Archive for February 2018

New Orleans

The first time I visited New Orleans, I didn’t know anything about the city except that it was legendary for its Mardi Gras celebrations. But the more I learned about New Orleans, the more I came to love it. The history of the city is immensely colorful and complex. New Orleans has some of the most distinctive cuisine in the United States, a well-earned reputation as a center of music and culture, and a vibrant nightlife. But what I find most interesting about the city is its rich collection of legends and myths. The best way to learn about them is to take one of numerous walking tours of the French Quarter.

The Spanish French Quarter
The French Quarter—the focal point of the city for most tourists—is a well-defined area about 13 blocks by 7 blocks, bordered by the Mississippi River on the south. This was the original city of New Orleans, established by French settlers in 1718 and controlled by France until 1762, when it was given to Spain. The city remained under Spanish rule until the early 1800s, when it was secretly returned to France, only to be immediately turned over to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase. The French Quarter is so named because for many years it was the district in which the majority of the French-speaking population lived. However, much of the original city was destroyed by massive fires in 1788 and 1794. Since Spain was in control during that time, the new buildings for the most part reflected Spanish architecture, and that is what survives today as the French Quarter. Most buildings are only three or four stories high. Wrought-iron balconies extend over sidewalks in the business district, and louvered shutters cover most windows and doors. The French Quarter has the feeling of being very old—for a North American city—largely because of strict construction rules designed to protect the historical character of the buildings.

But it’s not just the old buildings that give the French Quarter its unique vibe. The traffic usually consists more of pedestrians and horses than cars. Every other door seems to lead to a restaurant or bar, and people walking down the street without a beer or margarita in their hands seem out of place. You never have to walk more than a few blocks to find a voodoo shop, antique store, or “gentlemen’s” club.

As I was wandering around the French Quarter during my first visit to New Orleans, I kept seeing signs and brochures for walking tours—particularly “ghost” tours. I thought a tour might be a good way to get to know a bit about the city, and I was curious about the whole ghost angle. So I showed up at the designated location one evening, paid my US$15, and set out with a guide and about a dozen other tourists to see what mysteries we could uncover.

We visited a number of historical sites and heard about the many groups of people who shaped the city’s culture: the French and Spanish, Cajuns, Creoles, and free people of color. But New Orleans has also been a hangout for pirates, slave traders, and rogues of all stripes. As a result, a great many gruesome murders have taken place in the city, not to mention infamous suicides, executions, and deaths caused by the great fires. So it’s little surprise that many of the buildings in the French Quarter are said to be haunted.

Spirits and Spooks
The typical tour guide spiel includes a heavily embellished history of a building’s former owner, the events leading up to the significant deaths, and anecdotes about recent sightings of ghosts, mysterious sounds, or curses that have supposedly kept buildings uninhabited for decades. The stories are all entertaining, even though it’s sometimes difficult to tell at what point the history becomes myth. But not all the tales are apocryphal, and some are really quite chilling. At one point, our tour guide stopped us and said, “Notice that blood-red house across the street. This building was once home to one of the most notorious characters in New Orleans history: Richard Simmons.”

Plenty of companies offer walking tours of the French Quarter, each with its own twist. Some are highly theatrical, with tour guides dressed as pirates or vampires; others offer a more conservative approach that emphasizes historical accuracy. There are ghost tours, vampire tours, witchcraft and voodoo tours, cemetery tours, and so on. There are also walking tours of the city’s Garden District across town, where the main attractions are lavish houses and beautiful landscaping. I’ve taken perhaps half a dozen different walking tours in New Orleans. Some were better than others, and there were certainly instances of overlap and contradiction. But judging by the number of interesting things encountered per hour (or per dollar), walking tours are the perfect way to combine education and entertainment as you explore New Orleans. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about New Orleans Walking Tours…

Among the better-known operators of walking tours in New Orleans are Haunted History Tours, New Orleans Spirit Tours, and New Orleans Ghosts Tours. But there are many others; consult a travel guide or the brochure rack of any New Orleans hotel for more suggestions.

You can find a good basic history of New Orleans at NewOrleansOnline.

