Week 5. Lengua de señas mexicana

One of the most striking things I first noticed when reading about Mexican Sign Language (lengua de señas mexicana, or LSM) is the lack of information available about LSM as compared to American Sign Language. Google Scholar produces 3,200,000 results for the search “American Sign Language” and only 396,000 for “Mexican Sign Language.” Of course, those are English-language articles and ASL, although unrelated to English, is used in an English-speaking culture while LSM, unrelated to Spanish, is used in a Spanish-speaking culture. But the result is not much more encouraging if you use the Spanish name for both languages. “Lengua de señas mexicana” gets 17,100 hits and “lengua de señas Americana” gets 20,600. There are more speakers of ASL than LSM, but hundreds of thousands more, not millions more. It is always disappointing to see the grand field of linguistics tilt away from equality (and, surely, this is not the most egregious instance of inequality in linguistics).

All right! Onto LSM. According to Ethnologue there are about 130,000 users of LSM, concentrated mostly in urban areas, with the majority in Mexico City, San Luis Potosí and Guadalajara. LSM is part of the large French Sign Language (LSF) family, which also includes ASL, but is not mutually intelligible with ASL or LSF. Although many LSM users are bilingual in LSM and Spanish, LSM is not Spanish for the hands. Even though many Deaf Mexicans refer to LSM as “seña español,” it has entirely different verb inflections, syntax, and overall structure than Spanish.

Whereas Spanish has, it may seem to an English speaker learning Spanish, an overabundance of “to be,” LSM rarely uses the copula verb. Spanish also is very concerned with agreement between everything: articles, nouns, adjectives, verbs. LSM on the other hand (ha!) does not normally inflect verbs for tense or mood.

In 2005 LSM was officially declared a national language of Mexico. Before then, Deaf students were taught using the oral method, meaning that they were expected to learn in Spanish, by reading lips, learning to read and write Spanish, and, sometimes, learning to speak Spanish as well. While there are now more schools that use LSM, Deaf Mexicans are often marginalized and have fewer social, job, and education opportunities than hearing Mexicans.

Wikipedia Mexican Sign Language


The identitiy of Mexican sign as a language

First written grammatical description of LSM Mexican Sign Language Grammar



Week 4. GMOs: Biting off more than I can chew

Three-letter acronyms tend to be very weighty. What dark and sinister meanings lurk behind FBI, CIA, NSA, USA? While the term GMO doesn’t bear the weight of centuries of questionable policies, it is a very contentious little bundle of letters. People often feel strongly about genetically modified organisms, whether they are for or against them. I haven’t ever quite understood what it means, though, for a product (normally I think of produce) to be genetically modified or why products are modified.

There are sundry uses for genetically modified organisms. These include biological and medical research, experimental medicine, and agriculture. Humans have modified plants and animals for centuries and centuries through the process of selective breeding. The first genetically modified organism, however, wasn’t until 1973 when scientists Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen developed bacteria that were resistant to an antibiotic by using a gene from a different bacterium resistant to the same antibiotic. Breakthroughs in the field continued from then on. In 1974 Rudolf Jaenisch inserted a DNA virus into an early-stage mouse embryo and the inserted gene was later found in every cell in the mouse. In 1983, a tobacco plant resistant to antibiotics was engineered and in 1990 genetically engineered cotton was successfully field-tested. In 1995, Monsanto (dun dun dun) introduced a type of soybean known as “Round-Up-Ready,” which was herbicide immune. Five years later, scientists found that nutrients and vitamins could be introduced to enrich foods.

In the United States more than sixty varieties of genetically modified crops that are approved for food and feed supplies, including: alfalfa, apples, canola, corn (both field and sweet), cotton, papaya, potatoes, soybeans, squash, and sugar beets, with apples being the most recent addition. Worldwide more than 18 million farmers use GM seeds. A GM plant’s genetic material is altered for a variety of reasons. Many crops are modified to be tolerant to herbicides and droughts and to be insect resistant as well as to be fortified with certain vitamins. For these reasons (and others) people believe that GM crops should be permissible and easily obtainable.

