Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Unfolding of Language

I highly recommend The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher, which was supplementary reading for the IS Group meeting held on Nov. 17, 2007. Quoting from the epilogue:

"... complex linguistic structures can arise through the natural forces that are changing language, even today. The elaborate conventions of language needed no gifted inventor to conceive them, no prehistoric assembly of elders to decree their shape, nor even an overseer to guide their construction. ... Behind the forces of change there are always people -- the speakers of a language. ... language change joins a long list of phenomena ... which are brought about through people's actions, but are not willfully intended by them. The transformations in language ... emerge from ... spontaneous and immediate concerns, such as saving effort in pronunciation (economy) or the desire to heighten the effect of an utterance (expressiveness). ... The accumulated pressure of such spontaneous actions nonetheless creates powerful and untiring forces of change: the flow towards abstraction, and erosion in meaning and sounds. The combination of these forces operates on language like a relentless bleaching and compressing machine. ... Language is a tool that has been worn into shape by continual use."

Thursday, December 13, 2007

"The Linguists" Premiers at Sundance

This message arrived in my inbox today, from where I couldn't determine, but it's wonderful news for the those of us interested in supporting endangered languages. David Harrison was featured in earlier IS blog posts here and here.

Dear Colleagues, Friends, Family, and Supporters of Ironbound Films,

We are nothing short of elated to announce that our documentary feature THE LINGUISTS was selected to world premiere in the newly minted "Spectrum: Documentary Spotlight" category at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.

THE LINGUISTS is the first documentary supported by the National Science Foundation to ever make it to Sundance.

The trailer is at
Here's a brief synopsis:

It is estimated that of 7,000 languages in the world, half will be gone by the end of this century.

THE LINGUISTS follows David Harrison and Gregory Anderson, scientists racing to document languages on the verge of extinction. In Siberia, India, and Bolivia, the linguists' resolve is tested by the very forces silencing languages: institutionalized racism and violent economic unrest.

David and Greg's journey takes them deep into the heart of the cultures, knowledge, and communities at risk when a language dies.

We hope you can join us in Utah for one (or maybe all) of the following screenings:

Friday, January 18, 12 Noon - Egyptian Theatre, Park City
Saturday, January 19, 12:45 PM - Broadway Centre Cinemas V, Salt Lake City
Saturday, January 19, 11:30 PM - Prospector Square Theatre, Park City
Wednesday, January 23, 9:00 AM, Holiday Village Cinema I, Park City - PRESS AND INDUSTRY ONLY
Wednesday, January 23, 8:30 PM - Holiday Village Cinema II, Park City

Tickets are available at

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us or our publicist Winston Emano at

We look forward to hearing you there, in all languages!

Happy Holidays,
Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller, and Jeremy Newberger

Ironbound Films, Inc.
PO Box 441
Garrison, NY 10524
T: 845.424.3700
F: 845.424.3753

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Life's Complexity Began with Poop

Just in time for our biosystems theme, this article from suggests that the complexity of life originated in... feces! Now I can finally make sense of this piece of Japanese pop-cultural wisdom (via the wonderful, as well as this frightening phenomenon.

Biolinguistics Journal Online

From its web page: BIOLINGUISTICS is a peer-reviewed journal exploring theoretical linguistics that takes the biological foundations of human language seriously". The lead paper, "Of Minds and Languages" is by Chomsky. The journal looks to me like mainstream generative grammar dressed up in the jargon of theoretical biology, but it's close enough to the topic of our two recent IS meetings that I thought it might interest some of us.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Simroids: Dentistry in the Uncanny Valley

BoingBoing has a story today about "Simroids", a kind of Japanese robot that helps train dentistry students. Because it combines several IS theme (robots, the uncanny valley, Japanese pop culture, schlock horror), you might find it worth a look. Aside from the noted creepiness, there's the unfortunate choice of name: "Simroid" sounds like training for repair work at the other end of the alimentary canal.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

IS Group update

The most recent meeting of the IS Group took place on Nov. 17, 2007, at the home of Mark Tiede. The topic was recursion and was a continuation of earlier IS Group discussions of recursion and language. The readings can be found in the "Again with the Recursion" entry from October 11. Following our discussion, we ended up watching Hot Fuzz. The next meeting, which has not yet been scheduled, will be on Systems Biology. The main reading for this will be:

Uri Alon, An Introduction to Systems Biology: Design Principles of Biological Circuits. Chapman & Hall, 2006.

Supplementary reading may include:

Martin A. Nowak, Evolutionary Dynamics: Exploring the equations of life. Harvard University Press, 2006.