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Paris Sewers

Ah, Paris. It’s one of my very favorite places, not least because its ITSKI (Interesting Things per Square Kilometer Index) is off the scale. There are, of course, the very touristy sights like the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and Notre Dame, as well as thousands of cafés, shops, and bakeries that tantalize and inspire. There are also a great many lesser-known places of historical interest, including one where I spent an afternoon on each of my past two visits to the city: the sewer system. OK, the aroma wasn’t quite as pleasing as that of a fresh baguette, but the Paris sewer system—part of which has been turned into a museum that’s open to the public—is vast, intricate, and surprising in many ways. You may think of a sewer as nothing more than a conduit for waste, but in Paris, there’s more to the sewers than meets the nose.

The tunnels that make up the Paris sewer system are mostly very large—almost the size of a subway tunnel. In most cases a central channel, wide enough and deep enough for a boat, carries waste and runoff water; on both sides are broad, paved walkways with enough headroom for most people to walk comfortably. Overhead are pipes that supply the city’s fresh water, telecommunications cables, and pneumatic tubes, among other things. But it’s the length and complexity of the tunnels that make them so intriguing: they almost exactly follow the layout of the streets above—in fact, every corner within the sewers has a street sign on it that mirrors the one on the surface. Where a wide boulevard runs on the surface, a wide sewer tunnel (or two) runs beneath; smaller streets have smaller sewers, and even side streets and alleys are duplicated underground. In all, there are about 1,300 miles (2,100km) of sewer tunnels underneath Paris.

Wasting Away
Up through the Middle Ages, Paris had a very rudimentary water-supply-and-waste-disposal system: the Seine River. Water was drawn from the river and waste deposited there, but the population of the city was still small enough that the river could purify the waste biologically. However, waste on its way to the river was a problem even then—it flowed through open sewers and gutters on nearly every street. The odor became, in many places, unbearable—but there was a worse problem: disease. The unsanitary conditions in the city were indirectly responsible for the plague, which wiped out a huge percentage of the population in 1348–1349.

Precursors of the current sewage system date back as far as 1200, when the streets were first paved; a drainage channel down the middle reduced pedestrians’ exposure to wastes. In 1370, Hugues Aubriot built a 300-meter stone-walled sewer under rue Montmartre, and in the late 1600s Louis XIV undertook additional sewer construction in certain areas. In the early 1800s, Napoleon ordered the construction of a network of sewer tunnels totaling 19 miles (30km.) But as the population of the city continued to swell, the primitive sewage systems could not keep up with it, and the Seine—still used for both intake and disposal—became absurdly polluted. A major outbreak of cholera in 1832 finally galvanized the city to find and implement a lasting solution to the problem.

Flush with Pride
In 1850 an engineer named Eugène Belgrand was hired to design a complete system for water supply and waste removal. The result was the current design, which by 1878 had reached a length of 373 miles (600km). In 1894, a law was enacted that required all waste to be sent to the sewers; the local saying at the time was that the city was completing its long transition from “tout à la rue” (all in the street) to “tout à l’égout” (all in the sewer). The sewer system was hailed as a technological marvel, a brilliant achievement that helped to usher Paris into the modern age.

Paris sewers have been a tourist attraction since 1867, when the first public tours were offered. From 1892 to 1920, visitors rode through the sewers in a locomotive-drawn wagon. In 1920 the wagon was replaced with a boat, which floated tourists along until 1975. Today’s sewer tour consists of a very small portion of the sewers which has been turned into a museum. In order to read all the signs describing the timeline of sewer construction, visitors have to stand on a metal grating over an active sewer channel; this arrangement serves to keep traffic moving at a lively pace. Exhibits also show the machinery and techniques used to dredge the sand and solid waste from the channels and the computerized monitoring system, and of course restrooms are conveniently provided at the end so visitors can try out the system personally.

The Stuff of Legend
Apart from their relatively mundane primary function, the sewers of Paris have provided fertile material for a number of writers over the years. Victor Hugo spent about 50 pages of Les Misérables describing the sewers based on information he received from his friend Emmanuel Bruneseau. Bruneseau was the sewer inspector Napoleon commissioned to explore the tunnels and create an exhaustive map of the sewers as they existed in the early 1800s—until that time, the sewers had been assembled bit by bit, without a plan or written record, and were widely regarded as a mysterious and dangerous maze. Indeed, Bruneseau found a number of interesting artifacts during his explorations, ranging from lost jewels to the skeleton of an orangutan that had escaped from a zoo several years previously. Thus Hugo’s description of Jean Valjean’s adventures in the sewers, through which he carried Marius after he had been wounded, was based on factual information and is still considered historically significant. The sewers also play a role in Phantom of the Opera and in Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum.

Along with the sewers, Paris has a great many other underground passages, including an immense subway system, catacombs, and the crypts near Notre Dame. Although ordinary citizens do not normally have access to the sewers and most of the other tunnels, it is hard not to believe that they are used for, shall we say, secondary purposes from time to time. Imagining great escapes, secret meetings, and the occasional vampire makes a visit to the Paris sewers all the more fascinating. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Paris Sewers…

The (more or less) official Web site of the Paris Sewer Museum lists hours and locations but not much else. In a nutshell: take the Metro to the Alma-Marceau stop, cross the bridge, and look for the large blue sign on your left. You purchase your ticket at a small kiosk and walk down the adjacent stairs into the museum.

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For a detailed look at the sewers, check out Paris Sewers and Sewermen: Realities and Representations by Donald Reid. A shorter account, and with a different slant, is Matthew Gandy’s The Paris sewers and the rationalization of urban space (PDF). I also found Frederique Krupa’s Web site Paris: Urban Sanitation Before the 20th Century quite interesting and useful.

The entire text of Les Miserables is available online; for the bits on the sewer, see Volume V: Book Second—The Intestine of the Leviathan, which contains the long description of the sewers, including a detailed recounting of Bruneseau’s discoveries; Volume V: Book Third—Mud But The Soul actually contains the scene where Jean Valjean rescues Marius using the sewers.

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Umberto Eco’s 1988 novel Foucault’s Pendulum is one of my favorite books of all time. Among the other Paris landmarks mentioned in the book is the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers, home of the eponymous Foucault’s Pendulum.

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by Morgen Jahnke

Remains of the Sutro Baths

At the intersection of the Boulevard St. Michel and the Boulevard St. Germain, in the heart of Paris’s Latin Quarter, a ruin of brick and stone walls, vaguely recognizable as rooms or chambers, is being unearthed. This spot was once the site of Roman public baths, a place of leisure for local residents in the first to third century A.D. These baths were destroyed in the third century, and the property was later bought in 1330 by the Abbot of Cluny, who built a new structure alongside the ruins. During the French Revolution, the property passed out of the church’s hands, and had various owners (one of whom covered the bath ruins in six feet of soil) before being bought by Alexandre du Sommerard, a collector of medieval antiquities. Today, both of these sites are part of the Musée National du Moyen Age, a museum dedicated to the arts and history of the Middle Ages.

Besides the relative novelty of visiting ancient (and surprisingly intact) Roman ruins below the streets of a 21st-century city, the baths give a fascinating insight into Roman culture. These baths consisted of a series of pools: the tepidarium (lukewarm), caldarium (hot), and frigidarium (cold). Guests normally moved from the lukewarm pool to the hot pool, then to the cold before retiring to rooms designed for socializing with other guests. Roman baths of this type were open to everyone, and were an important part of life in ancient Roman towns.

Water, Water Everywhere
Almost two thousand years later, in 1896, San Francisco entrepreneur and mayor Adolph Sutro opened his own public baths, albeit on a much grander scale. At the time, Sutro owned almost 1/12 of the land in San Francisco, and he decided to build his baths on part of that property, near his own home on Sutro Heights. Built to house 25,000 bathers, the three-acre complex included three restaurants, an amphitheater, an outdoor tide pool, and five saltwater pools of various temperatures—a design similar to the Roman baths. These pools were filled and emptied by the movement of the tide, the sea water moving into and out of the pools through a large tunnel.

Sutro conceived of the baths as a benefit to the public, much as the Roman baths were intended for everyone. In fact, when he learned that train operators were charging seaside visitors two fares to reach the baths, he built his own rail line to bring people there for the price of one 5-cent fare. This was in keeping with Sutro’s general concern for the public welfare; in 1869 he successfully agitated for the construction of a tunnel linking various Comstock Lode mines in Nevada to ensure better working conditions for miners (although he did also benefit financially from the completion of the project).