There are concerns that produce that is modified to be immune to diseases contain antibiotic markers that, when consumed by humans, can make antibiotic medicine less effective. Other concerns about GM foods are unknown issues related chemicals, allergies, and the formation of super weeds. There is also the problem of ownership and patents, which can restrict research rights, lead to a consolidation of the seed industry, and, depending on the kind of seed, force farmers to buy new seed every year rather than saving seed from previous years.

Golden rice is a clear example of a GM crop enmeshed in controversy. Golden rice differs “from its parental strain by the addition of three beta-carotene biosynthesis genes”—meaning that it is fortified with vitamin A to be grown in areas with shortages of that vitamin. It is clear that vitamin A deficiency is a real problem: it is estimated that 670,000 children under the age of five die each year due to the deficiency. And a 2012 study showed that the rice provided 68 children in China with more vitamin A than spinach and was as effective as vitamin A capsules.

However, anti-GMO activists worry that focusing on a narrow problem (like vitamin A) will lead to a loss of biodiversity in already impoverished areas and will hurt perhaps already struggling agriculture. In 2008, WHO malnutrition expert Francesco Branca said, “Giving out supplements, fortifying existing foods with vitamin A, and teaching people to grow carrots or certain leafy vegetables are, for now, more promising ways to fight the problem.” The rice, however, has great amounts of backing. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supports the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in developing Golden Rice and in June 2016, 107 Nobel laureates “signed a letter urging Greenpeace to abandon their campaigns against GMOs and against golden rice in particular.”

(Further research: There’s just so much more to know. I would like to know how exactly the genetic modifications occur and the difference between genetically engineered and genetically modified, etc.)


Wikipedia: GMOs

Golden Rice

Gates’ Foundation Golden Rice

GMO Answers

Tough Lessons From Golden Rice

History of GMOs

Organic Consumers

Washington Post: Are patents the problem?

Week 3. Counting your notes before they hatch

“I can keep perfect time. Some call me the Human Metronome. You notice how I’m always on time? I’m never late for things.”                                                                        — George Michael Bluth

Time signatures are something that I know how to use without really knowing how I’m using them, why I’m using them, or what they really mean. As I’m learning, their purpose is to indicate to a musician how to count each beat so that the music is played as it was written to be played and so that when multiple musicians play together they are on the same page, so to speak.

Time signatures are written like a fraction. The top number tells the musician how many beats to count in a measure. This number usually is between 2 and 12, but could be any number, really. The bottom number corresponds to what kind of note will be counted. A 2 in this spot indicates half notes will be counted, a 4 indicates quarter notes, an 8 indicates eighth notes, and so on. Theoretically any number can go in the denominator, but the most common are 4, 8, and 16.

To illustrate: In a 4/4 time signature all notes and rests must equal four quarter notes in each measure. The player knows there are four because the top number is four, and knows that they are quarter notes because the bottom number is four. This does not mean that each bar will contain solely four quarter notes (if that were the case music would be much easier to play and much less exciting to listen to). It means that any eighth notes or sixteenth notes or rests or half notes must all combine together to equal four quarter notes in each measure and that each beat is a quarter note in length.

Below is a short example of a ¾ time signature. Each beat in the song is the length of a quarter note and there are three beats in a measure. It is from Franz Lehár’s “The Merry Widow” (or, as they say in German, “Die lustige Witwe”).



Time signatures

Common music time signatures

Music theory for young students 

Week 2. The Root of the Matter (or, The Tooth about Root Canals)

Sometimes it feels like there is a tiny timpani playing inside your molar. Its constant beat is almost calming and it radiates a sort of warmth. The dental assistant says Oops, we have to do one more X-ray, open wide, and the dentist says, Looks like we’ll have to do a root canal, which isn’t a very big deal, don’t worry. Sorry, denticle drummer, we’re going to have to let you go.

