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Why are there so many languages?

18 Sep

A piece in Quartz explores this question:

In many cases, you could stand at the edge of one village and see the outskirts of the next community. Yet the residents of each village spoke completely different languages. According to recent work by my colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, this island, just 100 km long and 20 km wide, is home to speakers of perhaps 40 different indigenous languages. Why so many?
We could ask this same question of the entire globe. People don’t speak one universal language, or even a handful. Instead, today our species collectively speaks over 7,000 distinct languages.

I learned a number of interesting things about the dispersion of human languages from this article.

Book recommendations from dreams

15 Sep

I wonder if any of my readers have ever had the experience of having book recommend in a dream? This has happened to me twice in the recent past.
Considering how much I read, I am surprised that books don’t come up more often in my dreams. I frequently dream of being in bookstores, but rarely do I remember dreaming about specific books or the act of reading.

The first book I remember dreaming about was a math textbook, Hungerford’s Abstract Algebra. Hungerford was one of my professors and I read parts of this book when I took his class.

The second book is the Jerusalem Bible, I think that this might be related to my recent interest in the ideas of Julian Jaynes, who recommended comparing the book of Amos with Ecclesiastes to understand his theory of cognitive change. I was aware of this translation, Asimov speaks of it in his book on the Bible.

I did, not too long ago, have a dream about being in India and taking the bus from Delhi to Bihar. I have been in Delhi but never to Bihar. The very next day I was at a used bookstore and pulled a book off the shelf, titled Champaran and Gandhi, and discovered it was about Gandhi’s work in Bihar. Naturally, I purchased it. But, since I often look at books on India, I don’t regard this as a particularly surprising coincidence.

I do plan to read all three books.

Big Think’s list of world’s smartest people

13 Sep

Ten bests lists, and the like, should not be taken too seriously. Generally, a question such as “who was the greatest musician,” is really just a chance to talk about talent and accomplishment. The rankings themselves should be taken with a grain of salt. That is the way I feel about this list of the world’s smartest people. The list is inconsistent applying different criteria for different people, sometimes it gives IQ scores and other times it ignores them. Some of the IQs reported are really just guesses, and some, such as the claim that Cleopatra had an IQ, are based on very scanty evidence.

There is some reason to believe that creativity and cognitive ability (IQ) are different abilities. Thus, the inclusion of Shakespeare, despite his great artistic accomplishments may not be warranted. Also, why would Shakespeare be rated more highly than some non-anglophone literary figure, such as Tagore or Tolstoy?

If I were to draw up such a list, I certainly would include Godel and Cantor.

Meditation claims

11 Sep

My attention was recently draw to a blog post labeled “108 Benefits of Daily Meditation.” It didn’t take me long before I found something that made me feel uneasy, example number three to be exact:

blood pressure post What surprised me was the chart. It does not appear in the cited paper. The chart lacks an explanatory note, but the normal interpretation would be that it is comparing the effects of different interventions on blood pressure change. The horizontal lines represent the 95% confidence interval around some effect size. If the line crosses zero then we say that the findings were not statistically significant. Thus, the blog post included a chart that contradicts the findings of the cited paper.


How little information is enough to guess social class?

6 Sep

It turns out not very much.

Researchers from Yale University and the University of California-San Francisco published their findings in the May issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science. The data from these studies showed that participants were able to guess the approximate income level of another person using one of three cues: a 60-second video of their behavior, 20 photos from their Facebook profile, or recordings of them speaking seven standard, isolated words.

You can read the original paper here. Here is the abstract:

By some accounts, global economic inequality is at its highest point on record. The pernicious effects of this broad societal trend are striking: Rising inequality is linked to poorer health and well-being across countries, continents, and cultures. The economic and psychological forces that perpetuate inequality continue to be studied, and in this theoretical review, we examine the role of daily experiences of economic inequality—the communication of social class signals between interaction partners—in this process. We theorize that social class signals activate social comparison processes that strengthen group boundaries between the haves and have nots in society. In particular, we argue that class signals are a frequent, rapid, and accurate component of person perception, and we provide new data and analyses demonstrating the accuracy of class signaling in 60-s interactions, Facebook photographs, and isolated recordings of brief speech. We suggest that barriers to the reduction of economic inequality in society arise directly from this class signaling process through the augmentation of class boundaries and the elicitation of beliefs and behaviors that favor the economic status quo.

Finally, a sensible article about rewards for children

4 Sep

I think one of the most frustrating thing you experience when you have knowledge of a field, is how some misconception will gain wide currency because of the work of some popular writer. I think of the example of Steven J. Gould, undoubtedly an important paleontologist and a talented writer, who popularized the notion of punctuated equilibrium, even though most evolutionary biologists I know either reject it or think it is a relatively minor phenomenon. 

In my own fields of developmental and educational psychology, I have been chagrined by the continuing popularity of Alfie Kohn’s book Punished by Rewards. I believe that this book, which substantially misrepresents what we know about the effects of reinforcement on behavior, has done substantial harm.

Thus, I was pleased to see this piece in Slate by  Melinda Wenner Moyer, tiled “Go Ahead, Heap Rewards on Your Kid:”

But is the research really this damning? When an extreme stance is presented on a rather broad topic, I start wondering. And what I’ve found after digging into the research is that these blanket condemnations are unwarranted. Rewards can be useful in some situations and inappropriate in others, much like every other parenting tool. The literature on the potential dangers of rewards has been misinterpreted while the findings on its benefits have been largely overlooked.


The misnamed Pavlok Electro Wristband

1 Sep

I have no idea if the Pavlok Electro Wristband really helps you break bad habits by administering small electric shocks. What I do know is that this product is badly misnamed. According to BoingBoing:

Got a bad habit you’re aching to break? Don’t make yourself crazy with methods that don’t work – train yourself like Pavlov’s dog with the Pavlok. This little shock wristband sends you a light shock every time you engage in your bad habit by pressing the lightning bolt on the band or the zap button on the phone app. You can also set up automatic shocks through one of the many integrations. Any habit, same solution. Your brain will create an aversion to your bad habit when it’s paired with a shock, that’s just classical conditioning.

Pardon me, but this is not Pavlov’s classical conditioning, this is operant conditioning where behavior is changed by its consequences. Specifically it uses punishment, defined as a consequence that decreases the probability of a behavior recurring.

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