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July 22, 2010

New Domain: http://www.replicatedtypo.com . Please update your feeds as I’ll no longer be posting on this blog.

Some Links #11: Linguistic Diversity or Homogeneity?

July 21, 2010

Linguistic Diversity = Poverty. Razib Khan basically argues, correctly in my opinion, that linguistic homogeneity is good for economic development and general prosperity. From the perspective of a linguist, however, I do like the idea of really obscure linguistic communities, ready and waiting to be discovered and documented. On the flip side, it is selfish of me to want these small communities to remain in a bubble, free from the very same benefits I enjoy in belonging to a modern, post-industrialised society. Our goal, then, should probably be more focused on documenting, as opposed to saving, these languages. Razib has recently posted another, quite lengthy post on the topic: Knowledge is not value-free.

When did we first ‘Rock the Mic’? A meeting of my two favourite interests over at the New York Times: Linguistics and Hip Hop. Ben Zimmer writes:

In “Rapper’s Delight,” the M.C. Big Bank Hank raps, “I’m gonna rock the mic till you can’t resist,” using what was then a novel sense of rock, defined by the O.E.D. as “to handle effectively and impressively; to use or wield effectively, esp. with style or self-assurance.” To be sure, singers in the prerap era often used rock as a transitive verb, whether it was Bill Haley promising, “We’re gonna rock this joint tonight,” or the bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup more suggestively wailing, “Rock me, mama.” But the M.C.’s of early hip-hop took the verb in a new direction, transforming the microphone (abbreviated in rap circles as mic, not mike) into an emblem of stylish display. Later elaborations on the theme would allow clothes and other accessories to serve as the objects of rock, as when Kanye West boasted in a 2008 issue of Spin magazine, “I rock a bespoke suit and I go to Harold’s for fried chicken.”

It’d be nice to see more stuff on linguistics and hip hop, and, having said that, I might write a bit on the subject. In fact, I would go as far as to say that hip hop is part of reason why I fell into linguistics: the eloquent word play encouraged, and perhaps moulded, my fascination with language. To demonstrate why, here’s a track by Maryland rapper, Edan, who certainly knows how to rock the mic:

Edan — One Man Arsenal

Life without language. Neuroanthropology provides yet another great read. This time it’s on the topic of life without language — something that’s always crept into my thoughts, yet seems impossible to imagine (as I’m already so embedded within a language-using society). The post goes on to discuss Susan Schaller and the case of a profoundly deaf Mexican immigrant who did not learn sign language:

The man she would call, ‘Ildefonso,’ had figured out how to survive, in part by simply copying those around him, but he had no idea what language was. Schaller found that he observed people’s lips and mouth moving, unaware that they were making sound, unaware that there was sound, trying to figure out what was happening from the movements of the mouths. She felt that he was frustrated because he thought everyone else could figure things out from looking at each others’ moving mouths.

One problem for Schaller’s efforts was that Ildefonso’s survival strategy, imitation, actually got in the way of him learning how to sign because it short-circuited the possibility of conversation. As she puts, Ildefonso acted as if he had a kind of visual echolalia (we sometimes call it ‘echopraxia’), simply copying the actions he saw

One Man’s Take on the Facts of the Matter. Babel’s Dawn takes a look at Tecumseh Fitch’s book, The Evolution of Language, and concisely explains a clear departure between two camps in evolutionary linguistics:

One clear difference between the scenarios is in the role of the individual in relation to language. Language is somehow built into the brain in Chomsky’s thought-first scenario, while it is learned from others in the topics-first approach. Empiricists, like Morten Christiansen and Nicholas Chater, see language as ‘out there’ to be learned while nativists, like Fitch and Chomsky, say there is an internal, I-language, and the language out there is merely the sum of all those little I-languages. How to settle the dispute? Look for factual evidence.

Noam Chomsky: Inventor of Linguistics… Huh?