We may end up devoting a future meeting to the Nowak book, depending on how our next meeting goes. We will also spend a little time at the next meeting discussing a draft manuscript by Simon Levy on modeling recursion in cognitive neuroscience. We are open to suggestions for the featured video, cuisine, and preferred location. If you have any ideas, contact Philip Rubin.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Invincible Man

Joel Garreau, columnist for The Washington Post and author of Radical Evolution, recently wrote an excellent article called "The Invincible Man," about Aubrey de Grey. Aubrey, who was a presenter at last year's Yale Technology and Ethics Working Group, is best known for his work on developing a cure for aging. Aubrey also has a new book with Michael Rae called: Ending Aging: The rejuvenation breakthroughs that could reverse human aging in our lifetime.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Slashdot has an entry today on people protesting Wikipedia's notability restriction -- i.e., people are getting pissed off about having their Wikipedia entries deleted because the content is not "notable" enough. Recall that this is what happened to the IS Group entry.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Tecno Brega

If you want to see the future of popular music, and the death rattle of its domination by clueless record companies, check out this article from Aside from the joy of the music itself and the excitement of a business model that puts money into the pockets of artists for a change, there's the fun of seeing the spiraling absurdity of the victimization complaints made by the recording industry. For example, the article quotes "Brazil's Anti-Piracy Association" as claiming a loss of two million jobs per year for the Brazilian economy. Of course, modern journalists rarely bother to check numbers, but if they had, the CNN writers would've noticed that, with a labor force of around 82 million in 2003, two million jobs would represent nearly 2.5% of the entire labor force put out of work by "piracy". Or, with unemployment at around 10% per year, the claim is that nearly a quarter of the unemployed can blame their problems on copyright violation!

There's a documentary about the Tecno Brega phenomenon and related copyright/culture issues here.

Whereof Pascal Cannot be Translated

"Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait {pas / point}."
--Blaise Pascal

(ne...point is apparently an old-fashiondy version of ne...pas, I didn't find any mention of connotations other than that)
The heart has [its] reasons
{which / that} reason [itself]
{cannot/does not/can't/is not equipped to}
{understand/explain/recognize/comprehend/know [of]}
knows not [of]
whereof reason knows nothing

--Steve and Google

Sunday, October 21, 2007

My Food Will Kill You

Today's New York Times has a bittersweet article about New York "kosher-style" delicatessens, a restaurant genre that refuses to die. Those of us who grew up in New York (or any major American city) during or before the 1970's will remember the wonderful food you could get at these places: chopped liver, pickled herring, smoked whitefish, matzoh-ball soup, overstuffed pastrami sandwiches, kishka, and (non-dairy) noodle kugel for dessert. (The only thing I refused to try was tongue.) With all the NIH-grant-motivated food fascism we get these days, it's nice to be reminded of a time when people ate great-tasting, skillfully-prepared food for the deep pleasure and cultural continuity it provided. Levine's Deli, in the Pelham Parkway section of the Bronx, was where my family would go when we visited my grandmother. Levine's was supposedly burned down by a boxer over a love triangle – a classic Bronx story. If you didn't finish your meal, one of the ancient waiters who worked there would inevitably ask, "Whassa matta? Ya didn' like it?"

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Nearly a Treat

Check out Jerry Fodor's Why Pigs Don't Fly in this week's London Review of Books. It's telling that the (second?) greatest modern proponent of 19th-Century-style psychological positivism quotes Wagner, instead of the more obvious Pink Floyd, in this otherwise enjoyable article on the spandrels debate. Adaptationism is dogma, as you can see by the third question in this Massachusetts high-school science exam (hat tip: Philip Greenspun's blog). Fodor's annoyance with the hunter-gatherer explanation for everything reminds me of Andy Clark's Natural Born Cyborgs, which makes a related point: most of us haven't been hunting or gathering for a very long time now, and we seem to be doing pretty well.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Workshop: Where Does Syntax Come From?

"Where Does Syntax Come From? Have We All Been Wrong?" is a workshop to be held all day this Friday (Oct 19) at MIT.
The impetus for this workshop, borrowing from a recent review by Yang in TICS (2004), is that "Recent demonstrations of statistical learning in infants have reinvigorated the innateness versus learning debate in language acquisition," particularly regarding syntax. We aim to reexamine this issue in a single forum from the computational, cognitive, and formal linguistics perspectives. Our intent is to examine recent applications of statistical learning theory to language acquisition.
Details from Fred Hapgood's link.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Again with the Recursion!

IS Group meeting

The next IS Group meeting with take place on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2007, at the home of Mark Tiede in Madison, Connecticut. We will gather at 6:00 pm for a pre-meeting dinner.

Theme: Again with the Recursion!

Many issues went unexplored at the last IS group meeting and Elliot Saltzman felt that it would be useful to go over certain of these in greater detail. An example is recursion. Thus, our next meeting will be a more detailed discussion of recursion.


Suggested readings include: Other possibilities include
  • A recent paper by Michael Corballis, The Uniqueness of Human Recursive Thinking (subscription required), American Scientist, Volume 95, No. 3, May-June 2007, 240-248.

  • A draft manuscript by Simon Levy on modeling recursion in cognitive neuroscience. Please contact Simon if you'd like a copy.

Supplementary Readings:

This is up to you. Mark Tiede has suggested taking a look at The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher.


Simon has suggested Tears of the Black Tiger. Mark has suggested Hot Fuzz.



Monday, October 8, 2007


After downloading the Python Image Library I was disappointed to find yet another use of the "standard" image-processing example of 1972 Playboy centerfold Lenna (a.k.a. Lena) in their directory of sample images.

Sadly, Lena herself apparently encourages these losers. The image is supposedly a good test case, though there are certainly plenty of other, better ones. And it is of course highly doubtful that the kind of men who use the image will ever get the kind of look she's giving in the picture, from anyone who looks like her at least.

