Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Animal Languages

We all know that different animals have different ways of communicating with one another, however our understanding of the different languages in the non-human world is very limited to say the least. Wikipedia has quite a good article on animal communication for further reading, but I just want to talk about two animals in this post.   I've just stumbled upon this interesting article which is a few months old now about prairie dogs. According to research carried out by a professor in the North Arizona University, prairie dogs have a quite intricate language system - and not just some simple noises, but specific 'words' for specific items that they see. Thus not all danger is described in one word, but each forms of danger is given a name; a falcon, an owl, a human, a coyote, etc. According to the article they can even differentiate between a coyote and a domesticated dog! But it doesn't stop there, the professor decided to test if there were different calls for different humans so he dressed four men in exactly the same clothing except for their t-shirts where each one wore a different coloured shirt. And indeed, the prairie dogs gave a different call for each person! Apparently they describe what they see in their call. It makes me wonder whether it is possible that they actually could maybe invent new words for things not included in their vocabulary? Or is that a bit too far? I don't know!

This article actually reminded me of a very old story I read about honey bees. There was this girl (Barbara Shipman) whose dad was an agricultural researcher working with bees and he always had his daughter involved in his work. However, as fate would have it, the daughter decided to enter the field of mathematics and graduated as a mathematician from the University of Rochester. But that's where she made her greatest discovery in bees language!  It's very complicated to go through her methods over here, you really need to read it yourself as I'm not even 100% on it, but apparently bees can perceive not just magnetic fields (which we know alot of animals can see them and use them for directions) but also quantum fields!  Fields made by quarks - the tiniest of particles that make up our own atoms!  It's mind boggling to say the least and there has been disputes over her conclusions, but it's still a very interesting read non-the-less!

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Simplified Languages

Any one who read George Orwell's book Ninteen Eighty Four is familiar with the term 'Newspeak'. For those who haven't read the book, it's basically a dark vision of a future world ruled by a totalitarian regime that stabilises its rule through constant supervision of its citizens as well as through insuring they remain too busy doing one meaningless task after another thus wont have time to think, wonder or plan. The totalitarian regime also introduced 'Newspeak' which is a simplified language that drastically reduced the number of words in the English dictionary by just removing 'unnecessary' words. Thus basically to retard human intelligence, imagination and creativity by simplifying language and making it as plain and dull as possible. The Wikipedia article on Newspeak explains it as follows.

The basic idea behind Newspeak is to remove all shades of meaning from language, leaving simple dichotomies (pleasure and pain, happiness and sadness, goodthink and crimethink) which reinforce the total dominance of the State. Similarly, Newspeak root words served as both nouns and verbs, which allowed further reduction in the total number of words; for example, "think" served as both noun and verb, so the word thought was not required and could be abolished.

But is Newspeak as bad as it's portrayed? A recent news article on the BBC reminded me of how in our real human history governments did try to forcefully interfer in local languages for one reason or another. The article talks about the government of Taiwan deleting all Simplified Chinese scripts from its agencies texts and using only the more complex traditional Chinese script instead. Obviously this is probably for political reasons more than anything (I'd imagine to insist on their independent identity separate from mainland China), but on the Chinese side, according to the article, traditional Chinese script has been abandoned only in the 1950s for the simplified Chinese. Unlike Newspeak, however, simplification has been done to raise literacy levels rather than retard imagination.

Kemal and the new Turkish alphabet
I can think of another example of a language reformation and that is in Turkey after it won its independence from the Allies in 1923 and established the modern Turkish state. Mustafa Kemal, the founder of modern Turkey, had a more nationalistic agenda to his language reformation. In 1932 he established the Turkish Language Association which aimed to remove all non-Turkish words in the local vocabulary that have established itself under the multi-national Ottoman rule. But not only did Turkish nationalism allowed for the reintroduction of abandoned Turkish words to replace those borrowed from other nationalities - there was more in the Turkish language reform. Mustafa Kemal replaced the Turkish script and alphabet completely from that based on Arabic alphabet and grammar to that of Latin based. There are two reasons for this. First was political; Mustafa Kemal wanted Turkey to move away from the Eastern world and join Europe and the West as a new 'modern' Turkey. The other reason was the complexity of the Arabic language compared to the simplicity of a language based on Latin grammar. Turning to a more simple script allowed literacy rates to increase - or so I'm told (I've never seen any statistics to prove anything though).

I'm really in two minds about this. I can understand the logic that a simpler language will be easier to learn and thus would allow for higher literacy rates, but does it effect imagination and intelligence? Could Shakspear write his plays in Newspeak? The Qura'an itself was revealed to an Arab population who valued poetry and the linguistic arts as the highest form of expression. Infact even today Muslims consider the miracle of the Qura'an to be a linguistic miracle more than anything else. Would simplifying language really be a good educational policy? I really don't know. A part of me prefers the more complex arts and allowing human imagination to wander wherever it wishes.  When I started studying Turkish language a while back, I was told that language isn't only a means of communication, but also the way people think.  Language is the result of an evolutionary process and reflects culture, ideas, arts and the characters of a people and the more languages you speak the more you can think in different ways.  Something doesn't sit right with government interference in language, even if it is to increase literacy rates.

