Sunday, February 15, 2009

How Languages Bind Us Together

I love languages, in an armchair sort of way. I have no formal training in languages, but I am often struck by how the evolution of language is simply a superficial marker of the deeper evolution of culture. People move and take with them a piece of their ancestral culture in the form of certain rituals, yes, but more importantly, they take their language with them. This 'snapshot' of their past doesn't remain still either; it incorporates influences from the new homeland, and the evolution continues. But the ancestral links remain. I remember my own wonder when I first learned in school about the Romance languages and how they were all derived from Latin. I further remember my amazement at learning about this so-called Indo-European language family, and the fact that Latin and Sanskrit were sister languages! Common knowledge for us now, but still a powerful symbol of how cultures have traveled over millenia. For example, India and China are neighbors, but, separated by the Himalayas and some mighty rivers, their cultures have had little contact and hence, their languages--Indo-European/Dravidian and Sino-Tibetan language families respectively--have little in common. The ties between the Dravidian (South India) and Austro-Asiatic (South East Asia) languages are more complex: close connections in script, but little in terms of vocabulary.

Because of my interest in the general subject of languages, I was fascinated to see this footage of British actor, Eddie Izzard, going to Friesland in Northern Holland where some of the Anglo-Saxon tribes originally came from. Eddie knows that the local language, Frisian, is a Germanic language that is very similar to Old English. So, naturally, he attempts to buy a cow from a local farmer, by speaking in old English and seeing if he's understood. (Hat tip to Tall Blog.)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Change is here; now go change the details--habeas corpus edition

Now for some real news that, naturally, is consigned to oblivion thanks to the bailout and Valentine's Day newsthink. Yesterday, a federal judge ruled against the Obama Administration on a key aspect of the current habeas corpus mess: Define what an "enemy combatant" is before we decide whether to keep holding them.
In the first federal court ruling rejecting a position of the Obama Administration on detention of terrorism suspects, a federal judge in Washington on Wednesday turned aside an Administration plea to go forward with detainees’ challenges without first defining who may be held as an “enemy combatant.” U.S. District Judge John D. Bates decided that no habeas cases can be decided without settling who may be treated as an enemy in the “war on terrorism.” However, he did give the Administration some added time — until March 13 — to come up with an alternative definition to one that he will be using temporarily. The judge’s order, though written in moderate terms, conveyed some impatience with the government’s initial response.
Emphasis mine. If you don't know or care about habeas corpus...sigh. Obama is, as we've been reminded once or twice, a constitutional law professor, and once memorably talked during the campaign about the need to protect one of our most important rights:
But, the former constitutional law professor argued, "What I have also said is this: that when you suspend habeas corpus -- which has been a principle, dating before even our country, it’s the foundation of Anglo-American law -- which says, very simply, if the government grabs you, then you have the right to at least ask, 'Why was I grabbed?' and say, 'Maybe you’ve got the wrong person.'

"The reason you have that safeguard," he said, "is because we don't always have the right person. We don’t always catch the right person. We may think this is Mohammed the terrorist, it might be Mohammed the cab driver. You may think it’s Barack the bomb thrower, but it might be Barack the guy running for president.
Myes, "why was I grabbed?" If you don't care to remember what h/c is, please burn that phrase in your brain, and know that you have a constitutional right to ask that in court. Not just in America, either. As George Will points out:
No state power is more fearsome than the power to imprison. Hence the habeas right has been at the heart of the centuries-long struggle to constrain governments, a struggle in which the greatest event was the writing of America's Constitution, which limits Congress's power to revoke habeas corpus to periods of rebellion or invasion.
Now, back to Judge Bates' decision. Without a properly focused definition of "enemy combatant," this Administration can hold almost anyone indefinitely, and the burden of proof shifts inordinately to the defense--and hinges on the capability of their lawyers. Candidate Obama railed against such sloppy uses/abuses of government power. Now, President Obama needs to go change how that power is used. The devil was always in the details.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Today's Procrastination Utility

Stick Cricket is one of my favorite flash games of all time. They've done a great job of improving the graphics over the years and have come a long way from the initial, literally "stick" game graphics. Just press one of the arrow keys at the proper moment to score runs! The game comes in many flavors (I like the World Domination game) and there is also a nifty training mode.

If you like the cricket version, there is also a really cool Stick Baseball game!

The Utilitarian Ethic of Procrastination

Psychologists at Oxford University have discovered an intriguing phenomenon: playing Tetris may reduce flashbacks to traumatic events, a hallmark symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder:
The researchers report in PLoS ONE that for healthy volunteers, playing ‘Tetris’ soon after viewing traumatic material in the laboratory can reduce the number of flashbacks to those scenes in the following week. They believe that the computer game may disrupt the memories that are retained of the sights and sounds witnessed at the time, and which are later re-experienced through involuntary, distressing flashbacks of that moment.
It is not clear whether Tetris is unique among video or computer games in being able to disrupt memories. Even so, what is clear is that those parental admonishments against playing video games too much because they turn your brain into mush might, indeed, have some basis in fact.

Naturally, after all that inane talk, I quite understand if you have the overwhelming urge to go play some tetris:

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Utilitarian Ethic of Science

Scientists at Newcastle University have shown that by giving a cow a name and treating her as an individual, farmers can increase their annual milk yield significantly:
The study, published online in the academic journal Anthrozoos, found that on farms where each cow was called by her name the overall milk yield was higher than on farms where the cattle were herded as a group.

"Just as people respond better to the personal touch, cows also feel happier and more relaxed if they are given a bit more one-to-one attention," explains Dr Douglas, who works in the School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development at Newcastle University.
The good doctor helpfully closes with this advice: "Placing more importance on knowing the individual animals and calling them by name can – at no extra cost to the farmer – also significantly increase milk production."

Something tells me that those farmers that aren't already predisposed to naming their livestock will find it difficult to incorporate his advice and suddenly begin sweet-talking Daisy and Bessie on their barnyard walks. What's more, I suspect that the cows themselves--intelligent beings that they are--might become suspicious if their owner goes from spitting or kicking at them to cooing sweet nothings on a moonlit night. If they don't become wary at this turn of events, evidenced by, say, a reduction in their milk production, said cows are likely not very bright after all.

It shouldn't be long now before we see numerous advertisements for seminars in cow-psychology, followed by early morning talk shows (Dr. Milk?), and a booming demand for cow-sitters (yes, I spelled that correctly). More likely, this will spawn the next great comic series--yes, Milkbert--where the bovine protagonist suffers through barnyard indignities and stupid HR policies. Hmmm, that gives me an idea for a hit TV show (you saw it here first)...The Barnyard.

No, Really, Truth is Stranger than Fiction

I love Will Ferrell and his political satire on Saturday Night Live. But, I couldn't decide whether to laugh or cry when I saw this old routine: