Tuesday, November 23, 2010

purple pain and a gene called 'straightjacket'

Dr. Kevin Mitchell, a neuroscientist at Smurfit Institute of Genetics, University of Dublin, posted at his excellent blog Wiring the Brain about a weird, interesting study* that points to a possible genetic explanation of synaesthesia** (e.g., hearing a word and experiencing the color red). The authors were studying pain mechanisms in fruit flies (turns out the mechanisms are similar to us mammals, whuddathunk?). Once they identified a particular gene they dubbed straightjacket*** which is "involved in modulating neurotransmission," they systematically deleted it in test flies and discovered that the test subjects**** no longer processed the pain stimuli, even though the pain stimuli was following the pathway. In Mitchell's words:

Somehow, deletion of CACNA2D3 alters connectivity within the thalamus or from thalamus to cortex in a way that precludes transmission of the signal to the pain matrix areas. This is where the story really gets interesting. While they did not observe responses of the pain matrix areas in response to painful stimuli, they did observe something very unexpected – responses of the visual and auditory areas of the cortex! What’s more, they observed similar responses to tactile stimuli administered to the whiskers. Whatever is going on clearly affects more than just the pain circuitry (emphasis added).

So, if I understand this, they turned off the ability to recognize pain, but when they administered painful stimuli (heat), the test subjects had visual, auditory, and tactile experiences. Imagine putting a flame to your hand and seeing purple. Pretty frikkin awesome. Dr. Mitchell's post does more justice to this complex study, I just thought it was awesome.

*Geez! Take a look at the author list of the publication. Do you have a place for 12th author on YOUR CV?

**FYI: Synaesthesia is NOT the same thing as sound symbolism, necessarily. True synaesthesia is a rare phenomenon that appears to have biophysical roots. Sound symbolism is mostly hippie-dippy bullshit exploited by marketing professionals to sell stuff.

***I have no clue why they called it this, but it's a hell of a lot more awesome than CACNA2D3.

****There were multiple studies referenced, some involving fruit flies, some involving mice, and it wasn't clear to me which evidence came from which studies, so I have chosen to use the cover term "test subjects."

Neely GG, Hess A, Costigan M, Keene AC, Goulas S, Langeslag M, Griffin RS, Belfer I, Dai F, Smith SB, Diatchenko L, Gupta V, Xia CP, Amann S, Kreitz S, Heindl-Erdmann C, Wolz S, Ly CV, Arora S, Sarangi R, Dan D, Novatchkova M, Rosenzweig M, Gibson DG, Truong D, Schramek D, Zoranovic T, Cronin SJ, Angjeli B, Brune K, Dietzl G, Maixner W, Meixner A, Thomas W, Pospisilik JA, Alenius M, Kress M, Subramaniam S, Garrity PA, Bellen HJ, Woolf CJ, & Penninger JM (2010). A Genome-wide Drosophila Screen for Heat Nociception Identifies α2δ3 as an Evolutionarily Conserved Pain Gene. Cell, 143 (4), 628-38 PMID: 21074052

Monday, November 22, 2010


kottke rants against Google's biased calculator (because it provides an answer rather than search results) then finishes with this:

Google! This. Is. Un. Acce. Ptable!

Huh? Does kottke have dyslexia*? I get the staccato pronunciation he's representing, but that's not at all how I would say it. I would say (and write): Un. Ac. Cept. Able! Even if you want to pose your own variation, can we agree that kottke's is simply not a viable analysis of the syllable structure of the word? The double "c" spelling makes it a bit odd looking, but it actually helps in the analysis. Each "c" represents a different sound, and each sound should go in a different syllable. And how does he start the final syllable with "pt"! That is unaxseptable!

*Dyslexics can have difficulty counting syllables.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Pronouncify.com and the fictional Princeton Linguistics department

I spent Thursday night on a plane so I missed 30 Rock and the most linguistics oriented sit-com episode since ... since ... um ... okay, the most linguistics oriented sitcom episode EVER! But thanks to the innerwebz, I have caught up on my TV addiction.

The set-up has Jack Donaghy being the voice of Pronouncify.com, (I BEG you to sign up, PLEASE!!!!)  a website that demonstrates the correct pronunciation of all English words. Apparently, when Jack was a poor undergrad at Princeton, he was hired by the "Linguistics Department" to pronounce every word in an English dictionary to preserve the correct pronunciation for generations to come. But they sold his readings, and hence his voice is now the voice of Pronouncify.com (as well as the first perfect microwave...).

