Dolphins are helping us search for aliens

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Daniel Oberhaus writes: When twelve men gathered at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia to discuss the art and science of alien hunting in 1961, the Order of the Dolphin was born. A number of the brightest minds from a range of scientific disciplines, including three Nobel laureates, a young Carl Sagan, and an eccentric neuroscientist named John Lilly — who was best known for trying to talk to dolphins — were in attendance.

It was Lilly’s research that inspired the group’s name: If humans couldn’t even communicate with animals that shared most of our evolutionary history, he believed, they were a bit daft to think they could recognize signals from a distant planet. With that in mind, the Order of the Dolphin set out to determine what our ocean-going compatriots here on Earth might be able to teach us about talking to extraterrestrials.

Lilly’s work on interspecies communication has since gone in and out of vogue several times within the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) community. Today, it’s back in fashion, thanks to new applications of information theory and to technological advancements, such as the Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry (CHAT) device, a submersible computer interface that establishes basic communication with dolphins. The return to dolphins as a model for alien intelligence came in 1999, when SETI Institute astronomer Laurance Doyle proposed using information theory to analyze animal communication systems, particularly the whistle repertoire of bottlenose dolphins. [Continue reading…]

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How Cervantes and Shakespeare wrote the modern literary rule book

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Salman Rushdie writes: As we honour the four hundredth anniversaries of the deaths of William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, it may be worth noting that while it’s generally accepted that the two giants died on the same date, 23 April 1616, it actually wasn’t the same day. By 1616 Spain had moved on to using the Gregorian calendar, while England still used the Julian, and was 11 days behind. (England clung to the old ­Julian dating system until 1752, and when the change finally came, there were riots and, it’s said, mobs in the streets shouting, “Give us back our 11 days!”) Both the coincidence of the dates and the difference in the calendars would, one suspects, have delighted the playful, erudite sensibilities of the two fathers of modern literature.

We don’t know if they were aware of each other, but they had a good deal in common, beginning right there in the “don’t know” zone, because they are both men of mystery; there are missing years in the record and, even more tellingly, missing documents. Neither man left behind much personal material. Very little to nothing in the way of letters, work diaries, abandoned drafts; just the colossal, completed oeuvres. “The rest is silence.” Consequently, both men have been prey to the kind of idiot theories that seek to dispute their authorship.

A cursory internet search “reveals”, for example, that not only did Francis Bacon write Shakespeare’s works, he wrote Don Quixote as well. (My favourite crazy Shakespeare theory is that his plays were not written by him but by someone else of the same name.) And of course Cervantes faced a challenge to his authorship in his own lifetime, when a certain pseudonymous Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, whose identity is also uncertain, published his fake sequel to Don Quixote and goaded Cervantes into writing the real Book II, whose characters are aware of the plagiarist Avellaneda and hold him in much contempt. [Continue reading…]

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How Shakespeare lives now

Stephen Greenblatt writes: A few years ago, during a merciful remission in the bloodshed and mayhem that has for so many years afflicted Afghanistan, a young Afghan poet, Qais Akbar Omar, had an idea. It was, he brooded, not only lives and livelihood that had been ruthlessly attacked by the Taliban, it was also culture. The international emblem of that cultural assault was the dynamiting of the Bamiyan Buddhas, but the damage extended to painting, music, dance, fiction, film, and poetry. It extended as well to the subtle web of relations that link one culture to another across boundaries and make us, each in our provincial worlds, feel that we are part of a larger humanity. This web is not only a contemporary phenomenon, the result of modern technology; it is as old as culture itself, and it has been particularly dense and vital in Afghanistan with its ancient trade routes and its endless succession of would-be conquerors.

Omar thought that the time was ripe to mark the restoration of civil society and repair some of the cultural damage. He wanted to stage a play with both men and women actors performing in public in an old garden in Kabul. He chose a Shakespeare play. No doubt the choice had something to do with the old imperial presence of the British in Afghanistan, but it was not only this particular history that was at work. Shakespeare is the embodiment worldwide of a creative achievement that does not remain within narrow boundaries of the nation-state or lend itself to the secure possession of a particular faction or speak only for this or that chosen group. He is the antithesis of intolerant provinciality and fanaticism. He could make with effortless grace the leap from Stratford to Kabul, from English to Dari.

Omar did not wish to put on a tragedy; his country, he thought, had suffered through quite enough tragedy of its own. Considering possible comedies, he shied away from those that involved cross-dressing. It was risky enough simply to have men and women perform together on stage. In the end he chose Love’s Labour’s Lost, a comedy that arranged the sexes in distinct male and female groups, had relatively few openly transgressive or explicitly erotic moments, and decorously deferred the final consummation of desire into an unstaged future. As a poet, Omar was charmed by the play’s gorgeous language, language that he felt could be rendered successfully in Dari.

The complex story of the mounting of the play is told in semifictionalized form in a 2015 book Omar coauthored with Stephen Landrigan, A Night in the Emperor’s Garden. Measured by the excitement it generated, this production of Love’s Labor’s Lost was a great success. The overflow crowds on the opening night gave way to ever-larger crowds clamoring to get in, along with worldwide press coverage.

But the attention came at a high price. The Taliban took note of Shakespeare in Kabul and what it signified. In the wake of the production, virtually everyone involved in it began to receive menacing messages. Spouses, children, and the extended families of the actors were not exempt from harrassment and warnings. The threats were not idle. The husband of one of the performers answered a loud knock on the door one night and did not return. His mutilated body was found the next morning.

What had seemed like a vigorous cultural renaissance in Afghanistan quickly faded and died. In the wake of the resurgence of the Taliban, Qais Akbar Omar and all the others who had had the temerity to mount Shakespeare’s delicious comedy of love were in terrible trouble. They are now, every one of them, in exile in different parts of the world.

Love’s labors lost indeed. But the subtitle of Omar’s account—“A True Story of Hope and Resilience in Afghanistan”—is not or at least not only ironic. The humane, inexhaustible imaginative enterprise that Shakespeare launched more than four hundred years ago in one small corner of the world is more powerful than all the oppressive forces that can be gathered against it. [Continue reading…]

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Why ‘natural selection’ became Darwin’s fittest metaphor

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Kensy Cooperrider writes: ome metaphors end up forgotten by all but the most dedicated historians, while others lead long, productive lives. It’s only a select few, though, that become so entwined with how we understand the world that we barely even recognize them as metaphors, seeing them instead as something real. Of course, why some fizzle and others flourish can be tricky to account for, but their career in science provides some clues.

Metaphors, as we all by now know, aren’t just ornamental linguistic flourishes — they’re basic building blocks of everyday reasoning. And they’re at their most potent when they recast a difficult-to-understand phenomenon as something familiar: The brain becomes a computer; the atom, a tiny solar system; space-time, a fabric. Metaphors that tap into something familiar are the ones that generally gain traction.

Charles Darwin gave us both kinds, big winners and total flops. Natural selection, his best-known metaphor, is still a fixture of evolutionary biology. Though it’s not always recognized as a metaphor today, that’s exactly what it was to Darwin and his contemporaries. After all, evolution was a foreign and unwieldy concept. So Darwin set out to make it accessible by comparing it to a method employed in farmyards around the world.

For years, Darwin — a fancy pigeon breeder — obsessed over what he called artificial selection, what cattle-breeders, gardeners, and crop-growers did to create new varieties of plant and animal: allowing just the ones with desirable traits to reproduce. Darwin’s first-hand experience with breeding set the stage for his now-famous metaphoric leap. [Continue reading…]

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How language is shaped by geography

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Susie Neilson writes: To Hawaiian speakers, vowels reign supreme. Only eight consonants exist in the language’s 13-letter alphabet, so most of its meaning is derived from oohs and aahs, ohs and eehs. One might say Hawaiian sounds a lot like the sea that surrounds it; the bulk of its words are simple and spare, flowing smoothly from vowel to vowel. Mahalo.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have German. With its 30-letter alphabet, clipped consonants, and “uvulars”—sounds made by constricting the tongue against the back wall of the throat—German is famously harsh and guttural. Auf Wiedehrsen! One might say — if one weren’t German, that is — that the language is cold and craggy, just like the country.

What accounts for how discrepant these languages sound? Ian Maddieson, a linguist at the University of New Mexico, had a hunch that the differences were not purely coincidental. He and a colleague, Christophe Coupe, analyzed more than 600 regional dialects around the world by topography, weather, and climate. Their findings, presented last November at the 170th Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America (ASA), claimed that the variations among the dialects exhibited a phenomenon previously only seen in birdcalls and other animal noises—acoustic adaptation. Put simply, acoustic adaptation maintains that the land where a language is born is also instrumental to how it evolves. [Continue reading…]

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How psychology can help us solve climate change

This piece has been taken down at the request of The Conversation.

