Archive for February, 2013

Sex and FOXP2: Preservation of endangered stereotypes

Last week, when I discussed the return of the zombie meme about women talking three times more than men ("An invented statistic returns", 2/22/2013),  I promised to come back to the real scientific results in the paper whose public relations campaign unleased that extraordinary outburst of mass-media pseudoscience.

The paper was J. Michael Bowers, Miguel Perez-Pouchoulen, N. Shalon Edwards, and Margaret M. McCarthy, "Foxp2 Mediates Sex Differences in Ultrasonic Vocalization by Rat Pups and Directs Order of Maternal Retrieval", The Journal of Neuroscience, February 20, 2013, As the title indicates, the paper is mostly about baby rats; and the reader is hereby warned that the following discussion may be longer than you're going to be willing to sit through. I'm afraid, though, that if you care about what this paper said and what it means, you're going to have to put in some time, here or elsewhere.

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Unknown Language #7

The attached materials came to me from the UN refugee office in Damak city, Jhapa district, in the far southeast of Nepal. There is a sound recording of a female refugee and a sample of her writing in which she employs at least two different scripts, Roman letters and another that looks like some syllabaries of South China I've seen.

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Universal alphabet

Not that I think this is any sort of panacea, but our good friends at BBC have seen fit to ask: "Could a new phonetic alphabet promote world peace?"

Although backers of this supposed universal alphabet claim that "it will make pronunciation easy and foster international understanding", I have doubts that SaypU (Spell As You Pronounce Universal project) constitutes a viable route to world peace.

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How many possible English tweets are there?

And how long would it take to read them all out loud?

Randall Munroe answers these questions today at xkcd's what if? page — the answer involves Claude Shannon, a rock 100 miles wide and 100 miles high, and a very long-lived bird (or perhaps a reliable species of birds). You should definitely read the whole thing.

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Obama speaks Chinese

"Hacked" (editorial cartoon by Scott Stantis, Chicago Tribune, Feb. 21, 2013):


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Not equal to a pig or a dog

It's been quite a while since I made a post in this genre:

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Humpty Dumpty, before and after the fall

William James, The Principles of Psychology, 1890:

[A]ny number of impressions, from any number of sensory sources, falling simultaneously on a mind WHICH HAS NOT YET EXPERIENCED THEM SEPARATELY, will fuse into a single undivided object for that mind. The law is that all things fuse that can fuse, and nothing separates except what must. […] Although they separate easier if they come in through distinct nerves, yet distinct nerves are not an unconditional ground of their discrimination, as we shall presently see. The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion; and to the very end of life, our location of all things in one space is due to the fact that the original extents or bignesses of all the sensations which came to our notice at once, coalesced together into one and the same space. [emphasis original]

Eleanor Rosch et al., "Basic objects in natural categories", Cognitive Psychology 1976:

The world consists of a virtually infinite number of discriminably different stimuli. One of the most basic functions of all organisms is the cutting up of the environment into classifications by which nonidentical stimuli can be treated as equivalent. Yet there has been little explicit attempt to determine the principles by which humans divide up the world in the way that they do. On the contrary, it has been the tendency both in psychology and anthropology to treat that segmentation of the world as originally arbitrary and to focus on such matters as how categories, once given, are learned or the effects of having a label for some segment.

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"All but" = "nothing but"

From JF, here's one for the misnegation files, undernegation department: According to the Sun Sport Live Match Centre:

With all but a monumental collapse now standing between Manchester United and a record 20th league title, all eyes turn to who will win the fight between the alsorans for second place.

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"All of we"

At a recent memorial service for Aaron Swartz, Alan Grayson (U.S. Congressman from Florida) gave an eloquent eulogy, which began like this:

Aaron worked in my office as an intern, and had a quality that I found unnerving, which is that he could come up with better things for him to do than I could come up with for him to do.

And time and time again, I would give him something to do, and he'd say, "Is it OK if I also work on this other thing", and this other thing turned out to be much more important than anything I could come up with. And I learned to live with that.

I learned to live with that shortcoming, which I took to be a shortcoming of my own, not one of his.

The other unnerving quality that I found in him was the fact that when he would conjure these assignments, they actually came to fruition — an unusual phenomenon here on Capitol Hill. He'd give himself something to do, I recognized that it was very worthwhile, I let him do it, and it got done!

He was a remarkable human being.

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An invented statistic returns

Catherine Griffin, "Why Women Talk More Than Men: Language Protein Uncovered", Science World Report 2/20/2013.

You know all the times that men complain about women talking too much? Apparently there's a biological explanation for the reason why women are chattier than men. Scientists have discovered that women possess higher levels of a "language protein" in their brains, which could explain why females are so talkative.

Previous research has shown that women talk almost three times as much as men. In fact, an average woman notches up 20,000 words in a day, which is about 13,000 more than the average man. In addition, women generally speak more quickly and devote more brainpower to speaking. Yet before now, researchers haven't been able to biologically explain why this is the case.

Eun Kyung Kim, "Chatty Cathy, listen up: New study reveals why women talk more than men", Today Show 2/21/2013:

Women have a gift for gab, and now they can silence their critics with science.

New research indicates there’s a biological reason why women talk so much more than men: 20,000 words a day spoken by the average woman, according to one study, versus about 7,000 words a day for the average man.

Women’s brains have higher levels of a “language protein” called FOXP2, according to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

The stimulus for these little nuggets of nonsense was J. Michael Bowers, Miguel Perez-Pouchoulen, N. Shalon Edwards,3 and Margaret M. McCarthy, "Foxp2 Mediates Sex Differences in Ultrasonic Vocalization by Rat Pups and Directs Order of Maternal Retrieval",  The Journal of Neuroscience, February 20, 2013. More on Bowers et al. later — this morning, I'll just take up the "previous research has shown that women talk almost three times as much as men" business.

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Getting rid of adverbs and other adjuncts

My post at Lingua Franca this week critiqued the following extraordinarily dumb piece of writing advice from Macmillan Dictionary Blog:

Try this exercise: Go through a piece of writing, ideally an essay of your own. Delete all adverbs and adverbial phrases, all those "surprisingly", "interestingly", "very", "extremely", "fortunately", "on the other hand", "almost invariably". (While you are at it, also score out those clauses that frame the content, like "we may consider that", "it is likely that", "there is a possibility that".)

Question 1: have you lost any content?
Question 2: is it easier to read?

Usually the meaning is still exactly the same but the piece is far easier to read.

As you might expect, I concentrated on adverbs. I didn't comment on the fact that one of the "adverbs and adverbial phrases" cited is nothing of the sort.

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The Chinese character for "XXX" translates as "YYY"

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PP attachment is hard

Alex Williams, "Creating Hipsturbia", NYT 2/15/2013:

“When we checked towns out,” Ms. Miziolek recalled, “I saw some moms out in Hastings with their kids with tattoos. A little glimmer of Williamsburg!”

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