Road to Ruins
After its heyday in the first half of the 20th century, the baths fell into disuse, and in fact were in the process of being demolished when a fire gutted the property in the 1960s. This left a sprawling mess of concrete foundations and melted metal. By the time I first visited the site, in the 1990s, it looked incredibly aged, its former bathing pools choked with algae, and its metal pilings eaten away by the tide. But despite this decay, or maybe because of it, the scene was incredibly picturesque, with a gorgeous view opening out onto the ocean, and white calla lilies dotting the upper slopes of the property. At the time I didn’t know the history of the place, but was fascinated by its glorious state of decay.

After visiting the Cluny baths in Paris, I immediately thought of the Sutro ruins, and was surprised to realize that the Sutro Baths appealed to me on the same level as the Roman baths, despite having been built almost two thousand years later. There is something mysterious and melancholy about any place that has outlived its use, and a modern visitor is similarly drawn to imagine what it once was like, whether it has been abandoned for a hundred or a thousand years. On the one hand, this shows the limits of human memory, that anything that occurs before our lifetimes seems foreign and unknowable, but on the other, it highlights our own sense of mortality, and the hope that our works will be remembered and wondered over when we are gone. —Morgen Jahnke

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More Information about Sutro Baths…

For photos of the ruins of the Sutro Baths, see

For more information about the history of Sutro Baths, see the Golden Gate National Recreation Area site, In Search of Adolph Sutro in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, or this article on The San Francisco Insider.

The Cluny Museum in Paris has its own Web site.

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An earlier article here covered 3-D printers, which use modified inkjet technology to create solid objects with extremely complex shapes. The printers use a variety of techniques to solidify arbitrary areas on the surface of a powdered substrate, which supports the object as it is built up layer by layer. Designers commonly use 3-D printers for prototyping things like consumer electronic products, ensuring that they will be manufacturable before expensive metal molds are created to enable mass production. I ran into an old acquaintance the day that article ran who had never heard of Interesting Thing of the Day, so I told him about the site. He asked me what that day’s topic was, and I happily described the 3-D printers. He said, “Oh yeah, I know about those. Did you know they’re also using them to ‘print’ human tissue?” Um…no, I had no idea. It turns out that the humble inkjet printer has quite a few tricks up its sleeve—including, incredibly, the capability of manufacturing living skin and other organs.

Cell Mates
Growing individual human cells is not especially difficult. Take a sample of healthy cells, provide them with the right nutrients and environment, and they will grow and multiply. When multiple tissue cells are placed in close proximity to each other, they have a tendency to fuse together. Because of this phenomenon, hospitals can “grow” new skin to be used as grafts for burn patients using the patient’s own skin cells. However, this technique does have significant limitations. In particular, the skin cannot be made very thick because there’s no way to get blood to deeper cells—the process grows a homogeneous sheet of skin without the essential network of blood vessels, not to mention pores and other minute structures.

But creating intricate solid structures layer by layer is easy for a 3-D printer. So researchers have adapted old inkjet printers to hold a suspension of human cells in one reservoir and a gel-like substrate in another. Each pass of the print head lays down a pattern of cells held in place by the gel; when the next layer is applied, the adjacent cells begin to fuse to the layer beneath. If, for example, each layer contains a circle of cells in the same location, the result will be a tube—in other words, a structure very much like a blood vessel. A printer could in fact hold different kinds of cells in an array of ink reservoirs (like those used by color printers), theoretically enabling the creation of entire organs.

It’s All Beginning to Gel
The gel that functions as the substrate for this type of tissue printing is itself quite interesting. As with the powdered material used in rapid prototyping, the gel must be removed after the rest of the structure has solidified. Called thermo-reversible gel, it has the unusual property of being solid above 32°C and turning into a liquid when cooled below 20°C. So after the cells have fused, the tissue is cooled and the liquefied gel simply drains away.

