Benjamin Lee Whorf Resurrected?

In 1956, Benjamin Lee Whorf published Language, Thought, and Reality, which he concluded with the following.

“Actually, thinking is most mysterious, and by far the greatest light upon it that we have is shown by the study of language. This study shows that the forms of a person’s thought are controlled by inexorable laws of pattern of which he is conscious. These patterns are unperceived intricate systematizations of his own language–shown readily enough by a candid comparison and contrast with other languages, especially those of a different linguistic family. His thinking itself is in another language–in English, in Sanskrit, in Chinese.”

A year later, Noam Chomsky published Syntactic Structures and launched the Chomskyan revolution in linguistics and, well, a bunch of fields, effectively destroying claims such as Whorf’s and inaugurating one of the most successful research projects in modern science.

But now comes this.

“[A]re there concepts in one culture that people of another culture simply cannot understand because their language has no words for it?

No one has ever definitively answered that question, but new findings by Dr. Peter Gordon, a bio-behavioral scientist at Teachers College, Columbia University, strongly support a “yes” answer. [Details of the study will appear in the Thursday, August 19, issue of the journal Science.] Gordon has spent the past several years studying the Pirahã, an isolated Amazon tribe of fewer than 200 people, whose language contains no words for numbers beyond “one,” “two” and “many.” Even the Piraha word for “one” appears to refer to “roughly one” or a small quantity, as opposed to the exact connotation of singleness in other languages.

What these experiments show, according to Gordon, is how having the right linguistic resources can carve out one’s reality. ‘Whorf says that language divides the world into different categories,’ Gordon said. ‘Whether one language chooses to distinguish one thing versus another affects how an individual perceives reality.’

When given numerical tasks by Gordon in which they were asked to match small sets of objects in varying configurations, adult members of the tribe responded accurately with up to two or three items, but their performance declined when challenged with eight to 10 items, and dropped to zero with larger sets of objects. The only exception to this performance was with tasks involving unevenly spaced objects. Here, the performance of participants deteriorated as the number of items increased to 6 items. Yet for sets of 7 to 10 objects, performance was near perfect. Though these tasks were designed to be more difficult, Gordon hypothesizes that the uneven spacing allowed subjects to perceive the items as smaller ‘chunks’ of 2 or 3 items that they could then match to corresponding groups.

According to the study, performance by the Piraha was poor for set sizes above 2 or 3, but it was not random. . .” (read on)

images of others

Amidst the twaddle and bilge written about modern “media culture” (e.g., bad academese, exhibit one , and bad academese, exhibit two ) some serious and insightful commentary on the role of images in everyday life still somehow manages to get written. One of the many morals of the past century must surely be that “we” have a weird fascination not only for images of celebrities and of the “lifestyles” of the insanely wealthy, but also for photographs of “Others” – preferably when they are compromised, suffering, in pain, and /or dying. However disturbing, this fascination is nothing new (e.g., Goya’s “Disasters of War” ).

The photographs taken at the Abu Ghraib prison, the internet broadcast of beheadings, and the lynching of American soldiers have collectively posed some truly basic but interesting and knotty questions: should pictures of the dead and dying be published? Should we even be looking at these kinds of images (and if so, to what end? and if not, what is lost? – is it better to see these kinds of military engagements from afar, as cinematic fireworks raining down on some far away city, or to see the casualties see up close, made to face the mutilated bodies of the dead…)? and finally, the big question: why are we so drawn to such things, anyway? Luc Sante wrote one of the most compelling essays on the Abu Ghraib scandal, which can be found here . The indispensible thoughts of Susan Sontag on “regarding the pain of others” can be found here. If you want to read an intelligent critique/commentary on Sontag’s book, (it’s an email conversation b/w Luc Sante and novelist Jim Lewis), you can find it here . Rightly or wrongly, no iconic images seem to have emerged from 9/11 (unlike the Abu Ghraib scandal, which produced at least one remarkably iconic image, the one you no doubt know, which can be found here . Art critic Abigail Solomon-Godeau has written a brilliant essay on one image that might fit the bill. That weirdly beautiful image is a photograph of the falling body of a man positioned precisely between the two towers, plunging Icarus-like to the pavement far below. Although this photograph was initially reprinted widely (the NY Times, for example, published it), it was quickly taken out of circulation, and has rarely been seen since. You can find that photograph, along with an essay by the photographer, here . There clearly IS something unsettling about finding images of catastrophe and suffering somehow beautiful (although one wonders about how an image like this will be viewed in the future…we seem to require an icon to suggest national trauma: one thinks of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother). Anyhoo, all discussions about what images mean tend to hinge upon (economic, social, aesthetic, or historical context); if you want to indulge in the rare pleasure of viewing photographs some guy found and put up on the internet (i.e., photographs with no context whatsoever), you can find some great ones here .