July 20, 2010

I just started reading Johann Hari’s latest article about Noam Chomsky, and I was welcomed to this interesting fact:

Noam Chomsky is one of the most hysterically abused figures in the world today. Even his critics have to concede that his work inventing the field of linguistics — and so beginning to decode the structure of how language is formed in the human brain — makes him one of the most important intellectuals alive.

I agree that Chomsky is an important intellectual figure, and his massive contributions to linguistics are well-documented, but he did not invent the field. Some might say reinvented… Although, I’m not sure how favourably history will view Chomsky’s shadow having loomed over linguistics for such a long time. My own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that he’s largely been a positive influence, even if I find myself disagreeing with a lot of his major ideas.

A history of evolution pt.1: Ancient Greece to Lamarck

July 19, 2010

The limitations of geological periods, imposed by physical science, cannot, of course, disprove the hypothesis of transmutation of species; but it does seem sufficient to disprove the doctrine that transmutation has taken place through ‘descent with modification by natural selection’. — Lord Kelvin (Of Geological Dynamics, 1869).

It might seem odd that I start a post about evolution with a quote claiming natural selection is inadequate to account for the transmutation of species. It is, though, highly relevant to what I’m going to discuss in the post, and strikes at the heart of why it’s fundamental for us to understand the theory of evolution by natural selection. See, in 1869, Lord Kelvin’s position was fairly reasonable, and, as you’d expect for a man of such high scientific standing, the available evidence in physics did seem to conflict with Darwin’s theory. The Sun was one particularly salient point of contention: to get the diversity of species we see on Earth, evolution needs a long time to work (on the order of hundreds of millions, if not billions of years), yet according to 19th-century physics the Sun could only have been burning for 40-million years.

Read more…

Some Links #10: Poo lady tweets shit

July 16, 2010

Gillian McKeith: You are what you tweet. If you thought the subject of my title was some five-year who just discovered various nouns for his excrement, then you’re not far off: Gillian McKeith is back, and like any bad-sequel she’s saying the same shit, just repackaged into an eerily similar set of events. What I particularly loved about this article is McKeith’s denial that she’s actually the McKeith in question. Confused? Head over and read the article. It’s short and fun.

A strong dose of regulation will keep the health food industry regular. Interesting article by Martin Robbins (of Lay Scientist) over at the Guardian. I’m not normally one for regulation: I think it’s often a backwards way of looking at an issue. And I’m definitely against our ridiculous zeal for legislation-only solutions. But I do think in the case of the health food industry regulation and legislation are fantastically effective. To bring it back to the post above: McKeith has literally made millions through the exploitation of a weakly controlled industry. Ultimately, though, I do think we need to also consider the other effective weapon against these erroneous claims: education. After all, those who know, know not to buy.

I Write Like… H.P. Lovecraft, apparently. It probably explains the lack of comments on my posts: people are scared shitless. It’s okay, I’m not a venomous wordsmith, just a former linguistics student searching for a new university to call home. See, not so scary now… Click the link if you fancy wasting a minute or so of your time.

The Price of Altruism. I always remember first learning about the Price equation at university, and the sad story of its progenitor, George Price, who committed suicide in 1975. Over a Gene Expression, Razib Khan has written a fantastic, in-depth review of Oren Harman’s book, The Price of Altruism. There are too many snippets of information to pick out for a summary, but here’s an ironically amusing section:

The “hawk” and “dove” morphs made famous by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene go back to Maynard Smith’s work, but the terms themselves were of Price’s invention according to Harman. If I read Harman’s chronology correctly Price was already a fervent Christian by this time, having left atheism in the same period as he launched his career as an evolutionary biologist, and there is some hint that the term “dove” may have been influenced by his particular religious leanings. This possibility seems all the more amusing in light of Dawkins’ later career as an atheist polemicist.

Matt Ridley: When Ideas Have Sex. Love him for his biology, or loathe him for his economics, you can’t help but nod in agreement with Matt Ridley’s TED talk. I think he over emphasizes this apparent trend of good times to come. He clearly hasn’t read Taleb’s Black Swan (and probably isn’t all too interested given his risk-taking strategies at Northern Rock). But his stuff on trade and cultural evolution is fairly rock solid from my perspective.