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The significance of ‘untranslatable’ words

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Tim Lomas writes: [‘untranslatable’] words exert great fascination, not only in specialised fields like linguistics or anthropology (Wierzbicka, 1999), but also in popular culture. Part of the fascination seems to derive from the notion that such words offer ‘windows’ into other cultures, and thus potentially into new ways of being in the world. As Wierzbicka (1997, p. 5) puts it, ‘words with special, culture-specific meanings reflect and pass on not only ways of living characteristic of a given society, but also ways of thinking’. Thus, ‘untranslatable’ words are not only of interest to translators; after all, many such professionals argue that it can be difficult to find exact translations for most words, and that nearly all terms lose some specificity or nuance when rendered in another tongue (Hatim & Munday, 2004). Rather, ‘untranslatability’ reflects the notion that such words identify phenomena that have only been recognised by specific cultures. Perhaps the most famous example is Schadenfreude, a German term describing pleasure at the misfortunes of others. Such words are not literally untranslatable, of course, since their meaning can be conveyed in a sentence. Rather, they are deemed ‘untranslatable’ to the extent that other languages lack a single word/phrase for the phenomenon.

The significance of such words is much debated. A dominant theoretical notion here is ‘linguistic relativity’ (Hussein, 2012). First formulated by the German philosophers Herder (1744–1803) and Humboldt (1767–1835), it came to prominence with the linguist Sapir (1929) and his student Whorf (1940). Their so-called ‘Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’ holds that language plays a constitutive role in the way that people experience, understand and even perceive the world. As Whorf (1956, pp. 213–214) put it, ‘We dissect nature along lines laid out by our native languages … The world is presented as a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized … largely by the linguistic systems in our minds’. This hypothesis comes in various strengths. Its stronger form is linguistic determinism, where language inextricably constitutes and constrains thought. For instance, Whorf argued that the Hopi people had a different experience of time due to particularities in their grammar, such that they lacked a linear sense of past, present and future. This strong determinism has been criticised, e.g. by Pinker (1995), who argued that the Hopi experience of time was not particularly different to that of Western cultures. However, the milder form of the hypothesis, linguistic relativism, simply holds that language shapes thought and experience. This milder hypothesis is generally accepted by most anthropologists and other such scholars (Perlovsky, 2009). [Read more…]

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Human sounds convey emotions clearer and faster than words

McGill University: It takes just one-tenth of a second for our brains to begin to recognize emotions conveyed by vocalizations, according to researchers from McGill. It doesn’t matter whether the non-verbal sounds are growls of anger, the laughter of happiness or cries of sadness. More importantly, the researchers have also discovered that we pay more attention when an emotion (such as happiness, sadness or anger) is expressed through vocalizations than we do when the same emotion is expressed in speech.

The researchers believe that the speed with which the brain ‘tags’ these vocalizations and the preference given to them compared to language, is due to the potentially crucial role that decoding vocal sounds has played in human survival.

“The identification of emotional vocalizations depends on systems in the brain that are older in evolutionary terms,” says Marc Pell, Director of McGill’s School of Communication Sciences and Disorders and the lead author on the study that was recently published in Biological Psychology. ”Understanding emotions expressed in spoken language, on the other hand, involves more recent brain systems that have evolved as human language developed.” [Continue reading…]

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The deep space of digital reading

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Paul La Farge writes: In A History of Reading, the Canadian novelist and essayist Alberto Manguel describes a remarkable transformation of human consciousness, which took place around the 10th century A.D.: the advent of silent reading. Human beings have been reading for thousands of years, but in antiquity, the normal thing was to read aloud. When Augustine (the future St. Augustine) went to see his teacher, Ambrose, in Milan, in 384 A.D., he was stunned to see him looking at a book and not saying anything. With the advent of silent reading, Manguel writes,

… the reader was at last able to establish an unrestricted relationship with the book and the words. The words no longer needed to occupy the time required to pronounce them. They could exist in interior space, rushing on or barely begun, fully deciphered or only half-said, while the reader’s thoughts inspected them at leisure, drawing new notions from them, allowing comparisons from memory or from other books left open for simultaneous perusal.

To read silently is to free your mind to reflect, to remember, to question and compare. The cognitive scientist Maryanne Wolf calls this freedom “the secret gift of time to think”: When the reading brain becomes able to process written symbols automatically, the thinking brain, the I, has time to go beyond those symbols, to develop itself and the culture in which it lives.

A thousand years later, critics fear that digital technology has put this gift in peril. The Internet’s flood of information, together with the distractions of social media, threaten to overwhelm the interior space of reading, stranding us in what the journalist Nicholas Carr has called “the shallows,” a frenzied flitting from one fact to the next. In Carr’s view, the “endless, mesmerizing buzz” of the Internet imperils our very being: “One of the greatest dangers we face,” he writes, “as we automate the work of our minds, as we cede control over the flow of our thoughts and memories to a powerful electronic system, is … a slow erosion of our humanness and our humanity.”

There’s no question that digital technology presents challenges to the reading brain, but, seen from a historical perspective, these look like differences of degree, rather than of kind. To the extent that digital reading represents something new, its potential cuts both ways. Done badly (which is to say, done cynically), the Internet reduces us to mindless clickers, racing numbly to the bottom of a bottomless feed; but done well, it has the potential to expand and augment the very contemplative space that we have prized in ourselves ever since we learned to read without moving our lips. [Continue reading…]

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Connections aren’t conversations – while technology enables, it can also interfere

By Daria Kuss, Nottingham Trent University

A prisoner was in the US was recently released after 44 years of incarceration for the attempted murder of a police officer. Emerging onto the streets of New York City, Otis Johnson, now 69, found himself bewildered by the world before him. Seeing people apparently talking to themselves on the street, futuristic headphones dangling from their ears, reminded him of CIA agents. People barely paid attention to their surroundings, and instead studied their smartphones while crossing the street, engrossed in their own personal bubbles.

Technology had delivered Johnson a massive culture shock, the shock of a world where technology has quickly changed the way we live and the way we relate to one another.

In 2013 Sherry Turkle, a clinical psychologist and esteemed professor at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote Alone Together, in which she questioned the extent to which social media is bringing people together. Following decades of research on the profound impact of modern technology on human relationships, Turkle concluded that with the omnipresence of technology “we’re moving from conversation to connection”.

Connection, it seems, denotes a very different quality of social interaction in comparison to conversation, as it refers to continuous streams of little titbits of information, such as those neatly packaged into 140 characters on Twitter.

Conversation, on the other hand, refers to listening and empathic understanding, actively attending to another person, rather than fleetingly commenting on their status updates online while simultaneously talking on the phone, doing the laundry, or preparing the children’s dinner.

[Read more…]

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How a joke can help us unlock the mystery of meaning in language

By Vyvyan Evans, Bangor University

What do you get if you cross a kangaroo with an elephant?

You’ll have to wait for the punchline, but you should already have shards of meaning tumbling about your mind. Now, jokes don’t have to be all that funny, of course, but if they are to work at all then they must construct something beyond the simple words deployed.

Language is the tissue that connects us in our daily social lives. We use it to gossip, to get a job, and give someone the sack. We use it to seduce, quarrel, propose marriage, get divorced and yes, tell the odd gag. In the absence of telepathy, it lets us interact with our nearest and dearest, and in our virtual web of digital communication, with hundreds of people we may never have met.

But while we now know an awful lot about the detail of the grammatical systems of the world’s 7,000 or so languages, scientific progress on the mysterious elixir of communication – meaning – has been a much tougher nut to crack.

[Read more…]

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Possessed by a mask

Sandra Newman writes: It is an acknowledged fact of modern life that the internet brings out the worst in people. Otherwise law-abiding citizens pilfer films and music. Eminent authors create ‘sock puppets’ to anonymously praise their own work and denigrate that of rivals. Teenagers use the internet for bullying; even more disturbingly, grown-ups bully strangers with obsessive zeal, sometimes even driving them from their homes with repeated murder threats. Porn thrives, and takes on increasingly bizarre and often disturbing forms.

Commentators seem at a loss to satisfactorily account for this surge in antisocial tendencies. Sometimes it’s blamed on a few sociopathic individuals – but the offenders include people who are impeccably decent in their offline lives. The anonymity of online life is another explanation commonly given – but these behaviours persist even when the identities of users are easily discovered, and when their real names appear directly above offensive statements. It almost seems to be a contagion issuing from the technology itself, or at least strong evidence that computers are alienating us from our humanity. But we might have a better chance of understanding internet hooliganism if we looked at another form of concealment that isn’t true concealment, but that nonetheless has historically lured people into behaving in ways that are alien to their normal selves: the mask.

There doesn’t seem to be any culture in which masks have not been used. From the Australian outback to the Arctic, from Mesolithic Africa to the United States of the 21st century, people have always made and employed masks in ways that are seemingly various and yet have an underlying commonality. Their earliest appearance is in religious ritual. [Continue reading…]

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When languages die, we lose a part of who we are

By Anouschka Foltz, Bangor University

The 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP21) is in full gear and climate change is again on everyone’s mind. It conjures up images of melting glaciers, rising sea levels, droughts, flooding, threatened habitats, endangered species, and displaced people. We know it threatens biodiversity, but what about linguistic diversity?