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Intuiting Determinism

One of the reasons that some philosophers and, indeed, common sense itself, finds it difficult to accept Dennett’s naturalism, though it is clearly correct, is that Dennett’s naturalism is anti-intuitive. We feel as if our experience of the world and all its chance, will, and complexity cannot jibe with any version of determinism. Of course, it turns out that determinism and meaning, freedom, chance, etc., are fully compatible. But, dammit, it still seems like the aren’t anyway. An interesting place to try and re-train your intuition is a website Dennett mentions in Freedom Evolves. There you can play the game Life, where a simple arrangement of ‘cells’, given simple rules and made to be ‘live’ or ‘dead’, generate something very complicated and autonomous out of something that isn’t. Try playing it. You’ll wonder why you ever thought that that ghost was running stuff in your head in the first place. We are mechanisms friends, but very cool ones, and it is going to be OK.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Is Craigslist a Google 2.0?

“My found-through-Craigslist inventory runs deep. My last two apartments. My dining room table. My living room couches. My futon. Red Sox tickets. Freelance writing assignments. I sold my car through the service. Do you Craigslist? OK, it doesn’t quite have the ring of the now-classic ‘Do you Yahoo?’ pitch line, but tech investors would do well to keep their eyes on, the San Francisco-based international swap meet. Craigslist began as a daily e-mail sent out by founder Craig Newmark in 1995 and is now a motley collection of want ads and personals, with a little space left over for rants. Most of those ads are free, so the site has never seemed to have much of a business model.” Article here from Business 2.0.

Economics and Islam

“In a new book, ‘Islam and Mammon: The Economic Predicaments of Islamism’ (Princeton University Press), Timur Kuran, professor of economics and law and the King Faisal professor of Islamic thought and culture at the University of Southern California, looks at the cluster of ideas known as Islamic economics. This concept, he notes, is a 20th-century one, developed in India before independence, when many Muslims worried that they would become an oppressed minority in a Hindu-ruled state. Some feared that Muslims might be so marginalized that they would lose their identity.” Interesting article from the New York Times, via Arts and Letters Daily.

Numbering Nature

“I’ve always loved math, and as a child I especially loved word problems about everyday things. The idea that the real world can be described mathematically was, to me, simply wonderful. Today I get the same enjoyment from mathematical descriptions of nature, which are just more complicated versions of the word problems I adored in my youth. A truly breathtaking range of such problems can be found in John A. Adam’s Mathematics in Nature, which tackles quite a broad assortment of nature’s patterns, going beyond the typical ones with which we might all be familiar. Most, however, are within nearly everyone’s realm of experience. For example, the book’s 24 color plates present fascinating cloud patterns, a double rainbow, sand dunes, ocean waves, plant and floral forms, patterns on animals and cracks in asphalt. Adam builds the reader’s mathematical intuition as he discusses these phenomena.”

More of Will Wilson’s review of Mathematics in Nature: Modeling Patterns in the Natural World by John A. Adam here, in American Scientist Online.

Alternating Currents – Abramovic and Tesla

“Marina Abramovic’s Count On Us – a work replete with spooky, haunted house imagery of skeletons, blackness, and the United Nations – is straight-up Abramovic. A dark, multi-paneled room at the 2004 Whitney Biennial displays a series of unnerving and sardonic videos that evoke the kind of weird chuckle one discharges when simultaneously being in on a joke and made fun of. On one wall, an unenthusiastic and black-clad children’s choir sings the praises of United Nations aid (directed with gusto by the artist in a skeleton costume). The choir sounds more like a mechanical hum than anything else. Another wall shows a close-up of a young girl and boy gazing upwards with stolid pride, or perhaps longing. And there is a human Soviet star comprised of (yep) children, in black, as the artist (still in her skeleton get-up) stands in the mush-pot. What is going on here?”

