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Taking a break from my usual techno-drama to share an article I wrote for the Minnesota Mayflower Society’s Pilgrim News.

I am going to talk about how the Pilgrims talked. Not the words they used, a subject on which lots has already been written, but how they actually sounded when they spoke. If you had walked up to one and said “How be you, Myles?” and then closed your eyes, what would you have heard?

First let me point out something we often forget, and which I can assure you that very many people in our country apparently never knew, that all the English settlers in the New World spoke with an English accent, including George Washington, Patrick Henry, and John Adams. Every one of the great patriots spoke just like London. The settlers in Virginia did not say “y’all.” They spoke English English, or at least the English of the time their immediate immigrant ancestors, which, of course, changed some over the 150 years between the Mayflower and the Revolution. But they didn’t talk American, they talked English, and they sounded English, because they WERE English.

But what English did that sound like? Well, one thing they didn’t sound like was modern “BBC English,” or like Sir Lawrence Olivier doing Hamlet. That vocalization pattern (officially called “Received Pronunciation,” as if it had come from on High) is pretty much a late-19th, early 20th, century convention. And they didn’t talk with what we would recognize as the New England accent of today, because that accent didn’t come here with the Pilgrims; it came much later with other English immigrants. The Pilgrims’ accent was a reflection of where in England they came from, and especially when they left there.

Here’s a good example of what we think of as an “English accent:” the Prince of Wales discussing rain forests.  If you would like a kind of intellectual discussion of the origins of RP, this link will give it to you.

Now you may ask, how on earth could anybody figure out how people in the past talked, since we have no recordings of them speaking? Linguists actually have some ways to reconstruct pronunciation, starting from a known point and then mainly relying on spelling and rhyming. Spelling is the more direct way. Post Renaissance, the number of people who could read and write expanded greatly, but spelling was not at all standardized. People tended to write down what they heard, not what they might have been taught. This preserved their own dialect. There are also examples of writers’ phonetically quoting other people from some other area, often mocking their “rustic” accent, but at the same time preserving it for us.

Analysis of rhyming is much similar. If words are in a poem with a defined rhyme pattern in place, then with only a few exceptions, required rhyme words can be assumed to be pronounced the same way. Puns can be a rich source of hints about pronounciation, too. Through these and a few other tricks, scholars have managed to extract a fairly good idea of how the spoken language sounded at certain points in time.

As to the point in time we care about, we are in luck, for conveniently who was active as a playwright and author right at the time of the Pilgrims but William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616). Not only that, many of Shakespeare’s actors, and indeed many of his audience, were from areas in England not far from the Pilgrims’ origin, so in effect Pilgrim-speak was not at all far removed from Shakespeare-speak. And again in our great luck, there are a lot of people who have studied every aspect of Shake-spears’s language and recently even his vocalizations, and we are some of the beneficiaries of this study.

So in studying Shakespeare we are linguistically studying our Pilgrim ancestors; remember that the next time you haul off to see a Shakespearean play. But the words they use are only part of the equation. We still want to hear them speak, as they heard each other.

Some of the best and most accessible work on Shakespearean vocalization has been carried out by Dr. David Crystal, a Professor of Linquistics at the University of Wales. He and his students have painstakingly extracted an “early modern English,” ca. 1600, sonic grammar if you will, and have applied what they’ve learned to actually producing Shakespearean plays in their original pronounciation. These plays have been put on at the rebuilt Globe Theater in Stratford and in the US by the University of Kansas, among others.

Hearing these plays, or even snippets of them, is like hearing Mozart or Beethoven played on period instruments and with a period disposition of the orchestra. The piece is familiar but the sound — and the feeling — are totally new. Of course you have to listen more closely to completely understand them. For exam-ple:

  • “Loins” was pronounced more like “lines”
  • “Doom” was more like “dumb”
  • “Proved” was more like “loved.”

Well, then, let’s hear some of this. This clip is of a scene from Midsummer Night’s Dream, in Original Pronunciation.

