In Our Computers, Ourselves, a look at the ways technology affects us, and the main question is : Are computers changing human character? You'll hear from cyborgs, bullies, neuroscientists and police chiefs about whether our closeness with computers is changing us as a species.
Possibly not as interesting to me because I’ve watched this space more closely over the past 20 years or so. Still it’s an interesting episode asking some great questions.
I can’t believe I flew through season one so quickly.
The Power Of Categories examines how categories define us — how, if given a chance, humans will jump into one category or another. People need them, want them. The show looks at what categories provide for us, and you'll hear about a person caught between categories in a way that will surprise you. Plus, a trip to a retirement community designed to help seniors revisit a long-missed category.
The transgender/sexual dysphoria story here is exceedingly interesting because it could potentially have some clues to how those pieces of biology work and what shifts things in one direction or another. How is that spectrum created/defined? A few dozen individuals like that could help provide an answer.
The story about the Indian retirement community in Florida is interesting, but it also raises the (unasked, in the episode at least) question of the detriment it can do to a group of people to be lead by some the oldest members of their community. The Latin words senīlis (“of or pertaining to old age”) and senex (“old”) are the roots of words like senate, senescence, senility, senior, and seniority, and though it’s nice to take care of our elders, the younger generations should take a hard look at the unintended consequences which may stem from this.
In some sense I’m also reminded about Thomas Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and why progress in science (and yes, society) is held back by the older generations who are still holding onto outdated models. Though simultaneously, they do provide some useful “brakes” on both velocity of change as well as potential ill effects which could be damaging in short timeframes.
When I told friends in the Pennsylvania suburb where I grew up that I was going to college in Canada, their responses tended to come in two forms. One was about the weather; to a southern Pennsylvanian, any temperature below 25 degrees Fahrenheit is cause for panic. The other was a volley of linguistic stereotypes about the nation of Canada, involving either “aboot” or “eh.”
Canadians are not particularly amused when you eagerly point out their “eh” habit, but the word has become emblematic of the country in a way that is now mostly out of their control. In response, some have embraced it, adopting it as an element of Canadian patriotism. But what even is this word? How did it come to be so associated with Canada?
I’d meant to document this back in November when it was discussed at IndieWebCamp Los Angeles, but it was a busy weekend.
In conversation with Tantek Çelik, I asked if a double entendre meaning to POSSE was originally intended when it was coined?
POSSE is an abbreviation for Publish (on your) Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere (or Everywhere), a content publishing model that starts with posting content on your own domain first, then syndicating out copies to 3rd party services with permashortlinks back to the original on your site.
When I originally heard about POSSE, I considered the original post on my own site as the Sheriff or “leader” and the ensuing syndicated copies as the (literal and figurative) traditional posse which follows along behind it adding ideas, conversation, and help in accomplishing the original post’s mission.
If that second meaning didn’t exist before, it does now…
"True story," Matthew Lewis, a communications strategist based in San Francisco, told me recently over Twitter. "I put the 'k' in fracking."
As best I can verify, he is correct. I'd always wondered how the term "fracking," which has dominated energy discussions for years, worked its way into our vocabulary. And the backstory turns out to be pretty interesting.
Advances in computing power, natural language processing, and digitization of text now make it possible to study our a culture's evolution through its texts using a "big data" lens. Our ability to communicate relies in part upon a shared emotional experience, with stories often following distinct emotional trajectories, forming patterns that are meaningful to us. Here, by classifying the emotional arcs for a filtered subset of 1,737 stories from Project Gutenberg's fiction collection, we find a set of six core trajectories which form the building blocks of complex narratives. We strengthen our findings by separately applying optimization, linear decomposition, supervised learning, and unsupervised learning. For each of these six core emotional arcs, we examine the closest characteristic stories in publication today and find that particular emotional arcs enjoy greater success, as measured by downloads.
The world has certainly lost one of its greatest thinkers, and many of us have lost a dear friend, colleague, and mentor.
I was getting concerned that I hadn’t heard back from Sol for a while, particularly after emailing him late last week, and then I ran across this notice through ITSOC & the IEEE:
Solomon W. Golomb (May 30, 1932 – May 1, 2016)
Shannon Award winner and long-time ITSOC member Solomon W. Golomb passed away on May 1, 2016.
Solomon W. Golomb was the Andrew Viterbi Chair in Electrical Engineering at the University of Southern California (USC) and was at USC since 1963, rising to the rank of University and Distinguished Professor. He was a member of the National Academies of Engineering and Science, and was awarded the National Medal of Science, the Shannon Award, the Hamming Medal, and numerous other accolades. As USC Dean Yiannis C. Yortsos wrote, “With unparalleled scholarly contributions and distinction to the field of engineering and mathematics, Sol’s impact has been extraordinary, transformative and impossible to measure. His academic and scholarly work on the theory of communications built the pillars upon which our modern technological life rests.”
In addition to his many contributions to coding and information theory, Professor Golomb was one of the great innovators in recreational mathematics, contributing many articles to Scientific American and other publications. More recent Information Theory Society members may be most familiar with his mathematics puzzles that appeared in the Society Newsletter, which will publish a full remembrance later.