To me the whole thing shows how hopelessly clueless most computer scientists and engineers still are about culture and gender issues – naughty boys giggling over Daddy's porn stash, and feeling compelled to show their treasure to their students and colleagues. And we wonder why there aren't more women these fields.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Trivial + Banal + Lame = Important

Clay Shirky gave a fascinating presentation today (Oct. 3, 2007) at a meeting of the Yale Information Society Project at the Yale Law School. A lot of what he talked about will be covered in his book "Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations" that is due to appear in February 2008. Clay teaches at NYU's graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), where he works on the overlap of social and communications networks. The title of Clay's presentation was "Social Tools In Political Contexts." From his abstract:
"One of the challenges to the innovationist view of technology (tool designers pour 'innovation' into tools, which is then extracted by the users) are the way tools are adapted to local contexts. The current explosion in social tools offers an alternate view that might be called diffusionist, where local context helps determine not just the utility of social tools, but actually alters their political context. We ... look at three case studies of such diffusionism -- the use of 'flash mobs' by Belarusian protesters, the use of Twitter by Egyptian activists, and the use of flower delivery services as a protest movement against US immigration policy."
Clay touched on many topics, including: LOL cats, Google Maps, EFF, Tunisian Prison Maps, PledgeBank, information cascades, David Isenberg ("The Rise of the Stupid Network"), collective action, ICQ, GlobalVoices, Genevieve Bell (Intel anthropologist), Burmese bloggers, etc. See his Wikipedia page for more information.

Heads Across the Water

IS needs a cuter acronym... like PPIG. This high-powered University of Edinburgh reading group appears to be run by Andy Clark, whose wonderful Natural Born Cyborgs I vaguely recall we were supposed to read at an IS meeting a few years ago. We are not worthy!

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Any bigger and I'd be in the circus

While we're on the topic of obscenity, I want to start an informal contest for most amusing spam subject header. Like a lot of people I get dozens of spams per day, the most recent having to do with increasing the size of my penis, but nearly all of them are by non-English-speaking drones who are just copying and pasting text from phrasebooks and from each other. So when a spammer comes up with something original and funny, I think it's worth posting. If that's not enough justification, consider the phrase Any [comparative-modifier] and [future-or-conditional-sentence] as an example of a grammatical construction of the sort that has regained currency in the linguistics literature.

What the F***?

Steven Pinker, the Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, has an article called "What the F***? Why we curse" in the Oct. 8, 2007 issue of The New Republic (pp. 24-29). This article is adapted from his new book, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, which was reviewed on Sep. 23, 2007 by William Saletan in an article called "The Double Thinker" in The New York Times Book Review, and on Sep. 27, 2007 by Colin McGinn in an article called "How You Think" in The New York Review of Books.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

D(r)iver Boy

For many years I've loved listening to Old Time music and marveled at the myriad names and lyrics used for the "same" song. The oral composition and performance of these songs virtually guarantees variation like this, as happens in the children's game Telephone (a.k.a. Chinese Whispers).

A few years ago I bought an album by Natalie Merchant containing the song "Diver Boy", a classic Appalachian murder ballad whose lyrics describe a girl's family trying to get rich quick by killing her suitor – a diver boy / Who sailed upon the ocean to gather up some gold. (It's close to this recording.) While listening to the incredible Hober internet radio broadcast recently, I heard one of the many variants this song, in which the suitor is a driver boy / Who ploughed the lowlands low. In another version, he drives a stagecoach. In some versions, he ends up buried at sea or "floating down the stream", regardless of whether he's a diver or a driver; in another, it's his blood that "appeared in streams".

So, the point is, not only are the names and lyrics of these songs changed by misperception; the entire premise of the song gets a new back-story based on the changing of one word:
the Kiss this Guy and Eggcorn phenomena run wild. In general, one wonders how much form really does follow function, as opposed to the other way around, in songs, poetry, and other cultural artifacts. Scholarship on non-literate poets like Homer often runs into such questions: was a phrase used because it conveyed the poet's intended meaning, or because it was the first thing that came into the poet's mind that fit the meter? In light of Simon Kirby's Chinese-Whispers-like iterated learning model of language evolution, one wonders how much of grammar might come from this sort of re-analysis, too.

Beat / Geek / Nerd

A beautiful article by Louis Menand in this week's New Yorker presents the Beats (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, et al.) as what we might nowadays call geeks or nerds. Far from the cool, hep-cat image peddled by the popular media that exploited them, these guys were shy, serious, scholarly types who struggled constantly with loneliness, depression, and multiple failed relationships. (Kerouac lived with his mother until he died.) Notably missing is the outsize ego associated with modern American male writers (Hemingway, Mailer): Ginsberg, as others have pointed out, continued to idolize Kerouac well after his own star had risen. Menand's closing paragraph alone makes the article worth a read.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Vocaloid 2 Anime Song Generator

This review links to mp3 demos of some bestselling software by Yamaha that synthesizes vocals from melody and lyrics you type in: leenk

Colbert confronts endangered languages

David Harrison (see our Endangered Languages entry from Sep. 24, 2007) is quickly becoming the King of all Media. David appeared on The Colbert Report last night (Sep. 26, 2007). David emailed us a link to a video of the show, but a better link appears here (please note that David's segment is preceded by a short Doritos commercial). This is a nice segment in which, among other things, David teaches Stephen Colbert to say "I'm going to stab you in the gut with a knife" in Indian. David is also the author of the new book, "When Languages Die," which has also been discussed in Language Log.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Endangered languages