Some words and phraseology are different, but how greatly different is the sound! In this, you are hearing as closely as linguists can determine, your Pilgrim ancestors conversing.

If you are interested in some more detail, here is an interview with David Crystal, discussing more about uncovering Original Pronunciation:

And another one talking about the production of the play at KU:

One final thing we should address is why the Pilgrims’ accent doesn’t sound like the stereotypical “New England” accent of today: as in “pahk the cah in Havahd yahd.” This dropping of the /r/ sound is called “non-rhoticity.”

The Pilgrims were almost certainly rhotic speakers — they pronounced their /r/s. Shakespeare was rhotic; he and they came from an area more or less in the middle of England’s east coast, which was solidly rhotic. Most of the post-Pilgrim New England settlers came from the English southeast, an area that had started to shift to a non-rhotic pronunciation shortly after that time, a trend that continues in England to this day. These later settlers — both during the “great migration” that ended in about 1650, and later immigrants during the 18th century — were non-rhotic, and their numbers just completely swamped the rhotic Plymouth speakers.

Here’s a good example of a non-rhotic speaker: Margaret Thatcher discussing a point in the Falklands War.

I should note that the other great literary document produced around this time was the King James Bible. There are clearly spelling and pronunciation keys that have come from the KJV, but the actual language in it was very artfully refined. It didn’t mimic the common conversational language of the people, as much of Shakespeare did. Even to the people of the time, the KJV sounded “majestic” and “monumental.” Shakespeare, as exemplified in the Midsummer clip above, aimed his language at the common people standing “in the pit” in front of the stage. His characters spoke as the people spoke.

Human language never stands still, it evolves in both form and sound in often unpredictable ways. Most linguists would say that the sound of the language in England has actually been evolving more rapidly than it has in America. We, away from the Mother Tongue, have been more conservative and so preserved aspects of the English we came over with, and many of the regionalisms in our national pronunciation hark back to where in England our fore-bears came from. Unfortunately, our Pilgrim pronunciation was not so preserved. But then neither was Shakespeare’s.

So there you have it.

Editor Jim Mirick studied natural-language linguistics and the history of English while doing graduate work in Computer Science at the University of Hawaii. The purpose of that study was to learn how to develop better grammars for computer programming languages by studying how humans communicate.

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Privacy and anonymity on the Internet and in real life are under increasing assault due to companies’ and governmental agencies’ ability to capture incredible amounts of data mainly from Internet traffic, and their ability to track users across websites and services, generally without users’ knowledge.  Once it’s been captured, this data is essentially impossible to erase regardless of whether it is right or in error, and many organizations that have captured such troves of data have demonstrated a weak ability to maintain control of it.

Often this data is used “just” for commercial purposes, but could also be used to threaten to expose users of certain websites or services, or expose holders of unpopular political, social, or economic views, or to prevent people from accessing whatever websites someone in power wishes them not to access.

Privacy and anonymity are different but interrelated, and both are deeply and honorably enshrined in American legal and cultural traditions.  For our purposes,

  • Privacy means other people can’t get information about me (e.g. tax returns or medical records) that I don’t willingly give them, and it’s no business of anyone else’s what websites I go to or what I do online.  To have privacy is part of what it means to be an autonomous human being; if you have no privacy, other people can know everything about you and be able to make decisions for you or predict your actions.
  • Anonymity means I can express opinions, access Internet-based data, or visit websites without anyone knowing who I am in real life, or where I am physically (not being able to find or contact me, in other words to be able to harass, expose, or arrest me).  This should include someone not being able to identify me via some pseudo-me that they have constructed from my presence using cookies, malware, or other hidden identifiers.  Just their not knowing my real name is not enough, to be anonymous is to be unreachable.

I am disturbed by people who, in the wake of 9/11 or because of some other real or perceived terrorist activities, take the position that “only people with something to hide need to hide behind privacy.”  This is nonsense.  We all deserve privacy in our private lives, unless for a very specific reason someone gets a court order to pierce this veil.  Nor is anonymity somehow un-American.  In the early days of our Revolution, Madison, Jay, and Hamilton wrote the Federalist Papers under the name of Publius to avoid any untoward personal issues from their views.  Purer and more patriotic Americans never existed than these!

This situation has been brought about by aggressive data capture technologies, and the ability to cheaply store incredible amounts of raw data and quickly process it to correlate, trace, and extract meaning from even the tiniest pieces of it.  Governments, repressive or otherwise, have used court orders to compel Internet-based services to disgorge details on individuals’ use of these services and have also developed network-penetration techniques (hacking) to harass individuals and obstruct their access to data.  Technology has thus leapt ahead of accepted proper use of it, and indeed ahead of the common person’s ability to even comprehend what is happening.

Here is a good, and seemingly harmless example.  If a woman is a regular Target shopper, using a Red Card or consistently using a single credit or debit card, and she becomes pregnant, Target will know that fact by the third or fourth month with a very high degree of certainty, based on subtle shifts in her buying habits.  Not because she’s buying diapers, because she isn’t yet, but by other changes they won’t make public.  At this point they start biasing their ads delivered to her for the purpose of increasing her “lock in” to Target, so that Target becomes her preferred store during the next couple of years.

But if Target can do this, what if an insurance company could buy data on policyholders that would allow them to determine that you are developing some serious health problems, and raise your rates, or drop you entirely,or not take you on in the first place?  Or could the state pre-emptively revoke your driver’s license?  Or arrest you because they felt you were exhibiting signs of radicalism, whatever that may mean?  And worse yet, if any of these things happened to you, would you even know the reason, or would you think it was some accident of nature?

And now we have the evidence that the National Security Agency has for many years, without any warrant or even hint that any wrong-doing was being carried out, been recording phone call details and Internet access data (“metadata”) on a great fraction of the American public on an ongoing basis.  These governmental criminals then look you in the face and say, “we’re not listening to your calls or looking at your data, we’re just recording this ‘metadata,’ you don’t have to worry!”

Let’s look at this metadata.  For a phone call, it would include your number, where you were, were you moving, who you called, where they were, at what time of day, and how long it lasted.  You may say, “so they know I call my sister in Toledo every Friday evening.  So what?”  Well, if they have the metadata on every call you have made for the last several years, they can build a profile of your normal calling patterns to a surprising level of detail.  Now you start calling – even twice a week, say, a lover in San Antonio.  They would be able to see this as a deviation from your usual calling pattern, and they could be alerted, perhaps, and perhaps interested.

So metadata on calls and Internet accesses is far from harmless.  They don’t have to listen to the calls with this kind of stuff at their fingertips.  Indeed, the call metadata is in many ways superior to merely listening in on somebody’s line.  What Target can do with charge-card metadata, the NSA can to a thousand times over with call metadata.

So what they want to do is to record communication metadata on everybody in the country, forever, so they can go back into it at their convenience, and analyze it retro-spectively looking for some hint of wrongdoing.  At this point, we have no personal privacy any more, we are as good as naked on the street.  Even the Chinese or Russian police states don’t (yet) have this power.

So I ask: is this the kind of country we want to live in?

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If you’ve been traveling to Pluto or somewhere recently, and are unaware of the spectacular hack carried out against Mat Honan of Wired Online, see my previous post, which also links to his own description of the whole dismal proceeding.  Read it first, so you have an appreciation for the magnitude of the damage he suffered.  Herein is my analysis and a prescription for how to reduce your chances of being subjected to the same kind of abuse.

First of all, I note that there were no bits involved in this hack — this was not a technical attack, they did not guess any passwords or execute some esoteric  bombardment of his digital assets.  No, this was purely “social engineering,” the hackers put together data they fraudulently obtained from Amazon’s and Apple’s customer service desks to take control of Honan’s Apple customer account and then leverage that to other services.  In short order they controlled every digital asset he had.  But the penetration was not “techie” and so no amount of hard-to-guess passwords or whatever would have helped him avoid it.

