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Hope This Works Better Than a Furby

A small humanoid robot that can talk will be sent into space to provide conversational company for a Japanese astronaut on a six-month mission, according to new plans.


I want a robot buddy. Unless he sounds like Starscream.

By min | November 30, 2012, 12:43 PM | Science | Comments (0)| Link

Language and the brain

Bear with me on this. I'm quoting at length from Jared Diamond's The Third Chimpanzee, a book that i highly recommend to lay people interested in human development (Diamond also wrote Guns, Germs, and Steel, another book i recommend). But the subject of language often comes up in conversation and i wanted this as a reference for people too lazy busy to read the book. All emphasis (and typos) below are mine.

Linguists distinguish two stages in the emergence of the new languages: initially, the crude languages termed pidgins, then later the more complex ones referred to as creoles. Pidgins arise as a second language for colonists and workers who speak different native (first) languages and need to communicate with each other. Each group (colonists or workers) retains its native language for use within its own group; each group uses the pidgin to communicate with the other group, and in addition workers on a polyglot plantation may use pidgin to communicate with other groups of workers.


As for grammar, early-stage pidgin discourse typically consists of short strings of words with little phrase construction, no regularity in word order , no subordinate clauses, and no inflection endings on words. Along with that impoverishment, variability of speech within and between individuals is a hallmark of early-stage pidgins, which approximate an anarchic linguistic free-for-all.

...pidgins evolve rapidly into creoles whenever a generation of the groups contributing to a pidgin begins to adopt the pidgin itself as the native language... Compared to pidgins, creoles have a larger vocabulary, much more complex grammar, and consistency within and between individuals. Creoles can express virtually any thought expressively in a normal language, whereas trying to say anything even slightly complex is a desperate struggle in pidgin. Somehow, without any equivalent of the Academie Fancaise to lay down explicit rules, a pidgin expands and stabilizes to become a uniform and fuller language.

...What is striking is that the linguistic outcomes of all these independent natural experiments share so many similarities, both in what they lack and in what they possess. On the negative side, creoles are simpler than normal languages in mostly lacking conjugations of verbs for tense and person, declensions of nouns for case and number, most prepositions, and agreement of words for gender. On the positive side, creoles are advanced over pidgins in many respect: consistent word order, singular and plural pronouns for the first, second, and third person, relative clauses [etc.]...

The factors responsible for this remarkable convergence are still controversial amongst linguists... The interpretation I find most convincing is that of linguist Derek Bickerton, who views many of the similarities among creoles as resulting from our possessing a genetic blueprint for language...

These similarities among creoles seem likely to stem from a genetic blueprint that the human brain possesses for learning language during childhood. Such a blueprint has been widely assumed ever since the linguist Noam Chomsky argued that the structure of human language is far too complex for a child to learn within just a few years, in the absence of any hard-wired instructions.

...Such difficulties convinced Chomsky that children learning their first language would face an impossible task unless much of language's structure was already preprogrammed into them. Chomsky concluded that we are born with a "universal grammar" already wired into our brains to give us a spectrum of grammatical models encompassing the range of grammars in actual languages. This prewired universal grammar would be like a set of switches, each with various alternative positions. The switch positions would then become fixed to match the grammar of the local language that the growing child hears.

However, Bickerton goes further than Chomsky and concludes that we are preprogrammed not just to a universal grammar with adjustable switches, but to a particular set of switch settings: the settings that surface again and again in creole grammars. The preprogrammed settings can be overridden if they turn out to conflict with what a child hears in the local language around it...

If Bickerton is correct that we really are preprogrammed at birth with creole settings that can be overridden by later experience, then one would expect children to learn creolelike features of their local languages earlier and more easily than features conflicting with creole grammar. This reasoning might explain the notorious difficulty of English-speaking children in learning how to express negatives: they insist on creolelike double negatives such as "Nobody don't have this." The same reasoning could explain the difficulties of English-speaking children with word order in questions.