A simple anatomy of a tooth

Commonly called a root canal, endodontic therapy is a type of treatment for the damaged insides of a tooth. Its name comes from the Greek, with the roots endo meaning “inside” and odont meaning “tooth.” The expedition inside the tooth is to remove infected pulp, which is in an area called the pulp chamber. Tooth pulp is vivacious. It is composed of living tissue, blood vessels, and cells with the name of a superhero: odontoblasts. The pulp’s primary function is to form dentin, which is the layer above the pulp chamber and helps protect the tooth. It is also nutritive (it keeps the surrounding mineralized tissue happy with nutrients and moisture) as well as sensory.

When the pulp becomes inflamed or infected it becomes sensitive (very—your tongue trains the coffee away from the tooth and you throw the rest of the Junior Mints in the trash) and it must be removed from its chamber. To do this, the well-paid endodontist creates an opening called an access cavity in the tooth’s crown and uses a root canal file to clean out nerve tissue, bacteria, toxins, and other debris. After the putrid pulp is removed from the chamber and root canals, a rubber compound called gutta-percha is inserted to seal the tooth.

Gutta-percha comes from a tree of the same name (Latin palaquium gutta). The natural latex produced from the sap of these trees has been used for sundry industrial and domestic purposes, most notably as insulation for underwater telegraph cables. It is a very flexible material, happy under the ocean or inside a tooth’s pulp chamber. Once the gutta-percha is placed to keep the tooth from being reinfected with bacteria, the access cavity is then filled with either a temporary or permanent crown (depending on how robust the patient’s insurance plan is) and the process is complete.

At the end, you’re out some dental pulp and about $1,000 but you’re the proud owner of a wad of gutta-percha and you can drink coffee without flinching.

A root canal illustrated

American Association of Endodontists

Wikipedia: Pulp (tooth)

Step by Step Root Canal

The Root Canal Procedure

Week 1. What the Eye Doctor Saw: A (Very) Brief History of the Beginnings of Esperanto

In the 1870s and 1880s the optimistic ophthalmologist Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof of Bialystok, Poland created Esperanto as a way of bridging cultural conflict. One of his main motivations was to reduce the struggle of cross-linguistic communication. He lamented the time and toil spent learning foreign tongues. Even with great effort, it is difficult, he writes, to “converse with other human beings in their own languages.” He rued the effort and money wasted in translation, which provides only a “tithe of foreign literature” to the reader. He declared that, in addition to the difficulty of learning a foreign language well, “there are but few persons who can even boast a complete mastery of their mother tongue.” Zamenhof found words and expressions borrowed from other languages as signs of linguistic poverty and bemoaned that we are “obliged […] to express our thoughts inexactly” using phrases from other tongues.

Zamenhof’s complaints did not lie solely with the problem of perceived inarticulateness. He saw unlike languages as barriers to solidarity. “Difference of speech,” he writes, “is a cause of antipathy, nay even of hatred, between people.” From his viewpoint, the “strange sound” of other languages keeps people aloof and distant and only serves to heighten cultural differences. Zemnhof, therefore, saw the use of an international auxiliary language (auxiliary being a key term—it was not his intention to replace first languages) as a way to global peace. He predicted that science and commerce, too, would receive a boon with the introduction of an international idiom.

Zamenhof’s visionary ideas never quite reached fruition. You probably don’t speak Esperanto. You probably don’t know someone who does. However, it is indeed an international language with a comparatively healthy speaker population. Navajo, the most-spoken Native American language in the U.S., has about 170,000 speakers; Esperanto has up to 2,000,000, with at least 1,000 native speakers. The constructed language so far hasn’t ended any wars, but it offers a sense of community, if not for the entire world, then at least for thousands and thousands of hopeful hobbyists.


Dr. Esperanto’s International Language, Introduction & Complete Grammar

Ethnologue: Esperanto

Ethnologue: Navajo