More in this short essay by Stefany Anne Golberg in The Old Town Review.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Richard Rorty on the use of Deconstruction in the arts

“One issue that is raised by Peter Eisenman’s writings, and especially by his exchanges with Jacques Derrida, is that of the relation of philosophy to the rest of culture. I am more suspicious of attempts to use philosophical ideas outside of philosophy than Eisenman is. In particular, I am not sure that the criticism of what Derrida has called “the metaphysics of presence” has much relevance to the work of architects, painters and poets. The first paper I ever wrote on Derrida’s work and influence was read to an audience of literary theorists and was called “Now that we have deconstructed metaphysics, do we have to deconstruct literature too?” That title expressed my skepticism about the attempt to turn what seemed to me a specifically philosophical movement, a commentary on specifically philosophical texts, into something larger and more pervasive. As I see it, the attempt to make philosophy useful to the arts is OK if philosophy is used as a source of inspiration but dubious if it is used as a source of instruction.”

This is from remarks delivered by Rorty at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in October, 2000. And here is an interview with Rorty conducted by Joshua Knobe.

The Bright Stuff

“The time has come for us brights to come out of the closet. What is a bright? A bright is a person with a naturalist as opposed to a supernaturalist world view. We brights don’t believe in ghosts or elves or the Easter Bunny — or God. We disagree about many things, and hold a variety of views about morality, politics and the meaning of life, but we share a disbelief in black magic — and life after death. The term ‘bright’ is a recent coinage by two brights in Sacramento, Calif., who thought our social group — which has a history stretching back to the Enlightenment, if not before — could stand an image-buffing and that a fresh name might help. Don’t confuse the noun with the adjective: ‘I’m a bright’ is not a boast but a proud avowal of an inquisitive world view.”

Interesting article about the social standing of atheists by Daniel Dennett for the New York Times.

Short History of Cellular Telephony

“Scientists at AT&T’s Bell Labs first came up with the cellular concept in 1947—back when black-and-white TV was considered a hot technology. The researchers realized that a radio signal could be reused and handed off between service areas, or ‘cells.’ But scientists were way ahead of their time—or at least ahead of the Federal Communications Commission.” More here from Fortune.

Review of Edelman’s Wider than the Sky

In the online journal Metapsychology is this review of Gerald Edelman’s Wider than the Sky:The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness.

“The title of Edelman’s book comes from a poem by Emily Dickenson that celebrates the brain (‘The brain – is wider than the Sky – ‘), from which the reader who is new to Edelman’s work will correctly infer that he is not a Cartesian dualist. The Preface relates that his books and articles on consciousness over the past twenty-five years prompt him ‘to present an account of consciousness to the general reader’.”

The Great War Revisited

“One of the things that twentieth-century philosophy learned, in the wake of the war, is that big words are empty uniforms without men to live out their meanings, and that high moral purposes have no value outside a context of consequences. As the new century begins, the First World War seems as present, and just as great a pity, as it ever did.”
Adam Gopnik on new scholarship of the Big One.

Distributed Computing, Marshalling Volunteers for Science and Mathematics

Years ago, I participated in SETI@home, a massively distributed computing project by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence program. Millions of ordinary people contributed their idle computing power to process the vast amounts of data that SETI collects. Distributed computing has expanded since then.

This site tracks many distributed computing projects–past, current, and upcoming.

Some examples:

Evolution@home “is the first public global distributed computing project targeting evolutionary questions by distributing the work to many PCs like the SETI@home and other similar projects . A central server distributes the work to those computers who want to participate in their idle time. So, while you are sleeping at night, your computer will simulate the effects of various evolutionary factors. . .on the survival of populations of endangered species and. . .on the evolution of novel functional adaptations.” (For the more technically minded, see the paper here.)

