose even more of the fine discrimination of what is or isn't, what actually happened. How should I know? I can't make predictions based on what I've seen. I have no idea who is playing up to their potential.

But I can tell you this: When you win two, you are virtually guaranteed getting into the next round. When you win one and tie one, it gets a lot murkier, and this is important for Brazil and Mexico, because as far as I'm concerned Cameroon is still in it. And anything can happen, USA can even beat Germany. Not likely but possible. One other thing, Brazil is wet & rainy, and it might make people go bonkers or do stuff they wouldn't ordinarily succumb to. We'll have to see.

But I feel like Argentina. The whole nation goes bankrupt, goes under, things are bad, for us here in the US we are looking at another six trillion war, all for nothing, but who cares, it's game time or "match time" and it's time to head up to the local barber shop, and see what the guys are saying about this team or that, and whether "it is" any good...

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Wednesday, June 04, 2014

e pluribus haiku 2014



e pluribus haiku 2014 is out. 875 haiku, better packaging, more complete. I'm really proud of it. click on the picture to order it through amazon or by kindle. my intention was to publish on July 4, but if you think about it, the season is already over by then. The season is now. so pass this along, and celebrate the diversity of this country, its 50 unique states (and the District of Columbia); and the expression, through poetry, of a traveler's view.

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Friday, May 23, 2014

World Cup 2014

The World Cup is a kind of diversion on this weblog, but four years ago, or was it eight, people were actually tuning in to read whatever some American (me) had to say about it, and I was surprised, but I couldn't help but notice that the blog was actually being read, for whatever reason.

Now you will notice right away that I am a USA fan, but don't know that much, really, about the USA team, or any other team, for that matter. A friend of mine made a comment about the reason Landon Donovan could have been excluded from the USA team this year, and, much as I snickered, I realized that I have no idea why he really was excluded, and very little time to do the research, having way too many children, and having those children more interested in the relationship between Elsa and Sven than in Landon Donovan. But I do know that Ghana is, again, our biggest rival; that our division is considered tough; that the backdrop (Brazil), this year, will be quite interesting; and that interest in the World Cup has been steadily rising in the USA, as part of a general trend toward internationalization in the younger generations.

As to this last tendency, I would like to consider myself a leader. Notice the world, I would tell fellow Americans. In particular, notice how soccer doesn't physically destroy its players as American football does. It is a world spectacle; its players are the kings on the world throne, they get the girls, the Ferarris, the television time, the money; they cheat and pretend, dramatically, to be injured, but hey, I feel better about feeding this monster than the American football one, which gives people repeated concussions, and broken ankles for life. I realize that's not quite justification. If this is an exercise in rampant nationalism, in unhealthy adoration of physical skills, then maybe it's better "Letting it go," as they say. But I'll save that argument for another season. For this one, I'll stick with my tendency, which is to love the USA (underdogs in this situation), like the African teams (always underdogs, for financial reasons), like most of the South American teams (always so passionate, so colorful), and like Mexico (local favorite). I like 'em all, actually, I like watching, and caring. It's an international spectacle, like the Olympics. It's much more fun to talk about, than political maneuverings in Ukraine. It's a little hedonistic, that way. But bring it on, I'm sick of talking about wars. Here the US is threatened with war in the Ukraine, war in the South China Sea, not to mention war in Afghanistan (it's been there all along), war here, war there, drones in Yemen, drones in Pakistan. We just can't seem to stop killing people. Well I say, kick the ball, and stop with the killing. If you can't take care of your soldiers when they come home, let the soccer players go out there, because you don't have to take care of them; they'll latch on to some team like Arsenal, and they'll make a fine living, and they'll marry into money, and everything will work out ok. We'll get our competitive streak satisfied, yelling about the way they "shoot," and nobody will die as a result (generally).

I say, let the games begin!

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May report

So what have I been doing with my life? Several things. My semester of work is over here; I worked half-time, partly in an ITA class, and partly in the University Writing Center, but I will teach full-time in the ITA Workshop in mid-July, so that counts to bring my appointment up to the 3/4 time I am paid for. What is annoying about working half-time is that whenever you teach anything, your worrying expands to fill up the space, so you might as well be working full-time, because you're worrying full-time. I try to put time into other things, and do; I've been writing, I've been working on my music, but above all, we have two new children and have to fit them into our family routine, and this has all been quite draining. I turned 60, and some days, I feel very old.

But, before I give up, I have a couple of things I want to do. I've been collecting essays about acquisition, and I'm thinking of publishing them. I've also been writing about language as a self-organizing system, and I want to collect that writing as well. These, as I envision them, are two separate books, hopefully published this year, as I've already done the vast majority fo the writing. The first has this running title: O to be estar: Essays on language acquisition. The second has this running title: Language as a self-organizing system. That second title is rather boring; it might need some work. But that's where it stands. These are both collections of writing that put my work out into the world. Having them on google docs, or blogs, doesn't seem to be doing it for me. Not that anyone will read it in its CreateSpace form, either. But it will make me feel like I've put it out there better.

