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 nytimes.com)

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: OCLS@madisoncounty.net. 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 Amazon.com:

"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 NPR.org for other of Sydney's appearances.

IS group on Wikinfo

As some of you know, the IS group entry was deleted from Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page) 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 (http://www.wikinfo.org/), which has a much more welcoming environment for information of this sort. If time permits, please look at the IS group entry (http://www.wikinfo.org/wiki.php?title=IS_group) 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!