Our friend, K. David Harrison, has received a lot of coverage in the New York Times recently. On Sep. 19, 2007, his work and that of his colleague Gregory D. S. Anderson was described in an article by John Noble Wilford entitled "Languages Die, but Not Their Last Words." The article summarizes work detailed in the October issue of National Geographic and on their Enduring Voices website. A followup article, "Vigil for the Vanishing Tongue," by Mary Jo Murphy, appeared on Sunday, Sep. 23, in the Week in Review section of the Times. David, an associate professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College, is also the co-founder of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. Greg Anderson, the other co-founder, is the current Director of the Living Tongues Institute. Xeni Jardin, posting on Sep. 19 in Boing Boing, discussed some of the equipment used in field recording.

I am particularly pleased to see this interest in endangered languages. During my tenure as Division Director for Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences at the National Science Foundation (NSF) I helped to spur support for this important area and am delighted to see its growth and evolution. The early NSF efforts involved the hard work and guidance of many individuals. A partial list includes the Linguistics program officers, Cecile McKee and Joan Maling, and Wanda Ward, then Deputy Assistant Director (AD) of NSF for the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences directorate (SBE), and Norman Bradburn, then AD of SBE. James Herbert of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) served as a Senior NSF/NEH Advisor and helped develop the Documenting Endangered Languages funding opportunity. On May 5, 2005, the NSF and NEH announced the first recipients of fellowships and grants from this program. Under the combined leadership of the current SBE AD, linguist David Lightfoot, and other NSF administrators, and program officers from NSF and NEH, this interagency partnership, which now includes the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, has become an annual funding effort. Cognizant program officers include Douglas Whalen, Joan Maling and Anna Kerttula de Echave from the NSF, and Helen Aguera and Jane Aikin from NEH.

Doug Whalen, an IS group regular and Vice President for Research of Haskins Laboratories, is currently on loan to the NSF where he has worked as a program officer for Linguistics, Documenting Endangered Languages, and Cognitive Neuroscience. Doug is also the founder and President of the Endangered Language Fund, which supports endangered language preservation and documentation projects.

Top Ten Transhumanist Technologies

Lifeboat Foundation
has a special report on the
Top Ten Transhumanist Technologies.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Don't tase me, bro!

Simon Levy wonders if one of our favorite blogs, Language Log, may be getting a little lazy. Simon points out that there has not yet been a feature from them "... about the back-formation of the verb "tase" from T.A.S.E.R."

View the "Don't tase me bro remix."

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A call for machine morality

Wendell Wallach, chair of the Yale University Bioethics Center Technology and Ethics working group, and friend of the IS group, was recently a featured speaker at The Singularity Summit 2007: AI and the Future of Humanity. Wendell was well received, including an article in C/Net News called "A call for machine morality." Dan Farber in a ZDNet blog posting referred to Wendell as Dr. Doom because of Wendell's prediction that " ... in the next few years there would be a major human disaster caused by a mistaken decision taken by a computer."

Another friend of IS, Dr. James Hughes, was also a featured speaker. Jim is a professor at Trinity College in Hartford and the author of Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future.

Abstracts of their presentations can be found here.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Possible next topics

I recall we agreed to finish up Pirahã / recursion as our next topic, with systems biology after that. For the topic after systems biology (a long way out, perhaps), I suggest Phil's virtual-worlds theme. Now that I've started playing with Quake as a platform for teaching and research in AI (, and am reading about Machinima on BoingBoing, I think this in a really cool idea.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Venzuela to ban stupid names reports that Venezuela is considering approving a bill "... barring parents from giving their children 'names that expose them to ridicule, are extravagant or difficult to pronounce,' or that raise doubts about whether a child is a girl or a boy. ... If approved by the National Assembly, the bill could let authorities turn down names like some of the more unusual monikers currently on the voter rolls: Edigaith, Mileidy, Leomar and Superman."

Thanks and hit tip to Robert Remez and Aphrodite Finkelstein for bringing this to our attention.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Grammaticalization in text editors?

Syntax highlighting in text editors typically only works for well-defined programming language categories: keywords appear in one color, identifiers (variables) in another, comments in a third, etc. While using the vim editor to edit a Python program today, I added an "XXX" comment to indicate that I wasn't happy with the solution I'd devised for that part of the problem. XXX is a cultural convention, not a feature of the Python language, and in any case it was inside a comment. Still, the vim editor's syntax-highlighting feature flagged the XXX in a bright yellow background, making it more prominent than the rest of the program. Any modification to the XXX turned the highlighting off. In other words, someone working on the vim editor had decided to treat a cultural convention like a syntactic feature of the language. Programming-language textbooks often start by describing programming languages as a simplified version of human languages, but I never expected to see this kind of thing happening! It suggests that grammmaticalization is a strong driving force in our use of language.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Sleights of Mind

A recent New York Times article describes sleight-of-hand performances at a consciousness conference in Las Vegas: Teller does magic tricks for Daniel Dennett . There's some of the usual nonsense about philosophical zombies, but overall it's a fun way of showing what's exciting about the field. We read a book a few years ago that made similar points about the illusory nature of conscious experience.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Rose and Isabel

For those who enjoy graphic novels, here's a brilliant new one by Ted Mathot, a story artist who worked on Pixar's Cars, Ratatouille, and other wonderful animated features. Fans of those films will recognize Mathot's genius at portraying emotion on characters' faces, reminiscent of the golden age of silent movies. Just when I thought that the Civil War couldn't yield any more good literature....