I personally want to learn a computing language and be able to design websites.  I tried getting into it but found it too difficult and time consuming that I decided to leave it for another time when I have more free time on my hands.  Now I do wish there is a simpler programming language but I have to wonder, does simpler not mean I will be able to do less?  Rather than design a very unique website, I would probably only be able to put blocks and buttons with a very simple language.  Does not the same apply with human languages only in a non-tangible format that might only prove its negative effects after several generations?  It's a scary thought.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Scientists create an artificial brain with 12 seconds memory

Scientists at the University of Pittsburgh developed an artificial brain that can sustain 12 seconds of memory. The brain was formed on silicon discs coated with proteins and later on infused with rat brain cells. The brain cells were taken from the Hippocampus section of the brain which Wikipedia tells us is the component of a mammal's brain that plays an important role in short-term and long-term memory.

The cells were then given time to grow, connect and develop a neural network. This network was then given a short electric shock which in natural circumstances would only last a quarter of a second but instead lasted in the network for 12 whole seconds!

Read the article here.

Click here for the full research paper.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Israel unveils first commercial solar power plant

Israel's Arava Power unveiled the country's first commercial solar power plant on Sunday, showing it off to government ministers and dignitaries, and announced plans to erect dozens of other solar array fields, whose total cost could reach $2 billion. The announcement was appropriately made on UN World Environment Day.

The NIS 100 million ($30 million), 4.95 megawatt plant in the agricultural community of Kibbutz Keturah, currently the largest of its kind in Israel, is due to be hooked up to the national grid in the next few weeks. It is the first of about 50 photovoltaic power fields that Arava said it will build throughout the southern Negev desert by the end of 2014.

Approximately 50km north of Eilat, Kibbutz Ketura is situated in the southern part of the Arava region, which is among the sunniest areas of the world. It gets at least 350 days of direct sunlight each year, making it a perfect location for a solar panel field.

The government has said that by 2020 it wants the country to provide 10% of its energy with solar and other renewable energy sources.

Read the rest of the article from Haaretz here.

Sunday, 5 June 2011


Continuing with our psychology theme today (I don't plan these things - they just happen :-P), I've stumbled upon this very informative comic about schizophrenia.

Culture and free will

In the May/June issue of the Scientific American: Mind magazine there is a brief article about Toxoplasma gondii, a certain single-celled organism that reproduces inside cats but can spread to all warm-blooded animals. This protozoa (a quick Google search says that a protozoa is a single-celled organism but is NOT a bacteria) when not inside a feline's intestine reproducing and raising a happy family will endeavor to effect its host's actions so as to give the protozoa access into a cat. How does it do that? Well according to the article it is able to manipulate the host's brain. In the example of small animals like a mouse, the protozoa can create a complete lose of fear of cats in the mouse's brain and thus result in a higher probability that the mouse will be eaten by a cat allowing the protozoa to enter the cat's body. The article doesn't go into much detail on how it can effect humans but goes on about how it effects smaller animals that can be prey to felines.

I did find another article online however, that does give more information about this particular parasite in a human context. Apparently it does create minor character changes in humans, but nothing fatal to the average person. According to the article from Discover, research suggests the following character changes in people infected by T. gondii.

Carriers tend to show long-term personality changes that are small but statistically significant. Women tend to be more intelligent, affectionate, social and more likely to stick to rules. Men on the other hand tend to be less intelligent, but are more loyal, frugal and mild-tempered. The one trait that carriers of both genders share is a higher level of neuroticism – they are more prone to guilt, self-doubt and insecurity.

A second article, also from Discover (although two years older than the previous article), quotes a different research says the following effect T. gondii has on humans.

Those infected, he found, show a small, but statistically significant, tendency to be more self-reproaching and insecure. Paradoxically, infected women, on average, tend to be more outgoing and warmhearted than controls, while infected men tend to be more jealous and suspicious.

It might seem that such character traits are very minuscule and not worth alot of research time and effort but the first article goes on to say that in certain parts of the world, there is a huge portion of the population infected (67% in Brazil). This would raise a very important question on the meaning of how we look at cultures and people's characters. T. gondii has a prefered climate where it does spread in vast numbers. A small character change to the human population in such a region would certainly have an effect on national character traits and the historic cultural evolution of the region.

Nonetheless, the results are striking and one implicaiton is that climate could have a larger effect on culture than previously thought. Toxoplasma gondii‘s eggs live longer in humid, low regions so variations in climate could influence the global distribution of cultural traits. Perhaps, this could explain why men and women perform more distinct roles in society in countries in warmer climates. Other factors can also affect the risk of infection, including cat ownership and national cuisines that include undercooked meat.

We like to think of culture as something governed by the collective actions of free-thinking and free-acting humans. But Lafferty’s analysis shows us that if environmental factors like parasites can affect our thoughts and actions, no matter how subtly, they can have a strong effect on national cultures. In many cases, these effects could be much stronger than the agents that we normally believe to drive cultural trends. After all, more people around the world are infected with Toxoplasma than are connected to the internet.

On a further note in relation to human judgment (but not so much the involvement of external parasites), this old story seems very relevant.  A sex offender in 2002 turned out to have a brain tumor that has been responsible for his perverted habits.  Apparently after the tumor was removed he returned to his usual self until around a year later when the tumor returned and he restarted his habit of collecting pornography and harassing women!

Really, what all this tells us is that the brain is such a complex organ and it should never be very easy for us to make hasty judgments on anyone - even though I'm very guilty of it myself.