Archive for the 'From the Melodye Files' category

A Pure Physiological Basis for the Life of the Psyche

Mar 31 2011 Published by under From the Melodye Files

It isn't the sort of argument Pointsman relishes either. But he glances sharply at this young anarchist in his red scarf. "Pavlov believed that the ideal, the end we all struggle toward in science, is the true mechanical explanation. He was realistic enough not to expect it in his lifetime. Or in several lifetimes more. But his hope was for a long chain of better and better approximations. His faith ultimately lay in a pure physiological basis for the life of the psyche. No effect without cause, and a clear train of linkages.

"It's not my forte, of course," Mexico honestly wishing not to offend the man, but really, "but there's a feeling about that cause-and-effect may have been taken as far as it will go. That for science to carry on at all, it must look for a less narrow, a less . . . sterile set of assumptions. The next great breakthrough may come when we have the courage to junk cause-and-effect entirely, and strike off at some other angle."

"No--not 'strike off.' Regress. You're 30 years old, man. There are no 'other angles.' There is only forward--into it--or backward."

(Pynchon winkingly giving cognitive science a what-for. cc: "levels of analysis")

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Why LOLCats ruined my English

Mar 09 2011 Published by under From the Melodye Files

The talented writer and polyglot Robert Lane Greene has a short guest blog in yesterday's NY Times today suggesting that (as Emily Anthes recapped on Twitter): "Perhaps we're seeing more grammatical mistakes because literacy is on the rise."

In the post, Greene scrutinizes the prescriptivist rallying cry that language is in a perpetual decline and must be enshrined (quick!) before it's too late.  He trots out the usual counter-arguments: linguistic change is constant and inevitable; linguistic change is not necessarily bad ("when a good thing changes it can become another good thing"); and so on.

The most interesting claim Greene makes comes at the end of the post, when he notes that illiteracy rates have plummeted over the last century, to virtually zero.  However, as he is quick to point out:

Literacy is a continuum of skills. Basic education now reaches virtually all Americans.  But many among the poorest have the weakest skills in formal English.

This, he thinks, is to blame for the rise of misplaced apostrophes and teen-text speak.  It's a truly interesting observation, but one I think he squanders in his conclusion.

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The Ashtray Argument

Mar 07 2011 Published by under From the Melodye Files

"I call Kuhn’s reply “The Ashtray Argument.” If someone says something you don’t like, you throw something at him. Preferably something large, heavy, and with sharp edges. Perhaps we were engaged in a debate on the nature of language, meaning and truth. But maybe we just wanted to kill each other."

--Errol Morris in the opinion pages of yesterday's NY Times, aptly capturing that spirit of wonder academics bring to the world... Or something.


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Polysemy has never been so lovely

Feb 21 2011 Published by under From the Melodye Files

Yesterday, a famous linguist in construction grammar sent me the following Radiolab video:

Words are Beautiful

...Which was a powerful and joyful experience.

This prompted me to send her an excerpt of a paper I wrote with Prof Plum on how words mean (and also on metaphor):

The kinds of expectations that people build up about words in listening and reading may have an important part to play in their conceptualisation of those words. Words are often thought of as being abstractions of objects and events in the world, but defining a simple relation between the thing being represented and the label that represents it is problematic (Murphy, 2002). Indeed, it has been argued that the meanings of words are better understood in relation to their patterns of use, rather than to the things in the world they appear to represent (Wittgenstein, 1953). When we talk about names, for example, we say things like ‘did you catch her name’, ‘his name is mud’, ‘they were called by name’, ‘she made a name for herself’, and so on. From this perspective, a ‘name’ is not only a word ‘by which something is called or known’, as the dictionary designates, but also a thing to be had, caught, muddied, cleared, called, and made. People ‘go by names’, they ‘throw names around’, they hope to see their ‘name in lights’, and on this view, the meaning of ‘name’ is inextricable from its patterns of use: from the words it co-occurs with and the words that modify it, and the effect that these have on the way that people think about ‘name’.

These kinds of co-occurrence patterns offer a rich and readily available source of information for anyone learning to understand the world and the way that language relates to it, and there is considerable evidence to support the idea that people are sensitive to this information. Our suggestion is that people’s understanding of the patterns of use associated with motion words actually plays an important part in shaping their understanding of them. For instance, saying that time can ‘run out’ or ‘fly by’ influences what we understand time to be in the first place, because thinking about time in this way involves processes shared with other things that ‘run out’, ‘fly by’, or ‘stand still’ (Slobin, 1996). In a sense, the mind works metaphorically, associating words with other words that are used in similar ways.

If understanding results (at least in part) from predictive processes and the expectations produced by patterns of co-occurrence, then when we use words in similar ways they ought to become more closely aligned in meaning. This would suggest that saying literally ‘the man runs by’, fictively ‘the road runs along the river’, and figuratively ‘time runs out’, should, as a result of this common pattern of usage, more closely align our notions of how space and time operate. Accordingly, we suggest that the similar ways in which people talk about motion through space and motion through time is an important part of their common underlying conceptualisation." (Ramscar, Matlock & Dye, 2010)

...The writing of which was inspired by Wittgenstein, and also by the great Ira Allen, who has some wonderful leads to literary science writing.  Thanks also to Seth, who looks just like a young Foucault (and is almost certainly just as clever).

Hope you are having a nice winter, folks.

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The Parable of the Man Who Didn't Get the Message

Dec 13 2010 Published by under From the Melodye Files

May I present to you, dear readers, a reading from the Book of Revelations...

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Epic Failures in Language as Prediction

Nov 20 2010 Published by under From the Melodye Files

Am happy to announce that my month-long hiatus from blogging -- spent on a whirlwind tour of Chicago, New York, Portland & St. Louis -- is finally coming to an end.  Before jetting for Psychonomics, Prof Plum and I filmed a spot for Science Saturdays, which is now online! (Good!) But -- which has been more or less universally panned by a clique of rabid commenters over at BloggingHeads (Less happy-making -- mrarm, but possibly deserved).

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On bullshit

Oct 26 2010 Published by under From the Melodye Files

I've spent the last couple of days exploring The Guardian's secret philosophy / religion section and reading interviews from the Paris Review (and reading more and more Marquez; I can understand why Bolaño makes fun of him now, though it's hard not to find the man's scribblings adorable).  The last interview I read this afternoon was with Haruki Murakami, who changed my life at fourteen with Norwegian Wood (him and Eugenides; see: The Virgin Suicides).  There are two quotes I loved, in particular :

"In the 19th and early 20th centuries, writers offered the real thing; that was their task. In War and Peace Tolstoy describes the battleground so closely that the readers believe it’s the real thing. But I don’t. I’m not pretending it’s the real thing. We are living in a fake world; we are watching fake evening news. We are fighting a fake war. Our government is fake. But we find reality in this fake world. So our stories are the same; we are walking through fake scenes, but ourselves, as we walk through these scenes, are real. The situation is real, in the sense that it’s a commitment, it’s a true relationship. That’s what I want to write about."


"I like to write comic dialogue; it’s fun. But if my characters were all comic it would be boring. Those comic characters are a kind of stabilizer to my mind; a sense of humor is a very stable thing. You have to be cool to be humorous. When you’re serious, you could be unstable; that’s the problem with seriousness. But when you’re humorous, you’re stable. But you can’t fight the war smiling."

This came, of course, directly after reading a joyful interview with the comic writer P.G. Wodehouse who must have been the merriest man alive. But still -- these words gave me some solace. "You can't fight the war smiling." Of course you can't, though you must try to delight in what you can.

And then there was this Don DeLillo ruby hidden in the midst of a beguiling David Mitchell interview :

"It is so much simpler to bury reality than it is to dispose of dreams."

I suppose, in the heady pursuit of science, it is impossible to bury reality.  In the academic world, there is the interminable reality of rejections; politics; ghastly ideas (and some ghastly people promoting them as well).  That strange, fake world.  But sometimes, for a moment, it's nice to forget it -- and to struggle on, imagining the rightly impossible to be very near.  Sometimes I think that perhaps what is so devastatingly wrong with the current state of academic psychology is the lack of wonderment among certain careerist academics; the obsession with protocol and publicity and status and not (rightly) with the meat and marrow of ideas, which might transform our world, which might bring us some much needed relief. When money and career are at stake, there are far too many too easily compromised.  And for what?

Should earnestness be a requirement in a good scientist?  Or should science teach us to be cynical?

(Link is to "On Bullshit," the Frankfurt essay.)

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Or is that just what Chomskytron programmed you to say?

Oct 13 2010 Published by under From the Melodye Files

I can't even explain how happy this comic makes me.  The poverty of the digits?  Chomskytron?  And just look at my lips!  I'm a mad hot bot, apparently.

Anyway, not what this post is about!  (But so excellent, I had to include).

I recently came by a fantastic little textbook written by Larry Trask, an acclaimed (and out-spoken) American linguist who specialized in the study of Basque, and was known to occasionally rage against Chomsky in The Guardian.  The subject of his text?  Historical linguistics.  A subject that, to be fair, I haven't read much about since being an impressionable young teenager, and discovering Merritt Ruhlen and protohuman language in the musty (dusty) stacks of the Glendale Public Library.  ("This sounds like historical fiction..." I remember thinking)  In any case, the Trask text has proved a wonderful refresher and I highly recommend it if you can find it on Amazon; it appears to be selling for under $5!

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Concepts : A Thing or An Act?

Oct 08 2010 Published by under From the Melodye Files

There is a temptation to see a concept as a static ‘thing’ somehow stored in mind. One might imagine, for instance, that our concept of the word ‘hammer’ consists of visual memory for a hammer or series of hammers (or a ‘prototype’ or ‘schema’ of a hammer, whatever that should be).  That we can think how this might be so, is not a good reason to adopt this idea.  Indeed, it would be far better if should we discard this notion altogether.  If we take language to be a skill, like tennis or painting, we see quickly how this idea breaks apart at the seams.  For one does not have a static ‘concept’ of how one paints a landscape, or a fixed ‘concept’ of how one approaches a serve; rather one learns, over time, the toss of the ball, the arc of the back, the gentle shiting of weight, the flex of the wrist; and in all of this, there is the demand of sustained practice and coordination, the reproof and rebuke of time, and as ever, a great number of processes – physiological and mental – that contribute to the execution of the act (which is, almost certainly, imprecise).  If a concept is a skill too, then it is a learned process; an active engagement; one of a suite of ways of representing the world.

On our confusion with words (and our idea that a word 'stands' for a thing), Wittgenstein said :

"This [confusion] is connected with the conception of naming as... an occult process.  Naming appears as a queer connection of a word with an object. --[But] you really [only] get such a queer connexion when the philosopher tries to bring out the relation between name and thing by staring at an object in front of him and repeating a name or even the word "this" innumerable times.  For philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday.  ...We can [of course] say the word "this" to an object, or as it were, address the object as "this"--[but this] is a queer use of the word, which doubtless only occurs in doing philosophy."

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The questions we should still be asking about gender

Oct 04 2010 Published by under From the Melodye Files

"...for the present enshrines the past – and in the past all history has been made by men." --Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex

Last week, I wrote a short piece on my (stunning) failure to be socialized according to our culture's gender norms. As I pointed out, I spent much of my adolescence wearing my father's hand-me-downs and drinking cheap whiskey with the loud boys (the kind, you know, who wore cordovan wingtips and eyeliner to first period). We were a delightful lot of misfits. Anyhow, an old friend, reading this, sent me a link to a new collection by Dries Van Noten, as photographed by The Sartorialist, with the note "ahead of the times, eh?" But of course.

The Sartorialist writes : "The take away from this show? Steal your Dad's clothes, all your dad's clothes. His shirts, his jeans, his sportcoats are all fair game now."

Why, I wonder, did I ever learn to wear lipstick? And like it?

To be fair, menswear has long been a 'classic look' on women of my build (broad shoulders, long neck) and height (as tall as a man). In search of my style predecessors, I searched the Internets for some of my women-loves. I've posted a small gallery at the end of the post.

But before getting to that, I thought I would raise a number of questions on gender that still demand discussion :

On language
How does language shape our thoughts on gender? How do we use language - as a form of behavior and as an expression and extension of culture - to implicitly enforce gender norms?  And then -- secondarily -- If we think that language is shaping (or implicitly constraining) our thoughts and beliefs about gender, is it worthwhile to assess and try to change those values? Should we try to self-consciously change the way we speak?

On biology
In society, what role does biology play in propelling men (and not women) to the top? Are the traits of highly successful men (e.g., hyperfocus, ambition, hypomania) truly absent in women? In what way is the expression of these traits mediated by cultural norms and practice?

On sex
How does female sexuality play into all of this? What part does modern culture (pornography, fashion, etc) play in shaping our expectations of women? Must powerful, iconic women necessarily be de-sexualized, gay, or explicitly counter-culture?  What happens when women turn the tables and objectify men?  [Links are to the Martin Amis classic on pornography "Pussies are bullshit," the Dove ads scandal, and the Karen Owen sex-thesis (er, f*ck list), respectively.]

And finally, a provocative question from a conversation I was having this evening about Hemingway (who was often accused of misogyny) :

What does it mean to be a misogynist in an age (or society) where women are socialized to be powerless, subservient and inferior?  What does it mean to be a feminist?

In the days to come, I'll write a little on the research I've been doing on the differences in how we use gendered words (like "he" and "she" and "man" and "woman").  The differences are striking, and sometimes more than a little startling.  Here's a simple one you might not expect : when it comes to labeling people by their sexual orientation, we're far more interested in a man's preference than a woman's.  In fact, we label men by their orientation (gay, straight, bi) about ten times more often than we do women.  But that ratio nearly reverses when it comes to marital status.  We talk incessantly about whether women are "married," "single," or "divorced," but when it comes to the guys, we couldn't care less.  What does it all mean?  --I'll get to that bit shortly.

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