Humans are the only species on the planet whose communication system exhibits enormous diversity. And linguistic diversity is crucial for understanding our capacity for language. An increase in climate-change related natural disasters may affect linguistic diversity. A good example is Vanuatu, an island state in the Pacific, with quite a dramatic recent rise in sea levels.

There are over 7,000 languages spoken in the world today. These languages exhibit enormous diversity, from the number of distinctive sounds (there are languages with as few as 11 different sounds and as many as 118) to the vast range of possible word orders, structures and concepts that languages use to convey meaning. Every absolute that linguists have posited has been challenged, and linguists are busy debating if there is anything at all that is common to all languages in the world or anything at all that does not exist in the languages of the world. Sign languages show us that languages do not even need to be spoken. This diversity is evidence of the enormous flexibility and plasticity of the human brain and its capacity for communication.

Studying diverse languages gives us invaluable insights into human cognition. But language diversity is at risk. Languages are dying every year. Often a language’s death is recorded when the last known speaker dies, and about 35% of languages in the world are currently losing speakers or are more seriously endangered. Most of these have never been recorded and so would be lost forever. Linguists estimate that about 50% of the languages spoken today will disappear in the next 100 years. Some even argue that up to 90% of today’s languages will have disappeared by 2115.

[Read more…]

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A scientific approach designed to precisely calibrate the metrics needed for quantifying bullshit

Science News reports: Dutch social psychologist Diederik Stapel was known for his meteoric rise, until he was known for his fall. His research on social interactions, which spanned topics from infidelity to selfishness to discrimination, frequently appeared in top-tier journals. But then in 2011, three junior researchers raised concerns that Stapel was fabricating data. Stapel’s institution, Tilburg University, suspended him and launched a formal investigation. A commission ultimately determined that of his more than 125 research papers, at least 55 were based on fraudulent data. Stapel now has 57 retractions to his name.

The case provided an unusual opportunity for exploring the language of deception: One set of Stapel’s papers that discussed faked data and a set of his papers based on legitimate results. Linguists David Markowitz and Jeffrey Hancock ran an analysis of articles in each set that listed Stapel as the first author. The researchers discovered particular tells in the language that allowed them to peg the fraudulent work with roughly 70 percent accuracy. While Stapel was careful to concoct data that appeared to be reasonable, he oversold his false goods, using, for example, more science-related terms and more amplifying terms, like extreme and exceptionally, in the now-retracted papers.

Markowitz and Hancock, now at Stanford, are still probing the language of lies, and they recently ran a similar analysis on a larger sample of papers with fudged data.

The bottom line: Fraudulent papers were full of jargon, harder to read, and bloated with references. This parsing-of-language approach, which the team describes in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, might be used to flag papers that deserve extra scrutiny. But tricks for detecting counterfeit data are unlikely to thwart the murkier problem of questionable research practices or the general lack of clarity in the scientific literature.

“This is an important contribution to the discussion of quality control in research,”Nick Steneck, a science historian at the University of Michigan and an expert in research integrity practices, told me. “But there’s a whole lot of other reasons why clarity and readability of scientific writing matters, including making things understandable to the public.” [Continue reading…]

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The strange persistence of first languages

Julie Sedivy writes: Like a household that welcomes a new child, a single mind can’t admit a new language without some impact on other languages already residing there. Languages can co-exist, but they tussle, as do siblings, over mental resources and attention. When a bilingual person tries to articulate a thought in one language, words and grammatical structures from the other language often clamor in the background, jostling for attention. The subconscious effort of suppressing this competition can slow the retrieval of words—and if the background language elbows its way to the forefront, the speaker may resort to code-switching, plunking down a word from one language into the sentence frame of another.

Meanwhile, the weaker language is more likely to become swamped; when resources are scarce, as they are during mental exhaustion, the disadvantaged language may become nearly impossible to summon. Over time, neglecting an earlier language makes it harder and harder for it to compete for access.

According to a 2004 survey conducted in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, fewer than half of people belonging to Generation 1.5 — immigrants who arrive before their teenage years — claimed to speak the language they were born into “very well.” A 2006 study of immigrant languages in Southern California forecast that even among Mexican Americans, the slowest group to assimilate within Southern California, new arrivals would live to hear only 5 out of every 100 of their great-grandchildren speak fluent Spanish.

When a childhood language decays, so does the ability to reach far back into your own private history. Language is memory’s receptacle. It has Proustian powers. Just as smells are known to trigger vivid memories of past experiences, language is so entangled with our experiences that inhabiting a specific language helps surface submerged events or interactions that are associated with it. [Continue reading…]

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