To pursue this latter example, English happens to be among the languages that uses the creloe order of subject, verb, and object for statement: for instance, "I want juice." Many languages, including creoles, preserve this word order in questions, which are merely distinguished by an altered tone of voice ("You want juice?"). However, the English language does not treat questions in this way. Instead, our questions deviate from creole word order by inverting the subject and verb ("Where are you?," not "You are where?"), or by placing the subject between an auxiliary verb (such as "do") and the main verb ("Do you want juice?"). My wife and I have been barraging our sons from early infancy onward with grammatically correct English questions and statements. My sons quickly picked up the correct order for statements, but both of them are still persisting in the incorrect creolelike order for questions... It's as if they're still convinced that their preprogrammed creolelike rules are correct.

A related topic is about raising kids to be multi-lingual. While you can derive theories from things quoted above, i'll also reference this Noam Chomsky interview with Forbes on Why Kids Learn Languages Easily, which is annoyingly audio-only, so i'll quote from an eHow article summarizing it:

Total Acceptance

Many young children who speak several languages have no or little awareness of speaking multiple languages but can easily transition from one to another. When asked to voice their thoughts, these children often comment with something like, "This is how I talk to Aunt Mary," or "This is how I talk to Daddy," according to a Forbes interview with Noam Chomsky, not (for example) "This is Swahili and this is English." This is also true of children raised in homes with one deaf parent that signs and one that speaks. These children speak both languages with no preference for either one. With total acceptance, there are fewer barriers to learning different languages.

Harder with Age

After the age of 1, linguists theorize it is progressively harder to pick up new words, though it is still much easier for toddlers than adults. After age 10, the difficulty level becomes more noticeable, making it harder to learn a second language. The theory is that the older a person gets, the more that person's native language dominates the "brain map" responsible for language. At this point, the brain begins to train itself to not pay attention to foreign sounds.

Learning the Third Language May Be Easier

According to the Forbes interview with Noam Chomsky, Chomsky and many other colleagues believe that if a young child learns a second language during the critical period of learning, it will be easier for that child to later learn more languages--even after the age of 10. It may be more difficult than if it was done before that critical period, and that child may learn the language in a different way than the first ones, but it will still be easier than for someone who did not learn a second language early in life. It is not yet entirely clear why this happens, but the earlier critical period of learning and development plays a role.

I should note that (as with all science), Chomsky and Bickerton's theories have their detractors, and Diamond is what i'll call a "universal explainer", not a linguist. So don't take anything here as definitive fact.

By fnord12 | November 26, 2012, 9:49 AM | Boooooks & Science | Comments (0)| Link

I'm one step away from cute animals, people

Lest our last post before the weekend be some depressing Glenn Greenwald stuff, here's some pictures i took at an airplane museum in the San Francisco area a while back.

This is a civilized world.  You do NOT go flying without your suit and bowler hat.

Bum looker.

Yr a looper.

By fnord12 | November 16, 2012, 2:43 PM | My stupid life & Science | Comments (0)| Link

Wandering Planet

When i saw MST3K's episode on Crash of Moons, i assumed it was just another old movie full of made up science. Who ever heard of a planet that just flies around space instead of orbiting a sun?

Well, color me wrong. The writer of that Rocky Jones, Space Ranger totally knew what they were talking about.

Free-floating planets are planetary-mass objects that roam through space without any ties to a star. Possible examples of such objects have been found before [1], but without knowing their ages, it was not possible for astronomers to know whether they were really planets or brown dwarfs -- "failed" stars that lack the bulk to trigger the reactions that make stars shine.

But astronomers have now discovered an object, labelled CFBDSIR2149 [2], that seems to be part of a nearby stream of young stars known as the AB Doradus Moving Group.


Free-floating objects like CFBDSIR2149 are thought to form either as normal planets that have been booted out of their home systems, or as lone objects like the smallest stars or brown dwarfs. In either case these objects are intriguing -- either as planets without stars, or as the tiniest possible objects in a range spanning from the most massive stars to the smallest brown dwarfs.

"These objects are important, as they can either help us understand more about how planets may be ejected from planetary systems, or how very light objects can arise from the star formation process," says Philippe Delorme. "If this little object is a planet that has been ejected from its native system, it conjures up the striking image of orphaned worlds, drifting in the emptiness of space."

