Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Up and Down Metaphor in Speech Sound

From Echoes, the newsletter of the Acoustical Society of America:
Language is largely symbolic, but how we say something can be as important as what we say, according to an article in the 21 July issue of Science Now Daily News. Twenty four college students were asked to describe a dot moving across a screen. The students were told to use one of two sentences: “It is going up” or “It is going down.” The team found that when students described the dots going up, the pitch of their voice was, on average, 6 hertz higher than that of those describing the dot going down. The same thing happened when another 24 students read the sentences from a computer screen, indicating people change the sound of their voice according to directional information contained within words. Listeners readily caught these cues.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Hypocrisy on my Mind

For reasons which won't appear here, I have thoughts about hypocrisy rolling around in my head, and recent reviews of Mel Gibson's latest bloodbath, Apocalypto, have struck a resonant chord. One might wonder if he intends to draw some kind of parallel between the brutal, gore-loving Mayan crowds and our modern, educated, but still unenlightened culture. Indeed, Mark Stephenson of the Associated Press tells us:

Mauricio Amuy, a non-Maya actor who participated in the filming of "Apocalypto," says the production staff discussed the theory on the set. "We know the Bible talks about prophecies, and that the Mayas spoke of a change of energy on Dec. 22, 2012, and it (the movie) is somewhat focused on that," Amuy said. "People should perhaps take that theory and reflect, and not do these things that are destroying humanity."
How illuminating, to me, that Gibson chooses to offer this high-minded lesson by creating a relentless gore-fest perfectly suited to the entertainment of today's youngsters, raised on Grand Theft Auto and Halo. And how convenient that he stands to make boodles of cash from the movie, if box-office returns from his previous effort, The Passion of Christ can serve as any predictor here. Sounds like hypocrisy to me.

I also use the word hypocrisy to describe the behavior of a person who makes an adamant statement on one side of an issue while taking personal advantage of the other side of the issue. A person who, for example, says in private he will vote one way on an issue that I care about and then publicly votes the other way. This hypocrite has not only lied to me (or "changed his mind") about his intention, he has failed to set an example for others who look to him for leadership.

My abstraction, as the bible tells us to say....

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Rethinking Age Terminology

From Thomas Hine's The Rise & Fall of the American Teenager: "What was new about the idea of the teenager at the time the word first appeared during World War II was the assumption that all young people ... should have essentially the same experience, spent with people exactly their age, in an environment defined by high school and pop culture."

I'll admit I would have thought that the term "teenager" went farther back in our language history than just 60 or 70 years. This revelation got me thinking about good old hidden assumptions, this time in regards to age categories. Hine says elsewhere in the book that "it was primarily labor unions, in order to preserve jobs at the height of the Depression, who pushed for mandatory attendance of high school, thus creating "teenagers" as we know them--along with a presumption of immaturity and an imposed uniformity of experience on those teenagers." (quoted from Delancey Place, 11-09-06)

The last few generations have grown up with this idea of the immaturity of teenagers firmly embedded in their world view. What does it imply that we differ now so dramatically on this subject from several centuries of forebears? Does this new view represent enlightenment or myopia? Does it protect our children, or hamstring them?

Food for thought.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Where does meaning reside--in the thing, or in us?

I receive a daily email from "Oregon Birders OnLine" which allows members to share birdwatching experiences and thoughts with others. Many of these posts focus mainly on birds seen, where and when, and a substantial number address issues of scientific behavior--field observation, identification techniques, fine points of species differentiation, etc.

As the list has expanded over the years, so has the range of interests expressed by subscribers. Occasionally, a brief spat will erupt between those who wish to spend a substantial amount of virtual ink on a particular point of ornithological importance, and those who experience birdwatching more as an absorbing and rejuvenating pastime. Of course, in between these two groups, the majority leans first one way and then the other.

In the midst of these discussions, sometimes quite heated, we get the occasional insight that, to me, seems so fresh and straightforward that all the strife becomes at once meaningless and worth having slogged through. Below is such an insight, from Paul T. Sullivan, birder extraordinaire, and a most sensible human being.

I offer it in its entirety. The argument to which it responded concerned the less than satisfactory data obtained from amateur birders who tend to cluster at "hot spots", leaving large areas "underbirded". Paul's response says as much about human language and how we make meaning as it does about birding.

I suggested earlier that our society should value scientific ornithology done by trained scientists, and be willing to pay for it. Another voice advocated putting teams of volunteer birders out in disciplined teams, perhaps a demonstration in a few select counties, to collect data on bird migration through the NAMC. To get good data, statistics would need to be applied to the resulting reports.

I think both these suggestions are wishful dreams. We will never have "enough" funding, "enough" trained ornithologists, "enough" good birders, "enough" coverage, "enough" discipline, "enough" reports, "enough" photos, or "enough" publications. (Well maybe we're close on the last two...;-) )

This brings me to my question: What does 'UNDERBIRDED' mean?