Although the most obvious application for such a technology is producing skin grafts that are more robust than what’s currently possible, one day much thicker organs could be printed—making the inkjet printer a veritable tool for manufacturing replacement human parts. But although early laboratory experiments have yielded impressive results, researchers caution that the technology is in its infancy—likely a decade or more away from even initial trials with real patients. One of the hurdles to be overcome is that cells take time to fuse together into tissue, but can only survive for a short period of time without nutrients and oxygen. So the thicker a printed organ is, the more difficult it will be to keep it alive and healthy until the gel can be removed and it can begin getting nourishment from blood (or a reasonable facsimile thereof). Furthermore, remember that the printers don’t actually create the cells; they only arrange them. All the cells must have been grown in advance, a process that can take weeks (and that cannot be done equally well with all types of cells). So don’t expect to show up at the emergency room and get a new pancreas printed while you wait. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Printing Skin Tissue…

For more information on organ printing, see:

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When I was studying linguistics in graduate school, the question people asked me most often was, “So how many languages can you speak?” I’d roll my eyes and say, “One, almost.” I’d then try to explain that I usually get by pretty well in English, that I can order food in a French restaurant without embarrassing myself, and that I’ve picked up a smattering of phrases in half a dozen other languages—but that’s pretty much it (unless you want to count computer languages or ancient Greek and Hebrew, of which I know just enough to mistranslate an inscription here and there). Linguists, I would say, are not necessarily polyglots; the study of linguistics is not about learning a bunch of languages but rather about understanding the nature of language generally: how the brain creates and interprets it, how children learn it, how it functions in society, how to model it computationally, that sort of thing. (At this point listeners would generally nod, try valiantly to suppress a yawn, and change the subject.)

In the course of my studies, I came across a fringe linguistic theory that is, even by the most generous standards, far from being generally accepted, or even respected. The theory is known as tagmemics; its inventor and primary proponent, the late Dr. Kenneth L. Pike, was on my thesis committee. So I got to spend some quality time getting to know the man and his theory—which, though I argued forcefully against its shortcomings, is nevertheless quite interesting. It’s the one linguistic theory that ordinary, nonacademic human beings have a reasonable chance of comprehending without months of study.

Understanding How Language Works
What’s a linguistic theory, anyway, and why do we need one? Linguists studying the way language works can observe what people say or write, but they can’t tell what’s going on in someone’s mind. To oversimplify greatly, that’s what a linguistic theory tries to figure out—the mental processing behind language. The reason for doing this varies from one linguist to the next: some are searching for the origins of a particular language or evidence that language is basically hard-wired in the brain; others want to find easier ways to learn or teach languages, or improve computer speech recognition. But whatever the motivation, a linguistic theory—a model that describes how language is put together and predicts how new words and sentences will be formed—is an essential starting point.

In the 1930s, Pike began studying phonology—the rules that govern how sounds are combined into words. Some sounds are regarded as the same by native speakers of a given language, even though they are objectively, or phonetically, different. Linguists use the term phoneme to describe a sound that speakers intuitively regard as being unique and meaningful in a language: thus two sounds may be phonetically different but phonemically the same. For example, in English there’s a sound we call “schwa”—a sort of neutral vowel sound that substitutes for other vowel sounds when it’s in an unstressed syllable. We don’t need to use the schwa symbol when spelling words that include it; we know intuitively and automatically when another sound—like “a,” “e,” or “u”—should be shortened into a schwa. So because it is simply a variant that occurs in very well-defined situations, schwa would not be a phoneme in English. On the other hand, there’s no rule that could predict when “k” would be used versus “d,” so both the “k” sound and the “d” sound must be phonemes in English. Finding the phonemes—the meaningful units of sounds in a language—is a basic part of the analysis of any language.

Etic and Emic
What Pike wondered was whether there might be something analogous to the phoneme in grammar—that is, at the level of words. To take a fairly trivial example, consider a pair of synonyms, such as “aid” and “assist.” Pike would say that even though these two terms are objectively different, the fact that they can be used and understood in the same way in a given context makes them equivalent at the level of grammar. He used the terms “etic” (as in phonetic) and “emic” (as in phonemic) to describe objective and subjective units of meaning, respectively. Thus, in this example, “aid” and “assist” are etically different but emically the same. Pike originally called the minimal grammatical unit of (emic) meaning a grameme but later changed the term to tagmeme, which he felt was more generic.

A tagmeme is basically a composite of form and meaning, a “unit-in-context.” Where many other linguists only wanted to study the objective form of language (that is, its “etic” aspect), Pike felt that the interesting thing was how language actually functions for users in real life—its “emic” aspect. So the tagmeme, as Pike’s fundamental unit of language, is described in terms of four features (or “cells”)—slot (where the unit can appear), class (what type of unit it is), role (how the unit functions), and cohesion (how the unit relates to other units). Pike found that the very same structures that appeared on lower levels also appeared on higher levels—as sounds formed words, words formed sentences, and sentences formed discourse, Pike used tagmemes to describe these larger and larger units. And he begin to think: if the etic/emic distinction applies to all levels of language, perhaps it was an even more basic, more general principle that could explain a great many other things too.

Beyond Grammar
In his monumental (and very, very heavy) book Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of the Structure of Human Behavior, Pike claimed that the same kinds of structures, rules, and procedures found in phonology apply not only to grammar and discourse, but in fact to all of human behavior. He analyzed events such as football games and church services using his tagmemic system, with the rather lofty goal of proving that all human behavior is basically linguistic.

Of course, the fact that a football game and a sentence can be described using the same methodology and structures, while very interesting, doesn’t really prove that a football game is linguistic. And most linguists seemed to feel that as a descriptive model, tagmemics was not as rigorous or objective as other models, so it didn’t lend itself well to serious scientific inquiry. But from Pike’s point of view, looking at language as an objective formal system was missing the point; behavior that is fundamentally subjective can only be understood and described meaningfully if the observer allows context to play a role at every level.

The Wide World of Tagmemics
Another of Pike’s main claims was that language is deeply hierarchical, in several simultaneous ways. Sounds and intonation form a phonological hierarchy; words and sentences form a grammatical hierarchy; and meanings—whatever a speaker is talking about—form a referential hierarchy. All three hierarchies interlock and operate at the same time, and of course, what could be said of the hierarchy of language could also be said of the hierarchy of all behavior. As the theory developed over the course of several decades, Pike expanded it even further to include insights from other fields. From quantum physics, for example, Pike borrowed the notion that any event can be seen from the perspective of particle (a static view of a unit), wave (a dynamic view), or field (a unit in relation to other units).

Pike applied tagmemics to rhetoric, poetry, science fiction, and philosophy, among other fields. Others have taken it further—I’ve even seen a document using tagmemics as a model for learning the programming language Perl. While it never did (and never will) meet the day-to-day needs of most linguists, tagmemics has managed to maintain a small but loyal following among researchers in a wide variety of disciplines. The key insights of tagmemics—that context is essential, behavior involves overlapping hierarchies, and viewpoint affects one’s analysis of data—turn out to be surprisingly effective for understanding many kinds of phenomena. This obscure linguistic theory is in fact a pretty good way of thinking about what it means to be human. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Tagmemics…

For a good basic introduction to tagmemics, have a look at either Linguistic Concepts: An Introduction to Tagmemics (1982) or Text and Tagmeme (1983; coauthored by Pike’s wife Evelyn). Both books are out of print but can frequently be found used.

A Web site that attempts to describe tagmemics as applied to discourse is here, but it reads sort of like lecture notes—i.e., something you’d probably understand better if someone were explaining it in person. Programmer Allison Randal created this PDF File to go along with her lecture on the application of tagmemics to Perl at a software conference. If you’re really interested, you can watch a video of the lecture.

Ken Pike died in 2000; the Summer Institute of Linguistics has a Web site dedicated to his life and work.

My master’s thesis in linguistics (University of Texas at Arlington, 1991) dealt with the contextual aspects of meaning but suggested that tagmemics would be much more useful if it substituted a phenomenological analysis for simple subjectivity. With a nod to Pike, I titled it Meaning in Relation to the Phenomenological Observer. It is not available in digital format, I’m afraid, but if you’re a glutton for punishment you can order a hard copy from UMI Dissertation Express for US$34 plus tax. (Enter “1344945” as the order number to locate it quickly.)

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