Sunday, June 22, 2008

When Conferences Meant Something

One of my all time favorite pictures, this comes from what may have been the most valuable academic conference in history, the Fifth Solvay International Conference on Electrons and Photons held in Brussels, Belgium 1927. Rarely has a single conference involved such critical debate about a new theory (I'm no physicist, of course).

From Wikipedia's page: "Perhaps the most famous conference was the October 1927 Fifth Solvay International Conference on Electrons and Photons, where the world's most notable physicists met to discuss the newly formulated quantum theory. The leading figures were Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr. Einstein, disenchanted with Heisenberg's "Uncertainty Principle," remarked "God does not play dice." Bohr replied, "Einstein, stop telling God what to do." (See Bohr-Einstein debates.) Seventeen of the twenty-nine attendees were or became Nobel Prize winners, including Marie Curie, who alone among them, had won Nobel Prizes in two separate scientific disciplines."

The picture includes (by row):
A. Piccard, E. Henriot, P. Ehrenfest, Ed. Herzen, Th. De Donder, E. Schrödinger, J.E. Verschaffelt, W. Pauli, W. Heisenberg, R.H. Fowler, L. Brillouin;

P. Debye, M. Knudsen, W.L. Bragg, H.A. Kramers, P.A.M. Dirac, A.H. Compton, L. de Broglie, M. Born, N. Bohr;

I. Langmuir, M. Planck, M. Curie, H.A. Lorentz, A. Einstein, P. Langevin, Ch. E. Guye, C.T.R. Wilson, O.W. Richardson

Monday, June 16, 2008

Soda Pop Coke


"The Great Pop vs. Soda Controversy".

Red
= “Coke”
Blue
= “pop”
Yellow
= “soda”

Ahhhhhh, a classic from first year linguistics....


(HT: Daily Dish)

UPDATE: The picture above wasn't visible because the original site wasn't responding so I saved the pic as a JPEG and uploaded it directly. There is still a link to the original page. Why wasn't the original page responding? Maybe because Andrew Sullivan linked to it and the resulting traffic crashed the site. Sullivan gets like 5 million views a month. The guy's a blogging monster.

"Historical Vegetarian"

This summer I will be celebrating my 30th year as a vegetarian. Yippy for me. There are many ways to be a vegetarian and I'm often asked "what kind of vegetarian are you?". There are many ways of answering this question.

1) I could use one of the names that have emerged as labels for "dietary practices commonly associated with vegetarianism" (as this Wikipedia page explains ... it lists more than ten names).

2) I could list the things I eat, so I could say something like "I don't eat fish or meat. I'm not opposed to dairy, but it's a small part of my diet (mostly cheese). I'm not opposed to eggs, but I rarely eat them".

I rarely say either of the above. Instead, I typically say "I'm an historical vegetarian". I coined this term decades ago in order to sum up my answer, which has nothing to do with what I eat, but everything to do with when and why I became a vegetarian.

I chose to became a vegetarian in the late 1970s when I was seven years old for one reason and one reason only: My oldest brother Rob decided to become one. Rob was around 16 at the time, and if my understanding of the late 70s is accurate, every 16 year old was becoming a vegetarian. It was a fad. They all listened to disco, wore bell-bottoms (oh my, did Rob ever have the bell-bottoms!), and became vegetarians.

As a seven year old, I knew full well that Rob was the coolest person on the planet, so I followed him around and did whatever he did. He became a vegetarian, so I became a vegetarian and so did my brother Don. My mother didn't seem to mind (she probably rolled her eyes a few times, knowing the fad would pass, and decided to wait it out). I remember the first day remarkably well because my mother informed us that we were going to have hamburgers that night, and we all decided it would be wise to postpone our veggie inauguration by a day. But the next day, we stuck by our word and renounced meat (we allowed fish and fowl and dairy). My mother patiently cooked multiple dishes as was needed ... and waited.

Within a year, Rob was munching on hamburgers again. Within two years, Don fell off the wagon and dove into hotdogs with relish (frikkin sweeeeeeeet ambiguity! Both semantic AND syntactic. Parse THAT, LKB!).

And I was the last man standing. At ten years old, I renounced fish and fowl and dug in for the long haul. Somewhere along the line, my sister Lori became a vegetarian, but I think that was later. She held out for a good long while, but alas, she too has fallen off the wagon as well.

I've never quite understood my motivations for sticking it out, except perhaps the stubborness of a youngest child. But I have never been comfortable with any of the silly labels that people have concocted for cutting up the vegetarian space. I'm most happy with vegetarian. Nice and basic level. But I find other people are not happy when I call myself a vegetarian. They seem to feel I've misled them somehow when I re-tell the little story. So I coined historical vegetarian to label the tiny little space in veggie-land that I occupy. It may be the case that I alone am properly labeled by this term (god I love my syntax sometimes!).

Thursday, June 12, 2008

How Does Language Work?

I have asked this question before here. My answer now, as it was then, is this: I dunno.

But Michael Gasser, Indiana University Associate Professor of Computer Science and Cognitive Science, thinks he does so he wrote this freely available book: "how language works".

I like free books, but I haven't read it yet (I just got myself deep into Kundera's Laughable Loves. I've always been a sucker for Kundera).

I like Gasser's background. His work has focused on "computational models of human language acquisition and language behavior." Cool stuff. His recent work involves finding ways to use technology to help gather training data for statistical machine translation and then to integrate symbolic knowledge of grammar rules with statistical knowledge of training data. Cool boots.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Spontaneous Synchronization

While not immediately having anything at all to do with linguistics, this awesome video demonstrating spontaneous synchronization nonetheless demonstrates a critical idea behind complex emergent phenomenon in linguistics.

The video shows five metronomes lined up on a thin plank, pulsing asynchronously. The plank is then lifted onto two soda cans and gradually the five metronomes begin to sync up and pulse in time with each other, taking just under one minute.

The question is, would they have synced up had they not been lifted onto the cans? I believe the answer is no, they would not have. The energy being transferred between the metronomes was probably too dissipated, too weakly distributed when sitting on the table. When placed atop the cans, the energy was focused in some particularly salient way as to facilitate synchronization (I'm no physicist, this is just my naïve hunch).

I believe a parallel can be drawn with language evolution (and really, language learning in general). There is the notion in language learning theories of matching up internal hypotheses about grammatical structure with evidence from a community of speakers. Eventually, all speakers of "the same language" must form some sort of agreement or synchronization in order to communicate. But that agreement needs proper focal points to be salient. It is not the case that all language patterns get passed along. Some die off. The language patterns that succeed are the ones that have the right focal points to get distributed in the optimal way across a community of speakers. The mechanism of distribution is inter-speaker agreement. This agreement is implicit and emergent. In other words, a language could be defined as the synchronized patterns that speakers have settled on.

But why do speakers agree to adopt pattern A but not pattern B? This is a not entirely well understood, but I think it is clear that some patterns succeed because that were distributed in the right way. good old lucky accident.

I'm thinking of the sort of work that Partha Niyogi has done in has done in his book The Computational Nature of Language Learning and Evolution.

So, what are the soda cans of language evolution?

Fucking fuck fuck

Thanks to my new favorite obsession, StumbleUpon, I discovered that The Big Lebowski, one of the greatest fucking films ever fucking made, is even fucking better in it's fucking short version.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

"What exactly is the metaphor?"

The folks over at Freakonomics posted a damned interesting question:

Here’s the most recent guest bleg from Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations...

For years I have been posing a question about the term “bargaining chip” that no one has yet answered.

This is widely assumed to be a poker metaphor, but I do not know of chips being used for bargaining or trading in poker or any other game. What exactly is the metaphor?

Any guesses? Post them at Freakonomics. The current crop of 17 comments cover the role of chips in poker and various other games, but they fail to adequately explain the role of bargaining in the metaphor. One does not use chips to bargain in poker.

A linguist asks some questions about word vectors

I have at best a passing familiarity with word vectors, strictly from a 30,000 foot view. I've never directly used them outside a handfu...