Words as alleles: A null-model for language evolution?

July 14, 2010

ResearchBlogging.orgFor me, recent computational accounts of language evolution provide a compelling rationale that cultural, as opposed to biological, evolution is fundamental in understanding the design features of language. The basis for this rests on the simple notion of language being not only a conveyor of cultural information, but also a socially learned and culturally transmitted system: that is, an individual’s linguistic knowledge is the result of observing the linguistic behaviour of others. Here, this well-attested process of language acquisition, often termed Iterated Learning, emphasises the effects of differential learnability on competing linguistic variants. Sounds, words and grammatical structures are therefore seen to be the products of selection and directed mutation. As you can see from the use of terms such as selection and mutation it’s clear we can draw many parallels between the literature on language evolution and analogous processes in biology. Indeed, Darwin himself noted such similarities in the Descent of Man. However, one aspect evolutionary linguists don’t seem to borrow is that of a null model. Is it possible that the changes we see in languages over time are just the products of processes analogous to genetic drift?

Read more…

Some Links #9: Sowing the Seed of doubt

July 12, 2010

This isn’t the first time Seed has sacrificed editorial independence. A worrying article about scienceblogs’ parent company, Seed, and how they restricted the publication of a column on the basis of it being critical of Dow Chemical — someone they were seeking an advertising contract with. As Gaia Vince points out in an email she received from Seed:

We’re not running the bhopal piece, and we’re passing on the Maldive shark ban (a bit late now… Too bad it got caught up in prod week… ). As for Bhopal, it’s a cautionary call on our part as we’re in the midst of advertising negotiations with Dow (who have been inspired by Seed’s photography in their own brand campaigns). RE: the payment, as you’re on a scheduled direct-payment, the bhopal fee covers the Kerry/Carbon trading news piece fee that was outstanding. Let me know if that’s clear.

It’s a great article that’s not only revealing about Seed, but the underlying motivations of the journalism industry in general. I never thought I’d find myself linking to Chomsky’s politics, yet, given the nature of this article, maybe it’s time I dug out my copy of Manufacturing Consent.

Scientific Certainty Argumentation Methods (SCAMs): Science and the politics of doubt. H/T: Ben Goldacre. A good paper looking at what happens when science and politics mix, and how the two have different expectations of what science is. Here’s the abstract:

At least since the time of Popper, scientists have understood that science provides falsification, but not “proof.” In the world of environmental and technological controversies, however, many observers continue to call precisely for “proof,” often under the guise of “scientific certainty.” Closer examination of real-world disputes suggests that such calls may reflect not just a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of science, but a clever and surprisingly effective political-economic tactic—”Scientific Certainty” Argumentation Methods, or SCAMs. Given that most scientific findings are inherently probabilistic and ambiguous, if agencies can be prevented from imposing any regulations until they are unambiguously “justified,” most regulations can be defeated or postponed, often for decades, allowing profitable but potentially risky activities to continue unabated. An exploratory examination of previously documented controversies suggests that SCAMs are more widespread than has been recognized in the past, and that they deserve greater attention in the future.

The secret history of X and Z. An excellent article from Ed Yong on Chromosome evolution in humans and birds. Key paragraph:

Why the similarities? It’s possible that both X and Z evolved from autosomes with features that made them more likely to become sex chromosomes. Perhaps, for example, their genes were already sparsely distributed. But Bellott ruled out this idea. He compared X to its closest counterpart in chicken, and Z to its equivalents in humans – none of these relatives had any structural features that made them stand out among other autosomes. There’s nothing that singles them out as ideal candidates for the role of sex chromosome.

You are not authorized to see these pictures of the oil spill, citizen… Do not look. Washington’s Blog has some fairly harrowing photos of the recent gulf oil spill and the damage it’s doing to wildlife. Here’s one example:

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