A quick search a moment later revealed this sad confirmation along with some great photos from an award Sol received just a week ago:
As is common in academia, I’m sure it will take a few days for the news to drip out, but the world has certainly lost one of its greatest thinkers, and many of us have lost a dear friend, colleague, and mentor.
I’ll try touch base with his family and pass along what information sniff I can. I’ll post forthcoming obituaries as I see them, and will surely post some additional thoughts and reminiscences of my own in the coming days.
Big History may indicate why we're losing diversity in the number of languages on Earth.
Yesterday, I saw an interesting linguistic exercise:
I have to imagine that once the conceptualization of language and some basic grammar existed, word generation was a much more common thing than it is now. It’s only been since the time of Noah Webster that humans have been actively standardizing things like spelling. If we can use Papua New Guinea as a model of pre-agrarian society and consider that almost 12% of extant languages on the Earth are spoken in an area about the size of Texas (and with about 1/5th the population of Texas too), then modern societies are actually severely limiting language (creation, growth, diversity, creativity, etc.) [cross reference: A World of Languages – and How Many Speak Them (Infographic)]
Consider that the current extinction of languages is about one every 14 weeks, which puts us on a course to loose about half of the 7,100 languages on the planet right now before the end of the century. Collective learning has potentially been growing at the expense of a shrinking body of diverse language! In the paper “Global distribution and drivers of language extinction risk” the authors indicate that of all the variables tested, economic growth was most strongly linked to language loss.
To help put this exercise into perspective, we can look at the corpus of extant written Latin (a technically dead language):
These numbers become even smaller when considering ancient Greek texts.
Another interesting measurement is the vocabulary of a modern 2 year old who typically has a 50-75 word vocabulary while a 4 year old has 250-500 words, which is about the level of the exercise.
As a contrast, consider the message in this TED Youth Talk from last year by Erin McKean, which students should be able to relate to:
And of course, there’s the dog Chaser, which 60 minutes recently reported has a vocabulary of over 1,000 words. (Are we now destroying variants of “dog language” for English too?!)
Hopefully the evolutionary value of the loss of the multiple languages will be more than balanced out by the power of collective learning in the long run.
An infographic from the South China Morning Post has some interesting statistics about which many modern people don’t know (or remember). It’s very interesting to see the distribution of languages and where they’re spoken. Of particular note that most will miss, even from this infographic, is that 839 languages are spoken in Papua New Guinea (11.8% of all known languages on Earth). Given the effects of history and modernity, imagine how many languages there might have been without them.
This series of 12 audio lectures is an excellent little overview of Augustine, his life, times, and philosophy. Most of the series focuses on his writings and philosophy as well as their evolution over time, often with discussion of the historical context in which they were created as well as some useful comparing/contrasting to extant philosophies of the day (and particularly Platonism.)
Early in the series there were some interesting and important re-definitions of some contemporary words. Cary pushes them back to an earlier time with slightly different meanings compared to their modern ones which certainly helps to frame the overarching philosophy presented. Without a close study of this vocabulary, many modern readers will become lost or certainly misdirected when reading modern translations. As examples, words like perverse, righteousness, and justice (or more specifically their Latin counterparts) have subtly different meanings in the late Roman empire than they do today, even in modern day religious settings.
My favorite part, however, has to have been the examples discussing mathematics as an extended metaphor for God and divinity to help to clarify some of Augustine’s thought. These were not only very useful, but very entertaining to me.
As an aside for those interested in mnemotechnic tradition, I’ll also mention that I’ve (re)discovered (see the reference to the Tell paper below) an excellent reference to the modern day “memory palace” (referenced most recently in the book Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything) squirreled away in Book X of Confessions where Augustine discusses memory as:
Those interested in memes and the history of “memoria ex locis” (of which I don’t even find a reference explicitly written in the original Rhetorica ad Herrenium) would appreciate an additional reference I subsequently found in the opening (and somewhat poetic) paragraph of a paper written by David Tell on JSTOR. The earliest specific reference to a “memory palace” I’m aware of is Matteo Ricci’s in the 16th century, but certainly other references to the construct may have come earlier. Given that Ricci was a Jesuit priest, it’s nearly certain that he would have been familiar with Augustine’s writings at the time, and it’s possible that his modification of Augustine’s mention brought the concept into its current use. Many will know memory as one of the major underpinnings of rhetoric (of which Augustine was a diligent student) as part of the original trivium.
Some may shy away from Augustine because of the religious overtones which go along with his work, but though there were occasional “preachy sounding” sections in the material, they were present only to clarify the philosophy.
I’d certainly recommend this series of lectures to anyone not closely familiar with Augustine’s work as it has had a profound and continuing affect on Western philosophy, thought, and politics.
Humpty Dumpty (in a rather scornful tone): When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more or less. Alice: The question is, whether you can make a word mean so many different things? Humpty Dumpty: The question is, which is to be master – that’s all. Alice: (Too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again) Humpty Dumpty: They’ve a temper, some of them – particularly verbs, they’re the proudest – adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs – however, I can manage the whole of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say! Alice: Would you tell me, please what that means? Humpty Dumpty (looking very much pleased): Now you talk like a reasonable child. I meant by impenetrability that we have had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life. Alice (in a thoughtful tone): That’s a great deal to make one word mean. Humpty Dumpty: When I make a word do a lot of work like that, I always pay it extra. Alice (too much puzzled to make any other remark): Oh!