The Virtual Laboratory project is engaged in research, design, and development of Grid technologies that help in solving large-scale compute and data intensive science applications in the area of molecular biology. . . This helps in examining/screening millions of chemical compounds (molecules) in the Chemical Data Bank (CDB) to identify those having potential use in drug design. “

ZetaGrid aims to verify Riemann’s hypothesis which states that “all non-trivial zeros of the Riemann zeta function are on the critical line (1/2+it where tis a real number).” (This is for those who don’t care if they really understand what they’re trying to help.)

Similarly but easier to understand, this project takes a stab at the Goldbach conjecture, which states that ever even number larger than 2 can be expressed as the sum of two primes.

Here’s a good two part article on distributed computing and the technical issues involved with implementing it.

Julia Child, 1912-2004

Continuing with obituaries, here’s one death that’s had extensive news coverage: Julia Child’s. But having been a fan for so long, I thought that I’d add my voice to the choir, or to the auidience pointing to the choir, by linking to the New York Times‘ extensive coverage of Julia Child. My fondness for Child comes from something best expressed by Sara Dickerman in Slate.

“In many ways, Julia’s greatest contribution to cooking was not bringing French food to America. . .but in freeing Americans from the necessity of cooking for a purpose other than pleasure.”

Food became more thoughtful, in the sense that that adjective can apply to the senses, with Julia Child.

And while it’s old news, the blog of the Julie/Julia project, in which Julie Powell . . . well in her own word:

Mastering the Art of French Cooking. First edition, 1961. Louisette Berthole. Simone Beck. And, of course, Julia Child. The book that launched a thousand celebrity chefs. Julia Child taught America to cook, and to eat. It’s forty years later. Today we think we live in the world Alice Waters made, but beneath it all is Julia, 90 if she’s a day, and no one can touch her.

The Contender [Julie Powell]:

Government drone by day, renegade foodie by night. Too old for theatre, too young for children, and too bitter for anything else, Julie Powell was looking for a challenge. And in the Julie/Julia project she found it. Risking her marriage, her job, and her cats’ well-being, she has signed on for a deranged assignment.

365 days. 536 recipes. One girl and a crappy outer borough kitchen.”

Monday, August 16, 2004

The Future Dictionary of America. McSweeney’s, 208 pp., $28.

The Future Dictionary of America enters the pantheon of satirical dictionaries like Flaubert’s and Bierce’s with a notable distinction: It is jam-packed with winningly offbeat suggestions for making the world a better place. Its jaundiced eye is interconnected to both a brain and a heart, not to mention a first aid kit, a hammer and a tiny vial of fingernail polish in a color called Burnt Icicle… In a world in which everyone has an opinion but no one has any advice, this book is manna.” More of Henry Alford’s review here in Newsday.

Critic with a Cause

In his new incarnation as defender of the realm, Christopher Hitchens predictably cannot help vilifying Edward Said toward the end of his review of Said’s posthumous book, From Oslo to Iraq. This, despite the fact the he and Said were longtime friends (Hitchens even offended Saul Bellow at a dinner party once with his vigorous defense of Said and his views), and despite his still-obvious admiration for Said, both as an intellectual polymath, as well as a man of rare moral character. The review is here in yesterday’s Washington Post. (More worth reading as part of our continuing effort to comprehend what happened to Christopher Hitchens, than for any insight into Said or his work. See my earlier posts about the Hitch here and here.)

Evolvability is a selectable trait

“Concomitant with the evolution of biological diversity must have been the evolution of mechanisms that facilitate evolution, because of the essentially infinite complexity of protein sequence space. We describe how evolvability can be an object of Darwinian selection, emphasizing the collective nature of the process. We quantify our theory with computer simulations of protein evolution. These simulations demonstrate that rapid or dramatic environmental change leads to selection for greater evolvability. The selective pressure for large-scale genetic moves such as DNA exchange becomes increasingly strong as the environmental conditions become more uncertain. Our results demonstrate that evolvability is a selectable trait and allow for the explanation of a large body of experimental results.” Paper by David J. Earl and Michael W. Deem here in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.