Tag Archives: BBC


Advances in Visual Methods for Linguistics (AVML2012)

Some peeps over the the University of York are organising a conference on the advances in visual methods for linguistics (AVML) to take place in September next year. This might be of interest to evolutionary linguists who use things like phylogenetic trees, networks, visual simulations or other fancy dancy visual methods. The following is taken from their website:

Linguistics, like other scientific disciplines, is centrally reliant upon visual images for the elicitation, analysis and presentation of data. It is difficult to imagine how linguistics could have developed, and how it could be done today, without visual representations such as syntactic trees, psychoperceptual models, vocal tract diagrams, dialect maps, or spectrograms. Complex multidimensional data can be condensed into forms that can be easily and immediately grasped in a way that would be considerably more taxing, even impossible, through textual means. Transforming our numerical results into graphical formats, according to Cleveland (1993: 1), ‘provides a front line of attack, revealing intricate structure in data that cannot be absorbed in any other way. We discover unimagined effects, and we challenge imagined ones.’ Or, as Keith Johnson succinctly puts it, ‘Nothing beats a picture’ (2008: 6).

So embedded are the ways we visualize linguistic data and linguistic phenomena in our research and teaching that it is easy to overlook the design and function of these graphical techniques. Yet the availability of powerful freeware and shareware packages which can produce easily customized publication-quality images means that we can create visual enhancements to our research output more quickly and more cheaply than ever before. Crucially, it is very much easier now than at any time in the past to experiment with imaginative and innovative ideas in visual methods. The potential for the inclusion of enriched content (animations, films, colour illustrations, interactive figures, etc.) in the ever-increasing quantities of research literature, resource materials and new textbooks being published, especially online, is enormous. There is clearly a growing appetite among the academic community for the sharing of inventive graphical methods, to judge from the contributions made by researchers to the websites and blogs that have proliferated in recent years (e.g. InfostheticsInformation is BeautifulCool InfographicsBBC Dimensions, or Visual Complexity).

In spite of the ubiquity and indispensability of graphical methods in linguistics it does not appear that a conference dedicated to sharing techniques and best practices in this domain has taken place before. This is less surprising when one considers that relatively little has been published specifically on the subject (exceptions are  Stewart (1976), and publications by the LInfoVisgroup). We think it is important that researchers from a broad spectrum of linguistic disciplines spend time discussing how their work can be done more efficiently, and how it can achieve greater impact, using the profusion of flexible and intuitive graphical tools at their disposal. It is also instructive to view advances in visual methods for linguistics from a historical perspective, to gain a greater sense of how linguistics has benefited from borrowed methodologies, and how in some cases the discipline has been at the forefront of developments in visual techniques.

The abstract submission deadline is the 9th January.


Alice Roberts on Language Evolution

Hello! The BBC are at it again and by ‘at it’ I mean talking about language evolution!

The latest episode of ‘Origins of Us’, which is a series about human evolution from an anthropological/archaeological angle, is on brains. The program is presented by Alice Roberts and she doesn’t do a bad job of discussing the issues relating to the lack of direct fossil evidence for language. She discusses the anatomy used in speech which is something which Stephen Fry did not do in his program on the origins of language. We also get an excellent rendition of the cardinal vowels from Dr. Roberts! She also discusses the role of language in symbolic thought and there is a wee bit at the end on cultural evolution.

The part of the program on language starts about 25 minutes in, but I’d suggest watching the whole thing as all aspects of the evolution of the brain are relevant to language evolution, and also, it’s bloody interesting.


Some Links #17: The Return of Whorf

The famous Klingon linguist, Whorf, has returned with his theories on linguistic relativity (I know, terrible joke).

The Largest Whorfian Study Ever. The Lousy Linguist looks at the paper Ways to go: Methodological considerations in Whorfian studies on motion events. As you can probably guess, the paper deals with the methodological issues surrounding linguistic relativity. It’s all interesting stuff, bringing to light important questions about how the brain handles language. I’m fairly lay when it comes to this topic, so for more background on the current events, see similar posts over at Language Log: Never Mind the Conclusions, What’s the Evidence? and SLA Blog: Linguistic Relativity, Whorf, Linguistic Relativity.