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The First Word

In a piece in The New York Times Book Review of Aug. 12, 2007 called "Look Who's Talking" Emily Eakin reviews The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language by Christine Kenneally. Some of those whose work is mentioned in the book include Paul Bloom of Yale, Noam Chomsky, Tecumseh Fitch, Philip Lieberman, Steven Pinker, and Sue Savage-Rumbaugh. Publisher's Weekly says,
"Kenneally's insistence upon seeing human capacity for speech on an evolutionary continuum of communication that includes all other animal species provides a respite from ideological declamations about human supremacy, but the book will appeal mainly to those who are drawn to the nuts and bolts of scientific inquiry into language."

Bonobo Revisionism in the New Yorker

This article does a nice job showing how much of the popular understanding of bonobos is due to the philosophical commitments of one researcher (de Waal), versus the empirical reality observed by others. Female bonobos will gang up on a male and chew off his fingers or toes (in captivity at least), a hunt often ends by eating the prey animal's viscera while it is still alive; and there is anecdotal evidence for murder.

It seems that social scientists can't avoid projecting fantasies of peaceful, sexually liberated lifestyles onto other cultures.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Science Tattoos

Carl Zimmer discusses science-related tattoos and provides a photogallery in a article called Branded with Science in The Loom blog on ScienceBlogs. The images can be more easily viewed in his Picasa Web Album.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Implausible Robots

SciFi Scanner lists 5 implausible science fiction robots. You can be the judge, rating their selection and providing your comments.

The Mathematics Behind Quantum Computing

Tony Phillips, of Stony Brook University, "... present[s] a description of Shor's Factorization Algorithm in terms appropriate for a general mathematical audience...". Part I and Part II can be found on the American Mathematical Society website.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Language Evolution in the New York Times

Book review mentions Simon Kirby's A-Life experiments.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Scientific Research and Virtual Worlds

The cover story of the July 27, 2007 Science magazine is "The Scientific Research Potential of Virtual Worlds" by William Sims Bainbridge. Bill is the Program Director for the Human-Centered Computing Cluster in the Division of Information and Intelligent Systems at the National Science Foundation. His new book, Nanoconvergence: The Unity of Nanoscience, Biotechnology, Information Technology and Cognitive Science was described in an IS blog post of July 24, 2007. Here is the abstract of the Science article (with links added):

"Online virtual worlds, electronic environments where people can work and interact in a somewhat realistic manner, have great potential as sites for research in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences, as well as in human-centered computer science. This article uses Second Life and World of Warcraft as two very different examples of current virtual worlds that foreshadow future developments, introducing a number of research methodologies that scientists are now exploring, including formal experimentation, observational ethnography, and quantitative analysis of economic markets or social networks."

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

New Urbanism again

Wiltold Rybczynski's
Last Harvest: How a Cornfield Became New Daleville: ...
follows a New Urbanism-inspired planned community from land purchase to completion.

I think the following is a necessary spoiler, from Penelope Green's review (free login required) in last Sunday's NY Times Book Review: "In the end, and despite the best intentions of the developer and the township, it is Levittown that is the real model for New Daleville."

(The book's first chapter at

Evolutionary Dynamics

There is an interesting article in today's (July 31, 2007) New York Times Science Times section called "In Games, an Insight Into the Rules of Evolution." This article (click here for PDF version), by Carl Zimmer, is about Martin Nowak, and his research on cooperation, evolution and games. It reminded me that another possiblity for future readings is Martin's book Evolutionary Dynamics.

Sean Nee, writing about the book in Nature, said: "Martin Nowak is undeniably a great artist, working in the medium of mathematical biology...Nowak has seemingly effortlessly produced a stream of remarkable theoretical explorations into areas as diverse as the evolution of language, cooperation, cancer and the progression from HIV infection to AIDS. Evolutionary Dynamics, based on a course he gives at Harvard, is a comprehensive summary of this work...This is a unique book. It should be on the shelf of anyone who has, or thinks they might have, an interest in theoretical biology."

Steven Pinker says, "Martin Nowak has injected rigor and new ideas into the study of the evolution of language and cooperation. This book is brimming with insights and surprising findings and should be of interest to anyone who is curious about these topics."

Let's keep this in mind for a future IS group meeting.

Tears of the Black Tiger

Simon Levy says "... let's please get a watchable movie ..." for the next IS group meeting. Of course, this means "watchable" by IS group standards. Simon has suggested Tears of the Black Tiger. Let us know what you think.

"Thermodynamic selection"

Fred Hapgood writes the meeting announcements for the Nanotech Study Group in Cambridge, Mass. Here is one of his recent suggested topics:

John Whitfield has written an interesting exploration of the idea that what we call natural selection might be just a subset of thermodynamic selection -- in his terms that in at least some cases, survival of the fittest is better understood as survival of the likeliest.

Thirty years ago or so, as part of my introduction to Conway's Life, I was shown the intersecting output of two glider guns set maybe a million clicks apart. When the streams of gliders met they would create a cloud of Life smoke, which would initially be kept in a tumbling instability by the constant inrush of gliders. After some long period of time, the cloud would evolve glider eaters - - two little patterns that would sit in the middle of the cloud and eat the gliders as they arrived, thus allowing the cloud to cook down to a stable state. It seemed wonderfully biological at the time, but as the sainted Bill Gosper explained to me, all that was involved was the law of irrepeatability -- those states that could not recur, did not. Everything followed from that.

Ever since I have wondered just how far that law could be pushed -- how much biology it explained. The article [linked to] below pushes these thoughts further than I have ever been able to. Recommended.

"Survival of the Likeliest?" by John Whitfield in PLoS Biology

The Whitfield article also links to more interesting articles along these lines.

--Steve Witham

Info about NSG mailing list.

Recursive Science Fiction

Anthony R. Lewis has compiled "An Annotated Bibliography of Recursive Science Fiction." By "recursive science fiction" he means " ... that in which the characters, subject matter, or setting are of a scientifictional nature." The intent is to let the hard copy version of the bibliography go out of print, replacing it with a web-based bibliography.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Saltzman sez ...

I was talking to Elliot Saltzman today on the phone about our most recent IS group meeting, held on July 23, 2007. Elliot thinks that more attention should be devoted to exploring the underlying issues related to the readings of the meetings. The theme of the meeting was "The Pirahã Controversy." Readings included:
There were also other supplementary readings that are listed on the IS group website, which is maintained by Simon Levy.

Many, many issues went unexplored in the meeting. An example is recursion. One possibility for our next meeting would be a more detailed discussion of recursion. Possible readings might include the Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch vs. Pinker and Jackendoff series of papers:
An overview of this debate can be found on Language Log. Additional commentary can be found on the Mixing Memory blog.

Other possibilities include a recent paper by Michael Corballis, The Uniqueness of Human Recursive Thinking, American Scientist, Volume 95, No. 3, May-June 2007, 240-248.

We also did not have time to discuss Simon Levy's Becoming Recursive presentation from the Recursion in Human Languages Conference (RECHUL) , Illinois State University, 27 April 2007.

Let me know what you think about the idea of a more detailed discussion of the fundamentals, the particular topic mentioned above, and the suggested readings, by providing comments on this blog.

Thursday, July 26, 2007


I keep seeing examples of what I think of as "semiotic type raising", where a sign gets promoted up the "Peirce Hierarchy" of index -> icon -> symbol. The first time I noticed this was a few years ago, when I saw people switching from an iconic use of smileys to a symbolic one: "happy" is conveyed by :^), very happy is :^D, then very happy becomes :^))) -- not a happy guy with a beard, as I first thought, but instead, the right parens are used as a counting device instead of an icon. Now my parents have a new ceramic-top stove, where the heating elements don't glow when they get hot, as you would expect with a gas or electric stove. So, the designers indicate that the stove is heating up by turning on a glowing orange light around the heating element. But you want to know when it's reached the temperature you dialed, so the light goes off when it reaches that level. So it's like a half-index, half-icon. From listening to Simon Kirby and Bruno Galantucci talk about their experiments on evolving communication systems with pairs of human subjects, I get the feeling that this kind of "raising" may be a pervasive phenomenon, something that emerges when the constraints change (as with the stove). Mark Steedman has said similar things about the relationship between type raising and Gibsonian affordances.

Linguistics and Science Fiction

The supplemental fiction reading for the July 23, 2007, IS group meeting was The Embedding, by Ian Watson. A detailed review of the book can be found on the Tenser, said the Tensor blog.

Gordon Ramsay, a research scientist at Haskins Laboratories, points out The Languages of Pao by Jack Vance. The back cover of the book notes, "It's one of the extremely few science fiction novels ever based on the science of linguistics."

Lance Nathan, a graduate student in the MIT Dept. of Linguistics has a Linguistics and Science Fiction page.

Maggie Browning, an Associate Professor of Linguistics at Princeton University has a Linguistics and Fiction list. She says: "Most of these are from Mike Maxwell's posting to the Linguist List (19 Mar 1995). Others are from a list posted to the sci.lang newsgroup. None of the comments are mine."

The Linguistics & Science Fiction Newsletter is written and published every other month by Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D. (linguistics), from the Ozark Center for Language Studies. Suzette is a writer, artist, linguist and poet. The newsletter is available by e-mail only, in plain text, and is free to members of the Linguistics & Science Fiction Network (annual dues, $5.00). To receive the current issue as a free sample, send an email request to: Suzette is also the author of Native Tongue, a science fiction novel in which
" ...Earth's wealth depends on interplanetary commerce with alien races, and linguists --a small, clannish group of families --have become the ruling elite by controlling all interplanetary communication."
On her Linguistics & Science Fiction Interface page Suzette says:
"I am a grandmother of ten with a Ph.D. in linguistics, and a science fiction writer. I'm interested in the intersection between the use of language as a mechanism for solving humanity's problems and the use of science fiction as a laboratory for exploring those linguistic solutions. "
Justin B. Rye has created A Primer in SF Xenolinguistics.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