Here is as faithful a transcript of the critical dialogue as I can muster:

Jack: Those bastards!
Liz: Who bastards?
Jack: Part of my Princeton scholarship included work for the Linguistics department. They wanted me to record every word in the dictionary to preserve the perfect American accent in case of nuclear war. Well, the cold war ended, and Princeton began selling the recordings.
Liz: So people can just buy your voice?
Jack: Ohhhh, the things it's been dragged into. Thomas the Tank Engine; Wu-Tang songs...

This must have been the glory days before the hippies took over and started "protecting" undergrads from "exploitation." Whatever...

In any case, it's understandable that this trivial tid-bit of academic minutia blew right by most people, but it is a fact of the world we live in that Princeton University does not have a linguistics department per se. They do offer an Undergraduate Program in Linguistics in which students can "pursue a Certificate in Linguistics," but this is not an official department as far as I understand it. Jack, if he is the same age as the actor Alec Baldwin, would have been at Princeton in late 1970s. Maybe they had a full fledged department back then, I honestly don't know.

You can watch the episode College at NBC, or wherever else you prefer. BTW, there's an awesome ode to color perception conundrums at the end as well. It's all kinda linguisticee/cog sciencee (I never know how to add the -ee morpheme?).

Random after-point: Near the end of Thursday's episode of Community, Dean Pelton actually utilized the Shakespearean subjunctive construction Would that X were Y... He says "Would that this hoodie were a time hoodie" around the 19:20 mark (see Hamlet, would it were not so, you are my mother). Just thought that was kinda awesome.

And not for nuthin', but if you haven't seen Tina Fey's Mark Twain Prize speech, it's a gem: HERE.

Friday, November 12, 2010

what's the -o in neato?

Just wondering out loud how one would analyze the morphological role of the -o in neato? It's a word I used near constantly when I was ten

Wiktionary actually has a page on this (duh, there's a wiki page for EVERYTHING!) and they list a group of words using an -o morpheme, but they don't really form a natural class: bucko, cheapo, daddy-o, kiddo, lesbo, neato, preggo, righto, sicko, wacko, whammo, wino, weirdo, yobbo.

I've never heard of some of these words (yobbo?), but even with those I do recognize, they do not seem to fall into the neato class. The Online Etymology Dictionary claims neato's earliest recorded usage was 1968, but gives no citation.

My dad used to say el cheapo and I can buy the Wiktionary claim that it's a pseudo-Spanish homage (I don't know what else to call that kind of construction), but did neato form that way? I have a hard time believing that daddy-o formed that way. Again, the Online Etymology Dictionary claims daddy-o goes back to 1949 (from "bop talk", I love that phrase).

el cheapo is an interesting construction too. Are there other examples where we take a foreign morpheme* and adopt it as a signifier in this way?

*Let's ignore the question of whether or not there really is an -o morpheme in Spanish. Somewhere along the lines American English speakers believed there was and adopted it.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

the death of philosophy

It's because of statements like this that philosophy as a profession is dead: "philosophy is not a quest for knowledge about the world, but rather a quest for understanding the conceptual scheme in terms of which we conceive of the knowledge we achieve about the world. One of the rewards of doing philosophy is a clearer understanding of the way we think about ourselves and about the world we live in, not fresh facts about reality." This is from an interview with Oxford philosopher Peter Hacker (see full interview here). I don't really understand what he means (and there's nothing in the article that clears it up). In any case, can't I make this same claim about the rewards of doing psychology, or artificial intelligence, or linguistics, or mathematics, or virtually any intellectual discipline that requires disciplined reasoning?

Hacker becomes downright confusing when discussing his distaste for neuroscience:

Merely replacing Cartesian ethereal stuff with glutinous grey matter and leaving everything else the same will not solve any problems. On the current neuroscientist’s view, it’s the brain that thinks and reasons and calculates and believes and fears and hopes. In fact, it’s human beings who do all these things, not their brains and not their minds. I don’t think it makes any sense to talk about the brain engaging in psychological or mental operations” (emphasis added).

Hacker makes a three-way distinction between human beings, brains, and minds, with nothing more than fluff to draw the distinction. I happily admit that I'm pretty strongly on the meat-puppet end of the spectrum, so I see no reason to posit that there exists a thing HUMAN_BEING that is somehow magically not a function of the physical stuff that makes up the human body.

But more to the point, Hacker seems incapable of discussing this in a way that is easy to follow. Exactly what is Hacker's HUMAN_BEING? I wish I had a clearer understanding of what he means. How do I objectively distinguish this from new-age hippie gibberish? It sounds remarkably similar to this passage: "It doesn't require a three-dimensional descriptive identification as the totality of it's unseen dynamics can be seen everywhere, in everything. Without the spirit, the physical and the mental would have no reason to exist as neither would be whole." This quote is from the wise sage Shirley MacLaine.