Is 'underbirded' an attribute of the place, like a building that needs a fresh coat of paint? Does a local marsh or woods care that it is underbirded? Does it loose something for being underbirded? Or might it be just fine being that way?

Or is 'underbirded' a judgment on the way other humans behave, all flocking to certain sites and not others? In that case, is it a fault, a reason to lay blame? Are some other places 'overbirded'?

Or is 'underbirded' the expression of a WISH on the part of the speaker, a wish to get data about birds from locations where the bird population and migration pattern is not documented? Is it a WISH to have more data to add to "the body of scientific knowledge," to add the next new species to the official state list, or to "provide facts" to support land management decisions? Is it a wish to control the behavior of fellow bird enthusiasts?

The swamps of Arkansas and the Florida panhandle went "underbirded" for 50 years -- for good reason, they are inaccessible. Did the Ivory-billed Woodpecker care? Life went on in those swamps without the benefit of being "birded."

On the one hand, I hear voices that advocate for bringing more birders into the fold, and call for better education of birders so that they can identify dowitchers with more comfort. On the other hand I hear voices scolding birders for doing what they enjoy, chasing rarities, clumping up, and not going very far from their cars. These voices want birders to fan out, cover all habitats, and collect data and report it to them.

My point is this: YOU GET WHAT YOU GET. There will be some folks who follow a protocol-based approach to birds, some professional scientists, some government managers, some conservation activists, some casual folks who don't work at it too hard at birding, some who go for quiet walks in the woods and never report their sightings, some keen listers, some backyard feeder-watchers.

We will never cover it all. We will never put enough competent observers in the field. We will never distribute them uniformly across the landscape. We will never collect all the data and get it published.

There will be places that go "underbirded." It's always been that way, and that's OK.

Good birding, everyone,
Paul T. Sullivan

Friday, September 15, 2006

Allergic to Ideas?

The human mind treats a new idea the same way the body treats a strange protein; it rejects it.
-Peter. B. Medawar, scientist, Nobel laureate (1915-1987)

How do we inoculate ourselves against an allergy to ideas? General semantics encourages us to keep an open mind, to strive for cognitive accuracy, to add dates and indexes to our evaluations so we remember that all things change all the time. With regular "treatments" of this antigen, we develop the ability to embrace new ideas and integrate them into our belief systems, instead of rejecting potentially valuable information because it represents some kind of threat to the existing structure of our ideas.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Quotes of the Week

To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.
-- Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), composer

It is in changing that things find purpose.
-- Heraclitus (c. 540-470 BCE), philosopher

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Why the Right is Wrong

I found this message from Robin Meyers, pastor of Mayflower Congregational Church, Oklahoma City, quite special and inspiring. How about you?

Monday, August 21, 2006

Planning the Day...

If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. It it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.
-E.B. White, writer (1899-1985)

Monday, July 24, 2006

The Science of Retaliation

When we speak of consciousness of abstracting, we refer in part to the ability of humans to perceive that what they perceive does not "equal" what another might perceive in the same situation. As conscious abstractors, we recognize that our memories, beliefs and assumptions color what we extract from the world around us. We further recognize that this amounts to a problem, because we will necessarily see the unfolding of events differently than someone else participating in the same unfolding.

This NY Time article describes the science of retaliation, reported in a study on how we perceive causes and reactions. Apparently, we view our actions as justifiable reactions to external causes. But we view the actions of others as unprovoked actions without causes. Presumably both sides see things in this way, which means BOTH sides in a typical argument believe they have the corner on justification.

The article refers to numerous age-old revenge scenarios, like the religious battles in Northern Ireland, the clashes between Sunni and Shiite that go back to biblical times and so on. Certainly this study sheds some light on those behaviors.

But it also has much to tell us about our daily lives. When the guy beside you in traffic cuts you off, you probably believe that he did so because "he's a jerk" and not because, perhaps, he might believe that you have cut him off first.... When your partner flares at you over dinner, you might very likely marvel at how easily they fly off the handle "for no good reason", instead of wondering what you might have done to provoke the outburst.

If you KNOW that you judge your own reactions more generously than those of others, you have at least the possibility of considering what else you need to consider before responding to their actions.

In the Middle East, some have suggested that the "terrorists hate us because we have something good--democracy." Others note that those people we label terrorists might actually feel that we have made some very aggressive moves towards their livelihoods and their liberties, and might have some justification for standing up against what they see as an invasion.

If you blithely ignore the possibility that the other guy might have a rationale for his actions, you can minimize your responsibility for what comes next. This applies to battles over the breakfast table as readily as to battles over oil or territory.