IS group meeting: July 23, 2007

The IS group meeting took place on July 23, 2007. Because of the rain, we were forced to abandon our dreams of BBQ at the rustic home of Mark Tiede. Instead, we had to "settle" for some pretty excellent pizza from Bar in New Haven and met in the main conference room at Haskins Laboratories. In attendance were Richard Crane, Caitlin Dillon, Vin Gulisano, Bonnie Kaplan, Simon Levy, Gordon Ramsay, Philip Rubin, Elliot Saltzman, Mark Tiede, and Steve Witham. Simon Levy had just returned from Erice, Sicily where he attended an atelier directed by Luc Steels on "Modeling Language Evolution with Computational Construction Grammar". (The picture at the top left was taken, using the camera built into Simon's laptop, from the top of the cliff at the conference venue.) Simon reported on the meeting and also on the "Recursion in Human Languages Conference" at Illinois State University, hosted by Daniel Everett. Simon gave a presentation called "Being Recursive" at the conference.

The theme of the IS group meeting was "The Pirahã Controversy." Philip Rubin provided an overview of the controversy for those unfamiliar with it and Simon presented some unique background information. A spirited discussion ensued (as usual) that touched on a number of related topics, including cultural anthropology, linguistic fieldwork, syntax, recursion, the Hauser, Fitch and Chomsky papers (Science 2002, Science 2004), responses by Steven Pinker and Ray Jackendoff (Cognition 2005), etc. Supplemental fiction reading was The Embedding by Ian Watson. The topic of the book and certain events and descriptions in it dovetailed very nicely with the meeting's subject matter. Although the book does have its flaws, it is refreshing to see linguistics considered as subject matter in science fiction. This is a topic that will be returned to in a later post.

Candidates for the main book to be read at our next meeting were discussed. Included were:
* Uri Alon. (2007). An Introduction to Systems Biology: Design Principles of Biological Circuits.
* Charles Seife. (2006). Decoding the Universe: How the New Science of Information Is Explaining Everything In The Cosmos, From Our Brains To Black Holes.
* Eva Jablonka and Marion J. Lamb. (2006). Evolution in Four Dimensions: genetic, epigenetic, behavioral, and symbolic variation in the history of life.
* Martin A. Nowak. (2006). Evolutionary dynamics: exploring the equations of life.
* Alva Noë. (2004). Action in Perception.
Let Philip Rubin know what you think about these and if you have a preference for the next meeting.

Unfortunately, the discussion portion of the meeting needed to be cut short to get to the video viewing portion of our activities. As always, Elliot Saltzman was armed with a set of DVDs guaranteed to shock and offend. It was a difficult choice, but we ended up selecting Imprint (2006), a one-hour show directed by Takashi Miike originally developed for the Masters of Horror TV series. This particular episode was banned from the series. It was also effective in driving most of the participants from the room, helping us to end our meeting on time.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

IS meeting location changed due to rain

The IS group meeting, scheduled for Monday, July 23, 2007, at 6:00 P.M. will be held. However the location has been changed because of showers forecast for Monday. The meeting will now take place at Haskins Laboratories, 300 George Street, 9th floor, New Haven, CT. If you plan to come to the meeting, please contact Philip Rubin, particularly if you are interested in sharing the take-out dinner scheduled to start promptly at 6:00 P.M.

Relentless self-promotion

Philip Rubin, co-founder of the IS group, is pleased to announce that a small show of his photography, "Wall Art: Photographs of Urban Art," is being held June 27 - September 20 at the Discovery Museum and Planetarium, 4450 Park Avenue, Bridgeport, CT. All proceeds go to the Discovery Museum to support science and math education for kids from Bridgeport and the surrounding towns. Buy a photograph and help support the museum and the kids. Please note that a large construction project is scheduled to start at the museum in early September, so if you want to see the show try to get there before then. For more information about The Discovery Museum and the show go here. (Thanks to Lady Pink, Yes 2, and the other talented artists whose art has been photographed for this show -- details are provided in the notes for the show at the Discovery Museum).

Plugging away

Check out the latest book by Dr. William Sims Bainbridge, called Nanoconvergence: The Unity of Nanoscience, Biotechnology, Information Technology and Cognitive Science. Bill is the author of many books on science, technology, religion, science fiction, and other topics. He is presently the Program Director for the Human-Centered Computing Cluster (HCC), in the Division of Information & Intelligent Systems (IIS) at the National Science Foundation.

Here is an blurb for the book by Philip Rubin, co-founder of the IS group, that appears on

"This book provides a sweeping, yet intimate, overview of an important, emerging area of science and technology—nanotechnology and its convergence with other areas of science and engineering. In Nanoconvergence we are provided with a view of these developments as seen through the lens of the world of William Sims Bainbridge, a visionary scientist and scholar, who has helped to frame and nurture nanoconvergence. His personal history and interests are endlessly fascinating, and include science fiction, space flight, religious cults, videogames, and a host of other areas and topics. His knowledge is extraordinary and includes expertise in the field of nanotechnology and related sciences, including biology, cognitive, behavioral and social science, and information technology. Further, he knows many of the players, including some who were mentors, others who are colleagues, and others whose funding he supervised. The strength of this book is the strength of Bainbridge's extensive, connected network, rooted in scientific, technological, and societal concerns.

It is rare to find someone who brings to the table such breadth and depth of knowledge, spanning so many of the sciences, from physics through cognition. Bainbridge is a Renaissance man who is helping to both create and elucidate the potential future worlds that confront us. Ultimately, he is a visionary who is building a roadmap for a future that we can all help to shape. He is to be commended for sharing both this map and his journey with us."

—Philip Rubin, Ph.D., CEO, Haskins Laboratories

Plugged in

Be sure to check out the Slate column, Your Health This Week, by Dr. Sydney Spiesel. Sydney, an IS group participant, is a pediatrician in Woodbridge, Conn., and associate clinical professor of pediatrics at Yale University's School of Medicine.

Another plug for Sydney. He appears regularly on NPR radio. Here is his July 19, 2007 conversation with Deborah Amos about what parents should know when their kids don't eat meat. You can search for other of Sydney's appearances.

IS group on Wikinfo

As some of you know, the IS group entry was deleted from Wikipedia ( in January 2007. I participated in and enjoyed the debate about this deletion and an appeal of the debate, which was subsequently withdrawn.

The IS group information has now been moved to Wikinfo (, which has a much more welcoming environment for information of this sort. If time permits, please look at the IS group entry ( and add to it or change it in any way that you feel is appropriate. It is very easy to create an account for doing this editing.

Simon Levy
has added information to an archive on the IS group website that summarizes the topics of some of the earlier meetings. If you have old email that indicates the readings, etc., for older meetings, please send this information to Simon and copy me. The older the email, the more it will help.

Future readings?

Vin Gulisano had the following suggestion (on Nov. 21, 2006)

"Here's a book that would fit in with the theme of the new information theory:

"Decoding the Universe: How the New Science of Information Is Explaining Everything In The Cosmos, From Our Brains To Black Holes. -- by Charles Seife, Author of "Zero"

Form the inside jacket: " ... information is everywhere -- and it's not just an abstract concept. Information is a concrete property of matter and energy that's every bit as real as the weight of a chunk of lead, something that sits inside very living cell and is inscribed upon every cosmic phenomenon. The red hot science of information theory is today the place where biologists, physicists, and chemists are converging to break the last remaining codes of the universe."

The book has some of the most clear explanations of physical concepts, including entanglement, non-localities, and the holographic universe. And, every topic is related to information with an attempt to convince us that information can be considered another crucial dimension required to understand the universe. It has what the Vilenkin book was missing: information theory in the description of cosmology.


A suggestion from Mark Tiede (July 20, 2007):

"When you have a chance take a look at this book, and see whether you agree it might make for a good topic:

An Introduction to Systems Biology: Design Principles of Biological Circuits by Uri Alon (2007) Chapman & Hall

From a Physics Today review by Nigel Goldenfeld: "[The book] assumes no prior knowledge of or even interest in biology. Yet right from chapter 1 the author succeeds in explaining in an intellectually exciting way what the cell does and what degrees of freedom enable it to function. [It] proceeds with detailed discussions of some of the key network motifs, circuit-element designs that are believed to be repeated over and over again in biological systems. Those motifs include autoregulation, feed-forward loops, and kinetic proofreading. The discussions in all cases introduce the particular motif, use simple differential equations in most cases as a way to model it, and offer plenty of comparisons with experimental data."

Tips o' the hat

There were a number of inspirations for the IS group, including the theoretical work on action and perception of Michael Turvey and colleagues and the early work on nonlinear dynamics that led to the establishment of the Santa Fe Institute. Another inspiration was an impromptu and spirited debate about cognition and perception between Jerry Fodor and Robert Shaw on Oct. 31, 1975, in Storrs, Connecticut, that pointed to the need for additional opportunities and venues for extended, informal academic discussions. Finally, there was the encouragement of Caryl Haskins who, in discussion with Philip Rubin, indicated the importance of multidisciplinarity, cutting edge science, and the intersection of science and public policy.

The inspiration for this blog is the wonderful Language Log created by Mark Liberman and Geoffrey K. Pullum. An unabashed plug: buy their book Far From the Madding Gerund and other dispatches from Language Log.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

All good things must come to a start

The IS group is an informal group of scientists and other related individuals that meets periodically in the New Haven, Connecticut area to discuss cutting edge issues in science, technology, and culture, and to foster innovative research collaborations across multiple institutions. The group was founded in the early 1980s by Philip Rubin and Elliot Saltzman.

The IS ("Interesting Stuff") group got started, in part, because it provided us with an informal opportunity to read stuff that we really wanted to read but would otherwise never get a chance to (science fiction, comic books, nonlinear dynamics, evolution, complexity, biology, fractals, ontology, connectionism, faith healing, etc.). Equally important, the meetings are one of the few chances that we get to eat quality junk food and watch really crappy movies.

Simon Levy maintains a website that provides details about the upcoming meeting and archives some of our previous meetings. Contact him for additional information about the group. This blog is being launched on a trial basis in conjunction with our meeting scheduled for Monday, July 23, 2007 (theme: The Pirahã Controversy). The blog will include information related to the discussions that take place at our meetings and the suggested readings. The blog will also let meeting participants propose future readings and topics, and discuss movies, news, books, graphics novels, academic articles, and other interesting stuff that we feel would be on interest to our participants and other like minds. Welcome aboard!