But Science Doesn’t Work That Way: Miller & Chomsky (1963). Many of you who read this blog will be familiar with the position taken by Melody’s post over at Child’s Play: against a strong nativist position in language acquisition. It’s the first part in a series of posts so I’ll reserve judgement on her conclusions until she’s finished. But much of her post is drawn from a brilliant paper by Scholz and Pullum (2005): Irrational Nativist Exuberance. Key paragraph:

Do we really want to say that phonemes are ‘innate’?

I haven’t yet addressed how we know — with all but certainty — that the model Miller and Chomsky used had to be a poor approximation of human learning capabilities.  It has to do with phonemes.

Experiments have shown that people are remarkably sensitive to the transitional probabilities between phonemes in their native languages, both when speaking and when listening to speech.  If Miller and Chomsky’s assessment of probabilistic learning is correct, then the problem of “parameter estimation” should apply not only to learning the probabilities between words, but also to learning the probabilities between phonemes.  Given that people do learn to predict phonemes, Miller and Chomsky’s logic would force us to conclude that not only must ‘grammar’ be innate, but the particular distribution of phonemes in English (and every other language) must be innate as well.

We only get to this absurdist conclusion because Miller & Chomsky’s argument mistakes philosophical logic for science (which is, of course, exactly what intelligent design does).  So what’s the difference between philosophical logic and science? Here’s the answer, in Einstein’s words, “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.”

PLoS Blogs. Yet another blogging network. This time it’s with the Public Library of Science. The most notable move, for me at least, is Neuroanthropology. That move hasn’t seemed to impact upon their ability to produce good articles, the latest of which being in regards to Uner Tan Syndrome (I’m sure there was a documentary about this on BBC…).

Hap Map 3: more people ~ more genetic variation. Razib has a cool read on the new HapMap dataset. The current paper (Integrating common and rare genetic variation in diverse human populations) looked for variants across the genome in 11 populations, consisting of 1184 samples. It’s been especially useful with less common variants. As with previous versions, you can also explore the data. Here’s the conclusion from the paper:

With improvements in sequencing technology, low-frequency variation is becoming increasingly accessible. This greater resolution will no doubt expand our ability to identify genes and variants associated with disease and other human traits. This study integrates CNPs and lower-frequency SNPs with common SNPs in a more diverse set of human populations than was previously available. The results underscore the need to characterize population-genetic parameters in each population, and for each stratum of allele frequency, as it is not possible to extrapolate from past experience with common alleles. As expected, lower-frequency variation is less shared across populations, even closely related ones, highlighting the importance of sampling widely to achieve a comprehensive understanding of human variation.

Mathematics: From the Birth of Numbers. Someone gave this in to the charity store I work at: it’s a brilliant book by Jan Gullberg on (surprise, surprise) the history of mathematics. The first chapter was on mathematics and language, so I had to pick it up, and not just for that chapter alone, as there are plenty of gaps in my mathematical knowledge I’m sure this will clear up.

Some Links #16: Why I want to Falcon Punch (some) BBC Science Writers

I’m not normally one for violent resolutions to sloppy science, but in taking inspiration from one such perpetrator I’m promoting a Falcon Punch policy. Above is a graphical example of a successful Falcon Punch: the goal being to hurl your target onwards and upwards into a flaming ball of scientific shame.

Space is the final frontier for evolution, study claims. I had planned on writing a more substantial article on how yet another science writer, in this case one Howard Falcon-Lang, is claiming that Darwin has once again been felled by a new study. Greg Laden, however, beat me to the punch with a damning critique:

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Frying Chicken Nuggets

Most of you from Britain have probably already come across Stephen Fry‘s brilliant comment about British programmes being the equivalent of chicken nuggets:

They are like a chicken nugget. Every now and again we all like it … But if you are an adult you want something surprising, savoury, sharp, unusual, cosmopolitan, alien, challenging, complex, ambiguous, possibly even slightly disturbing and wrong. You want to try those things, because that’s what being adult means.

I totally agree with Fry. Though I do think he’s being too polite by commending Dr Who and Merlin on being “wonderfully written”. Dr Who occasionally has a decent episode, usually written by Steven Moffat, but most of the writers seem to rely on deus ex machina plot devices. Just watch last season’s Journey’s End for a prime example of this. I’m not saying that Dr Who needs to become hardcore sci-fi; rather, it’d be nice if the plot was actually challenging. Think Dr Who meets Sherlock Holmes. Still, unlike the terrible Merlin, Dr Who does manage to keep me watching every week — even if it’s only due to Cardiff having a spatio-temporal rift.