I'm a reasonable adult with a graduate level education and yet I cannot follow what should be a simple interview about what this man does for a living without encountering vague claims and incoherent distinctions. Am I supposed to sit through suffocatingly boring and pretensions philosophy seminars in grad school before I can come to an understanding of what Hacker means? If that is true, then philosophy is dead, truly.

The ironical part is that Andrew Sullivan referenced this interview with the pompous heading The Hubris Of Neuroscience. The only hubris I found in the interview was Hacker's.

Friday, November 5, 2010

dolphin gibberish

In truly one of the weirdest and most awesomest studies in a long time, Laura May-Collado* discovered that dolphins speak gibberish just to fuck with each other!

I'll give fair warning that my entire understanding of this study comes from a BBC article, so gawd knows what the facts really are, but this version is too awesome not to pass along. The "facts", as I understand them, are:
  • There are two species of dolphins that often swim together (big Bottlenose and small Guyana).
  • When swimming within Bottlenose-only groups, the big Bottlenose dolphins emit long, low frequency whistles to each other.
  • When swimming within Guyana-only groups, the small Guyana dolphins emit high frequency whistles to each other.
  • Sometimes the dolphins swim in mixed-species groups.
  • The big Bottlenose dolphins often harass the small Guyana dolphins (assholes).
  • When swimming in mixed-groups, the dolphins emit intermediate frequency whistles.
It's that last point that is the crux of the study. Why do they change their whistles when swimming in mixed groups? Unfortunately, Collado's equipment was not designed to tease apart exactly which dolphins were emitting the intermediate whistles, so it's pure speculation what's going on here. But one hypothesis is this: It could even be that the Guyana dolphins are attempting "to emit threatening sounds in the language of the intruder", in a bid to make the bottlenose dolphins desist, Dr May-Collado says.

The kids over at Language Log have discussed the phenomenon of speaking gibberish in other languages before (see here) and now it appears dolphins do the same. I love it!

*Associate Researcher & Adjunct Professor, Universidad de Puerto Rico, Facultad de Ciencias Naturales Departmento de Biologia, University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras (that's a hell of a title!).

The Perils of Pretty Pictures

As is too often the case, bad NLP starts with bad linguistics.

The journalist and data visualization advocate David McCandless gave a TED talk recently on The beauty of data visualization which included a reference to a chart about when people in relationships break-up based on scraping  “10,000 Facebook status updates for the phrases "breakup" and "broken up" (see here).

(image from The Daily Dish)

He did not go into detail about his actual scraping technique, so it’s not clear what he actually scraped for*, but let’s assume he literally only extracted occurrences of those two constructions.  What’s wrong with this? Well, it just seems unnatural for people to use those particular phrases to talk about breaking up. Under what conditions would someone use these constructions?
  • breakup =  a bare NP, single token
  • broken up = past participle, particle verb
I’m sure we can construct some examples, but they would be low probability, right?

My intuition is that the following are more likely ways of talking about a break up:
  • I broke up with my boyfriend last night.
  • I dumped that asshole last night.
McCandless seems distracted by the visualizations, as if they are the data. They are not. A visualization is only as good as the data underlying it, and I fear McCandless’ pretty charts are masking fundamentally vacuous data (like the nearly worthless Facebook data). But in the TED forum, a journalist like McCandless can sell a little snake oil and convince his audience that it’s perfume. I respect his point about relativizing data and I definitely think visualization is important, but it is not THE point of data.

This reminds me of the difference between the meaning of the term “model” in the social sciences and the hard sciences. In many cases, a social science model is little more than a visualization of concepts, masking a lack of data to support it; whereas a model in the hard sciences is almost always a computational algorithm that takes in data and spits out predictions.

*On the image of the chart, it says the searches were for "we broke up because", but McCandless says in the talk that he scraped for the phrases breakup and broken up.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

anatomy of internet plagiarism

I saw this headline on Huffington Post this morning:
This afternoon, I see this headline on The Daily Dish:
My curiosity piqued, I followed the link to the CBS site, which has this as a caption for the video:
Is this minor? Sure. Is this trivial? Sure. It's the innerwebz, whaddaya expect!

TV Linguistics - Pronouncify.com and the fictional Princeton Linguistics department

 [reposted from 11/20/10] I spent Thursday night on a plane so I missed 30 Rock and the most linguistics oriented sit-com episode since ...