I dunno why they have to call it a "rogue" planet, though. Mebbe it got ejected because it was the only honest planet in a corrupt solar system. We shouldn't judge before we know all of the facts.

By min | November 15, 2012, 11:33 AM | Science | Comments (0)| Link

Why Would You Even Risk It?

It might not kill brain cells, but we know alcohol can damage them. So why, do women who choose to have a baby risk their baby's development by drinking, even moderately, while pregnant? What is your problem, women? How could something that affects your adult brain not have a negative impact on a brain that's just forming?

Don't you want to give your kid the best chance it has for developing properly? There's enough shit you can't avoid (air pollution, for example) that could make anyone ill, so why do you have to go and purposely introduce yet another toxin?

A study has been conducted that shows any drinking can affect the child's IQ, cause der, it affects brain development.

Previous studies have relied on observational evidence, but this is problematic. Observational studies often find that moderate drinking is beneficial compared to abstention, but this is because mothers who drink in moderation during pregnancy are typically well educated, have a good diet and are unlikely to smoke -- all factors which are linked to higher IQ in the child, and which mask any negative effect that exposure to alcohol may have.

This study, on the other hand, looked at moderate (rather than high) alcohol intake in over 4,000 women and used a novel technique known as Mendelian randomization, which is a scientifically robust way of investigating the links between exposures and later diseases, using genetic variants which modify exposure levels and which are not influenced by lifestyle or other factors.

The mothers' alcohol intake was based on a questionnaire completed when they were 18 weeks' pregnant. It included questions on the average amount and frequency of alcohol consumption before the current pregnancy, during the first trimester, and in the previous two weeks or at the time when they first felt the baby move. One drink was specified as one unit of alcohol.

Around 32 weeks of gestation the mother completed another questionnaire in which she was asked about her average weekday and weekend alcohol consumption, from which weekly intake was derived.


Speaking about the findings, the report's main author, Dr Sarah Lewis, said: 'Our results suggest that even at levels of alcohol consumption which are normally considered to be harmless, we can detect differences in childhood IQ, which are dependent on the ability of the fetus to clear this alcohol. This is evidence that even at these moderate levels, alcohol is influencing fetal brain development.'

I bet you're visiting the doctor all the time and getting ultrasounds and tests done to make sure the baby's got the right number of fingers and toes and such, so it would appear as if you cared about its development.

Yeah, i know. You miss drinking. Well, i miss roast duck, but i've managed to abstain for the last 11 years without the added incentive of a human growing in my belly.

By min | November 15, 2012, 11:04 AM | Science | Comments (0)| Link

Everything Leads to Depression

First they said it was the lack of light in winter. Now they think it might be caused by too much light.

The scientists knew that shorter days in the winter cause some people to develop a form of depression known as "seasonal affective disorder" and that some patients with this mood disorder benefit from "light therapy," which is simple, regular exposure to bright light.

Hattar's team, led by graduate students Tara LeGates and Cara Altimus, posited that mice would react the same way, and tested their theory by exposing laboratory rodents to a cycle consisting of 3.5 hours of light and then 3.5 hours of darkness. Previous studies using this cycle showed that it did not disrupt the mice's sleep cycles, but Hattar's team found that it did cause the animals to develop depression-like behaviors.

"Of course, you can't ask mice how they feel, but we did see an increase in depression-like behaviors, including a lack of interest in sugar or pleasure seeking, and the study mice moved around far less during some of the tests we did," he said. "They also clearly did not learn as quickly or remember tasks as well. They were not as interested in novel objects as were mice on a regular light-darkness cycle schedule."

The animals also had increased levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that has been linked in numerous previous studies with learning issues. Treatment with Prozac, a commonly prescribed anti-depressant, mitigated the symptoms, restoring the mice to their previous healthy moods and levels of learning, and bolstering the evidence that their learning issues were caused by depression.

According to Hattar, the results indicate that humans should be wary of the kind of prolonged, regular exposure to bright light at night that is routine in our lives, because it may be having a negative effect on our mood and ability to learn.

"I'm not saying we have to sit in complete darkness at night, but I do recommend that we should switch on fewer lamps, and stick to less-intense light bulbs: Basically, only use what you need to see. That won't likely be enough to activate those ipRGCs that affect mood," he advises.