A great part of his problem was that the two customer-service desks the hackers contacted had procedures in place that allowed them to ignore the fact that the hackers couldn’t answer the security questions Mat had entered.  They therefore got in with relatively simple, relatively public data  they had figured out or augured out of somebody else.  You can’t fix this, Apple and Amazon (and others) have to, and to an extent they may already have. But still, there are steps you can take to help insulate yourself from their stupid procedures.

And remember, there is always a balance between security and convenience in everything you do, online as well as offline.  The problem is, most people are pretty good at evaluating and deciding how to find this balance offline, but not at all experienced at doing so online.  So, my objective is to help you find that online balance.


First, back up your data! If it doesn’t exist in three places, you really don’t want it all that badly.  So, it’s on your machine, second, buy a terabyte external drive and copy it there once in a while, and finally subscribe to a secure online backup.  I use Carbonite, $55 per machine per year to do it automatically, but there are others.

Second, use a password-vault system  and let it generate your passwords (at least some of them), I use LastPass but there are others.   In my opinion, LastPass is the best.   If you don’t bother to do these two things, stop reading here, you have a prodigious appetite for risk.

Now I’m going to make some suggestions to help you deal with the two biggest exposures Mat had, how his accounts were linked, and how his email accounts were guessable.


This is the biggest convenience – security tradeoff area.  You log onto your gmail account, and lo and behold you can be logged into your calendar.  Or, you log into Facebook, and you are seemingly logged into Instagram, or any number of other services that authenticate (because you told them to “log me in using Facebook, or whatever”) through another application.  Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, and Google are the largest authentication providers.  Well, when you do this you are linking your logon credentials among those services., so if they have a failure, or if somebody gets your credentials to the host service, they are into all of the ones that are linked.

So then, the obvious solution to this is to not do so much cross-app linking.  Unlikely to happen, linking is waaaay to convenient.  For example, I myself link Foursquare and Instagram to Facebook, so I can cross-post checkins and quickie pictures to my Facebook timeline.  And my Google services are linked, but linked through Google, not Facebook’s ID and password.

So where you link services, be aware of it.  I usually link only within the same “company,” but not always.  Figure out where you’re linked and consider unwinding some of them.  One of the reasons I use LastPass (see above) is that I can offload some of the “I’m here, log me in over there” work to LastPass instead of letting Google et.al. do it — I control LastPass myself, I don’t control Google.


All this is fine, except that even the most sophisticated passworded and unlinked-services approach is useless if their customer service desk hands out your credentials even if whoever is trying to get in can’t answer the security questions.  Their password-reset approach almost universally relies on email to send you a temporary password, so if the attackers have hacked / accessed that account, they now own you because they’ll get to set the new password on your account, and you won’t know it.  This is what happened to Mat.

So then, two suggestions.  First, set up an email address that you use for essentially nothing else, to receive any password resets you ever have.  This is the address that you usually give them when you register with the service.   Sign up with somebody’s email service and give your username as “duckspit491” or the like, not “yourname”.   And put a different password on it than any other of your email accounts.

Second, do not use the same ID or address prefix across all the email accounts you happen to have.  Don’t make it yourname@gmail.com andyourname@yahoo.com and yourname@facebook.com.  If you do this, if all the accounts have one prefix, the attackers just try all the other services to see if you’re using that name there too. And of course, don’t use the same password for the lot of them!  I have always done this, and I’m surprised that it’s not obvious to others that this is a good idea, but it’s not.  But now, for you, it IS a good idea, right?   Again, LastPass will manage these passwords for you so logging in won’t be a chore.