Monday, July 17, 2006


"The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them"
-- Albert Einstein, physicist (1879-1955)

Thursday, March 23, 2006


Once upon a time a man whose ax was missing suspected his neighbor's son. The boy walked like a thief, looked like a thief, and spoke like a thief. But the man found his ax while digging in the valley, and the next time he saw his neighbor's son, the boy walked, looked and spoke like any other child.
-Lao-tzu, philosopher (6th century BCE)

Monday, February 20, 2006


A stupid man's report of what a clever man says is never accurate because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something he can understand.
-Bertrand Russell

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen; by Frederic Bastiat

That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen; by Frederic Bastiat: "Let us accustom ourselves, then, to avoid judging of things by what is seen only, but to judge of them by that which is not seen."

I'm never quite sure how to feel about libertarian economists like Frederic Bastiat. Perhaps I just need to read more, but I find his thinking interesting and his conclusions uncomfortable. This quote is one I find particularly appealing, however, as it seems to anticipate the "organism-as-a-whole-in-its-environment" concept of gs.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

One Study, Many Headlines

Today, papers across the country reported on a new study of hormone replacement therapy. Most noted that the researchers found "no overall difference in heart attack risk among women who took the hormone and those who did not. " The headlines, however, provide an interesting study on the vagaries of interpretation and the limitations of abstraction.

All of the following appeared on Google at the same time:

Final estrogen report finds no heart disease benefit
Heart benefit in hormone therapy: study
Study: Estrogen-Only Hormone Therapy Is Safe
Study: No Beneficial Link Between Estrogen And Heart Disease
Comforting News for Women Taking Estrogen
Little Evidence Estrogen Lowers Heart Disease Risk
Estrogen Might Help Prevent Heart Disease
Estrogen Therapy of No Value to Heart Health
Estrogen Might Help Prevent Heart Disease
Estrogen iffy in lowering heart risk

How can all these headlines refer to the same story? Well, of course, they don't, exactly. The negative ones focus on the overall finding across all age groups, which show no correlation between HRT and heart attack risk. The positive ones focus on the particular finding that
HRT may reduce risk of heart attack for premenopausal women between 50 and 59.

An object lesson in the need to dig a little deeper and not just rely on headlines for one's definitive news.

Friday, February 10, 2006


Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.
-Voltaire, philosopher (1694-1778)

Voltaire may not have known about the idea that people don't "make" us do anything--we choose our reactions, whether consciously or unconsciously.

But his point still rings true. If you place your belief in someone whose words make "non-sense", you may very well act in ways you would never have otherwise.

Thursday, February 09, 2006


Why should I give them my mind as well?
-Dalai Lama (1935-)

The Dalai Lama was asked if he was angry at the Chinese for taking over his country. His response, above, demonstrates a critical lesson that many may see but not everyone will understand.

When someone imprisons us or takes away our possessions or our homelands, we may have little or no power to stop them,

When we react in anger or become despondent, we hand over control of the one thing they cannot control without our complicity--our emotional/rational response to our situation.

Insight on Language Manipulation

This article in the Central Daily (copyrighted by the Philadelphia Inquirer), by two writers from American University's Center for Global Peace, presents a surgically sharp insight into the "cartoon crisis" raging across the globe right now. Most of us see this as a clash of cultures. These writers see this as an orchestrated and opportunistic manipulation of human emotions for protection of a controlling elite.

I wish I'd written it.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Quote on Relativity

The satiated man and the hungry one do not see the same thing when they look upon a loaf of bread.
-Rumi, poet and mystic (1207-1273)

Friday, January 20, 2006

Quote, Exclamation Point

People who lean on logic and philosophy and rational exposition end by starving the best part of the mind. -William Butler Yeats, writer, Nobel laureate (1865-1939)

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

True.....1/2 True.......False

Where do we imagine the line exists between fiction and nonfiction? Not quite where we used to believe we did, it appears.

And then there's the question about what we *claim* about what we write. Some of us seem to use a bit more poetic license than others....

On the other hand, how much of our personal memories "are" true, half-true or false? How much of what we *know* turns out false when examined more closely?

For much of my life, I had a vivid memory of playing "circus" with my siblings, especially one moment where they put me in a "cage" of chicken wire and I pretended to be a lion. One day years later, I came across a photo from that day, depicting this vivid memory exactly as I remembered it. Did I "really" remember it or had I only seen the photo at some point and converted THAT experience into a personal memory? How many other of my vivid personal memories qualify as borrowed, triggered or implanted?

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Year Without Journalism?

Citizen journalism--sounds like an idea straight out of the sixties. "We know what we want to hear about--just let us do the driving!" The children of the children of the sixties have come close to making many of their parents' dreams come true and citizen journalism seems on the brink of success as well.

But, as this article from the Chicago Reader (via the Tucson Weekly) says so eloquently, where does the stuff of citizen journalism come from? Do we, the citizens, go to the places where our stories take place? Do we, the citizens, meet the deep-throated informants and make the connections between the laundry and the money? Or do we mostly read the work of "non-citizen" journalists and then gather the pieces into our own personal mosaic of news?

Don't get me wrong--I strongly believe in one must participate in one's own education and edification. I just don't want to lose sight of the fact that we all stand on the shoulders of those around us (oh there's an image for you).

No citizen is an island.