Since they exposed the mice to equal amounts of light and darkness, how do they know it wasn't sitting in the dark for 3.5 hours that got the mice all upset? I'm pretty sure i'd be upset if you left me in the dark for a fraction of that time. Unless i was asleep. Then i don't know what the hell's going on.

Usually, i go around shutting off lights in every room we're not currently occupying, but lately, i've been toning down that particular OCD (hey, i'm trying to keep the electricity bill down. i also can't stand having a tv on that nobody's actively watching. it's like having something constantly droning in your ear but you can't quite catch the words.) because i thought i was being a little weird, cocooning us in a little bubble of light surrounded by darkened rooms. But, mebbe i should go back to doing that.

On a separate note, i want to put my vote in for going back to the way things were, as mentioned at the top of this article - let's all go to sleep when the sun sets and wake up when it rises. I can tell you right now that it's looks like the friggin middle of the night at 6:30 (when i have to get up for work) from December to most of March, and i hates it, Baggins.

By min | November 15, 2012, 10:44 AM | Science | Comments (0)| Link

From Butterfly Wings to Pipelines and Medical Equipment

Enough with your politics! It's science time!

It boggles my mind how a scientist interested in things like reducing drag and self-cleaning surfaces can look at a butterfly or rice leaves and go "Hey, mebbe this can give me some ideas".

Common to Central and South America, the Blue Morpho is an iconic butterfly, prized for its brilliant blue color and iridescence. Beyond its beauty, it has the ability to cast off dirt and water with a flutter of its wings.
The electron microscope revealed that the Blue Morpho's wings aren't as smooth as they look to the naked eye. Instead, the surface texture resembles a clapboard roof with rows of overlapping shingles radiating out from the butterfly's body, suggesting that water and dirt roll off the wings "like water off a roof," Bhushan said. The rice leaves provided a more surreal landscape under the microscope, with rows of micrometer- (millionths of a meter) sized grooves, each covered with even smaller, nanometer- (billionths of a meter) sized bumps - all angled to direct raindrops to the stem and down to the base of the plant. The leaf also had a slippery waxy coating, which keeps the water droplets flowing along.
After studying all the textures close up, the researchers made molds of them in silicone and cast plastic replicas.
Bushan thinks that the rice leaf texture might be especially suited to helping fluid move more efficiently through pipes, such as channels in micro-devices or oil pipelines. As to the Blue Morpho's beautiful wings, their ability to keep the butterfly clean and dry suggests to him that the clapboard roof texture might suit medical equipment, where it could prevent the growth of bacteria.

A self-cleaning (or easier to clean) surface would be good anywhere you needed to maintain a sterile environment. It could be translated to work surfaces in addition to equipment. Using this technology in water pipelines in addition to oil pipelines, or really any application involving fluids where you lose pressure as it's flowing, could reduce costs. You'd need to do less to keep that fluid moving.

And what about things we'd like to be aerodynamic? Could it work for planes and cars? A self-cleaning car would be fantastic in the winter when our cars usually gets a nice salty coating.

What i'm still curious about is how shark's maintain a mucous layer on their skin when they're surrounded by water. How does it not wash off immediately?

By min | November 9, 2012, 11:38 AM | Science | Comments (0)| Link

The girl next store

Everyone is excited about this:

Astroboffins have found another super-Earth planet orbiting a star just 42 light years away from home, but this one could support life as we know it.

Actually, people are probably mainly excited about the use of the word "astroboffins". But regarding the planet, let's remember our good neighbor Venus. As i read recently in Scientific American (print edition; threw it away after reading it, so you'll just have to trust me. It might also have been Discover.), the method we use to determine planets that "could support life" would identify Venus as such a planet. It's the right size, and the right distance from the sun. So we could travel 42 light years to discover a planet overheated due to greenhouse gases.

So why don't we just do what i've been saying for years, and bombard Venus with seeds until something sticks and starts converting the atmosphere to oxygen?

By fnord12 | November 8, 2012, 9:41 AM | Science | Comments (2)| Link

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