Just a few additional thoughts; if you do the above you will have already reduced your exposure by quite a bit, but here’s some more good practices:

  • Password your phone – the most likely device to be lost. Most people have their phone apps set for auto-login, so if you lose your phone you have lost 90% of your control right there.
  • Consider Gmail’s 2-factor authentication, which can tie logons to Gmail from only the devices that you personally have or use.
  • Don’t log into things you don’t have to. Google wants you to log into your browser, some other services offer that too.  Don’t.  You don’t get much benefit and they get your data. And of course a hacker will get just that little bit more leverage.

Mat Honan was in one sense extremely lucky — the hackers were out to sow chaos and destruction, not out to rob or swindle him, and indeed they didn’t.  But if that had been their intention, they could really have caused him some losses, and he wouldn’t have known where to even start looking for them.

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Before I say anything else, let me first note that in the last presidential election, political spending in the US was roughly equivalent to the amount Americans spend annually on chewing gum.  That is an important level-set for this discussion.

So, the Supreme Court (which doesn’t have to run for re-election) has decided that corporations and unions, which are legal entities created in order to make money and carry out other functions, are equivalent for campaign spending to real people, and so should be able to spend directly in unlimited amounts of money to promote causes or candidates.  This decision is a pretty heroic leap from the constitution or from any existing case law precedent; after all, corporations can’t vote in the election, so they aren’t all that equivalent to biological people, but the court decided 5-4 along conservative – liberal lines (whatever they are) and so for now it’s the law.

Don’t get me wrong, I think this is bad law.  Corporations are not actual people, they are organizations with vast resources in money and talent and they never blink, 24-7, as they pursue their self-serving objectives.  Because of these resources, they should be subject to limitations on the extent to which they can directly enter into the political process.  Not prevented from participating, mind you, but limited.  But however unfortunate this ruling is, it isn’t the end of the world, for a couple of reasons.

Corporate spending on campaigns or issues is at least to some extent self-limited by the corporation’s desire not to take a politically-unpopular position and risk alienating both customers and employees who disagree with it.  Unpopular positions can of course be heavily spun to the public and delivered with day-and-night pounding advertisements, but having worked inside large corporations most of my career I can just say that this is more difficult to successfully execute than you might think.  And of course, political spending competes with product advertising, machinery investment, and other pressing demands for capital and hence is going to be viewed with a jaundiced eye by stockholders.

The second reason is more interesting, and it comes from the actual human people who head these corporations.  A few days after the Court issued their ruling, a group called Fair Elections Now sent a letter to congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle complaining that this new ruling will cause congressmen to hammer them even more than they do now, for contributions to counter the likely flood of corporate advertising.  About 40 executives from the likes of Hasbro, Delta Airlines, Seagrams, Crate and Barrel, Ben & Jerry’s, Men’s Wearhouse, and Playboy Enterprises said in the letter,

Members of Congress already spend too much time raising money from large contributors . . . and often, many of us individually are on the receiving end of solicitation phone calls from Members of Congress.  With additional money flowing into the system, due to the court’s decision, the fundraising pressure on Members of Congress will only increase . . .

This is actually a very healthy development — people who are in a position to make corporate policy but who are impacted personally in other ways, are saying, “stop this right now.”  So maybe, just maybe, we will see some actual legislation passed that will undercut the Court’s ruling.

But ultimate it falls back to the electorate.  We, as a nation, need to increase our attention span and actually study these issues and make up our minds about them, and not be swayed by week-before-the-election advertising.  We need to stop being swayed by partisans screaming “death panels!” and other patent lies.  We need to belly up to our responsibilities, personally, and make the things we want happen.

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I can only hope beyond hope that there will be some severe accountability for these verminiferous party crashers getting f2f with the President.  Hopefully the entire crew at the gate that let them in will get sacked, followed by Mark J. Sullivan, the head of the Secret Service, submitting his own resignation.  This may seem to be a funny incident, but in the light of Ft. Hood, and of the execution of the four police officers in Tacoma, it’s not at all funny.

And what lowlifes these crashers are!  Read their life histories — they are complete and utter frauds, liars, duckspitters, and societal leeches whose lives revolve around pretending to be everything they’re not.  I guess if you have no self-respect, nothing is too outrageous for you.  And people like this were able to talk their way in, regardless of no invitation.

