Archive for: September, 2010

Guess what turns me on?

Sep 30 2010 Published by under From the Melodye Files

...according to suspect sources on the Interwebs, I'm a logomaniac who enjoys gratification, control and long walks on the work.  Gross!  (At least "models" and "cookie" made the list?)  If *I* had devised my own list of favorite hot-topics (and not some half-baked word-counting algorithm that knows none of the particulars of my rich internal life), it would have had a lot of this, and this, and also that.

Clearly what this blog needs is more talk of sex, drugs, and cupcakes.

(Thanks to @gameswithwords for the generator tip.)

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Intelligent Nihilism

Sep 30 2010 Published by under Forget What You've Read!

I wanted to register a quick reply to some of the comments on last week's post "The question is : are you dumber than a rat?"  In the comments there, and in posts on other blogs, our research program has been accused of intelligent nihilism.  By one such characterization, our position is that "we don't how the brain could give rise to a particular type of behavior, so humans must not be capable of it."  Though I think the label is quite witty -- and would love to have badges made for the lab! -- I think this misrepresents our stance rather badly ; our argument is that many of the properties that linguists have attributed to language are either empty theoretical constructs (hypotheses that are not supported by the empirical evidence) or are conceptually confused (and have been shown to be so; by Wittgenstein, Quine and many others).  We are not denying that language -- and linguistic behavior -- are complex; rather, we are rejecting a particular  stance towards language that we think is theoretically and empirically vacuous.  This does not lead us to nihilism, but rather to a different conception of language and how language is learned.

In any case, the comments on last week's post prove to be fertile ground for discussion, so I've posted them (in pared down fashion) along with a brief response.  The full comment thread can be found at the original post.

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On becoming Birkin and letting go of Gainsbourg

Sep 27 2010 Published by under From the Melodye Files

The attitude of defiance of many American women proves that they are haunted by a sense of their femininity. In truth, to go for a walk with one’s eyes open is enough to demonstrate that humanity is divided into two classes of individuals whose clothes, faces, bodies, smiles, gaits, interests, and occupations are manifestly different. Perhaps these differences are superficial, perhaps they are destined to disappear. What is certain is that they do most obviously exist.  --Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex

As a scientist, I take seriously the idea that our expectations about the world shape not only our understanding and perception of it, but our engagement with it. Here, I muse on the implications this has both for how we perceive successful women in society, and how our expectations may shape the course and outcome of their achievement.

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22 responses so far

On Language : in response to Ben Zimmer

Sep 25 2010 Published by under Forget What You've Read!

Last week, Ben Zimmer published an article in the NY Times on chunking in language.  This morning, I received an email in my inbox from one Prof Plum, who was writing to a parent (a good friend of his) to explain what was right -- and what was wrong -- with the article.  I was CC'd, as Plum thought I might enjoy the explanation.  I did!  With permission, I have included it below for any interested readers.  But first, here's Zimmer :

In recent decades, the study of language acquisition and instruction has increasingly focused on “chunking”: how children learn language not so much on a word-by-word basis but in larger “lexical chunks” or meaningful strings of words that are committed to memory. Chunks may consist of fixed idioms or conventional speech routines, but they can also simply be combinations of words that appear together frequently, in patterns that are known as “collocations.” In the 1960s, the linguist Michael Halliday pointed out that we tend to talk of “strong tea” instead of “powerful tea,” even though the phrases make equal sense. Rain, on the other hand, is much more likely to be described as “heavy” than “strong.”

A native speaker picks up thousands of chunks like “heavy rain” or “make yourself at home” in childhood, and psycholinguistic research suggests that these phrases are stored and processed in the brain as individual units. As the University of Nottingham linguist Norbert Schmitt has explained, it is much less taxing cognitively to have a set of ready-made lexical chunks at our disposal than to have to work through all the possibilities of word selection and sequencing every time we open our mouths.

Plum's response covers why word-chunks are better thought of as a skill than an inventory, how we unconsciously change our speech when we talk on cellphones, and how we can learn verbal humor.

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On the aim of every good writer

Sep 25 2010 Published by under Quotable

"I should not like my writing to spare other people the trouble of thinking.  But if possible, to stimulate someone to thoughts of his own." --Wittgenstein

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The question is : are you dumber than a rat?

Many developmental psychologists buy into an argument that suggests that children are dumber than rats.  Should you?


Human cognition is geared towards the central task of predicting the world around it.  As you may remember from an earlier post I did on the A-not-B task in infants, children aren't born understanding causal relationships right off the bat -- as a kid, you need to learn that when batter goes into the oven, it comes out as cake; when a dog jumps in water, it comes out wet; and when a shaggy-dog runs dripping through the house, mommy gets mad. As an adult, prediction operates in just about everything you do, from how much you drink at a party (who do you really want to be going home with?) to how hard you push down on the breaks (how fast do you need the car to stop?) to what you think I'm going to say next (yep, there's lots of evidence that you're predicting my words in a manner not wholly unlike Google auto-complete).

One thing that matters immensely in all of this is informativity.  There are many illusory correlations in the world that you might forge -- how do you establish the causal links that matter and are meaningful?

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33 responses so far

Nietzsche on the Public Intellectual

Sep 22 2010 Published by under Quotable

"Almost always the books of scholars are somehow oppressive, oppressed: the "specialist" emerges somewhere—his zeal, his seriousness, his fury, his overestimation of the nook in which he sits and spins, his hunched back; every specialist has his hunched back. Every scholarly book also mirrors a soul that has become crooked; every craft makes crooked.…Nothing can be done about that. Let nobody suppose that one could possibly avoid such crippling by some artifice of education. On this earth one pays dearly for every kind of mastery.…For having a specialty one pays by also being the victim of this specialty. But you would have it otherwise—cheaper and fairer and above all more comfortable—isn't that right, my dear contemporaries. Well then, but in that case you also immediately get something else: instead of the craftsman and master, the "man of letters," the dexterous, "polydexterous" man of letters who, to be sure, lacks the hunched back—not counting the posture he assumes before you, being the salesman of the spirit and the "carrier" of culture—the man of letters who really is nothing but "represents" almost everything, playing and "substituting" for the expert, and taking it upon himself in all modesty to get himself paid, honored, and celebrated in place of the expert.

No, my scholarly friends, I bless you even for your hunched back. And for despising, as I do, the "men of letters" and culture parasites. And for not knowing how to make a business of the spirit. And for having opinions that cannot be translated into financial values. And for not representing anything that you are not. And because your sole aim is to become masters of your craft, with reverence for every kind of mastery and competence, and with uncompromising opposition to everything that is semblance, half-genuine, dressed up, virtuosolike, demagogical, or histrionic in litteris et artibus—to everything that cannot prove to you its unconditional probity in discipline and prior training, [The Gay Science, sec. 366]"

[Stolen from Brian Leiter at the Philosophical Gourmet, who was writing on some of the limitations -- and virtues -- of analytic philosophy.  Haven't looked at The Gay Science since I was 19 or so, but am tempted now to reread it; Nietzsche is by far the best writer of any philosopher I've ever read, and the most wonderful sort of aesthetic thinker.]

9 responses so far

Your Humble Narrators on Bloggingheads


Jason and Melody are the subjects of today's Bloggingheads.tv Science Saturday program. Watch us chat with eachother for about an hour on how we became scientists and science bloggers, our thoughts on the state of psychology as a field, peer review and the journal system, how the study of language learning and comparative cognition may not be so different, and a smattering of other thoughts.

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Why, Hello Again

Sep 17 2010 Published by under From the Melodye Files

To the four of you left reading -- Jason and I have been trying to get our bearings as Scientopia has been bouncing amidst servers, and will resume regular posts soon.  In the meantime, I would highly recommend checking out Fifty-Cent translated into the Queen's English.  Really raises some interesting questions about what 'translation' means, eh?  (Ha-ha, kidding!) (Sort of)

I could also use some help picking a hotel room for a conference this weekend... As a young traveler, I've been investigating the 'budget' options.  TripAdviser has informed me that I can choose among the following fine establishments.  Please advise --

I can't get over how dire the reviews are --!  "Don't do this"  "MY MISTAKE"  "Stay away!" --It's like they survived Hostel II and have clawed their way back to civilization just so they can write ominous testimonials on TripAdvisor.

Can't WAIT 😉

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Why are Zipfian distributions found in language?

This post is a scholarly addendum to today's main post, aimed to satisfy the curiosity of my academic readers.  I'm going to leave you with an excerpt from an excellent book chapter, "Repetition and Reuse in Child Language Learning," by Colin Bannard and Elena Lieven.  The two take up the question of why Zipfian distributions are found in language.  A short suggested reading list with annotations follows.  Please feel free to leave links to other suggested reading in the comments..

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