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."