Which gets us back to the concept of removing the incompetents who let them in.  Please, folks, there needs to be some accountability going down here.  They could have had sarin.  If the President and the Veep aren’t enough exposure, how about a foreign head of state?  Sheesh.

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The Russian bear comes roaring back, 15 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, with an unprovoked attack on the Republic of Georgia to ostensibly look after the interests of the ethnic Russian population of the province of South Ossetia.  This is a conflict that has been brewing since the demise of the USSR, as Georgia has attempted to forge links with Europe and to follow a democratic path to an open, westernized society.  Unfortunately, the Russians still find that kind of thinking unacceptable and decided to act.

And, the worst part is, we can’t do anythinig at all about it, thanks to our misguided advernturism in Iran and Iraq.  Our military is stretched to the breaking point in those two wars, we’re out of money, and — worst of all — the Bush Administration has squandered our moral authority to even decry their little war.  After all, if we can just go and attack a country because we’re wheezed off at their leader and his ideas, why can’t the Russians do the same to a country that borders them?  They’re just imitating us, we who “won” the Cold War.

What have we become, but the old-style Imperialists that the Communists always decried?  Cheny and his henchmen believe that because we won, and because of 9/11, and for whatever other reasons they choose to use, there is some kind of “new reality” that allows these things.  Now, in a most unpleasant manner, we have been introduced to the new reality.

As Pogo the Possum once said, “we have met the enemy and he is us.”  Or, the old saying “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

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As the Fourth of July looms on the horizon, with all it’s hyperbolic foaming and blowing about our heritage and our great country, I’m forced to write a slightly different post. I regret that I have come to the conclusion that Vice President Cheney is the antithesis of America and everything America stands for. No foreign terrorist, no spy, no communist operative, has done more to undermine the foundations of our civil society, our laws, and all of the things we hold dear and that our patriot ancestors fought and shed their blood for, than he has.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to provide some vast set of links to all the things that support this rather sweeping statement, I haven’t the energy to compile them. His actions in office are nothing but one outrage piled on another, the latest being that he and his office are not subject to any oversight regarding their use and storage of classified documents. Based on history I assume this will be superseded by other even greater assaults on our heritage and our freedoms, done in the name of “protecting our freedoms and heritage.”

A rational person who lived through the Cold War as I did is not at all eager to watch the phoenix-like re-emergence of Imperial Soviet Russia, which is being engineered by the ex-KGB-spy-master Vladimir Putin. Rights so recently won from the Kremlin, the disassembly of the communist central plans, freedom of the press, at least some limited transparency of government, freedom of religion, all of this is being curtailed, curbed, and revoked by the cold and calculating hand of an ex-spy.

What ho, in our own midst we have ex-CIA-spy-master Dick Cheney, attempting to fashion an Imperial America with governmental agencies allowed to spy on us, our emails, and our activities, revoking hapeas corpus for people who may be arbitrarily classified as “terrorists,” indeterminate detention without lawyers or a trial, relentless attempting to close down of any meaningful transparency in government, and on and on.

And now the Administration’s PR lackeys, taking a clue from Orwell’s 1984, are preparing us for “indefinite and ongoing war against Terror,” seemingly a key part of Cheney’s plan to create a long-term, permanent one-party Republican hegemony in American politics. And so far, we’re allowing this to happen.

Then the scary part: Look at the two of them. The same disdainful stare, the same smug half-smile . . . they’re drinking the same stuff, whatever it is. And it’s having the same effect on them both. The question is, will they continue to follow the same course? Very scary, in both cases.

UPDATE: an article in the New York Times on 7/9/07 highlights Cheny’s participation in the Oliver North testimony during the Iran / Contra hearings, shows that his proclivity to an imperial presidency started at least 20 years ago.  It shows what is in effect his profound distrust of the electorate.  He seems more Putin that Putin himself!

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