In fact, I've become interested in the process of putting things out there in little home-made books, if only because a book is something you can hold in your hand, and bonk people on the arm with. Lately I printed my most recent e pluribus haiku, 875 poems in a single volume which is still only $5 (+ shipping), and I find that quite awesome, sorry about the plug, but basically if I make a string of these, and put out the writing that I do, it gives me a feeling of being an author that I don't quite get from being a teacher, or being a fiddler, or being a father, all of which I am being, but which reward me in different ways. Applying this to my ESL career, there are things I've learned, and I want to say them; I want to put them out there. If I have a single book, I have a place where I can point that encapsulates my philosophy. This blog, obviously, is one place. But this blog is fading into obscurity. The best thing about it is its pink and gray (very stylish) appearance, and even that, to tell you the truth, gets old. I hate the font. I can't keep up the links on the template. I'm getting impatient with it as a mode of communication.

I missed TESOL this year, and might even miss the one in Toronto, if I'm not careful, and I love Toronto, cold as it is in March. There are people I love who go to TESOL, and I miss them, even though they are busy integrating technology into classes, and I am not. I have gone this far and not mentioned at all how I"m on the cutting edge of using EdModo; I'm not. I've lost the desire to tell the world to get with the program and get students to use the language in new environments. To some degree, this will happen on its own, with or without me anyway. There is one more book in me, though, and that's how technology has influenced the language, the grammar, and the way people learn language and grammar. It has, in fact, created a new world, and I'm in a better position to expound on this than most people, so I should, and perhaps I will. This, you'll notice, is a distant third, it doesn't even appear in my top two. Alas, either it'll happen or it won't, what else can I say?

Stay tuned. Here's hoping this blog doesn't go the way of the wooly mammoth.

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Cars have universals; languages have funny sounds

When I went to Korea, I was curious about why people walked to the left on sidewalks, in order to avoid bumping into each other. The question was, basically, whether it was possible for a whole culture to be what appeared to us to be "left-handed" - which, if you think about it, is just another way of saying that it's opposite of what one has come to expect. The language always had verbs last, and had post-positions instead of prepositions. So I began to wonder: Is it possible for people to just be oriented in another direction?

But alas, they drove on the right, like we do. So I said, why don't you drive on the left, like the Japanese? Is there a reason for these things? And someone said, well, that is the reason, if the Japanese drove on the left, we didn't want to be like the Japanese. At the time we got roads, we were more inclined to imitate the Americans.

I studied these phenomena for a while because of my general sense that language is kind of like random human cultural behavior, which as you can tell from the above anecdotes, is far from random, yet at the same time, does not seem to have a rational physical explanation. In the search for universals, you might do what the Chomskyists did, which is to say that every culture sticks to one side or the other, it's just that the culture determines which side. But I ran across the British, who, when walking on the street, don't stick to either side. Apparently they use a different system to avoid bumping into each other. And keep in mind, virtually every other cultural tendency, starting with the language but including law, we seem to have either gotten from the British or adapted from the British. But my point is, if there are cultures in which people don't stick to either side when walking in the street, then there are really no universals about walking in the street. You can't say that if someone bumps you with their left elbow, they're more likely to bump you with their left foot is a universal.

So it is with language. Some universals, for example, all languages have vowels and consonants, appear to apply to all languages, at least all the ones that are primarily oral, but even that opens up a can of worms. But the ones that deal with word order all assume that word-order restrictions are an inborn part of our language mechanism, and they're not. Plenty of languages have no word-order restrictions whatsoever. So what they refer to as "universals" sound more like physical movement regularities like the one with the left elbows. These are not universals. Some languages use order to express things. Some most definitely do not.

I was most provoked by the assertion that sticking to one side of the road, when driving, is a universal, while the culture itself determines which side. This assertion relies on the assumption that roads have room enough to actually have two sides, which in my experience, is a false assumption. But, allowing that the vast majority of one's roads have plenty of room, I still see no reason why a person born into a world with no cars, few cars, or random cars would necessarily feel compelled to stick to one side, except when encountering another car, or as a cultural habit developed upon encountering other cars regularly. In other words, there is no genetic imperative to stick to one side regularly. It is a cultural habit that people develop for their own convenience (and to save lives, generally) and they might choose either side depending on their whim or their political inclinations (people in the Falklands, for example, might prefer aligning with Britain to aligning with Argentina). People who regularly have entire roads to themselves have no special reason to stick to one side or the other at all, and generally don't. We are in the habit of taking our Western obsessions with word order, road alignment, etc. and imposing them on other cultures, as if, if you don't have this particular obsession, then what are you, radically chaotic? I think the example of British sidewalks, if true, though, reminds us that a culture can be quite rigid and regular about a number of things, and still have no cultural agreement about which side of the sidewalk to walk on. Sometimes people don't agree. Sometimes they have other methods to avoid bumping into each other.

The story of the wave brings up an interesting point. In that story, people in stadiums (stadia?) around the world have taken to standing up, and by the movement of their bodies creating a wave that moves around the stadium, clockwise in the northern hemisphere and allegedly counter-clockwise, more often, in the southern hemisphere (as evidenced by the Olympics in Sydney). Now if it is true that the spontaneous movements of large groups of people can be influenced much in the same way water goes down the drain, then an argument can be made that when there is movement, the movement can be influenced by certain external factors. I'm not sure I buy that argument, or that that argument could apply to language, where Japanese and Korean have post-positions, but English has prepositions. So we place certain things to the left or to the right. But this doesn't come from the movement of the earth, or from our relation to the magnetic pole, or from the fact that we are in the "west". It's simply a cultural agreement, and we could change it if we agreed to change it. That's actually kind of scary, but it's true.

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