Falling miserably back to Earth

I just watched the first episode of the BBC’s new show Defying Gravity, and it is absolutely awful. Clichéd characters, boring plot, and a completely unrealistic setting (it’s set in 2052, which seems to have not moved on from 2009 — the obvious exception being space travel). However, it did remind me of a recent post by one of my favourite writers, Charles Stross:

There’s an implicit feedback between such a situation and the characters who are floundering around in it, trying to survive. For example: You want to deflect that civilization-killing asteroid? You need to find some way of getting there. It’s going to be expensive and difficult, and there’s plenty of scope for human drama arising from it. Lo: that’s one possible movie in a nutshell. You’ve got the drama — just add protagonists.

I use a somewhat more complex process to develop SF. I start by trying to draw a cognitive map of a culture, and then establish a handful of characters who are products of (and producers of) that culture. The culture in question differs from our own: there will be knowledge or techniques or tools that we don’t have, and these have social effects and the social effects have second order effects — much as integrated circuits are useful and allow the mobile phone industry to exist and to add cheap camera chips to phones: and cheap camera chips in phones lead to happy slapping or sexting and other forms of behaviour that, thirty years ago, would have sounded science fictional. And then I have to work with characters who arise naturally from this culture and take this stuff for granted, and try and think myself inside their heads. Then I start looking for a source of conflict, and work out what cognitive or technological tools my protagonists will likely turn to to deal with it.

Star Trek and its ilk are approaching the dramatic stage from the opposite direction: the situation is irrelevant, it’s background for a story which is all about the interpersonal relationships among the cast. You could strip out the 25th century tech in Star Trek and replace it with 18th century tech — make the Enterprise a man o’war (with a particularly eccentric crew) at large upon the seven seas during the age of sail — without changing the scripts significantly. (The only casualty would be the eyeball candy — big gunpowder explosions be damned, modern audiences want squids in space, with added lasers!)

TV sci-fi sucks.

N.B. They just started jabbering on about natural selection and completely missed the point. So I’ll repeat: TV sci-fi sucks.

Neanderthal Genome Published

…Well, 60% of the genome at least. Not much has been said yet in regards to the nitty gritty aspects of Svante and colleagues’ findings. No doubt John Hawks and many others will offer their own perspectives over the next couple of days. If you’re interested in the immediate gist then here’s a link to the press release. Also, here is a quote from the BBC offering a succinct summary:
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BBC is impartial, apparently?

…Or so the news story goes:

BBC director general Mark Thompson said that if the corporation transmitted the appeal it would be “running the risk of reducing public confidence in the BBC’s impartiality in its wider coverage of the story”.

It always amuses me how the BBC retains a sense of commitment to impartiality when it continually fails to adhere to these standards on an almost daily basis. A greater irony is that through their reluctance to broadcast the Gaza Appeal, the BBC inadvertently drew the attention of Tony Benn, who decided to tell everyone the charity’s address live on BBC News (scroll down article to see the video). So now I guess the BBC’s just left with its principles…

To donate, visit: http://www.dec.org.uk (see BBC, it’s not that hard!)

Swarm Intelligence

I just finished watching this great BBC documentary about swarm intelligence. Ignoring the presenter’s attempt to inspire fear in us mere humans, with ominous suggestions of a great red fire ant invasion, swarm intelligence is basically the notion that swarms of creatures (such as the aforementioned ant) work as a collective consciousness. It makes intuitive sense: more minds = more processing power. Of course, these species have been shaped by natural selection to function in this eusocial manner, although whether or not we’re discussing inclusive fitness, superorganisms or something else remains outside the programme’s scope. In fact, the term swarm intelligence doesn’t seem to be a conventional term amongst biologists; too many anthropomorphic connotations no doubt.

Sadly, it is was only available on the BBC until 21.39 GMT, today! yesterday. So get watching. Instead, I’ll leave you with the first youtube video I could find about swarm intelligence, which is actually nothing to do with animals and more to do with computing, networks and information management: